Australian Dance Theatre’s Ignition 2016 season, History, brings us five choreographers who serve to remind us why the arts are important.
Nearly every state in Australia has a significant dance company. In South Australia we are lucky to be home to what is perhaps the most dynamic contemporary dance company in the country, and certainly the most adventurous.
In a state that is quickly cementing its reputation – among businesses anyway – of being The Guinea Pig State, a place where finding success amongst Adelaideans means you are more likely to find success elsewhere, it is perhaps fitting that “our” dance company is one that isn’t afraid to do some wild and crazy things, from topics to technology. Adelaide’s flagship dance company is diverse, powerful, and intellectual in a way that the others are not.
Australian Dance Theatre has always been this way. It’s perhaps why Ignition feels natural for the company.
In 2016, Australian Dance Theatre re-lit Ignition. From 2000 until 2010, Ignition was an annual, in-house season of new (and short) dance works that were created by Australian Dance Theatre, and that invited local choreographers to participate.
This year, Artistic Director Gary Stewart brought Ignition back to us, and with it the theme of History. As Stewart rightly points out, having a theme is ‘a handy curatorial device’ used to ‘elicit a variety of artistic responses around a primary discussion point’.
For those of us who like to write about our experiences, it is not just a good way to organise a show. It gives us a greater intensity of experience, and it forms discourse around it later. Thumbs up, Gary.
The choreographers whose works were in the 2016 Ignition season included ADT dancers Matte Roffe and Thomas Fonua; former ADT dancers Katrina Lazaroff and Lina Limosani; and independent local choreographer and dancer Erin Fowler.
For those of you who know your Australian dance, you’ll recall that Lina Limosani was the recipient of the 2015 Peggy van Praagh Choreographic Fellowship. One’s Wicked Ways, the major work presented this season, was one of the works towards which Limosani directed her fellowship, a period of study in which she intended (and achieved, as we will see later on) to hone her approach to constructive narrative and characters, and to improve her work with voice.
Matte Roffe, current dancer with Australian Dance Theatre, was described by a friend at the show as being a dancer whose work has a velvety quality, and that this makes him beautiful to watch on stage. It’s true: Matte has an unmistakable presence, and a style about him that is beautiful in the same way as velvet.
And it turns out that his choreography has the same character.
Roffe’s piece Woolf! takes its inspiration directly from the 1966 film, Who’s afraid of Virginia Woof? It is a short, powerful, and mature work that explores the emotion and difficulty of rough relationships, difficult psychologies, and politics (in the sense of politics as power play).
A beautiful and tortured depiction of the American horror story (the nod to this series in the music wasn’t lost on this critic!) — a bitter, ageing relationship in which its players tighten the screws on each other in a tortuous play of life — Roffe’s work was not just theatrical. The physicality supporting its narrative was controlled well enough that it didn’t fall into the realm of over-baked vaudeville. In the hands of someone else the work may perhaps have not been so lucky. Roffe demonstrates that he can control the muchness of his choreography, and appears to understand that leaving more out can deepen the experience.
In Woolf! Zoe Dunwoodie, a dancer for whom depictions of character are effortless, brought Martha’s violence, conflict and sexuality to life with such fervour that it shone in her eyes.
It’s an outstanding work. And Dunwoodie’s was an outstanding performance.
The second piece of the evening was Katrina Lazaroff’s Caught in Past Tense. If you’ve read my past critique of Lazaroff’s work, you might assume that I might dislike her as an artist. Such an assumption would be unfair to both of us (though, more unfair to me as a critic… just saying). Having seen Caught in Past Tense, I rather love the feeling that perhaps I just haven’t been on her wavelength, or that I haven’t seen enough of her work to feel her perspective properly.
Stated as being an investigation into the idea of ‘every step, every movement and every word’ being ‘caught in the past’, Caught in Past Tense captured snapshots from the individual histories of the artistic team. This device, of bringing to the fore the individual histories of the artistic team, is not new to Lazaroff’s work. She used it for the piece commissioned for Move Through Life’s 2015 Illuminate season, though in this particular work it has been handled with a greater sense of Less, and a more mature placing such that it isn’t overdone. The result is that Caught in Past Tense is a visualisation of the cyclic nature of repeated attempts at disclosure of the past. Or, perhaps more than this: It looks at our attempts to validate our past behaviours by talking about them, to ourselves and others. And in doing so, we get stuck in a pattern that isn’t always helpful to us.
