Keir Choreographic Award finals, Sydney

Carriageworks, Sydney, March 13.

It’s often the case that alarm bells start ringing when an artist writes a highly detailed program note explaining precisely what their contemporary dance piece means. Frequently it’s just not possible to see in the work what the choreographer claims. There’s a big disconnect.

In the case of Angela Goh, though, the statement is an indispensable part of Sky Blue Mythic, a piece that deservedly won for her the $50,000 2020 Keir Choreographic Award. “Curtains open,” it starts. (There is no curtain.) “There is no dance being performed on the stage.” (This is true at the beginning.) “The dance that is not being performed is a ballet, Giselle.” (This is also true.) Magic.

Keir Choreographic Awards, Carriageworks, Image Zan Wimberley 2020 (8)

Angela Goh in Sky Blue Mythic. Photo: Zam Wimberley

At first there is a John Cage-like silence as the performer (Goh) places something that looks like a small sundial on the floor and retreats. Just as the audience starts to get a little restive Goh reappears, walks slowly across the complete bare stage, falls and spills a can of soft drink. This action is later repeated after some exquisitely slow searching by Goh, accompanied by a wonderfully strange score by Corin Ileto. And yes, there are fragmentary references in the choreography to Giselle.

It’s a work that would bear many more viewings and was a worthy winner of this significant prize.

The $10,000 Audience Choice Award went to Amrita Hepi for Rinse, a captivating, highly personal work that covered a lot of ground in 20 minutes – the required length for all participants. Speaking a text that became more absorbing as she continued, Hepi explored the effect of a dominant West on equally valid cultural aspiration. Like Goh she danced her own work superbly.

Keir Choreographic Awards, Carriageworks, Image Zan Wimberley 2020 (13)

Amrita Hepi in Rinse. Photo: Zan Wimberley

The Keir is an award for choreography, not the dancing of it, but it was hard not to be swept up by the performance of The Farm’s Hold Me Closer Tony Danza by Kate Harmon and Michael Smith. It starts with a mishearing of a Bernie Taupin lyric – and haven’t we all done something similar? – and develops into a sometimes tender, sometimes fierce depiction of togetherness and its opposite. It was the most accessible dance of the evening and nothing wrong with that.

The least appealing was Delimit by Alison Currie & David Cross, performed by Cazna Brass. It consisted of Brass putting up the set, a group of door-like rectangles with extrusions to which odd shapes were attached and inflated, and then taking stuff off and putting it away. The number of minutes for which this remained interesting was limited.

 

New short films about dance-makers

Ghenoa Gela won the biennial Keir Choreographic Award in 2016 with a work infused with her Torres Strait Islander heritage while posing resonant questions about meanings inherent in or imposed on Indigenous dance. Fragments of Malungoka – Women of the Sea also won the people’s vote – a result that didn’t surprise at all. Gela’s work was much more emotionally engaging than the others in the race; more human, more interesting, more inviting.

More recently she’s been working with Broome-based company Marrugeku on a new project and this month was involved in two works at the Sydney Festival, a solo show titled My Urrwai at Belvoir and a Force Majeure premiere You Animal, You at Carriageworks, in which she was a warm, engaging figure.

Ghenoa Gela jpeg

The Keir Award commissions dance works specifically for the competition. Among its goals is the challenging of “conventions about what the moving body is or can be in contemporary society”. Which makes Gela (above) a perfect subject for one of a quintet of short portraits of Australian contemporary dance-makers made by the ABC and available now on ABC iview under the collective title The Movement.

The documentaries, from the hands of producer and director Kate Blackmore, are very brief – five minutes or less each – but as a group show that diversity in dance isn’t impossible, even if there is still a long road to travel. Here are trail-blazers consciously seeking to broaden the Australian public’s view of dance subject-matter, dance bodies and dance as a political tool.

Blackmore’s films are crafted as beautiful objects in themselves while giving a clear-eyed picture of each dancer-maker’s perspective. Gela, for instance, grew up in Townsville, Queensland, in a Torres Strait Islander family. She learned her family’s dances when she was young and her “ticket out of Rocky” was a chance to go to NAISDA (The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Skills Development Association). She knows exactly what she wants: to honour her Torres Strait heritage and show its distinctive qualities, and to be a beacon in independent dance for “more little black faces”. She’s wonderful.

Other dance-makers featured are elegant former Sydney Dance Company member Thomas Bradley; Bhenji Ra, “mother” of a Western Sydney-based vogue house; and Natalie Abbott, a young woman who challenges the exclusion of older bodies in dance.

I was particularly taken with Amrita Hepi, who describes the body as inherently political and is interested in the possibility of dancer as a way of transcending race and class. She also notes that the Antipodes are usually described as being at the end of the world. She sees Australia and the Pacific as the centre of her life and practice. Brava.