Keir Choreographic Award 2016

Carriageworks, Sydney, May 6.

Visual artists have yet another handsome prize to aim for, with the recent announcement of the biennial Ramsay Art Prize for artists under the age of 40, working in any medium. It is worth $100,000 and is funded by the James & Diana Ramsey Foundation. The winner of the annual Doug Moran National Portrait Prize (founded in 1988) receives $150,000 and the winner of the venerable Archibald Prize, also for portraiture, is given $100,000. And these are the big ones. There are others.

Dancemakers don’t have quite the same degree of support, to put it mildly, but the Keir Foundation’s biennial Keir Choreographic Award – which has just concluded its second iteration – offers tremendous encouragement, offering the substantial amount of $30,000 to the winner, plus $10,000 for the people’s choice award. Eight semi-finalists are chosen from applicants and supported to develop their ideas into a piece of about 20 minutes; the winner is then selected from four finalists.


Ghenoa Gela’s Fragments of Malungoka – Women of the Sea. Photo: Daniel Boud

The award is “dedicated to commissioning new Australian choreographic short works and promoting innovative, experimental and cross-artform practices in contemporary dance across Australia and internationally”. The Keir also “welcomes choreographic ideas for works that reflect the interconnectivity between disciplines and challenge conventions about what the moving body is or can be in contemporary society. It hopes to foster new understandings of what choreography might become.”

The goal is admirable, but regrettably the work of the four Keir 2016 finalists didn’t offer much that was new or, in the case of three of them, much that was particularly challenging or even interesting. I wasn’t in the least surprised to see Ghenoa Gela carry off the people’s vote but it was perhaps telling that she also took out the main award with the most conventional of the pieces. As I wrote in my last week’s round-up, Fragments of Malungoka – Women of the Sea was much more emotionally engaging than the other works; it was warmer, more human, more interesting, more inviting. It was also the most dancerly of the works.

Fragments of Malungoka – Women of the Sea included some use of technology – the desired “interconnectivity between disciplines” – but its power was in the questioning of meaning inherent in or imposed on Indigenous dance. Three women wearing stylised masks danced while being “watched”. A camera worn by one of the performers relayed movement to a screen behind them and some game-playing aspects of the choreography (What’s the time Mr Wolf?; rock paper scissors) hinted at conflict and surveillance. The alert, watchful pauses often seen in Indigenous dance took on a different flavour in this context, as did the shadows of the performers thrown on to the screen. Despite these intimations the performers – Elle Evangelista, Melanie Palomares and Melinda Tyquin – connected with the audience as women of flesh and blood.


Rebecca Jensen’s Explorer. Photo: Daniel Boud

Rebecca Jensen’s Explorer, in which the choreographer performed, contained several impressive feats of strength as Jensen walked sideways around the space, supported by a male partner who also carried her up a long flight of stairs and moved her from one side of the room to the other as she lay across his shoulders horizontally. There were rolling bodies, a leaf blower, smoke and a hanging branch, none of which resonated strongly. Jensen wished to show how the “rapidly shifting digital world” has transformed “the perceived limitations of the body”, yet she was doing nothing much that hasn’t been seen in the new circus for many years.

Martin Hansen’s If It’s All in My Veins was potentially the most intriguing piece. Its theme was – if I understand the somewhat confusing program note correctly – that a forward-looking gaze and critical mind must be brought to bear on how the weight of time and history affects dance in the present and future. Three women dressed in tops and trousers that suggested hospital scrubs spoke in unison and counted down to new sections of action. Clips of famous dancers and dances were shown and the audience laughed, for what reason I couldn’t divine. Showing they recognised Isadora Duncan and Nijinsky?


Martin Hansen’s If It’s All in My Veins. Photo: Daniel Boud

The performers reacted to the clips in various ways, mimicking, for instance, Beyoncé’s – ahem – homage to Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker in her video for Countdown, and moving chairs around when a sliver of Pina Bausch’s Café Müller was shown. In the main the unfortunate effect was of sourness and mocking rather than a call to be as creative, groundbreaking and influential as these illustrious forebears.

Sarah Aiken’s (Tools for Personal Expansion) started well with three women, dressed identically except for a small difference in costume colour, all proclaiming themselves to be Sarah Aiken. In its second half the piece’s distortion of the body, achieved via camerawork, was ho-hum. The self was expanded. And? I felt the same way about similar effects in Body of Work, by inaugural Keir winner (in 2014) Atlanta Eke. Body of Work was shown at this year’s Adelaide Festival although I could see that its depiction of body as machine and monster could well have been more interesting in its shorter version for the Keir award. As I wrote in my Adelaide Festival wrap a little while ago, there was a cool atmosphere of disconnection and skewed reality that couldn’t sustain interest for the work’s 40-minute length.


Sarah Aiken’s (Tools for Personal Expansion). Photo: Danile Boud

About last week … March 10-17

I STARTED this blog in January 2013, not long after retiring from a 25-year career at The Australian spent largely in the arts, writing, editing and reviewing. I’d been writing and reviewing for quite a while before that, and while the work wasn’t quite so intensive in the early days, I did see a lot of shows and developed an appetite that was never sated, not ever. And that’s still the case – I see more than 200 a year across all art forms. It’s a tough addiction to break.

