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.

to a simple, rock’n’roll … song

Michael Clark Company, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, January 30.

In the first part of Michael Clark’s gorgeous triptych of dances there’s an image of quiet, deep reverence enacted by two men, their hands spread and their heads bowed. It could stand for the whole work really, which pays homage to choreographers, musicians and artists who have inspired Clark.

Every molecule of to a simple, rock’n’roll … song is saturated with the spirit of contemporary dance’s great modernists, particularly Merce Cunnngham, while remaining absolutely rooted in the formal principles of classical dance. The pointe shoe even makes a brief appearance.

MichaelClarkCompany_SOH_creditPrudenceUpton_Sophie Cottrill, Harry Alexander, Rowan Parker, Oxana Panchenko, Kieran Page, Benjamin Warbis, Daniel Corthorn

Michael Clark Company. Photo: Prudence Upton

As the title suggests, music is the wellspring of to a simple, rock’n’roll … song and Clark’s taste is eclectic and impeccable. The title comes from Patti Smith’s three-part song Land, which throws rocket fuel on the witty, sexy, fast-moving middle section. It’s almost over before it starts – the whole evening gives less than an hour of dance – but it’s a blast.

Land is bathed in a version of American artist Charles Atlas’s video installation Painting by Numbers, which adds a trippy dimension to proceedings while also being supremely elegant. Atlas also designed the sumptuous lighting for the other sections, giving stage and dancers a ravishing glow.

Four David Bowie songs, starting with the title song from his final album, Blackstar, provide the soundtrack to the final enigmatic section. The eight dancers wear iridescent bodysuits and swirl like atoms or move robotically. The feel is otherworldly until the cheeky, finger-snapping ending.

Smith and Bowie are both indisputably rock’n’roll. What about Erik Satie (1866-1925)? You bet. He was a trailblazer whose early piano pieces, essentially big bunches of chords, preceded John Cage’s provocations by more than half a century and here accompany Clark’s fiendishly difficult choreography for the first section.

MichaelClarkCompany_SOH_creditPrudenceUpton_Daniel Corthorn

Daniel Corthorn in Land, the middle section of to a simple, rock’n’roll … song, danced against Charles Atlas’s Painting by Numbers. Photo: Prudence Upton

His opening statement is beyond austere, all long-held balances, slow turns and perilous extensions. The echoes of Frederick Ashton’s Monotones I and II, made to Satie’s Gnossiennes and Gymnopedies, are graceful in concept although some of the company struggled somewhat on opening night (jetlag?).

When they were on song they were wonderful and Daniel Corthorn’s solo in the first section and Oxana Panchenko’s in the third were testament to the truth that abstract dance can have powerful emotional force.

“How many times does an angel fall?” Bowie asked in Blackstar. Clark has done his fair share of tripping and getting up again over the years but he has always kept the faith, for which much thanks. I didn’t want the night to end.

The Sydney season ends on Sunday.  Perth Festival, February 14-17.