THREE, Australasian Dance Collective, Brisbane

Playhouse Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, May 26

Amy Hollingsworth’s relief was palpable and profound. THREE had finally arrived. It was 14 months late, but it was here. The triple bill of two new works and an important Australian premiere was to have introduced Hollingsworth’s Australasian Dance Collective to the Brisbane public last year on April 1 (yes, April 1). It had to be pulled only two weeks before opening as COVID-19 forced the closure of theatres around Australia. The blow was felt keenly by all performing arts companies but was particularly tough on ADC, just about to launch itself on the world. 

ADC isn’t precisely a new company but it is a changed one. In late 2018 Hollingsworth was appointed artistic director of the long-established Expressions Dance Company and started work in January 2019. As is the way of things, the 2019 season was chiefly the work of Hollingsworth’s predecessor, Natalie Weir. Hollingsworth’s stamp would be imprinted on the 2020 program, and it would be an emphatic one. In November 2019 it was announced that EDC would become Australian Dance Collective, a name later quietly tweaked to Australasian Dance Collective. 

That’s the history. Now for the present and the future. When Hollingsworth first announced THREE she said it would be a template for annual mixed bills that would bring together a local or younger artist, an established Australian dancemaker and an international work. This first iteration features the fast-rising Brisbane choreographer Jack Lister, who is also an ADC dancer (and associate choreographer at his former company, Queensland Ballet); the thrilling and in-demand Melbourne-based artist Melanie Lane; and superstar Hofesh Shechter, with whom Hollingsworth danced many years ago. It’s a formidable group and an exciting program.

Australasian Dance Collective in Melanie Lane’s Alterum. Photo: David Kelly

Lane’s Alterum, which opens THREE, begins with a struggle. A woman (Chase Clegg-Robinson) is alone, in silence. She crawls and writhes in the misty light, seeming to want to stand but being unable to do so. Or perhaps this is what she prefers, for now. Her body is alert – you can almost see the atoms vibrate – and elastic, although it’s not a loose kind of elasticity. The level of control is ferocious. Lane is fascinated by the superhuman capabilities of the body but what makes her work affecting rather than merely impressive is that she is also supremely sensitive to how society – life, really – affects that body and that mind. While her work may look very strange at first, its power lies in the reach towards something more than the ordinary.  

Clegg-Robinson is soon joined by others, at first seen bathed in red light as if the zombie apocalypse has arrived. Clark’s intensely layered electronic score starts up and we’re off. Six bodies huddle, shudder and shuffle. They are often jittery with bobbing heads and tiny little robotic steps. Sometimes they form a militaristic-looking pack and then lean back as if recoiling from what they are about to see or do, or have done to them. They arrange themselves into couples and trios and fracture again. There are touches of unison, some images of tender support and others of attack. It is exhilarating.

Alterum is a Latin word meaning “other”, and it’s a perfect word for Lane’s ability to conjure the mysteriousness of being and the desire – don’t we all have it from time to time? – to be something else, whether alone or with others. 

Australasian Dance Collective inHhofesh Shechter’s Cult. Photo: David Kelly

THREE ends with Shechter’s short, sharp Cult. It was made in 2004, a couple of years before Shechter formed his eponymous company, and was his first group piece. Cult, also for six performers, has many of the markers of Shechter’s later work: provocative text delivered in voiceover, reminders of our mortality, intimations of folk dance in the movement, a strong sense of life as communal rather than individual, and tightly wound bodies and minds.

Here Shechter’s interest is in group dynamics and pressures. How, for instance, should you read the brief moment when one of the men throws his arms around the shoulders of the other two and walks away with them, his grasp tight? Are they friends from way back, or is this coercion? There is, however, no ambiguity about the final minutes, in which Lister separates from the group but ultimately has to return to it, somewhat cowed. There are many such moments in just 15 minutes of stage time. Cult is utterly absorbing and, alas, over in a flash.

Lister’s Still Life is the quiet, introspective buffer between the more muscular Lane and Shechter. While Still Life is nothing like Cult, there are some links. Like Shechter, Lister has death on his mind but in a less visceral way. For Shechter death, possibly sooner rather than later, is a brutal given. Lister takes a more philosophical view, going to art history for inspiration and taking the long view.

Tyrel Dulvarie and Lonii Garnons-Williams in Jack Lister’s Still Life. Photo: David Kelly

Like Shechter, Lister’s dancers (he is also in the cast) are presented as everyday people in everyday clothes – in Cult the men wear suits and the women simple dresses, all identical as you might expect from the work’s name; in Still Life each person is an individual. Still Life has a vestigial set, a square panel with a smaller square cut-out at its centre by which Lister evokes an art gallery and its associations. Love and human existence may be fleeting but great works of art can last for centuries, an idea Lister links to art that takes as its theme the transience of human existence.

