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.

UnknownMore 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.

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 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.

Force Majeure: You Animal, You

Sydney Festival, Carriageworks, January 6

Heather Mitchell is one of the great treasures of the Australian stage and any chance to see her must be grabbed eagerly, as proved to be the case even in a work as unsteady as Force Majeure’s You Animal, You. Under its founder and former artistic director Kate Champion, Force Majeure created a body of dance-theatre work that combined movement with text and often included actors alongside dancers. Mitchell has collaborated with Force Majeure before and is a riveting presence in You Animal, You, directed by Champion’s successor Danielle Micich (and including text written by Mitchell).

Heather Mitchell Solo Confetti - credit Brett Boardman

Heather Mitchell in You Animal, You. Photo: Brett Boardman

You Animal, You looked marvellous and was performed with passionate intensity. Its effects, though, came from a scatter of individual moments. A coherent whole failed to emerge.

The work, choreographed by Micich and the performers, put forward the not entirely novel proposition that we hide the primal urges that drive our true selves. Strip away the shield and we will be revealed and possibly freed. To that end Mitchell commanded a rag-tag band of two women and two men who seemed to be her slaves, up to a point. Dressed in a long sequined gown that had seen better days she shouted directives through a megaphone, sometimes sitting in judgment from a vertiginously high seat that could be wheeled about the space.

The audience was seated arena-style in two rows of seats ranged around a long, wide oval. Bay 20 at Carriageworks is large and the spare design made it seem even more so. The top-tier team of Michael Hankin (set and costumes), Damien Cooper (lights) and Kelly Ryall (score) created a chilly dystopian environment that nevertheless had a certain elegance and grandeur.

Lauren Langlois and Ghenoa Gela - credit Brett Boardman

Lauren Langlois and Ghenoa Gela. Photo: Brett Boardman

Mitchell was perhaps a distant cousin of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome’s Aunty Entity, her glamour somewhat faded but her resolve firm. When she told two people to get into the centre ring and fight they did it without hesitation. When she barked the order “let’s dance”, everyone complied. But to what end? The stage picture was always vibrant and visually appealing but its meaning elusive, other than the symbolism of the amphitheatre as a place of conflict and the huge plastic bag used early and late in the piece as an obvious stand-in for the womb.

The vague unanimity of the first part of the piece fractured into fragments of memory and individual dances but nothing really stuck. There were solos for each of the four dancers in the cast – Harrison Elliott, Ghenoa Gela, Raghav Handa and Lauren Langlois – and sections in which language predominated. Langlois had a stream-of-consciousness monologue that drew on synaesthesia; Mitchell told a fable about the food chain and spoke movingly about the intimacy and pain of motherhood; Elliott relived the moment of birth; Handa spoke about breath; Gela sought refuge among audience members and then very sweetly thanked them.

Each performer had distinctive personal and movement qualities that made them eloquently individual and therefore worthy of close attention. You wanted to know more about Gela, who greeted people warmly as they filed into the space, and Elliott, who slowed time with a naked dance of evolution from flailing baby to dignified adult. Touchingly, you could see that Mitchell was a non-dancer among dancers (you could also see her knee and ankle braces; dance is a tough master). She moved expressively though, losing herself in that special place that civilians have when dancing.

You Animal, You had a very brief premiere season at the Sydney Festival and there are no further dates listed for performance at this stage. Despite being devised with the assistance of a dramaturg, director Sarah Goodes, You Animal, You doesn’t feel fully developed, which is possibly why it ran only about 55 minutes rather than the advertised and presumably planned 75 minutes.

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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

About last week … April 30-May 6

A week of contrasts started on Tuesday at the Sydney Opera House with the marvellous Bernadette Robinson in Pennsylvania Avenue, her follow-up to Songs for Nobodies. Both were written by Joanna Murray-Smith to give a narrative framework for Robinson’s rare talent and if Songs for Nobodies strikes one as the much better work, Pennsylvania Avenue still offers many pleasures. Robinson has an extraordinary ability to summon the voices and spirit of famous singers and is a fine actor as well. Her art is much more than mimicry. Pennsylvania Avenue is flashback theatre set in the White House as a woman, Harper Clements, recalls her life of service to a string of presidents, starting with JFK. The conceit is that she works with the entertainments wing and thus comes into contact with many famous singers over a 40 year-span. The single set rather traps Robinson into walking around, picking up and putting down a box of belongings as she prepares to leave her position (Simon Phillips directed), and the troubles in Clements’s life aren’t as fascinating as the evocation of events such as Sarah Vaughn’s performance at the White House. Nevertheless, the wide range of songs and Robinson’s skill keep you with her, even if at 90 minutes the show feels a tad long. Robinson does a killer Tammy Wynette (Stand By Your Man – associated, naturally, with the Clinton era), her Eartha Kitt (If You Go Away, the English version of Brel’s Ne Me Quitte Pas) is spine-tingling and her Bob Dylan (The Eve of Destruction) is pitch-perfect, if such a term can be applied to the Dylan vocal style. An excellent band, too, tucked away behind the curtain.

