Amy Hollingsworth at Expressions Dance Company: warrior for the human condition

Amy Hollingsworth can’t be too specific about the first season she is curating as artistic director of Brisbane-based Expressions Dance Company – details for 2020 will be announced later this year – but she can talk about the philosophy that secured her the job. EDC may have a core of only half a dozen dancers but it’s safe to say she’s not thinking small.

In December of last year Hollingsworth was named successor to long-serving AD Natalie Weir; by January she had her feet under the desk in a large, light-filled office in EDC’s headquarters in the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts in Fortitude Valley. This year’s program had already been set by Weir so Hollingsworth is shepherding that through as she develops the ideas that will put her own stamp on the organisation.

Amy Hollingsworth - Photo By David Kelly

Expressions Dance Company artistic director Amy Hollingsworth. Photo: David Kelly

 

By definition a contemporary company is “of the now”, says Hollingsworth so change is a given when a new artistic director is appointed. She has said on several occasions that two words central to her thinking are freedom and fire. They are concepts that may appear nebulous but a long conversation with Hollingsworth makes it clear they are shorthand for a wide range of concrete possibilities.

Inside the company she is passionately committed to giving artists a strong voice in the creative process and more autonomy than is usual in many dance ensembles. She values teamwork, risk-taking, imagination and individuality and wants those qualities to animate and invigorate work. She has choreographed herself but will lead EDC as a curatorial director: “I love gathering around me like-minded people with whom I can have robust conversations about the work we’re going to do. I want a home of true collaboration that’s vibrant, welcoming, and dedicated to shaping and nourishing the craft.”

Looking outwards, Hollingsworth says EDC must be reflective of the world in which it lives and to be a visible, active part of it. This means, among other things, having diversity onstage and in the audience and understanding the place of a live performing art in today’s highly digitised environment. It means connecting with as many people as possible – the company needs to be seen not only on conventional stages but on film or in site-specific pieces that can travel anywhere.

In addition, Hollingsworth wants to continue what she calls EDC’s “civic mission” of working with young people and in schools and would like to have a four-year plan for the EDC Youth Ensemble that was created only this year. She talks about interdisciplinary partnerships, engagement with technology and more. Much, much more.

Arts companies, she says, have public voices and should make themselves heard. In her marvellous phrase, they must be “warriors for the human condition”.

The EDC board didn’t have to go far to find Weir’s successor, and to find a spectacularly qualified one. Hollingsworth was working down the road at Queensland Ballet, where she had been ballet mistress and creative associate since 2016 after spending a year with Expressions as rehearsal director. She’d come to Brisbane from Sydney where she’d been a dancer and dance director for old friend Rafael Bonachela at Sydney Dance Company. And before that she had a brilliant international career as a dancer.

The choreographers she’s worked closely with are a who’s who of contemporary dance today: Wayne McGregor, Michael Clark, Javier de Frutos, Jiri Kylian, Hofesh Shechter and Mats Ek among them. She can count Akram Khan as a friend. “I’ve spent my whole dance life standing beside great choreographers,” she says.

Hollingsworth was a sporty child whose ability at swimming could have taken her in that direction. She liked it “an awful lot”. Dance, however, finally won. Hollingsworth loved it enough to work her way through a catastrophic injury suffered early in her professional career when she was with Royal New Zealand Ballet. She used the long rehabilitation time wisely. “I now would not take that experience back,” she says. “It highlighted how important dance was to me.” Hollingsworth learned the value of resilience, determination and perseverance and on her return to dance rose to the rank of principal artist at RNZB. The injury underscored the need for dancers to have a wide range of skills, something she will encourage at EDC. She sets an excellent example. Over the years Hollingsworth has studied science, arts management, Pilates and has her helicopter pilot’s licence.

Hollingsworth joined RNZB straight from The Australian Ballet School. She had always loved the classical story ballets and danced plenty of them but became deeply attracted to original work. An experience with choreographer Douglas Wright in New Zealand planted the seed. “I felt most invigorated when working on a new creation,” she says. A stint as a founding member of Peter Schaufuss Balletten in Denmark in 1997 took her to the northern hemisphere and then to Rambert Dance Company under the direction of Christopher Bruce.

Hollingsworth met Bonachela at Rambert and in their spare time the two would go into a studio “to play … in the studio we set each other off. A monster was born.” Not exactly a monster. Bonachela went on to found Bonachela Dance Company in 2006 and Hollingsworth went with him as a founding member. She became Bonachela’s assistant director and returned to Australia when he took over at SDC in 2009. She retired from performing in 2011 in a solo, Irony of Fate, which Bonachela made for her. She then concentrated on her work as SDC’s dance director until moving to Brisbane.

At QB her work included oversight of the company’s valuable contemporary Bespoke program, established in 2017. She choreographed a piece, Glass Heart, for that first Bespoke but at the time I wrote:

Hollingsworth’s greater achievement was as Bespoke’s prime mover. After finishing a celebrated performing career in both classical and contemporary dance she turned to coaching, direction, staging, education, mentoring and assisting choreographers in the creative process. These are no small talents …

EDC is now the beneficiary. Watch out for that 2020 season launch. Hollingsworth promises it will be a big one.

Raw, Queensland Ballet

Works by Liam Scarlett, Greg Horsman and Christopher Bruce. Queensland Ballet, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, March 17.

Death comes to us all eventually but does it have to come so cruelly and so soon to so many? Christopher Bruce’s Ghost Dances was made in 1981 in response to human rights abuses in Pinochet’s Chile but its relevance is, sadly, universal and continuing. It’s an important addition to Queensland Ballet’s repertoire and the key work in the Raw triple bill.

