Expressions Dance Company becomes Australian Dance Collective

Brisbane’s Expressions Dance Company has a new name to go with its new leadership. Amy Hollingsworth, who became artistic director of EDC at the beginning of 2019, announced at her 2020 season launch that the 35-year-old contemporary company will be known as Australian Dance Collective.

Hollingsworth is the third artistic director in the company’s history, following Natalie Weir and Maggi Sietsma. The former leaders supported yesterday’s move, with Sietsma saying the company she founded with Abel Valls had “always been a collaborative venture”.  Australian Dance Collective chair Marian Gibney called the change a “natural evolution” for the company. “Amy is a passionate curator, with a clear vision around harnessing shared energies and imaginations to produce thrilling dance works and to nurturing a love of dance in our community.”

Amy Hollingsworth - Photo by David Kelly 6 (1)

Amy Hollingsworth, artistic director of Australian Dance Collective. Photo: David Kelly

The Expressions board raised the possibility of changing the company’s name when she started, Hollingsworth says. “We knew we wanted a name that was descriptive, not evocative. I feel very strongly that the way we can connect to society and capture the imaginations of many people is to have a really inclusive hive of diverse artistic voices. I believe the strongest kind of leadership is listening to the people you work with and including them in the decision-making.”

At the launch Hollingsworth in Brisbane said Australian Dance Collective was committed to being “collectively extraordinary”. “Working collectively gives us like-minded individuals and visionaries to debate with, ensuring our ideas are robust and that our collaborations crackle with artistic energy. I dream of creating an environment that generates exhilarating dance to capture the imaginations of many.”

“Contemporary dance has to evolve, it has to change and that’s a really, really healthy thing,” Weir says. “I think the new name Australian Dance Collective is beautiful and the idea of being ‘collectively extraordinary’ is a fantastic vision for the future of the company.”

Hollingsworth’s 2020 program starts with a triple bill that will be a permanent part of future programming, except in years when international touring may take precedence. “I have some big things in the pipeline,” she says. The triple bill will feature a local or younger artist, an established Australian dancemaker and an international work.

Next year’s choreographers are Jack Lister, Melanie Lane and Hofesh Shechter. Lister has made extremely well-received works for Queensland Ballet, where he was also a dancer. His departure from QB was announced recently. Lister’s A Brief Nostalgia, commissioned by Birmingham Royal Ballet, was staged in Birmingham in September and at London’s Sadlers Wells in October. From next year Lister will also dance with Australian Dance Collective. Lane scored a big success with WOOF earlier this year for Sydney Dance Company and will make a new work for Brisbane. Shechter is one of the biggest names in international contemporary dance; his early work Cult – a piece Hollingsworth has danced in – will receive its Australian premiere.

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A promotional image for Australian Dance Collective. Photo: Justin Ridler

Hollingsworth continues the Chinese Australian Dance Exchange Project established by Weir with, Hollingsworth points out, connections made by Sietsma. Next year Australian Dance Collective will work with Shenzhen-based Round House Dance Company. Shenzhen has been a sister city of Brisbane since 1992. Hollingsworth is also deeply committed to the company’s Youth Ensemble, a group of 30 people aged 15 to 18. It will have a work created for it and perform a piece with the main company.

Half of Hollingsworth’s complement of six dancers will be new next year. Jake McLarnon, Bernhard Knauer and Josephine Wiese remain and will be joined by Lister, Marlo Benjamin and former Australian Dance Theatre member Lonii Garnons-Williams.

“I love gathering around me like-minded people with whom I can have robust conversations about the work we’re going to do,” Hollingsworth says. “I want a home of true collaboration that’s vibrant, welcoming, and dedicated to shaping and nourishing the craft. I want us to energise each other.”

Australian Dance Collective’s 2020 season opens with the triple bill Three on April 1 at QPAC’s Playhouse Theatre.

Matrix, Expressions Dance Company and Beijing Dance/LTDX

Works by Stephanie Lake and Ma Bo. Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, NSW, November 7.

