Growing performance: networks & niches

Keith Gallasch surveys new opportunities for contemporary performance

Adventures in the Dark, Hanging Man

Adventures in the Dark, Hanging Man

Adventures in the Dark, Hanging Man

The hunting and gathering of grants is a tougher task then ever. It seems that there are fewer of them relative to the population of artists, their value in real terms declines annually and the competition increases as training institutions hatch each new generation of artists. As we await the emergence of a new breed of politician who can grasp the consequences of keeping most artists below the poverty line but can also face the futures that artists conjure, there are indications elsewhere of a growing responsiveness. A few signs of this break in the weather include the steady growth of the Theatre Board’s Mobile States touring initiative, operated by a consortium of venues; Melbourne City Council’s Arts House multi-platform program and its Culture Lab; expanded touring opportunities for innovative Australian work overseas and the development of reciprocal programs, like Breathing Space (see our InBetween Time feature in this edition) and Asialink’s Neon Rising Australia-Japan choreographic program; as well as a range of regional arts developments across Australia, strengthening the potential for greater cultural exchange between cities and country centres.

For contemporary performance practitioners these developments bring with them opportunities for finding new niches and new partners within Australia and beyond. A show that might have once enjoyed a brief season can now be kept in repertoire and reach far flung audiences. Of course, it’s not that easy. The old monoculture of arts funding, where finance for individuals, small companies and projects was sought from one or 2 sources is being replaced by a hive of potential partners (venues, programmers, producers, presenters, agents, consortia, festival directors). This has moved well beyond the challenge of writing and acquitting a grant application—and often you’ve still got to get that money in the bank before the other partners come into play. As was revealed in the RealTime-Performance Space forum on the need for Creative Producers (RT69, p40), artists need help to engage with an increasingly complex arts habitat, not only at home, but also as they venture out across borders and oceans. It’s good news then that the Theatre Board has recently announced three 2-year grants for producers at $50,000 per annum, possibly extendable to 3 years, to develop their own models of working with artists. If it works, this strategy could begin to fill a significant gap in the cultural ecology.

Australia’s major arts festivals and venues need to be part of that ecology, embracing innovation, seeding the audiences of the future. The Melbourne International Arts Festival, first under Robyn Archer and now Kristy Edmunds, leads the way, while Sydney Opera House’s The Studio has become a home for cutting-edge popular entertainment distinctly aimed at younger audiences but blended with more demanding material and cultural events that include NYID’s Blowback and dLux Media’s d>Art. Now Sydney Opera House has launched Adventures in the Dark, the kind of program of Australian, Pacific region and international works usually restricted to the arts festival circuit. Such initiatives offer openings for Australian artists and audiences but also provide rare opportunities for inspiration, dialogue and exchange.

Performing Lines

Performing Lines develops, produces and tours innovative new Australian performance nationally and internationally—across genres including physical theatre, circus, dance, indigenous and intercultural arts, contemporary opera, music, puppetry, and text-based theatre. Performing Lines website

Asked about the vision that drives Performing Lines, director Wendy Blacklock, speaks of a desire “to reflect the current trends in contemporary work as broadly as we possibly can.” Works range enormously, says Blacklock of the company’s 2005-06 program, from large scale (Stephen Sewell’s Three Furies: Scenes from the Life of Francis Bacon seen at Sydney, Adelaide and Perth Festivals) to solo works by Performing Lines regular, William Yang (Shadows, Objects for Meditation), and newcomer Rebecca Clarke (Unspoken, directed by Wayne Blair). The company has assisted Kate Champion (Force Majeure’s Already Elsewhere, Sydney Festival 2005) and, as part of the Mobile States consortium, is presenting emerging choreographer Tanja Liedtke (Twelfth Floor). Both choreographers conjure strange worlds out of the everyday. Powerful contemporary performance works are provided by version 1.0 (Wages of Spin), Branch Nebula (Paradise City, seen as a potent work-in-progress in 2005) and Urban Theatre Projects (Back Home, Sydney Festival 2006). Add composer-musicians Linsey Pollak (another Performing Lines stalwart) and Graeme Leak as The Lab and you’ve got a strong selection of touring potential, a good Sydney showing (deservedly after a tough decade for dance and performance in this city) and a wealth of partners—the country’s leading arts festivals, international festivals, Sydney Opera House, Melbourne’s Malthouse and, not least, the Mobile States consortium (see below).