When I was arts editor of The Australian I knew that most of our readers would never be able to see the shows written about. The writing had to be their window into the play, dance or opera. They would know something of what was happening in the cultural life of the country and, I hoped, get some sense of what it was like to be in the auditorium. The writing also added to the mosaic of information about Australian performing artists that helps create a history.

In a small way my blog continues that work. What it doesn’t do is offer a review of everything I see, for various reasons including time; a short run; a disinclination to write a great deal about a small-scale unsuccessful show that doesn’t deserve to get a walloping of the kind one metes out to major theatre companies or big-time commercial producers; a feeling that there’s not a lot more to add to the general discussion; and so on.

Nevertheless, I like to make notes about everything. They’re a necessity in my role as a member of the Sydney Theatre Awards judging panel, as national dance critic for The Australian, as Sydney correspondent for the London-based Opera magazine and, well, just because.

I’ve decided to write briefly about things I haven’t covered in detail in a column I’ll call About last week … I’m starting with March 10 because there are one or two things from the Adelaide and New Zealand festivals I’d like to praise. After this I’ll do a catch-up as regularly as there are interesting things to note.

I hope you find a nugget or two.

March 10-17, 2016

There’s nothing more invigorating at a festival than a three-show day. At Adelaide on March 10 I was able to see The Young King, by Adelaide’s Slingsby; Body of Work, a solo dance piece by 2014 Keir Choreographic Award winner Atlanta Eke; and Martin Crimp’s creepy psychological thriller The Country from Stone/Castro, a local company that works internationally. The Young King, which I saw with a schools audience, was the pick for me.

Tim Overton in The Young King. Photo: Andy Ellis

Tim Overton in The Young King. Photo: Andy Ellis

Slingsby retold the Oscar Wilde story with deceptively simple theatrics and warm, easy engagement with young viewers. I very much liked Crimp’s three-hander play The City when Sydney Theatre Company staged it in 2009, directed by Benedict Andrews with a stunning design by Ralph Myers. The Country, also a three-hander, is a similarly claustrophobic chamber piece in which the ground constantly shifts and people are not entirely what they seem. But perhaps because I’d seen The City, The Country didn’t resonate all that greatly. Not very nice people doing devious things in a coldly stylish manner: yeah, well. I was disappointed with Body of Work, in which Eke did various things – smeared her face, expelled blue liquid from her mouth, put on very high-heeled boots and then took them off – while her image was multiplied, distorted and seen on large screens. There was a cool atmosphere of disconnection and skewed reality that couldn’t sustain interest for the work’s 40-minute length.

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch was, rightly, a huge Adelaide Festival drawcard with Nelken, which I wrote about recently, but even more enticing was the program the company offered at the New Zealand Festival in Wellington. Café Müller and The Rite of Spring (March 17). They are early works (1978, 1975) now usually seen together, which is wonderful, as they are two of the most loved and admired pieces in the Bausch repertoire. The company has made a handful of trips to Australia, including to Jim Sharman’s 1982  Adelaide Festival (the company performed three works, including another of the greats, Kontakthof). The program for that year’s event quoted Bausch thus: “I have only seen human relationships or I have tried to see them and talk about them. That’s what I am interested in. I don’t know anything more important.” And she said in relation in to Kontakthof (made in 1978) that it was about “all the things we do to make people like us”.

Pina Bausch's The Rite of Spring. Photo: Matt Grace

Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring. Photo: Matt Grace

There’s a strong element of that very human – heartbreakingly human – impulse in Café Müller too as six souls flail around seeking connection in a near-empty restaurant. The evocation of loneliness is profound, as is the imperative to go on. It’s an emotionally wrenching piece – tender, hungry, forlorn and mysterious all at once. Rite, like its music, has a savage and implacable beauty. On a floor covered with peat, 14 women in white shifts and 15 bare-chested men in black trousers enact the cathartic process of choosing one to be sacrificed. There is one splash of colour – the red garment that will be worn by the Chosen One as she approaches her death. It is impossible to look away from the ferocious, gut-wrenching, wheeling and tumbling action, so viscerally thrilling but terrifying in its import. The men and women are by turns alien to each other and joined in the desperate collective need for release through the death of one of their number. As the dance progresses the earth attaches itself to the women’s shifts and men’s glistening chests as if claiming them.

Bausch died in 2009 but the company continues to perform her works magnificently. Long may that continue, although inevitably there will be a time when there are no dancers left who worked directly with her. How Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch manages that transition will affect the fate of an extraordinary body of work. That is a huge issue in contemporary dance, being faced in very different ways by those handling the legacies of late 20th century greats including Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and Tricia Brown. At 85, Paul Taylor has generously augmented his Paul Taylor Dance Company with Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance so he can present other choreographers – incidentally including, last year, the Shen Wei Dance Arts version of Rite of Spring, a very different reading from that of Bausch, performed to the terrific four-hand piano version recorded by Fazil Say. It’s durable, too. Shen Wei choreographed it in 2003, it was performed at the Sydney Festival in 2005 and is still a part of the company’s touring repertory.

But I digress. It’s still early(ish) in the year but I suspect that when I look back over 2016, Café Müller and The Rite of Spring will be the works I most cherish. Bless New Zealand Festival.