a kagean birthday

john bailey: kage’s 15th birthday

 Kate Denborough, Gerard Van Dyck, KAGE

Kate Denborough, Gerard Van Dyck, KAGE

Kate Denborough, Gerard Van Dyck, KAGE

MELBOURNE-BASED KATE DENBOROUGH AND GERARD VAN DYCK’S PHYSICAL THEATRE COMPANY, KAGE, CELEBRATES ITS 15TH BIRTHDAY THIS YEAR, AND THE COMPANY SEEMS TO EMANATE ALL OF THE POSITIVE QUALITIES OF ITS TEENAGED YEARS WITH NONE OF THE ACCOMPANYING NEGATIVES.

Other collaborations lurching towards such an age can be overtaken by insecurities and restlessness, a wondering if things might be better elsewhere. But Denborough and Van Dyck—despite international acclaim and a series of high profile commissions across Australia—seem as curious and eager to encounter the new as they were 15 years ago.

“We still feel our best work is ahead of us,” says Denborough. “That’s still our driving impetus. We’ve still got lots of ideas and things we want to do.”

“I feel like we’re just starting now,” says Van Dyck. It’s an odd statement from such a successful creative partnership spanning more than a decade, but perhaps it’s because KAGE isn’t a brand merely churning out variations on a theme or style. The company’s brief has never been easily categorised—’physical theatre’ or ‘visual theatre’ have been bandied about, but each new work appears as if cut from a fresh cloth. There are consistencies across productions, but the differences seem to make these fade into the background.

“Our resilience and perseverance and willingness to do what we want to do and not subscribe to other people’s expectations is the only reason we’ve survived, really,” says Denborough. “If we’d worried what other people think of us too much we would have crumbled. There are enormous expectations and demands to be black and white. It’s not so much an unwillingness to be put in a pigeonhole and more a willingness to be expansive. We’ve always tried to put a positive spin on it, for our own sanity I suppose.”

The pair met while studying dance at VCA and discovered a range of affinities from the outset. “We really loved each other’s sense of drama within the movement,” says Van Dyck. “Dance as a storytelling device rather than an abstract artform. And on top of that, a sense of humour. That’s where our working relationship began, with those elements. The first handful of works we made…I wouldn’t say they were comedy but there was silliness or absurdity. Then we moved into things that were perhaps more humane or more serious. But when it comes to me and Kate working in a room together or just hanging out, none of that’s changed. All of that is still really there. Which is probably testament to why we’re still here.”

“We looked around us and wanted to create something that we didn’t see happening,” says Denborough, an impetus that still seems to drive KAGE. “Both of us were drawn to collaboration. Even at lunchtime we’d hang out with the musos, some of the visual arts production students. We already had an eclectic eye because we didn’t just hang out in the dance studio and want to dance. Right from the start, I think that’s been a key aspect in our aesthetic.”

While collaboration is a crucial tenet in contemporary performance, the company pays more than lip service to the idea and the results are another reason each KAGE production carries with it a distinct sense of vitality and reinvention. Denborough and Van Dyck have drawn on the talents of circus performers, children, bodybuilders, opera singers, poets and cartoonists, among many others. And each has not been merely a resource to be mined, but a pivotal contributor to the breathing essence of a work.

Denborough is pragmatic about this method. “In terms of performers, it’s really interesting finding dancers who’ve come from different backgrounds. Or who are not necessarily trained dancers but are amazing physical movers. Because there can be quite a sense of sameness when you see a lot of dancers who have had very similar training from one institution. The style and the methodology of the teaching can mean things can tend to look very similar. But when you get bodies who have had really different physical experiences and you work with them over a period of time, the possibilities become much more exciting.”

sundowner

Sundowner, KAGE

Sundowner, KAGE

Sundowner, KAGE

This interest in collaboration has also seen KAGE subtly move from an earlier character of abstract visual theatre towards a more grounded, socially engaged process. A case in point is Sundowner, which premiered at the Castlemaine State Festival last year and which will be staged in Geelong and Melbourne in 2012. The work explores experiences of dementia, particularly early onset dementia, and the process by which it was developed is illustrative of the company’s methodology.

Denborough conducted a series of interviews with carers, documenting their stories, and these oral encounters formed the launching point for a forum involving artists, the carers and a group of people with younger onset dementia. The discussions which resulted produced a field from which the work could draw, rather than a simple testimony which would be adapted to the stage verbatim.

“For instance there’s one woman who told us a beautiful story about her dad,” says Denborough. “He’d tell her that every morning he would meet this guy and have these fantastic chats. It turned out that it was actually him looking at himself in the mirror but he thought it was a stranger who happened to be meeting him in the bathroom every morning. Lots and lots of the stories we heard we started filtering into the show, but we really did it over a long period of time.”

team of life

Another work KAGE will be developing in 2012 is Team of Life, a piece that uses sporting metaphors to connect with young people who have experienced disadvantage. “[Working with] Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids and their love of AFL, and young refugees and soccer,” says Denborough, “it’s based on a writing methodology called the Team of Life…So if your family has been massacred and you’ve got no-one, it’s about how you might begin to rebuild your ‘team’ through this metaphor from sport, which a lot of these young boys and girls have a fantastic passion for.”

flesh and bone

And then there’s Flesh and Bone, another work in progress that upends any sense of an obvious trajectory for the company. Eschewing the large sets and sprawling casts of recent works, it’s an intimate work which sees Denborough and Van Dyck sharing the stage—alone—for the first time in almost a decade. In 2001 the pair decided to demarcate their roles, Denborough as director and Van Dyck as performer. Flesh and Bone might be an appropriate 15th birthday present, then, both a return and a step in a new direction.

“That’s one of the reasons that we wanted to do it,” says Van Dyck. “We like to reinvent things, we don’t like to get too stuck in the ways things are done. Maybe here we’re going back to methods that we’ve worked with before, but we certainly haven’t for almost 10 years and it’s about time.”

Kage Physical Theatre, www.kage.com.au

RealTime issue #108 April-May 2012 pg. 27

© John Bailey; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

10 April 2012