In reviewing a ‘festival’ of ‘contemporary dance’, we are obliged to consider definitions of these terms. The word ‘festival’ implies feasting, which does not only suggest the possibility of a pre-show dinner and drinks, but also of a feast for the eyes and ears in the performance. Contemporary dance, however, does not necessarily entertain, and in fact many of its proponents eschew the implications of entertainment entirely. And this festival was composed entirely of contemporary dance.
To understand this dichotomy, we must look to the early 20th-century art movement known as Dadaism, which rejected reason and logic, prizing instead nonsense, irrationality and intuition. Later, this idea was transported into audio-visual art forms as Neo-Dadaism. American composer John Cage, a pioneer of indeterminacy in music, electroacoustic music, and non-standard use of musical instruments, was one of the leading figures of the post-WWII avant-garde that owes its roots to Neo-Dadaism. Cage was also a pioneer of the prepared piano (a piano with its sound altered by objects placed between or on its strings or hammers), for which he wrote numerous dance-related works and a few concert pieces. Cage was, in fact, instrumental in the development of modern dance, mostly through his association with choreographer Merce Cunningham, who was Cage’s partner for most of their lives.
Cage is perhaps best known for his 1952 composition 4′33″, which is performed in the absence of deliberate sound. Yet the content of the composition is not ‘four minutes and 33 seconds of silence,’ as might be assumed. Rather, it is the sounds of the environment heard by the audience during performance.
This work immediately challenged assumed definitions about musicianship and musical experience, and this challenge spilled over into the world of contemporary dance. Much contemporary dance takes the position that in dance, anything is valid. ‘Movement for movement’s sake’, without any reference to staging, music or narrative content, is a tenet held dear by many contemporary dancers and choreographers.
These ideas touch on the Buddhist principle of living in the moment, not judging, being content not to understand: of simply accepting the raw experience. For most people, however, it’s a big jump from the meditation cushion to the concert hall. Listening to four minutes and 33 seconds of silence is not most people’s idea of entertainment, and entertainment is what most people believe they have paid for when they attend a performance of any kind.
While the MoveMe Dance Festival did indeed contain moments that entertained, it also contained much that was puzzling, frustrating and even downright daft. The opening presentation, Cheap Lecture and The Cow Piece with Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion, set the tone. When one attends a state Dance Festival one might reasonably expect to see a show featuring agile and athletic dancers writhing in contorted positions as suggested in the advertising campaigns. But here we had two ordinary blokes giving a lecture on the complexities of contemporary performance art. At first we thought we were in the wrong theatre, however among the confusion we clung onto one most notable quote: Allow it to flow over you – what you have seen and heard and think it is, is not necessarily that. So we took that advice then spent the next hour trying to make sense of this Theatre of the Absurd.
In that hour, we saw two men, both of them trained performers, reading aloud, sometimes separately and sometimes in unison, in a complicated rhythm sequence. They read very fast. Some of the words were accompanied by music, and snippets of their wisdom – not necessarily the wisest parts – were projected onto a screen behind them. The content – or what we could pick up of the content; it was hard to grasp the meaning as there was such a lot to take in – was actually very interesting and would make a good talk for a Buddhist teacher. As entertainment, however, it needed a lot of hard work from the audience. Burrows and Fargion referred specifically to John Cage’s talk, ‘Lecture on nothing’. (They quipped that they would have preferred to present a Pina Bausch extravaganza but took the minimalist approach because it was cheaper.) Then, after throwing a few toy cows around, Burrows made the point that we would not remember or understand what we had heard on a conscious level, but that it would all sink in, somehow, so it didn’t matter.
Someone who had coughed up $28 to be entertained by a couple of well-trained performers might have disagreed. There was almost no dance at all in this performance, although it worked quite well as a piece of experimental theatre. Surely it would be better to open a dance festival with a dance show?
The second piece of the series, Life in Miniature, was rather more accessible. Serena Chalker and Quindell Orton, who constitute a duo called ‘Anything Is Valid Dance Theatre’, were true to the tenets of modern dance while nonetheless presenting a novel and entertaining short show. Within a 6-metre caravan, with all its fittings intact, they performed with considerable athleticism and panache for an audience of five at a time, depicting life on the road as a metaphor for human relationships and the grind and frustration of day-to-day activities. Versatile acoustic and electric cellist Tristen Parris is to be congratulated on his recorded sound piece with its echoes of wheels swishing along the road and rain on the roof of a caravan intermingled with vocals.
This piece could only work in a caravan, so it will probably never reach a wide audience. We figured that over three nights with three shows a night, less than 50 people would get to see and appreciate what is really a little gem. However, the dauntless pair will shortly be towing their caravan over the Nullarbor for shows in Adelaide and Melbourne. It’s an old van, and we’ll have our fingers crossed for their safe journey.
The next night, held in the lovely Heath Ledger Theatre, gave us another gem. This was Faun, choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui for James O’Hara and Daisy Phillips. The duet pays homage to Stéphane Mallermé’s poem, Claude Debussy’s music, and Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography. Perhaps ‘homage’ is too strong a term, for there was barely a nod in the direction of those earlier works. To a score that touched on the original Debussy, interspersed with well-chosen electronic segments, O’Hara and Phillips gave us a dazzling display of lyrical athleticism and enviable plasticity. There were, perhaps, more backward shoulder rolls than one might care to see outside of a gymnastics floor routine, but all in all this was a memorable and enjoyable piece of entertainment, showing us, as any good artwork should, something about what it means to be human.
