Off to the Biennale de la Danse 2006 Lyon

Force Majeure’s Kate Champion talks to the editors of RealTime

Sarah Jayne Howard, Already Elsewhere

Sarah Jayne Howard, Already Elsewhere

Sarah Jayne Howard, Already Elsewhere

Kate Champion has created 2 major dance theatre works with her company, Force Majeure, Same, same But Different (2002) and Already Elsewhere (2005). The company has been invited to take Already Elsewhere to the prestigious Biennale de la Danse de Lyon in September, one of the largest dance festivals in the northern hemisphere, programming some 50 dance events over 3 weeks. The festival program includes works by Needcompany, Les Ballets C de la B, Kim Itoh, Compagnie Marie Chouinard, Pockemon Crew and many others from around the word. All the works focus in some way on the city and urban life and Already Elsewhere, with its images of suburban trauma, is no exception.

The invitation is a coup for Force Majeure and for Champion’s vision of creating innovative large scale works where her design collaborations with Geoff Cobham have been magical and her choice of performers from around Australia first class. The Managing Editors of RealTime are also guests of the festival and will report on their experience of it, and on the European response to Already Elsewhere, in the December edition of the magazine.

Kate Champion’s extensive career includes solo works, performance and rehearsal direction for London’s DV8, choreography for numerous Australian dance and theatre companies (including Company B’s Cloudstreet) and commercial choreography. Her work for Dirty Dancing is touring internationally, often taking Champion with it—and she’s rightly proud, she says, to have convinced the dancers to play to each other rather than just to the audience. Champion is also the winner of substantial peer recognition: Helpmann Awards for her solo show About Face and for Same, same But Different in 2002.

Already Elsewhere is in part inspired by the photography of American artist Gregory Crewdson. The scenario entails a series of images reminiscent of Crewdson’s ultra-realist, sometimes surreal cinematic vision of suburbia. Something appalling has happened, possibly an earthquake, perhaps worse, rendering inhabitants and neighbours dazed, bored, impatient, violent and damaged. With some of the eerie resonance of the alienated communities of Don Delillo’s novel, White Noise, or Werner Herzog’s film Heart of Glass, Champion’s Crewdson-inflected vision has a peculiarly Australian feel, of playfulness even in the face of disaster.

Was Same, same But Different a turning point for you?

Oh, huge. It’s what I initially wanted to do but I’d had trouble raising the resources to be able to direct group work. But it didn’t fulfil itself until a combination of things took shape—returning from DV8, receiving a creative development grant, Brett Sheehy of the Sydney Festival being interested and commissioning it. The aesthetics of my solo shows helped give me the confidence to do Same, same….

And forming a company, Force Majeure?

By naming it, the work can be perceived as if it’s a new thing. I actually worked with (sound designer) Paul Charlier, (designer) Geoff Cobham and my brother (performer Stephen Champion, then ex-Circus Oz) on a show called Suspense at the Seymour Centre in 1983. It was like a precursor to Legs on the Wall—a circus show with dance and words and an immersive environment. Same, same… and the company confirmed that work. I think it’s just something we always knew. It was just getting the opportunity to have a public forum for it to be real.

Why Force Majeure?

In the Macquarie Dictionary “irresistible compulsion” is the first definition. I really responded to that in terms of artistic compulsion, how it feels like something you almost don’t want to do but have no choice. It’s also defined as “acts beyond one’s control”, which is how I feel as a director sitting in the theatre watching the work, which I didn’t used to feel as a performer. And in legal documents, because of terrorism and other man-made acts, ‘force majeure’ has been added to ‘acts of God.’ And I found that related to my sense of being labelled—you know, is it dance, is it theatre? Whatever else we can’t explain we’ll stick into ‘force majeure.’ The negative side is people think it’s a wanky French name that means major force, which wasn’t my intention.

The company offers you continuity, for example working recurrently with Geoff Cobham and Roz Hervey.

They’re both associate directors and we’ve decided to take a difficult Australian geographical situation and see it as a strength. It’s quite expensive to fly and accommodate more than a third, often two-thirds, of the company in Sydney but my long-term relationships with the artists is at the core of Force Majeure. There are performers in New South Wales I’m interested in and may work with in the future but there’s a shorthand, a history with these artists that can’t be replaced. Jeff and Roz are in Adelaide, Veronica Neave in Brisbane, Byron Perry and Kirstie McCracken are in Melbourne. It’s quite a commitment to maintain it.

Back in 2001, you talked to RealTime about your solo works About Face and Face Value (RT42, p6-7). You were interested in just how many selves are in oneself. In fact you said that you didn’t know which self you would be that day.

I feel like that every time I go for an interview. And I think there’s something about being observed: the object being observed alters its behaviour.

