François Chaignaud, Ken Unsworth and Australian Dance Artists

Dumy Moyi, Carriageworks, Sydney, September 30; Departures, Ken Unsworth Studio, Sydney, October 1.

In the recent exhibition of dance and the moving image 24 Frames per Second, staged beautifully and expansively at Sydney’s Carriageworks, I kept returning to one work. It was François Chaignaud’s The Sweetest Choice, a suite of five films, each eight or nine minutes in length. As I wrote then, “The setting is California’s Death Valley, the unaccompanied song is a baroque aria by Purcell O solitude, my sweetest choice! and the dance is described as ‘precarious’. The voice is fragile, the body is almost naked except for a shamanistic decoration of foliage and the choreography is elusive but the effect is mesmerising.”

Chaignaud is in Sydney briefly with Dumy Moyi, an intimate 35-minute work performed with a small audience seated on three sides in a long rectangle in one of Carriageworks’ wonderful spaces. I described Carriageworks in my 24 Frames piece as Sydney’s other great secular cathedral (the first, of course, is the Sydney Opera House): the soaring ceilings, open performance and gathering areas, little side theatres that feel like chapels and the exposed industrial materials from which it is built give the monumental effect of a centuries-old place of worship.

Dumi Moyi, Carriageworks, 2015

Francois Chaignaud in Dumi Moyi. Photo: Zan Wimberley

Carriageworks is therefore a highly sympathetic setting for Dumy Moyi, a piece of elusive meaning but richly perfumed. Chaignaud appears in fantastical garments, if such a prosaic word can be attached to the feathered, fringed, sequined, beaded, woven and hooped array of decorations he wears around the near-naked body we can see quite clearly. His eyes are heavily laden with glitter and his fingernails long, drawing attention to his gaze and the fluid quality of his hand movements.

The adornments catch the light as Chaignaud prowls, poses and crouches and jumps, creating a mini aurora borealis around his body. As he moves he sings songs in original languages from Ukraine, Russia, Spain and England using a variety of voices. The response of the viewer – there are only 40 spaces for each performance – will inevitably be entirely personal. Chaignaud may be seen as paying homage to ancient indigenous ceremonies, or as a visitor from another planet, or a particularly inventive drag queen or all these things and more simultaneously.

I loved the extravagance of the layers of costume he wears and discards, making his body more visible and more vulnerable. We all wear costumes to present an image to the world, one which may or may not be accurate. Dumy Moyi, by the way, is translated as “my thoughts”.

The next evening I was lucky enough to be invited to artist Ken Unsworth’s Sydney studio for his annual collaboration with Australian Dance Artists, a collective of mature dancers. They also work outside the mainstream and give performances that live long in the memory. I’ve written about them before here. The short story is this (I crib from myself): “Australian Dance Artists was founded by Norman Hall, who collaborates on choreography with the four current ADA dancers – former London Contemporary Dance Theatre artists Anca Frankenhaeuser and Patrick Harding-Irmer and Sydney Dance Company alumni Susan Barling and Ross Philip. Their collective experience is immense, but would be of academic interest if they were not, all of them, still exceptionally potent performers.”

Anca Frankenhaeuser, left, with Australian Dance Artists. Photo: Regis Lansac

Anca Frankenhaeuser, left, with Australian Dance Artists. Photo: Regis Lansac

This year’s work is Departures, a piece that ruminates on time, love and death. Unsworth has again commissioned composer Jonathan Cooper to write a score (and it is a keeper), it is played live by members of the Australian Piano Quartet and augmented with harp and a second violin, the performance also features two singers, and there is a set containing many sculptural wonders. They include two huge structures, one with a central moving spiral staircase, that the dancers move around, within and up. Departures also has a startling coup de théâtre that involves Unsworth painting on a big paper screen, and it begins with moving spheres that evoke the skies and the passing of the ages.

So, a big production for a small space. Unsworth seems to allow himself few limits. At one point Frankenhaeuser delicately traverses a vertiginous slope (and it is really steep) while others pop their heads through little doors. The surreal is never far away. Imagine, if you will, Clive Birch singing (Unsworth is the librettist for a long and very lovely song) for what seems like five minutes or more while suspended upside down, and the other singer, young Rioghnach Wegrecka, radiant as she steps from one brilliantly coloured chair to another.