Blacklock emphasises the importance of large-scale works, like the Nigel Jamieson-Paul Grabowsky Australian-Indonesian collaboration The Theft of Sita toured internationally by Performing Lines and generating profits that could be ploughed back into smaller works. However small-scale works, like William Yang’s, that travel extensively also yield income that supports works yet to prove themselves at home before venturing overseas. As well as nurturing new work, Performing Lines supports creative development but also assists Australian companies in the formation of partnerships in, for example says Blacklock, Wales, Argentina and New York.

Wendy Blacklock is particularly approving of Mobile States—Performing Lines is one of the consortium—declaring it an “extremely healthy” operation, supported by several Boards of the Australia Council, focused “on the work those Boards are interested in” and “growing every time it’s programmed.” As for audiences for touring productions, it’s always a challenge, says Blacklock, but the response to Mobile States has been good. As for regional audiences, Blacklock reports that presenters are “more and more curious, wanting to know about Performing Lines’ work.”

Speaking about the international market for Australian work and the kind of obligations that come with it, Blacklock thinks, “reciprocity will rise to the top of the agenda. We can’t keep sending out Australian work if we’re not able to reciprocate. We’d love to be involved in it.”

Mobile States

The consortium of Australia’s major independent contemporary performance presenters that runs Mobile States comprises Arts House (Melbourne), Brisbane Powerhouse, Performance Space (Sydney), Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts and Salamanca Arts Centre (Hobart). Other venues join the touring network for particular productions, eg De Quincey Company’s Nerve 9 included a season in Darwin.

The criteria for selection for Mobile States touring are that works should “employ multiple languages eg physical performance, projection, spoken word and contemporary music/sound; be conceptually and formally ambitious; contribute to current cultural and/or artform developments; be dramaturgically coherent and have attracted positive critique in press and by peers.” The aim is not just to tour innovative works but also “to provide opportunities for audiences across the country to experience contemporary Australian theatrical performance that would otherwise not be seen outside their home towns.” The Australia Council’s Theatre and Dance Boards and Inter-Arts Office have all committed to funding for Mobile States for 2006-2008, and Theatre to 2009. The Australia Council funds go to presenter organisations to subsidise their costs and additional assistance is sought from Playing Australia.

Mobile States represents a major breakthrough for contemporary performance touring (it has included Jenny Kemp’s Still Angela, Chamber Made Opera’s Phobia, De Quincey Company’s Nerve 9, and now version 1.0’s Wages of Spin and Tanja Liedtke’s Twelfth Floor). The number of shows is small, but given the context of much other movement of new work through arts centres and festivals, it is highly significant.
Sascha Budimski & Anton, Twelfth Floor

Sascha Budimski & Anton, Twelfth Floor

Sascha Budimski & Anton, Twelfth Floor

Tanja Liedtke’s Twelfth Floor

Developed by Adelaide-based artists in-residence at the Canberra Choreographic Centre, Twelfth Floor is the first Mobile States work to come from outside Sydney and Melbourne. Tanja Liedtke is a choreographer with a rapidly growing reputation and a lot of dance experience. She believes that the strength of Twelfth Floor grew from the opportunity to work with “5 performers I’m close to and respect enormously…and they’re 5 very distinctive individuals. For 2 months we ate, worked and lived together and that seemed a great premise for making the work, and in a city without many distractions. It became a work about human interaction and confinement, small people in their own small worlds.” Discussion, improvisation and research informed the creation of the work, including Sartre’s “Hell is other people…” from No Exit. The result: a show about a group of people confined in an unidentified institution, withdrawing, dreaming, surviving.

Liedtke feels that “a lot of Australian dance is very nice, but that’s not enough, I want to get to the underbelly, to see people as complex—affection and hostility are such great physical premises for dance.” She recalls that the process of creating the works was “not always easy; at times it was tense and tough, but everyone was up to it. After 6 weeks, 80% of the work was there and we rehearsed it for a week of performances (at the Choreographic Centre).”