Bernadette Robinson

Bernadette Robinson in Pennsylvania Avenue

On Wednesday morning it was off to Wellington and Royal New Zealand Ballet’s The Wizard of Oz, which I have reviewed at length in the post below. A lovely work, albeit one that can grow as it gets more performances. As always, dramaturgical input is something very much needed in the making of story ballets and it is often put too far down the list of priorities. I’ve very much enjoyed reading British critics talking about the need for dramaturgical and directorial input into Liam Scarlett’s new three-act ballet for the Royal, Frankenstein. I’ve been banging on about this for decades. But back to RNZB, where choreographer and artistic director Francesco Ventriglia has a very strong base from which to work. And we’re not talking huge changes.

Thursday night brought the Queen/Ben Elton musical We Will Rock You, which I missed when it was staged in Australia in 2003. My review is in The Australian today (May 9) and I’ll put it up on the blog later in the week. Suffice to say that as someone who was young in the 1970s I had a very good time indeed.

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Casey Donovan as the Killer Queen in We Will Rock You. Photo: Jeff Busby

Thank goodness for Australian Theatre for Young People’s Friday matinee of Spring Awakening, a production I would otherwise not have been able to fit into the schedule. And I would have missed a beauty. It’s salutary to note that Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play was banned in England until 1963, a clear affirmation of its revolutionary nature. Well, and of British idiocy in respect to censorship. Wedekind’s theme of burgeoning teenage sexuality and adult fear and hypocrisy was incendiary then, and now. Despite children having almost unfettered access to sexual material, there are powerful people who still refuse to allow those children to have straightforward, realistic, all-embracing information and discussion.

The 2006 musical by Duncan Sheik (music) and Steven Sater (book and lyrics) is set in the time of Wedekind’s play yet feels utterly contemporary, and not only because of the indie-rock score. The young ATYP actors are shiningly unselfconscious and thoroughly absorbed and absorbing. Jessica Rookeward’s Wendla glows in spirit and voice and the two leading men, James Raggett (Melchior) and Josh McElroy (Moritz) could not be bettered, so passionate and so different. Mitchell Butel, on only his second directorial outing, proves that should acting jobs dry up – unlikely; Butel is one of the busiest and most versatile men on the Australian stage – he can segue effortlessly to the other side. He gets superb performances of detail, clarity and conviction from relatively inexperienced performers and creates an utterly believable world. The design from Simon Greer (set), Damien Cooper and Ross Graham (lights) and David Bergman (sound) is simplicity itself and all the better for it. Amy Campbell’s choreography is brilliant, as is Lucy Bermingham’s musical direction. Bravi.

It appears there may still be some seats for the Spring Awakening matinees of May 11 and 13. I’d advise jumping on them immediately.

Jessica Rookeward and James Raggatt in Spring Awakening. Photo: Tracey Schramm

Jessica Rookeward and James Raggatt in Spring Awakening. Photo: Tracey Schramm

On Friday it was off to Carriageworks and a showing of the four finalists in the Keir Choreographic Award, a generous biennial prize (yay!). I’ll write more about it later but wasn’t surprised that Ghenoa Gela carried off both the main award of $30,000 and the people’s vote, which added $10,000 to Gela’s prize. Put simply, 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. Gela’s dancers were, despite the shielding of their faces, women of flesh and blood and their movement connected one with resonant questions about meaning inherent in or imposed on indigenous dance.

Pennsylvania Avenue, The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, until May 22.

Spring Awakening, ATYP Studio 1, Wharf 4, Sydney, until May 14.

The Wizard of Oz, various cities in New Zealand until June 12.

We Will Rock You, Lyric Theatre, Sydney, until June 26 and then touring Australia into 2017.