New works by Australia’s Stephanie Lake and China’s Ma Bo make up a double bill where similarities are much more obvious than differences. It’s not that the pieces look particularly alike (apart from an aspect of their endings) or have a common theme. Far from it. The sense of unity comes from the wonderfully vivid dancers of Expressions Dance Company and Beijing Dance/LTDX brought together for this project.

There are 20 in all, a truly luxurious number in contemporary dance, and all of them dance in both pieces. EDC’s close connection with the Chinese contemporary dance world, developed over the past four years, is one of its strong suits.

Jumping pic from Stephanie Lake's work Auto Cannibal in Matrix Pic Credit WANG Xiao-jing

Stephanie Lake’s Auto Cannibal. Photo: Wang Xiao-jing

Lake happily acknowledges that Auto Cannibal, which opens the program, bears the strong imprint of her earlier works (hence the title). It certainly has Lake’s invigorating attack and her powerful mix of minute detail and bodies pushed to extremes, and is danced to an electronic score by Robin Fox as is customary in Lake’s work.

Dressed similarly in black shorts with white tops (costumes are by Xing Yameng), the dancers crackle with energy. They are like electric charges combining, repulsing and recombining to make something fascinatingly new. Lake brilliantly corrals this large group into a beautifully structured dance that leaves you wanting more.

Ma’s Encircling Voyage is a quieter, more interior drama built around cycles of life, danced to music by David Darling that is essentially western in structure but with some eastern touches. Expressions of sorrow, grief and sometimes anger are more evident than those of fulfilment, although there is communal strength. In this work the dancers are also dressed alike (by Wang Yan), this time in loose-fitting patterned smocks. The active, sporty atmosphere of Auto Cannibal gives way to one of ritual.

Mirror pic from MA Bo's work Encircling Voyage in Matrix PIC CREDIT WANG Xiao-jing

Ma Bo’s Encircling Voyage. Photo: Wang Xiao-jing

Dancers form a tight group, walking with a hand on the shoulder of the one in front as if unable to see the way ahead by themselves; benches are placed on their ends to resemble tall tombstones; a woman enters reading a book and appears totally unaware of her surroundings; two people sitting on a bench are joined by a third who has been moving frenetically but is now calm, included and soothed by their touch.

The Beijing dancers significantly outnumber those from Expressions, which has a complement of just six. No matter. The group coheres as if it has been together for five years rather than the five weeks it took to create the works. On a local note, it’s terrific to see Sydney Dance Company alumni Richard Cilli, Bernhard Knauer and Josie Weise back on stage as members of Expressions. (Artistic director of Expressions, Amy Hollingsworth, was formerly SDC’s dance director.)

There is one small niggle, encapsulated by the closing imagery in both works that visually ties them together, intentionally or not. Encircling Voyage ends with a solemn evocation of death and rebirth accompanied by clouds of white dust. Auto Cannibal also finishes in a shower of white, this time of feathers floating down to envelop a tightly packed group of men and women moving joyously. The order of performance could do with a rethink.

Now at Brisbane’s Queensland Performing Arts Centre until November 16.

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.

The year ahead

And coming up in 2014 …

LAST year it was easy to point to the events in dance one thought would be unmissable (not so very many) and theatre (vast amounts). Mostly performances and productions delivered pretty much what one thought they would and moments of transcendence were few, but I guess they always are. Sydney Theatre Company’s Waiting for Godot, Griffin Theatre Company’s The Floating World and Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s Life and Times (for the Melbourne Festival) are among the shining few, and opera offered tremendous occasions in Opera Australia’s Ring cycle and Pinchgut’s Giasone.

This year is a bit harder to read, particularly in theatre. There’s a handful of sure things – well, likely sure things, if that makes any sense at all – alongside some more intriguing propositions. Note that I’m only talking about Sydney theatre because that’s where I see most in this art form. Otherwise I get around a bit.