Asked how the performers accommodated the demands of her choreographic language, Liedtke replies that they had been in her earlier, shorter works but were also bringing new things to Twelfth Floor. As for that language, Liedtke says: “I work from a visual sense of my own body and its history… It’s a long body…long-limbed, very clear and articulate. I always play with what my body can do…” Music is a vital component of the work, in this case created by DJ Trip (of Adelaide’s New Pollutants) in the workshop.

As for influences and inspiration, Tanja Liedtke says her considerable experience with Garry Stewart’s ADT (1999-2003) taught her a great deal about physicality and energy; then she turned to Lloyd Newson of the UK’s DV8 Physical Theatre (2003, 2005) for the conceptual development she felt she needed: “They’re 2 fantastic artists and my work is about tying what I learned from them together.”

As well as choreographing for ADT’s formative Ignition series, Liedtke’s recent work includes 2 pieces for Tasdance (Enter Twilight 2004) and, forthcoming, Always Building, 2006); a short work about angels for Brigit Keil’s Akademie des Tanzes in Mannheim, Germany and 2 works for Brazil’s Ballet Contemporaneo. The concept of building (“and collapse and rebuilding and, as always, based in the body”) is central to her newest creation, which will also show at the Purcell Room in London’s Southbank in May 2007. Liedtke, like many Australian artists, is more likely to be seen overseas than at home. However, the Mobile States tour of Twelfth Floor offers her the excitement of getting her collaborators back together again and a rare chance for national exposure on a 5-city tour.
Jacklyn Bassanelli, Pink Denim in Manhattan

Jacklyn Bassanelli, Pink Denim in Manhattan

Jacklyn Bassanelli, Pink Denim in Manhattan

Arts House, Melbourne

Melbourne City Council in tandem with the Victorian government is focused on developing venues for the arts: Arts House uses North Melbourne Town Hall, Horti Hall and Meat Market. But it’s not just a matter of programming venues, says Steven Richardson, Artistic Director of Arts House (the Team Leader is Sue Beal), but of nurturing works through the Culture Lab program, which will then become the material for those programs. Culture Lab provides “time, money, space, advice, administration and marketing from the very early ideas stage through to final production. But the approach in these early days”, says Richardson, “is minimalist rather than heavily interventionist.” He doesn’t see Arts House yet in the role of creative producer, rather working with artists with existing agendas and helping them broker partnerships. He sees Arts House’s own partnerships as vital, as a consortium member of Mobile States. Media artist Lynette Wallworth spent time with Culture Lab before heading off to Inbetween Time in Bristol.

Richardson describes the Arts House program as involving “a multi-dimensional process”, with “a curatorial role responsive to the sector.” Artists are supported by Arts House’s own grants program, the funds coming from Melbourne City Council as well as Arts Victoria: “We’re really like a department of the Council.”

What Arts House puts together is “a truly multi-platform program”—visual arts exhibitions, theatre, dance, media arts and contemporary performance. Richardson emphasises that this means a program which can be variously focused, for example the dance and physical performance prominent in the first half of 2006 might not be immediately repeated: “the spotlight will then be on other forms, magnifying their significance.” As well, gaps in the program can be filled from elsewhere in the sector, including interstate work: “we’re keen to foster dialogue”, as is evident in the presence of Sydney’s Sidetrack and others in the program for the first half of 2006.

Arts House also represents the many different ways that a venue can engage with practices but also with communities. There’s a desire “to dissolve the boundaries between audiences and other forms of engagement…to examine the role of arts centres and the relationships between arts centres and to include projects where the artist works with the community,” says Richardson.

The wry title for the program for the first half of 2006 is “Art In a Dry Climate”, reflecting the challenges faced by artists in Australia, but facing them with a wealth of new Australian work that includes version 1.0, Jacklyn Bassanelli (see p41), Ming-Zhu Hii and Sidetrack, a multimedia installation by Cicada (see p24), and Body Corporate, new music from Dead Horse (see p30), a featured season of physical performance, Body Corporate, that includes dance (Chunky Move, The Fondue Set, Tanja Liedtke, Sue Healey Company, OX and others) and the ReelDance film festival. Melbourne City Council’s Arts House is an admirable innovation for nurturing artists and audiences locally and with an intelligent, networked national perspective.