Lister has selected music by Mozart, Bellini and Chopin to accompany a series of vignettes touching on longing and loss. They are understandable choices but there are times when the music, so familiar and lovely, overshadows the dance. Making a work about the evanescence of life and yes, dance itself, is a tricky business and Lister doesn’t manage to make everything in this half-hour piece feel necessary to his overarching idea. The performances are involving, though, and there is a gorgeous duo for Lonii Garnons-Williams and Tyrel Dulvarie in which they barely touch but move and breathe together in glorious harmony.

ADC is a small company with only six dancers, all of whom appeared in each work. It’s an heroic achievement from a splendid group of artists whose collective experience is worth noting. Josephine Weise was previously with Sydney Dance Company where she worked with a wide array of top-flight choreographers, Jack Lister brings his Australian Ballet School and Queensland Ballet experience to the mix and Jag Popham trained in New Zealand and last year worked with Lloyd Newson on the thrilling revival of Enter Achilles. Chase Clegg-Robinson is a young Brisbane dancer at the start of her career. She was an ADC apprentice last year and took part in Stephanie Lake’s Colossus in early 2020. Lonii Garnons-Williams has vast experience as a freelance artist with many leading Australian companies and was for a time a member of Australian Dance Theatre. And the newest ADC member is the charismatic Tyrel Dulvarie. He was formerly with Bangarra Dance Theatre where he shone, and he shines here. 

Brisbane is very lucky to have them. 

THREE ends on May 29.

Grand Finale, Hofesh Shechter Company

Sydney Opera House, January 31.

Death is ever-present in Hofesh Shechter’s deeply moving Grand Finale, and so is an unquenchable lust for life. The two conditions are irrevocably twinned. We are born and we die, of that much we can be certain. As anyone who has seen earlier Shechter works will know, the Israeli-born choreographer is not one to take things with a shrug. Here he storms and rages against the dying of the light, to which designer Tom Visser gives such eloquent substance in Grand Finale. Shechter’s indomitable band of men and woman are as often as not seen as indistinct figures in a sulphurous vapour, frequently pulling a body to who knows where.

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Hofesh Shechter Company in Grand Finale. Photo: Prudence Upton

When they come together as a group they move with desperate energy and breath-taking ferocity. The language is that of folk dance, redolent of community, heritage and tradition, but in this context there’s also danger. Fists are shaken at the sky, arms and legs pump like pistons and breasts are beaten. From time to time the group freezes like a herd of gazelles scenting lions on the hunt, but you can feel in this stillness an air of exaltation too. Nothing is ever simple.

Grand Finale is suffused with loss and anguish, although this being Shechter there are flashes of mordant humour. Near the end of the first half the score – of Shechter’s own composition, and it’s thrilling  – comes up with a surprise in the form of Lehár’s Merry Widow Waltz. To this point there has been a potent mix of live playing from a roving five-member band of five and recorded sound, the former offering the consolations of melody and the latter drenched with foreboding. And then there’s that waltz, injecting a dose of sentimentality, or perhaps it could just be ordinariness, into this blasted place. It’s a very Beckettian touch. 

Grand Finale // Hofesh Shechter

Hofesh Shechter’s Grand Finale. Photo: Rahi Rezvani

Grand Finale does have a few unexpected, most welcome, touches of tenderness and connection and there is even fun to be had when the dancers mill around the musicians as if at a party. Nothing can stop the fade to black but there can be moments of grace and acceptance. One mental picture keeps returning to me, that of two men bowing elaborately and then falling. It might be the end of days but at least you can go down with a flourish. Grand Finale’s darkness is almost absolute but salutary and Shechter’s company of dancers exhilarating. It is a soul-stirring experience.

Ends February 2.

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.

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 persistence of memory

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, August 27

HOFESH Shechter’s Sun has toured extensively since its world premiere at the Melbourne Festival about 10 months ago. It’s now briefly in Sydney for five performances only. I had quite a few reservations on first seeing Sun – my initial review is below – and some remain, but I liked it significantly better last night than last year. The piece looks more coherent, seems less jokey and feels much angrier.

Sun cr Jess Bialek 14

Returning to a piece after a fair amount of time is always an interesting challenge. How accurate is one’s memory? How much has the choreographer put in or left out as the work has travelled and evolved? What difference in one’s perception is due to relatively small changes in attack, duration, emphasis? Does the omission of a couple of labored touches that last only a few moments (dummy hanging from a noose; a woman leaping up in the audience screaming) help more than you might think?

Sun is still remarkably plain about its politics and its indictment of colonialism and its fruits. The message is blunt and is done in a way that’s not so very new: assailing you, the audience member, for being in the comfortable position of being able to attend this performance. But it felt to me as if Shechter’s concerns were being expressed with a higher level of seriousness. Sun seemed a whole lot tougher, impassioned and therefore more affecting and effective.

Shechter’s choreography is rooted in muscular folk dance but there are fragments of many other movement languages woven into a rich tapestry by the company’s extraordinary dancers. They were mesmerising last October and remain so.

One more thing: there were no free earplugs in sight. Yes, the music is loud, but honestly, not that loud. Good to see the affectation – or was it nanny-state overkill? – dropped.

