Stepping it Out

Julia Postle surveys Brisbane’s emerging alternative dance scene

In terms of an alternative dance form, which embodies a challenge to, an extension of, or a reaction towards traditional dance forms, Queensland artists are investigating multiple possibilities. What seems so significant for contemporary experimental dance in all its manifestations is the potential that this elusive form holds for creating new meanings and understandings of dance. The obvious dilemma in considering the contributions of Queensland choreographers within this context is who to include. It follows that this examination is necessarily a selective one. However, I wish only to share my perception of certain individuals whose work is fundamentally exploratory. Although the heterogeneity of new choreography is hardly a localised phenomenon, these artists are essentially re-investigating and celebrating possibilities within dance, and their choreography represents the profusion of new work in Queensland.

Helen Leeson, an independent Brisbane artist, has created work that manifests a collision of post-Cunningham strategies and contemporary experiment. Her Making Zero, performed as part of Brisbane’s Shock of the New festival in 1994, foregrounded the audience by presenting multiple sites for attention and thus demanding a selective viewing process. Four individuals perform separate renderings of movement in an exploration of the levels and parameters of the space and of the other performers. There are rare moments of uniform movement and weight sharing which blend into and out of individual performance. Making Zero is, however, only one representation of a practice that essentially resists categorisation. Leeson’s choreography is eclectic, sometimes utilising contemporary dance technique, sometimes site-specific, sometimes a juxtaposition of numerous elements. Leeson also performs in her own work and that of others. She met with Chaos theory as a dancer for Jean Tally’s A Strange Attraction (1992).

Tally is a choreographer and lecturer in contemporary dance, composition and alignment at Queensland University of Technology. My earliest memories of Jean Tally recall her abandoned laughter, her composed and yet effervescent manner and most significantly, her acute awareness of the moving body. Those first impressions remain valid today. Most recently, Tally has engaged in a creative dialogue with composer Andy Arthurs and designer Tolis Papazoglou. The abiding collaboration has been sustained through two completed projects, A Strange Attraction (1992) and Ritual (1995).

As the title suggests, Ritual is an investigation of the ceremonies that pattern our lives. The piece begins as the audience enters and moves around the circumference of the performance space. Papazoglou’s design is suspended from the ceiling to create a circular screen within the performance space, at times separating the audience from the performers, and at others containing the audience. Ritual is a physical and conceptual journey for its witnesses and the centrality of this aspect of performance communicates Tally’s awareness of the relationship between audience and performer. “I’m interested in ways of seeing, ways of participation,” she explains. Tally is presently acting as collaborator/director for Cyber City Cabaret, a production premiering at the Brisbane Biennial on 31 May. The work is another interactive experience for the audience, but in contrast to Ritual, Cyber City gives its audience even more freedom to choose their own pathways of meaning throughout the performance.

This acknowledgement of the autonomy of the audience is shared by the hybrid art collective, Montage. As part of the Fringe, the six artists who constitute Montage have devised Dormant, a work that communicates five different stories through movement, design and voice. The artists represent a variety of forms (hence the name Montage), and what I find particularly valuable about Dormant is its acceptance of the individuality of the moving body. Of course, this is nothing new. The non-dancer in performance was embraced as far back as America’s Judson Dance Theater in 1962, with artists searching for alternatives to the categorisation of the body in the traditional dance forms of ballet and modern dance. Today, many contemporary choreographers have since returned to technique, manipulating and interrogating it. However for the artists of Montage, individuality is central, as the performers travel divergent paths. This is what makes Dormant such a valuable experience; the audience witnesses a trained dancer performing alongside a vocal artist, and recognises the unique physical moments specific to each individual.

Coinciding with the Fringe is Tripping on the Left Foot of Belief, a program of three works by independent choreographers Clare Dyson, Brian Lucas and Lisa O’Neill. In meeting with Dyson I asked her about her contribution titled Water to a Morning Mouth—a collaboration with performers Avril Huddy and Alison St Ledger. Dyson courageously admitted that she was driven to create Water… as an experiment; that is, “something that can fail.” Dyson’s intrepidity is a conspicuous quality. She considers living in Brisbane part of an effort to somehow distance herself from the traditional expectations placed upon a choreographer in her position. “I try and stay as far away from everything that I’m supposed to do, or what I’m supposed to be.” For Dyson this isn’t so much a reaction against convention as an endeavour to be true to herself and her work. She has a sensitivity to gesture that is really quite remarkable. Water… is dotted with countless memorable images—a frantic rubbing of necks, Avril Huddy lifting her dress, then violently rocking in a chair—and infused with the resonance of St Ledger’s voice.

While the connections between movement and song seem almost tangible in Water to a Morning Mouth, the relationship between text, voice and dance in Maggie Sietsma’s work is more indeterminate. In the choreography of Sietsma, artistic director of Expressions Dance Company, the audience is compelled to create its own connections between the various facets of performance, and in this way she acknowledges the plurality and contingency of creating meaning. As Expressions celebrates its tenth anniversary, Maggie Sietsma and Natalie Weir have created two new works for the company. Alone Together, the director’s latest work, is characteristic Sietsma—an assorted characterisation of humour, melodrama, hopelessness and wretchedness—this instance being inspired by Edward Hopper’s paintings, particularly Night Windows (1928).

Weir worked from the same motivation in creating In-Sight, an integration of athletic and challenging choreography with ‘convention,’ and the imposition of conventional gender roles as one indication of this. Weir’s Burning (1994) was promoted as ‘new dance’ for Queensland Ballet’s contemporary season and the piece definitely manifests a challenge to traditional modes of performance for a ballet company. Needless to say, the choreographer’s utilisation of spectacle, illusion, virtuosity, technique and expressive movement wasn’t exactly ‘new dance’, but rather a re-orchestration of these elements within a familiar contemporary dance form.

RealTime issue #7 June-July 1995 pg. 23

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

1 June 1995