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.

Bangarra Dance Theatre: 30 years of sixty five thousand

Bangarra Dance Theatre, Sydney Opera House, June 14

What a marvellous idea to include Jiří Kylián’s Stamping Ground in this celebration of Bangarra’s three decades of dance. It’s a terrifically exciting piece and its presence could be justified simply on artistic grounds. But why now, particularly as Bangarra has never before performed the work of a non-Indigenous choreographer? It’s a wonderful story.

The Czech master made Stamping Ground in 1983 for Nederlands Dans Theater, three years after attending a vast gathering of Australian First Nations communities on Groote Eylandt. He hadn’t simply been invited: Kylián had been a prime mover of the event. He had learned about and been deeply moved by the centrality of dance in Indigenous Australian life – the necessity, really. Dance contained history and stories, expressed spirituality and was the common language for people who spoke in many different tongues.

Bangarra - 30 Years of 65 Thousand - Stamping Ground

Rika Hamaguchi and Ryan Pearson in Stamping Ground. Photo: Daniel Boud

Well-chosen extracts from a documentary made about the Groote Eyelandt festival precede Bangarra’s performance of Stamping Ground and make abundantly clear just how profound the experience was for Kylián, an experience that “influenced each and every work he has created since then”, says Roslyn Anderson, Kylián’s Australian-born assistant choreographer. It’s hard to overestimate this tremendous gift to contemporary dance. (Anderson staged Stamping Ground for Bangarra.)

Bangarra artistic director Stephen Page had an embarrassment of riches to choose from for this program, much of it his own work, so the recognition of Kylián is graceful and timely.

So is the decision to open 30 years with Frances Rings’s Unaipon from 2004. Rings, formerly a dancer with Bangarra before turning to choreography, was recently named Bangarra’s associate artistic director; this was her first big work for the company. It explores the culture and ideas of Ngarrindjeri man David Unaipon in seven sections that allude to his work as a preacher, inventor and philosopher (he died in 1967).

There is a trance-like quality to much of the dance language as Rings places Unaipon’s thinking in a universal context. There is nothing more lovely than its night-sky opening, in which we hear Unaipon’s suggestion that the source of life is to be found “in another world – yet we are here”. Otherworldliness permeates Uniapon. A section based on string games is grounded in the reality of traditional Ngarrindjeri life but abstracted into something grand and mysterious, as is Rings’s depiction of the four winds, representing knowledge of the land. Swirling bodies evoke Unaipon’s interest in the laws of motion and rapt calmness his Christian faith.

Bangarra - 30 Years of 65 Thousand - Unaipon

Tyrel Dulvarie as Tolkami (West Wind) in Unaipon. Photo: Daniel Boud

The music, lush with language and song, comes chiefly from the hand of David Page. He died in 2016 but his wonderful score lives on. The costumes by Jennifer Irwin, a long-time Bangarra collaborator, are a joy to revisit, as is Peter England’s set and Nick Schlieper’s lighting.

Stamping Ground opens the second half of the program and is pure joy. Each of the six dancers is introduced with a silent solo and then the piece heads into exhilarating, hard and fast duos and trios to a percussion work by Carlos Chávez. It’s forceful, witty and 100 per cent Kylián but with touches of the inspiration – not imitation, he stresses – the choreographer is indebted to. The alert use of head, eyes and neck are particularly notable, as are the wonderfully springy, agile knees. The Bangarra cast dances Stamping Ground with splendidly earthy vigour  and makes it their own.

The program ends satisfyingly with To Make Fire, a blending of sections from earlier Bangarra works. The short excerpt from Stephen Page’s Mathinna refers to colonisation and exploitation. It is followed by dances from Elma Kris’s lovely About, which springs from Torres Strait Island culture. The third element, Clan, draws from several works, ending with a ravishingly beautiful section called Hope from 2002.

Photography Lisa Tomasetti-74

The Bangarra ensemble in To Make Fire. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

It’s a big night for the full ensemble of 16 and not all can be mentioned, but there were standout performances from Baden Hitchcock and Ryan Pearson (Stamping Ground) and Tyrel Dulvarie (Stamping Ground and Unaipon). Tara Gower, Rika Hamaguchi and Ella Havelka completed the Stamping Ground cast with distinction.

30 years is also a tribute to many outstanding contributors to Bangarra’s look and sound, including the distinguished designer Jacob Nash and composer Steve Francis. It’s a special evening.

Ends in Sydney July 13. Then Canberra, July 18-20; Perth, July 31-August 3; Darwin, August 17; Brisbane, August 23-31; Melbourne, September 5-14; Adelaide, September 19-21; Hobart October 3-5.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on June 17.