The events are in chronological order – which incidentally reveals a few unfortunate clashes for the dedicated dance fan – American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake (Brisbane) and The Australian Ballet’s La Bayadere (Melbourne) open August 28; West Australian Ballet’s La fille mal gardee (Perth) and ABT’s Three Masterpieces triple bill opens September 5. Akram Khan’s DESH opens in Brisbane on September 6.

Dance:

Dido & Aeneas, Sasha Waltz & Guests. From January 16, Sydney Festival. Purcell, the Akademie fur Alte Musik, singers, dancers and a huge tank of water.

Patyegarang, Bangarra Dance Theatre. From June 13 in Sydney, then Canberra, Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne. Stephen Page’s new work on the meeting of minds between Lieutenant William Dawes and Patyegarang, a young indigenous woman, in colonial Sydney.

Romeo and Juliet, Queensland Ballet. From June 27, Brisbane. Kenneth MacMillan’s version (the best in my opinion) and guest stars Carlos Acosta, Tamara Rojo, Steven McRae and Daniel Gaudiello.

The Red Shoes, Expressions Dance Company, from July 18, Brisbane. Choreographer Natalie Weir tackles this much-loved, influential – albeit rather creepy – story of obsession in the ballet world. Intriguing.

American Ballet Theatre, from August 28, Brisbane only. First up is Kevin Mackenzie’s Swan Lake, but I’m more interested in the triple bill, which includes Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita, which was recently revived by ABT after a 28-year hiatus. From September 5.

La Bayadere, The Australian Ballet, from August 28 in Melbourne, then Sydney. Choreographer Stanton Welch promises Bollywood colour and energy and a clearer, speedier version than usual. The beloved Kingdom of the Shades scene will, of course, be as expected.

La Fille mal gardee, West Australian Ballet, from September 5. This sweet and sunny ballet, updated to 1950s rural France, is seen in Perth and then will go to Queensland Ballet in 2015. QB’s Coppelia, choreographed by ballet master Greg Horsman (opening April 24 this year), goes to WAB next year in a sensible sharing of resources.

DESH, Akram Khan, from September 6, Brisbane Festival. I have longed to see this since its premiere and missed it at the Melbourne Festival in 2012. This is one occasion on which I won’t rail against the tendency of arts festivals to program work from a fairly small (admittedly stellar) group of dance artists.

Theatre:

Noises Off, Sydney Theatre Company, from February 17. I first saw Michael Frayn’s brilliant farce about 30 years ago and laughed like a loon. The memories are vivid; let’s hope they can be matched – surpassed even! – by this new production.

Ganesh versus the Third Reich, Back to Back Theatre, Carriageworks, from March 12. At long last Sydney gets to see this hugely admired work.

Hedda Gabler, Belvoir, from June 28. Ash Flanders will star. And yes, he’s a bloke who often performs in female guise. Flagrant nicking of a role a woman should have or a revelation? We shall see.

Macbeth, Sydney Theatre Company, from July 21. STC is giving over the auditorium of the Sydney Theatre to the actors and putting the audience on the stage. Hugo Weaving stars. Sounds promising, no?

Emerald City, Griffin Theatre Company, from October 17. David Williamson never really went away, despite the protestations of retirement, but he’s having quite the resurgence these days (Travelling North gets things moving at STC from January 9).

Opera and musical theatre:

Madama Butterfly, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, Opera Australia, from March 21. No explanation required.

Strictly Ballroom the Musical, from March 25, Sydney. No explanation required.

The King and I, Opera Australia and John Frost, Brisbane, from April 15, then Melbourne and Sydney. I saw this lovely production when it premiered in 1991, directed by Christopher Renshaw, designed by Brian Thomson and with frocks by Roger Kirk that got their own applause. There’s no reason to think it won’t be a winner again, particularly with Lisa McCune rather than Hayley Mills as Anna.

Into the Woods, Victorian Opera, Melbourne, from July 19. Stephen Sondheim. Say no more.

The Riders, Victorian Opera, Melbourne, from September 23. New Australian opera from Iain Grandage with libretto by Alison Croggon, based on Tim Winton’s book.

