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Experimental art fills in the blanks

Keith Gallasch: Dancenorth, If_Was_ on tour


If_Was_, Dancenorth If_Was_, Dancenorth
photo Amber Haines

“If watermelon was chicken,” Kyle Page, Artistic Director of Townsville-based Dancenorth asks, “then…?” If _ Was _, the company’s new work, is more than a title, it’s a provocation for two prominent choreographers, Stephanie Lake and Ross McCormack, to create discrete works from shared materials, making dance that springs, says Page, from “mental simulations,” from the ways each sees the world.

“If I say ‘vegetarian lasagne’ you have an image and so do I,” Page explains. “They might be very different images or quite similar, but they’re unique to each of us. That image is based on your history and all your past experiences of vegetarian lasagne.” But If_Was_ asks the choreographer to take an image or a concept and implicitly address what happens if it becomes something else, say, “if blood was green” or “if war was harmless.”

Mental Simulation Theory is about how we build mental constructs and ‘read the minds of others’ in order to, in turn, construct ourselves, working by analogy and metaphor (to understand how pervasive this is, read James Geary’s wonderful I Is an Other, Harper Perennial, 2011). Part of the pleasure of If_Was_ will be seeing what images and meanings are conjured within the same parameters by two very different minds. Mental simulation is very much about creativity, as much for scientists as for artists in that both frequently work from images rather than concepts or formulae.

If Form Was Shifted, Ross McCormack for Dancenorth If Form Was Shifted, Ross McCormack for Dancenorth
photo Amber Haines

Page tells me about the parameters he’s set for the choreographers: “You’ve each got one hour of music. Choose half an hour of it, chop it however you want. There’s one costume designer with one design pattern to work with, two fabrics to choose from and one bonus fabric to throw in the mix. You can shorten an arm or a leg and work around the edges of the framework. You have the same amount of time, the same dancers to work with and a lighting designer who’ll create one grid to light both works.”

A press release just to hand from Dancenorth reveals some of the thinking of the choreographers. Stephanie Lake has responded to the logic of change inherent in the proposition “if _ was _” by creating “a surreal hive of buzzing life….From marching automatons to wild hybrid creatures, the dancers are continually transmuting and being affected by their rapidly changing conditions. It's about survival, symbiosis and rebirth.” McCormack’s focus is on “thought process structured through group manipulation…I see the body as a device grappling with its complexities and place, how it rather unnaturally manipulates itself is somehow spectacular yet also pathetic.”

For this impressionistic experiment in mental simulation, each choreographer’s proposition will be found in the program handed to the audience who will then bring their experiences, concepts and imaginings to bear on the works. “It’s quite a beautiful thing to celebrate different responses to shared experiences,” says Page.

Read an interview with Kyle Page about Dancenorth’s remarkable program and the fascinating vision that underpins it.

If_Was_, Dancenorth If_Was_, Dancenorth
photo Amber Haines


Dancenorth, If _ Was _, Dancenorth, Townsville, 9-11 June; Mackay Entertainment Centre, 15 June; Proserpine Entertainment Centre, 16 June; Judith Wright Centre, Brisbane, 23-25 June; The Substation, Melbourne, 29 June–2 July

RealTime issue #133 June-July 2016 pg.

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

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