After interval, Didier Théron’s Harakiri opened promisingly with a dramatic unaccompanied solo that culminated in a mimed self-disembowelling. The dead soloist was dragged unceremoniously from the stage and her place was taken by three men and three women, who embarked on a marathon that visibly exhausted the performers, set to a monotonous score by François Richomme. Once again, tremendous demands were made on the performers’ bodies (they were all mature performers, most, if not all, being over 40) and it became obvious why they were billed as ‘six of the state’s best dancers’. Certainly they demonstrated powers of endurance that many teenagers would envy.
Both choreography and score were repetitive in the extreme. More than once, we found ourselves nodding off, forcing ourselves to open our eyes to still another arrangement of the same dozen or so moves. This went on for at least half an hour, maybe more – we can’t account for the time we spent with our eyes closed. This could have been an incredibly powerful piece, had it been half the length. As it stands, it is overkill.
The final evening gave us, firstly, Alice Lee Holland’s Tiny Little Tragedies, an enjoyable but rather obscure work that did not quite live up to its title. There were several readings – one of which, for some reason, was read twice – about the small but seminal tragedies of life such as the death of a pet or the loss of a treasured object. But the sections that were danced without words, to a soundscape engineered by Sascha Budinski, appeared to depict much more serious, universally important events such as war and domination. Each scene seemed to present a battle, and while they were very effective, they bore little if any relationship to the readings or the piece’s title. The relationship between the personal and the universal was not brought out. And, as so often happens with contemporary dance, the piece was rather too long.
The evening concluded with the Australian Dance Awards. This was the first time the awards were held away from the eastern states and the first time proceedings were live-streamed to major cities across Australia – to audiences at the Perth Cultural Centre, Federation Square in Melbourne and The Concourse in Sydney.
The Australian Dance Awards recognise and honour professional Australian dance artists who have made outstanding contributions to Australian dance. The ceremony was presented by Ausdance, a national dance body that acts as advocate for all forms of dance and their creation, performance and teaching and also for dance education, writing and research.
Chair of the Australian Dance Award Committee, Robina Beard OAM, said, ‘The Australian Dance Awards recognise and honour professional Australian dance artists who have made an outstanding contribution to Australian dance. Western Australia has always produced incredible dance and dancers and it is exciting that the dance profession will gather there in 2012 for the presentations’.
Nanette Hassall, currently director of the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, won the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award for her extraordinary contribution to Australian dance that spans decades.
Bangarra Dance Theatre won Outstanding Performance by a Company for Belong, a performance described as ‘a powerful and theatrical portrayal of character, story and emotion’.
Daryl Brandwood was awarded Outstanding Performance by a Male Dancer for his extraordinary artistry, grace and athleticism in HELIX. He and choreographer Barry Moreland were also presented with the Award for Outstanding Achievement in Independent Dance, again for HELIX.
Natalie Weir, Artistic Director of Expressions Dance Company, was duly acknowledged for R&J, her contemporary and dynamic interpretation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet through ‘innovative story-telling, complex partnering and seamless transitions’. Her award was for Outstanding Achievement in Choreography.
Elise May received the Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Dancer, for her performance in R&J, described as brave and memorable, and one that showcased her impressive physical strength.
The award for Services to Dance was presented to Lucinda Sharp for her outstanding work in ‘changing the culture of elite dance training’ through her study of psychology.
Sarah Calver received the Services to Dance Education award for her commitment to fostering dance activity for over 30 years in the Northern Territory.
Outstanding Achievement in Youth or Community Dance was presented to Shaun Parker and Company for The Yard, a performance project described as both transforming and influential.
Bryan Mason and Sophie Hyde crafted the beautiful and moving film, Life in Movement, which captured the essence of Tanja Liedtke and her work. They were fittingly presented with the award for Outstanding Achievement in Dance on Film.
On Sunday, the MoveMe Festival culminated in a free Mass Movement community finale, organised by Buzz Dance Theatre. A number of Perth’s vibrant dance groups gathered and gave free performances to large crowds. Here we got to see the fun and entertaining side of dance and in particular dance in its various genres.
Most of the dancers were females with the exception of one all-boys group, which attracted a lot of comments. Australian Bureau of Statistics research indicates that the females dominate the dance studios, but it’s the males that dominate the choreographic and artistic director positions. This was fairly evident in the previous night’s Australian Dance Awards, where we saw a significant increase in the number of male directors and choreographers among the winners.
To sum up, the aim of the MoveMe Festival – a four-year government-funded initiative – was to raise the profile of and audiences for contemporary dance. Yet the works selected for this festival were, for the most part, very obscure, and while they might appeal to existing fans and exponents of the genre, they would not have been everyone’s cup of tea.
Furthermore, the Australian Dance Awards, both in the entertainment on the night and the choice of finalists, involved contemporary dance exclusively. If these are the Australian Dance Awards they could with advantage include representation from other genres.
Rating: 3 stars out of 5
MoveMe and Ausdance present
MoveMe dance festival and the Australian Dance Awards
Cultural Precinct, Northbridge
August 28 – September 2, 2012
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