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.