For anyone who has been in a failing relationship, your soul will identify with Caught in Past Tense immediately. The wry smile of the work is that this could be the flavour that the artists brought to the work. It could be that this is the nature of the histories, the snippets that we hear, that we see, that we construct. Such a construction is demonstrated as choking us. That holding onto things that happen in the past, and trying to explore them and justify them, keeps you in a cycle of repeated nothingness that, by virtue of its repetition, becomes more and more emotionally intense. And, ultimately, destructive.
The broken, gasping, hesitating, halting physicality of the work adds more than a gesture of this destruction to this in Lazaroff’s piece. Without it, the entire piece would be flawed, unworkable, and downright navel-gazing.
To watch Caught in Past Tense is to feel like someone has taken the deepest, most sensitive parts of someone’s soul and put it on stage to see what it turns into. And it has been done with considerable gentleness, handled with a beauty that makes it feel like the exploration of this soul is justified.
It takes courage to create a work like this. The courage isn’t just of the choreographer, because to some extent the story is inside the artist who creates it; but also within the performers and the remainder of the team who collaborated to bring this piece to life. For a compassionate heart, Caught in Past Tense is an essential work that may cause you to surface things about yourself that you had forgotten were there. Lazaroff’s ability to get the work beyond navel gazing and into the philosophical realm we all natively understand demonstrates a maturity and intelligence that many choreographers don’t have.
It was at about this point in the show that I found myself admiring the execution of the works by Australian Dance Theatre’s dancers. To be honest, I wasn’t the only one doing this: They are extraordinary. It did occur to me at this point, though, that contemporary dance is risky because it is a language that you have to be familiar with in order to properly understand it.
As someone who came to contemporary dance late in life (like, in my 30s), it’s easy for me to appreciate the skill and talent in the execution. If I hadn’t been exposed to the physical and emotional engagement that contemporary dance brings to the dancer, many of the swift movements on the stage in front of me would have appeared to be fast, ‘made up’, thrown together, or otherwise unstructured.
It is one of the risks of such an art form that we trust that the audiences understand what it takes to execute something well; and we trust that those who don’t understand it yet are at least patient enough to give it a go and try to make sense of it later. It’s risky because it limits the audience to those who already understand. And yet the power of dance is that it can really push boundaries for those who have never seen it before.
This brings me to the third piece of the evening, which was was Erin Fowler’s Epoch. After the first two pieces, I had a happy expectation that things could only get even better. But it wasn’t to be the case. It’s a little like the critic being reminded not to keep piling happy eggs into one basket in case they end up broken.
I really wanted to like Fowler’s work. I caught the blurb about it in the program a little earlier, and it sounded interesting and intriguing. But as it unfolded, I found that I couldn’t care less. In fact, by under halfway through, I found myself wishing it was over now, and had started day dreaming about other things.
Once I realised this, I started to ask myself why. What was it about Epoch that didn’t engage me? What is it about the piece, specifically, that held no appeal for me? Why was I so dismissive?
It may have been the music, which didn’t have the dynamism of the previous works’ explorations. It may have been the relatively static lighting. It may have been the singular-yet-together nature of the piece.
It could have been all of these things. But it wasn’t. It was that the choreography itself felt like it wasn’t formed well enough yet for it to be performed cohesively, even by the most talented dancers in the country.
In Epoch, there was a lot going on. While I will admit that simplicity is something I tend to prize, ‘a lot going on’ in contemporary dance is not uncommon. There are often numbers of dancers executing sequences while others execute other sequences. But in Epoch the pairs never quite matched. The movements were never quite the same. The timing was always kind of off. And even Kimball Wong, a man who is more like an android that’s been poured onto the stage and forms himself into whatever he needs to be, and has in fact been awarded Australia’s Best Male Dancer, even Kimball Wong appeared to be watching his fellow dancers to hit the timing.
And perhaps the dancers didn’t really understand what tied the piece together either, so that they could work within it and bring it to life in the best way possible. It all just felt… empty.