Adventures in the Dark

Philip Rolfe’s vision of contemporary performance includes a wide audience. Each of the works in the first Adventures in the Dark program, says Rolfe, can be “crowd pleasers…but with a very different feel from The Studio program.” Rolfe says of Sydney Opera House’s new program, “It’s an artistic statement.” It’s about the kind of international work—theatrically and conceptually adventurous—that Rolfe thinks audiences should be able to see, free of arts festival constraints.

Rolfe is Executive Producer, Performing Arts at the Sydney Opera House. He and co-producer Wendy Martin have come up with Adventures in the Dark, a body of works that if presented all at once would be like a large slice of some classy international arts festival. But here works are spread across the year and instead of an easy-to-miss-or-access 3 or 4 night festival stand they’ll play anywhere from 3 to 6 weeks. The program comprises significant overseas artists either not seen in Sydney—Improbable, Emio Greco/PC, Mikel Rouse—or those warranting more substantial seasons than they’ve had up to now—Ruby Hunter in Ruby’s Story and Brian Lipson in A Large Attendance in the Antechamber.

Rolfe emphasises that Adventures in the Dark is not just wed to the Playhouse (site of most of the 2006 program) but will use other Opera House sites including its outdoors in years to come: “the program is open to what fits thematically and intellectually.” However, the Playhouse has been revamped, its stage size increased 20% to accommodate physical theatre and dance and it’s been technically improved.

Coming up soon on the program is the renowned UK performance company, Improbable. Rolfe relishes their “reliance on old theatre skills you rarely see these days. The work is not multimedia, although technologically supported. You really see what human beings are capable of in a theatrical context.” Rolfe likes artists “who deal with tradition as well as with new ideas”, and this is clearly key to the selection of works for 2006, including Melbournian Brian Lipson and UK companies, Ridiculusmus and Improbable.

Rolfe notes that the first program is missing an Asian connection, which he hopes to remedy soon. However, he’s pleased with the presence of Vula (The Conch), a work from New Zealand with a director, Nina Nawalowalo, well versed in European theatricality but with a South Pacific vision—here oceanic in concept and performed with great volumes of water.

Music theatre also features in the program in Ruby’s Story with Ruby Hunter, Archie Roach and Paul Grabowksy, and 2 works by American multimedia composer-performer Mikel Rouse—Music for Minorities and, as seen at several Australian festivals, but not Sydney’s, Failing Kansas.

Dance comes in the shape of Norway’s Jo Stromgren Kompani in The Hospital about 3 nurses in “sadomasochistic cycle of pain infliction and relief” and, from the Netherlands, Emio Greco/PC’s award-winning Double Points: One &Two focusing on synchronicity and discord in taut dance duets. ADT’s Garry Stewart will join Nigel Jamieson for Honour Bound, the premiere of a work bringing together dance, film, theatre and aerial performance to confront the injustice of the USA incarcerations in Guantanamo Bay.

Philip Rolfe is firmly opposed to the idea that audiences will only take on ‘festival shows’ during an arts festival and not year-round: Adventures in the Dark offers audiences an inviting challenge to expand their vision of the performing arts.

* * *

For many a year in the 90s the prospect for a contemporary performance touring network seemed seriously remote, Playing Australia looked limited and the short-lived Made to Move was, tragically, disastrous for dance. While grant levels remain low, the opportunity to disperse, find new niches and new fuel has grown, linking art habitats, promoting mutualism, and providing new species of hybrid performance and installation places in which to grow, maybe even prosper. Mobile States, and those on the Theatre Board who initiated it, and the vision of the likes of Sarah Miller, Fiona Winning and Wendy Blacklock, and those who joined the consortium, have shown that contemporary performance in all its mutating guises can find and generate audiences—surely they’re ready for it.

Performing Lines, www.performinglines.org.au; Sydney Opera House, Adventures in the Dark, sydneyoperahouse.com; Arts House: Art in a Dry Climate, Jan-June 2006, www.artshouse.com.au

Mobile States, Tanja Liedtke, Twelfth Floor, Adelaide Festival Centre May 10-13; PICA, Pert, May 17-20; Performance Space, Sydney, May 24-27; Arts House, Melbourne, May 31-June 3; Theatre Royal (with Salamanca Arts Centre), Hobart, June 8-10

RealTime issue #72 April-May 2006 pg. 38

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2006