Sun ends Saturday.

And from last year:

SUN finds Hofesh Shechter in a jocund mood, or what passes for it. The title implies warmth and light. Facsimile sheep wander and gambol. Every now and again a woman leaps up from the front row of the auditorium to utter a brief, piercing scream and then sits right back down again. One of Irving Berlin’s most swoon-worthy songs keeps punctuating Shechter’s thumping score and I swear there is twerking too, for just a moment (although not to Berlin).

Of course where there is sun there is shadow. The announcement at Sun’s outset that “everything will be just fine” is contradicted at every turn and the apparently playful takes on a sinister light. The Berlin song is Let’s Face the Music and Dance; the sheep are occasionally joined by a wolf. There’s even a snippet of Wagner in the score, an acid touch from the Israeli-born choreographer. African colonialism gets a moment too, along with flashes of contemporary urban behaviour. If Sun has a theme it is this: lambs to the slaughter.

The imagery is obvious, heavy-handed and in the case of the sheep, tediously over-extended. Shechter’s surrealist collage pulls together an eclectic range of references to political and social oppression but there’s no real weight there. Ideas clearly important to Shechter have a trivial air. And if I could institute a ban on strenuous fake laughing in dance works it would take place from this instant.

It’s a different story with the dance itself, which forms a fast-flowing, often turbulent river on which this other material bobs about. As with his breakout hit Political Mother (2010), Shechter finds power and purpose in the group although it is rare to see any physical contact. He understands that togetherness and separateness co-exist inextricably and from this fact much of life’s tumult emerges.

Sun, which is having its world premiere at the Melbourne Festival, is performed almost entirely in unison, the movement often rooted to the spot or covering little ground. Gestures are forceful and highly eloquent and there is frequent repetition, within a section of dance and within the overall structure. All this is done to a loud, foursquare beat – the kind of firm, regular beat that speaks to the blood.

Ritual and history are embedded in Shechter’s choreography. Fragments of folk and social dance from all sorts of places flicker and are then integrated back into the whole, although sometimes, as near the end of Sun, they harden into something less benign. The dance and these superb dancers tell the story.

By the way, the offer of earplugs at Sun is unnecessary as the music really isn’t that loud. It could have been much more over-powering, something I very much wished for Sun as a whole.

Sun

Hofesh Shechter Company, Melbourne Festival, October 13.

SUN finds Hofesh Shechter in a jocund mood, or what passes for it. The title implies warmth and light. Facsimile sheep wander and gambol. Every now and again a woman leaps up from the front row of the auditorium to utter a brief, piercing scream and then sits right back down again. One of Irving Berlin’s most swoon-worthy songs keeps punctuating Shechter’s thumping score and I swear there is twerking too, for just a moment (although not to Berlin).

Hofesh Shechter's Sun. Photo: Leah Robertson

Hofesh Shechter’s Sun. Photo: Leah Robertson

Of course where there is sun there is shadow. The announcement at Sun’s outset that “everything will be just fine” is contradicted at every turn and the apparently playful takes on a sinister light. The Berlin song is Let’s Face the Music and Dance; the sheep are occasionally joined by a wolf. There’s even a snippet of Wagner in the score, an acid touch from the Israeli-born choreographer. African colonialism gets a moment too, along with flashes of contemporary urban behaviour. If Sun has a theme it is this: lambs to the slaughter.

The imagery is obvious, heavy-handed and in the case of the sheep, tediously over-extended. Shechter’s surrealist collage pulls together an eclectic range of references to political and social oppression but there’s no real weight there. Ideas clearly important to Shechter have a trivial air. And if I could institute a ban on strenuous fake laughing in dance works it would take place from this instant.

It’s a different story with the dance itself, which forms a fast-flowing, often turbulent river on which this other material bobs about. As with his breakout hit Political Mother (2010), Shechter finds power and purpose in the group although it is rare to see any physical contact. He understands that togetherness and separateness co-exist inextricably and from this fact much of life’s tumult emerges.

Sun, which is having its world premiere at the Melbourne Festival, is performed almost entirely in unison, the movement often rooted to the spot or covering little ground. Gestures are forceful and highly eloquent and there is frequent repetition, within a section of dance and within the overall structure. All this is done to a loud, foursquare beat – the kind of firm, regular beat that speaks to the blood.

Ritual and history are embedded in Shechter’s choreography. Fragments of folk and social dance from all sorts of places flicker and are then integrated back into the whole, although sometimes, as near the end of Sun, they harden into something less benign. The dance and these superb dancers tell the story.

By the way, the offer of ear plugs at Sun is unnecessary as the music really isn’t that loud. It could have been much more over-powering, something I very much wished for Sun as a whole.

Following its world premiere season in Melbourne, Sun has its European premiere in Luxembourg (October 25-26), its UK premiere in London (October 30-November 3), its US premiere in New York (November 14-16) and other European dates to mid-March.

This review first appeared in The Australian on October 15.