The piece starts with the dancers pummelling and manhandling Unsworth – he really doesn’t spare himself – in a emphatic and rather pragmatic image of the artist being tossed away. But the final image is, typically, one of transcendence.

It’s actually rather unkind to keep going on about it. Departures can be seen by invitation only. But it’s a salutary reminder that dance doesn’t belong only to the young and of Unsworth’s extraordinary generosity of spirit and imagination.

Dumy Moyi, Carriageworks, has performances today, October 2, at 6.30pm, 8.30pm and 10.30pm and tomorrow at 4.30pm, 6.30pm, 8.30pm and 10.30pm.

Complexities of human existence

Ken Unsworth Studio, Alexandria, Sydney, July 16

THE accepted wisdom is that dance careers are brutally short and in many – probably most – cases they are. The performers who break that barrier should be cherished. They may not have the effortless flexibility and super-human extensions they once had, but since when did elasticity equal artistry? Indeed, there is much discussion in classical circles these days about the great danger of tricks – endless turns, legs behind ears, gymnastics in the air – trumping emotional engagement, expressiveness, imagination and the use of the body as an infinitely varied instrument of meaning.

In Australia there are few opportunities for older dance artists; certainly no regular ones I can bring to mind, except for the collaborations between sculptor Ken Unsworth and Australian Dance Artists. Performances have taken place at the Art Gallery of NSW and Cockatoo Island, but latterly they have been at Unsworth’s Sydney studio, in which he manages a quite remarkable array of effects. The invited audience sits on hard pews, the stage machinery shudders and groans a bit and there isn’t the seamless transition from scene to scene one sees in the subsidised and commercial sectors, and yet there is an inordinate amount of magic. Imagination, emotional engagement – that’s what you get.

Australian Dance Artists was founded by Norman Hall, who collaborates on choreography with the four current ADA dancers – former London Contemporary Dance Theatre artists Anca Frankenhaeuser and Patrick Harding-Irmer and Sydney Dance Company alumni Susan Barling and Ross Philip. Their collective experience is immense, but would be of academic interest if they were not, all of them, still exceptionally potent performers.

Unsworth may be in his ninth decade but has lost none of his zest

For The Arrangement Unsworth – he finances these productions entirely – really pushed the boat out, commissioning music from Jonathan Cooper and engaging The Song Company to sing texts by A.E. Houseman, Federico Garcia Lorca, W.H. Auden, Barnabe Googe and Rainer Maria Rilke. The Song Company’s long-serving artistic director, Roland Peelman, was at the helm (and the piano).

Unsworth may be in his ninth decade but has lost none of his zest for the complexities of human existence, often casting an absurdist eye on events. He made a cameo appearance at the beginning to usher in a series of stage pictures connected not by any narrative but by themes of love, longing, the passage of time and the cycle of life. Unsworth paid no attention to the potential limitations of his studio, making alterations and engaging a production team that enabled a woman (soprano Susannah Lawergren) to rise and descend through floor and ceiling; to allow Frankenhaeuser appear to levitate in ghostly fashion; and to have The Song Company singers revolve as they stood like mannequins while Philip assembled a real – i.e., not living – mannequin into a decidedly non-traditional form.

One of the most memorable dance moments came when Harding-Irmer, balancing on a ball, absorbed energy from Frankenhaeuser, whose flickering hands were the very embodiment of electricity. Harding-Irmer and Frankenhaeuser, partners in real life, appeared to be the more connected pair while Barling and Philip were tougher customers, but central to all the movement was a sense of personal history drawn upon. These people had pasts, stories and secrets.

Cooper’s vivid, theatrical music was in expert hands. The Song Company’s Lawergren, Clive Birch (bass), Richard Black (tenor), Mark Donnelly (baritone), Anna Fraser (soprano) and Hannah Fraser (alto) were not only singers of the highest order but game participants in much of the action. Also under Peelman’s direction were the fine musicians Ollie Miller (cello), Lamorna Nightingale (flute) and Jason Noble (clarinet).

Unsworth created a world that was sometimes dreamy, sometimes nightmarish, always surprising. It was a privilege to be there.