When Time Stops

Expressions Dance Company
Brisbane, September 10

IN Greek mythology the river Styx marks the point of no return. On one side is life, and on the other death; the ferryman Charon is the intermediary, transporting souls to the afterlife. Natalie Weir has taken this enduring story as the wellspring of When Time Stops, a new work for Expressions Dance Company that has just premiered at the Brisbane Festival. The central character is a woman who, In Weir’s words, “could be anyone, in her last moment of life’’. That moment is extended and suspended as experiences are relived, in flashes, by the Woman or replayed by others.

When we first see the Woman (Riannon McLean) she is at the point of joining the Ferryman (Thomas Gundry Greenfield) for her final journey. He is seated in a small white boat, back rippling as his arms press and circle in huge, powerful strokes that have a mesmerising but implacable rhythm. Never, one imagines, has the afterlife looked quite so enticing. McLean, so poised and centred, reaches towards him but is interrupted. The stage fills with musicians and other dancers. A life’s flashback begins.

This is a striking and eloquent beginning, much enhanced by Bill Haycock’s cool, elegant design and David Walters’s sympathetic lighting. And how marvellously and unselfconsciously the members of Camerata of St John’s move in and out of the dance, playing Iain Grandage’s new score from memory and doing it very, very proud. Weir’s direction of this aspect of the production is exceptional.

The dancers give every sinew of their being to the work and are captivating. McLean draws the eye even when still and in the background, such is her charisma; there can never be too many opportunities to see Daryl Brandwood; and Gundry Greenfield, whether entering the dance or continuing his endless ferryman labour, is as imposing a presence on stage as I have seen in quite a while.

When it comes to the choreography itself, however, I have significant reservations. Weir relies too much on several relatively obvious ideas – running backwards, slow-motion moves, rolling, leaping – in a way that does little to differentiate stages in the woman’s journey (there are 12 sections). There are several intimations of tenderness but mostly I felt as if I were seeing 17 kinds of sorrow on a loop.

Most troubling for me is a hardness in much of the partnering that borders on violence. There is one section clearly depicting some kind of accident or harm where the use – abuse? – of male strength is dramatically justified. But there were so many times when young women hurled themselves at the men, when they were slung over shoulders and when they were hurled around. The partnering looked very unequal in power and authority. I was also dismayed when women upended themselves on the floor, their floaty skirts naturally dropping down over their heads and shoulders as they extended their legs. I don’t mean to suggest Weir had the intention of making her female dancers look manipulated and anonymous; far from it. But, to me, apart from McLean they looked just that and I found it hard to watch.

That said, When Time Stops has many individual moments of great beauty. Apart from the opening the most satisfying image is of Gundry Greenfield morphing into a man who, in earlier times, rescued the Woman (danced at this point by Elise May) from drowning. The section is overlong, but has clarity of purpose not always so evident elsewhere.(It’s astonishing to learn that Gundry Greenfield did not start formal dance training until he was 21, although his background does include Australian Rules football, so that sort of counts.)

When Time Stops could do with some focusing and tightening. So many new works fail to get the second look they deserve because of time or money constraints, but I hope Weir does have a chance to reconsider some things about When Time Stops because it’s certainly worth it. Undoubtedly a major problem about restaging would be the participation of the number of musicians Grandage requires for his score, and the dance would be immeasurably diminished by the use of recorded music.

Grandage, whose score for Sydney Theatre Company’s The Secret River was greatly admired, describes his music for When Time Stops as having, among other things, elements of minimalism, surrealism and polytonality. That may sound rather dry. In practice there is a great wealth of colour and texture as the orchestration – for strings alone – moves from the group to individual instruments, from the lower strings to the higher, from quite romantic plushness to thrilling astringency. The music appealed greatly on this one hearing and the Camerata of St John’s and their music director, Brendan Joyce, put in a blinder.

When Time Stops continues at the Playhouse, QPAC, until September 14.