This idea is most obvious in the solo works and certainly in Same, same, But Different it manifests itself in different ways. Already Elsewhere scarily evokes ephemerality.

That’s true. It’s a limbo piece. The idea of self was definitely less at the forefront this time. I was thinking more about the moment—that sense of an unexpected event altering one’s state of being. So, you may be many selves that you’re familiar with and how they fluctuate. But a rupture of that entity when you can never be the same again because of that event, when you yearn for what was before or can’t go forward to a new sense of self or selves—that can be excruciating, a timeless place.

It sounds like depression, but it’s a state that I think until you’ve experienced it, extremely and intensely, you can’t understand. You end up perhaps not recognising yourself or discovering new things about yourself. There are people who live through disasters and never adjust afterwards, not always because they’re traumatised but because they can’t let go of that moment.

Perhaps it was almost romantic or ethereal?

In About Face a woman was stuck in a room, unable to remember who she was. And for me, that’s similar to the limbo state of Already Elsewhere. Until someone or something can penetrate it, you’re stuck there. It can be apocalyptic—within your own body. And it can last a lifetime. I’ve seen people haunted by it. I have relatives who’ve lost an 18-month old child to SIDS, and my father died by accident. I don’t feel in that state any more but I can see in people’s eyes the sense of being haunted and stuck when they’re in that state. There’s a connection I think you make, for instance, if I met a stranger whose father had died in the same way, I would feel a phenomenal familiarity that I might not feel towards someone closer to me.

Theatrically it’s a difficult thing to deal with because it doesn’t necessarily have a dramatic arc and I really tried to resist that. I never wanted it to be narrative but it was interesting to sustain, to truly go into the state of being, to honestly stick to it to create an overriding, hovering mood.

There are a number of micro-narratives that may or may not have a middle or an end or a clear beginning.

The very subject matter was the inability to be released from that state. And not everyone is in the same state of inability.

You were inspired by the work of US photographer Gregory Crewdson. You saw these images and thought, that’s where I want to go?

You’re often looking for triggers for the work. I’m working on Peribanez [by the 17th century Spanish playwright Lope de Vega] for Company B at the moment. It’s so freeing when you work on a devised dance theatre work compared with a play structure. At the same time, I’m very interested in how you can bring that sense of narrative into a poetic work. It’s such a fine balance.

Starting with a story in a dance theatre work can make it terribly banal or almost sitcom-like. And I found Crewdson’s images really exploded this sense. I could sense an incredible story before and the potential aftermath just from that one image. The collaborators all had that same sensation when we looked at these photographs and were mutually inspired. We have often found photographs more useful for inspiration to begin work than something like a story.

The submerged house is such a strong image. It could be anything: post earthquake, post bombing.

There were burnt trees at the back, but we weren’t specific. The tsunami happened while we were rehearsing. The roof was like an archaeological time capsule with stories emerging from it episodically but as a continuum, without blackouts.

The set must have been quite an investment. It’s a substantial piece of work.

It’s a strong commitment we have. I have a real aversion to dance pieces where you see that the set is an afterthought or it’s had to be cleared away because more dance space is needed. Give me less dance space, I’m happier. We had to rehearse with the roof from the beginning, with height, dirt and water—you want to exploit every aspect of the set so the performers can live it.

The Lyon invitation is very exciting. What have been the challenges?

First of all waiting to see if everyone’s available. Thank God they can all do it. You can’t deny that getting an invitation from such a prestigious festival bolsters you, gives you more energy to push through the difficulties of presenting it. We’ve got 5 days to re-rehearse it and we haven’t done the work for 18 months. The text has to be translated, and the set has to go ahead of us so we have to rehearse on a mock set. We’ve added it up and the opportunity outweighs all the problems. All those presenters who could never make it to Australia, you can invite them. It’s like the ultimate showcase and the Australia Council understands that.

How familiar are you with European audiences?

I have toured a lot with DV8 both in 1992 and 1998-99; I’ve taken work on Lloyd Newson’s behalf to Russia and Scandinavia; and there are not many countries in Europe I haven’t performed in. I think, if you can generalise, the audiences are definitely more literate in non-narrative, atmospheric, poetic, non-linear, even foreign language work. They see more of it and understand it better. I’m really looking forward to seeing how we’re received. And I’m thrilled that we’re the first Australian company to be included in the festival!

Force Majeure, Already Elsewhere, Le Toboggan, Sept 13-15; Biennale de la Danse 2006 Lyon, Sept 9-30, www.biennale-de-lyon.org; www.forcemajeure.com.au

RealTime issue #74 Aug-Sept 2006 pg. 31

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

1 August 2006