It is entirely possible, given the calibre of the dancers, that the discomfiting off-ness of Epoch was intentional. It is quite possible that everything was slightly off on purpose, that the feeling of discomfort was intended, that the lack of engagement was the challenge we as audiene members were given. If this is the case, then hats off to you Erin for creating a piece that literally was the most challenging of the night.
But if it wasn’t intentional, then it’s an issue with both the choreography and the direction. As a work of dance it felt empty, painted on, hollow. And embedded as it was between two powerfully emotional works, its positioning probably didn’t help. Ouch.
The next piece in the 2016 Ignition season was The Village, by Thomas Fonua.
Being the avid ADT Fan that I am, the woman who live tweets pop-up performances, drools over their work, trails after them wherever they perform, and drags everybody else to their adult dance classes, this is not the first time that I had seen an excerpt from Fonua’s full-length work, Malaga. The first time I saw an excerpt was at an open night at the Australian Dance Theatre’s home digs, the Wonderland Ballroom in Mitcham, at an event where new works are aired for the very first time. At that time, I recall being flawed by the courage that Fonua has to create such a visceral, meaningful work that explores notions of slavery, fear, cultural destruction, and subjugation of a tribal culture.
And this excerpt of The Village in 2016’s Ignition season is, like its choreographer, strong, emotional, and powerful. Tom Fonua is Maori, and this work about colonisation is actually heartbreaking.
As I watched The Village, it occurred to me that Australians and New Zealanders are sisters because we are colonies. Our indigenous populations have been treated like garbage. Though, to be fair, Australia tends to do this worse than just about everyone else (Canadians included). Integration of Maori culture in New Zealand’s nationality is light years ahead of where Australia is in terms of celebrating Aboriginal culture. Compared to the Kiwis, Aussies have only just really realised that Aboriginals have legs and brains and look like people.
But I digress.
Fonua’s The Village has a Maori’s sensibility for movement, sound, rhythm, and strength. It’s dynamic, and it needs to be, and this is where it derives a lot of its emotional power. Sitting up in the stalls above the stage, comfortable and warm in our white privilege, he presents to us a spellbinding work that is heartbreakingly emotional. Every heart and every mind in the Adelaide College of the Arts theatre was stilled, silent, attentive.
Words can’t do justice to it, so I’m not going to try. Though I will say that the work is culturally important, and it deserves a wider stage in the AsiaPacific Region.
Thomas, please bring the full production of Malaga to Adelaide. Having seen two excerpts now, I’m dying to see the full length piece. I guess I’ll just sit and wait and hope.
At this point we were granted the grace of 20 minutes intermission. Given myself and friends had all gone and bought tickets individually, we found our way from all over the theatre and congregated in one place to discuss our personal findings so far.
The surprise at Roffe’s work was palpable; one mentioned that she absolutely loved it, and that she said this even as a person with little patience for theatre, preferring to see more dance and theatrical elements. Another discussed the power of Lazaroff’s work. And all of us agreed that Erin Fowler’s work was, well, meh. We each of us (for various reasons) wanted to like it, but it just wasn’t possible.
Not being the types to go and drown ourselves in wine, but are rather the women that talk about how exciting it is to climb into bed and get comfortable (does this belie our ages perhaps?), we didn’t go and hang out at the bar. Instead, we gathered in a little excited huddle and compared mental notes before being shuffled back into the tiny little theatre for the second half of the evening.
The major performance of the night was Lina Limosani’s One’s Wicked Ways. This piece emerges from Limosani’s 2015 Peggy van Praagh Choreographic Fellowship.
That Fellowship is designed to support choreographic development that advances the profession. Limosani, who received the Fellowship in 2015, is just the third recipient of this prestigious award. In receiving it, Limosani intended to use it to sharpen her ‘theatrical devising practices including her approach to constructing narrative and characters, and working with the voice’.
This is evident in One’s Wicked Ways, in spades. Here is what the choregrapher said about her approach:
‘By taking the things that interest me such as comedy, theatre, clowning and horror, and blending it with my physical history as a dancer and performer, I have been creating a fusion of genres to create visually charged work with a visceral movement language. I am using this ‘genre mashup’ to explore and develop new models of how to communicate with people and discover alternative ways of expressing myself in this world while exploring my questions about human nature and behaviour.’
