Dance as research

Julia Postle experiences The Red Shift at Canberra’s Choreographic Centre

Pseudoscience is a kind of halfway house between old religion and new science, mistrusted by both.

—Carl Sagan’s words and The Red Shift’s story. With this latest work-in-progress, Garry Stewart takes the shared spaces between science fiction and science fact and blows them in different directions with an appropriately cosmic movement vocabulary.

The Red Shift in workshop is a series of seven short scenes, some of them using a complex choreographic tool that has led to the creation of original, innovative chunks of movement. Stewart and dancers Bernadette Walong, Richard Seidel, Kate Levy and Elizabeth Thompson worked with Gideon Obarzanek for three workshop sessions, exploring movement possibilities through the strategy known as 9 point improvisation. Stewart explained the methodology to us before the showing. Each dancer—working in their own imagined box with nine points in different spatial planes—moves between the points, in different orders and using different kinds of movement.

The result is sometimes awkward-looking, sometimes fluid, and always interesting; the force of the movement heightened by an often frenetic pace. Stewart seems to have an ability to meld movement forms with a kind of organised anarchy—in The Red Shift he has Seidel spinning on the floor in a new type of breakdancing across the space. A radical pas de deux emerges from the breakdancing solo. Sequences spin in and out of each other to maintain the pace, while slides of ‘alien spacecraft’ and crop circles impose their visual stories on the performance. The dancers are more or less dispassionate—except for the moment straight from Close Encounters when lights beam down upon them and there are a few moments of performance anxiety.

After the showing, Stewart expanded on the choreographic process and some of the problems he and dramaturg David Bonney have encountered. One that is particularly puzzling for him—although a common dilemma for many artists looking to create new and challenging work—is the accessibility of the performance. Stewart was concerned that the story of the piece and the related notion of fictional and factual science barriers blurring was not being communicated to the audience. One audience member thought the slides too directive, instead of allowing the audience to determine the story for themselves. It will be interesting to see how ‘well-supervised’ the piece becomes through reworkings.

The beauty of The Choreographic Centre is its focus on exploration and process above and beyond product. A relief really, especially at a time when federal government arts policy fails to embrace the richness of investigating the medium of performance, or to acknowledge artistic practice as a means of research.

Garry Stewart made reference to this in his program notes, saying “The Choreographic Centre offered the time and space to test out new methods of working, and…ideas which had been satelliting around in my head for some time could finally be put to the test”. It makes sense—give someone the resources of time, space and money to look into even the vaguest conceptual problem, and they’ll work to solve it. The research problems of artistic practice can give rise to innovations which extend that practice, and The Red Shift does offer some interesting, creative ‘solutions’ to continual ‘problems’ like narrative and structure.

Garry Stewart, choreographer, The Red Shift, The Choreographic Centre, Canberra

RealTime issue #23 Feb-March 1998 pg. 34

© Julia Postle; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 1998