55 Carmody Rd St.Lucia

Teri Crilly and Jack Lister in Ghost Dances. Photo: David Kelly

Ghost Dances is simplicity itself. In a place somewhere between the real world and the darkness beyond, young people dance with joy and spontaneity to the intoxicating music of their homeland as three masked and painted malevolent spirits watch.

The hard, muscular vigour of the masked ones is in stark contrast to the fleet, gorgeously fluid folk-inflected dances that speak of community and continuity. Bodies tilt and sway, feet flex, hands and arms link, legs kick up playfully and heads bob to the sound of breathy panpipes, warm guitars and drums (all the pieces are by Chilean group Inti-Illimani).

But there are intimations of anguish too and no escape from death’s clutches. At the end those who had been so vibrant are drained of vitality. Not so the masked men. They wait for their next victims.

Ghost Dances needs to be at once poetic and rough-hewn. This deeply affecting piece got those qualities from all 11 dancers in the first cast, who cast off the formalities of classical technique to dig deep into movement that takes its impulses from the earth rather than reaching for the sky. My eye was consistently drawn to Vanessa Morelli for the way she lived every moment with every fibre of her being.

An unintended consequence of staging Ghost Dances is that it made Raw’s opening work, Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land (from 2014), seem too glossy and calculating in its effects. Scarlett didn’t shy away either from some well-worn effects. Take, for instance, the deep second position as a way of visually describing misery. We saw it in Ghost Dances, with the legs in parallel, and we saw it in No Man’s Land in turnout. Scarlett also unfortunately added a silent scream.

55 Carmody Rd St.Lucia

Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land. Photo: David Kelly

Scarlett was recently announced as QB’s first artistic associate and the company will stage one of his works each year for at least an initial four years. I gather new works will alternate with existing pieces and it was inevitable that for 2017 a revival would be on the program. No Man’s Land was made for English National Ballet’s Lest We Forget program, presented in 2014. That year was, of course the centenary of the beginning of World War I and would have had much resonance in London at that time.

QB programmed its own Lest We Forget commemorative evening last year, featuring a welcome performance of Paul Taylor’s Company B and new works by Brisbane-based choreographer Natalie Weir and Tulsa Ballet’s resident choreographer Ma Cong. Ma Cong’s In the Best Moments was negligible; Weir’s We Who are Left was affecting but perhaps a pièce d’occasion. Which is also the category into which No Man’s Land fits.

Shorn of its commemorative context, No Man’s Land looked stranded. It has an impressive set (John Bausor) and lighting (Paul Keogan) that summon the inferno of a munitions factory during the Great War. Women have joined the assembly line in the absence of their men, whose images and fates they conjure and mourn to heavily orchestrated Liszt piano pieces, apart from the final section for piano only.

The bombastic arrangements of selections from Liszt’s Harmonies Poétiques et Religieuses (1847) had the effect of overwhelming the emotional connections between Scarlett’s seven couples. Mia Heathcote and Victor Estévez were lovely in their pas de deux although one was aware more of the shapes than the reason for being. Even with the music heard as written for the big pas de deux at the end of the ballet, that section felt like a superbly crafted depiction of what pain might look like while, at least for this viewer, failing to pierce the heart. Ultimately No Man’s Land beautifies loss and sacrifice.

Laura Hidalgo and Rian Thompson danced the final pas de deux heroically and it is undeniable that Scarlett creates movement that feels musical and organic even when most difficult. His weakness is in storytelling. As many before me have said, he needs help in this area. Only then will his abundant gifts be in the service of truly original and lasting work.

Perhaps his tenure in Brisbane will help. Scarlett, who is still only 30, will be out of the international spotlight where he habitually works. It will be fascinating to see what emerges.

Sitting in the middle of the Raw triple-header, Greg Horsman’s Glass Concerto tested the mettle, stamina, precision and speed of three couples as they were swept along by the mesmerising rhythms of Philip Glass’s Violin Concerto. After an early reminder of – homage to? – Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room, also to the music of Glass, Horsman gets into his own stride. Glass Concerto doesn’t break any new ground but it’s entertaining and lively, and it sure sets the dancers a raft of technical challenges, met better at the opening performance by the women than the men.

55 Carmody Rd St.Lucia

Yanela Piñera in Greg Horsman’s Glass Concerto. Photo: David Kelly

The lovely second movement, in which calm, slow violin phrases sing above an undulating, fast-moving current in the orchestra, puts the spotlight on the lead woman. In the first cast principal artist Yanela Piñera’s calm authority and awe-inspiring strength – the woman is ripped – burned themselves into the retina. I liked that when the three men lifted her it felt in homage to her awesomeness rather than the usual balletic flinging about of a smaller person by a stronger bigger person.

Alexander Idaszak partnered Piñera well and looked rather more at home with the quieter demands of the choreography than the allegro eruptions that Horsman has much fun with. Camilo Ramos and Rian Thompson also didn’t look quite as sharp as required when things moved into top gear although to be fair to Thompson, he’d put a lot into the preceding No Man’s Land.

The secondary women, Lina Kim and Tamara Hanton, whizzed around like tops and looked terrific in George Wu’s black-with-sparkles costumes. As Glass Concerto continued the dancers shed a skirt here and a sleeve there. The effect was elegant and witty.

It’s a pity QB doesn’t currently have the resources for live music at all performances. It was recordings all the way in this program, although as QB is in line for a boost in funding from the Australia Council perhaps there is hope in sight.

Raw ends March 25.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on March 20.