One’s Wicked Ways brings us some pre-revolutionary bourgeoisie playing games of all kinds of wickedness, involving everything from dance and flirting to sex, to kicking babies around. It is a comedic exploration of the most debauched, and how fun debauchery really can be. Some of the games were classist (‘Now we’re poor people!’ / ‘Ha ha! Yes! Yes!’), foreshadowing that which was to come. Eventually, the fun is stopped by a revolutionary who challenges their power. The bourgeoisie move from fun-loving to dominating and power-filled. They confront, break, hang, and destroy the revolutionary. The broken revolutionary then, in turn, becomes the sum of the power used to squash him, a frightening beast borne of the experience of being broken, and he in turn destroys his destoyers.
With a narrative both French and English, it is a depiction of revolution and repression, of culture and nationalism, of debauchery and conservatism. Limosani’s work is politically topical, intensely Australian, and breath-taking.
I watched this performance the day after Bastille Day; in 2016 itself an ironic performance of power and state and breaking of the establishment. For all that we wish each other joyeaux quatorze Julliet, we forget that revolutionary activity is what in the twenty-first century has a shiny ‘terrorism’ brand. Therefore, how anybody construes the driving of a truck into a bunch of celebrating French people in Nice — as being a revolutionary or a terroristic act — depends on the lens they see through. But the irony of the event should not be lost on anybody.
Now watch as someone puts me on some kind of repression list for even suggesting that terrorism can be revolutionary. It’s a risk I’m willing to take, because it’s important. Storming the Bastille started the French revolution; but today it would be something only a terrorist would do.
Lest you consider that these kinds of ruminations have no place in a review essay, notice the power of the art here. Meaningful art is work that forces us to face truths about the world, and asks us to consider elements that we otherwise may not face.
In this sense, Limosani is a choreographer of significance. One’s Wicked Ways is a piece in which her exploration of how people behave, and how the impact of people on each other can change the outcomes of even the purest intent.
While the choreography and the direction were confident and striking, it was the performance by Australian Dance Theatre that made it so strong. Dunwoodie’s power for making dynamic and intense characters come to life on stage, and her natural sense of humour, brought a spark to the work that it would be sorely lacking without. Matte Roffe’s cavorting came a close second. And Felix Sampson’s furious English-French ranting, in his portrayal of the revolutionary-cum-repressor, and in his depiction of his brokenness, was emotional and disturbing.
The power of art to make us think about ourselves, our relationships, our lives, and our politics is why the arts are so important. It is a reflection of our various worlds, and a staging of what is going on around us. The shape of such artistic depictions throws new light on how we think about life, and it is for this very reason that we can’t afford to restrict or malign the arts. In dark times, it is critical to our evolution as a people, as a nation, that we pay attention to the things our artists are telling us.
In the 2016 Ignition season History, almost all of the choreographers show us what we’re ignoring in each of these areas. They are supported by a team of some of the most intellectually engaged dancers and artists in Australia.
I say ‘almost’ because of all the works in this season, Erin Fowler’s didn’t have this depth. However, the fact that she is working alongside choreographers and dancers who do means that her growth in this space is likely to be fast and insightful.
Many thanks to Australian Dance Theatre for your thought provoking works, and for the sheer beauty of the performances. Each of the company’s dancers brought their strengths to these works, and it is perhaps an indication of the standard of this company that each person within the company is a balance for the others.
And finally, a passing mention of the Australian Dance Theatre Youth Ensemble, who provided the curtain-raiser performance of the evening.
The Ensemble has grown significantly in its three years, and I’ve been privileged to see this first-hand. From catching the ends of their rehearsals, to watching their stunning performances, the talent nurtured by Australian Dance Theatre is striking. The opportunity these youngsters have, in working in a season of emerging choreographers — which in their case saw them working with a graduate of the Adelaide College of the Arts dance program — while embedded in this exploratory, deeply connected community, is (I hope) not lost on them.
While the Ensemble’s performance did have a few elements where the timing was very slightly off, it was forgivable in the sheer energy, joy, and power of each dancer’s performance. It’s more than enough to breathe joy into the hearts of every lover of dance, knowing that local talent rests in hands that can help them to achieve remarkable things.
This review is of the performance of the 2016 Ignition season, ‘History’, held on 15 July 2016 at the Adelaide College of the Arts theatre in Adelaide.
 A message from Gary Stewart, in the Ignition ‘History’ program.