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One of the many things that keeps me coming back for more in dance is the unique ways it evokes a sense of place: how movement stories create connections with viewers in distinct moments in time and space; how I recall a piece in my mind and reconnect with that moment. It’s something I’ve felt more conspicuously since I moved to Canberra from Brisbane. The history of place has shifted. No doubt the experience will help to expand my connection with dance and place, but for now I can enjoy the newness; the sharpening of perception it provokes.

Canberra’s Festival of Contemporary Arts has just had its third incarnation. Between October 9 and 19 there was a lot going on at the Gorman House Arts Centre and other arts venues around town. In trying to piece together my thoughts on the works I saw during this time, I found myself focusing on how the different artists dealt with the idea of the contemporary, as well as how past and place impacted upon the idea.

Spontaneous Combustion. As the title of a collection of works, the association is to explosive, impulsive and improvised material. Maybe this wasn’t realised, but Spontaneous Combustion proved to be a fun introduction to the work of Canberra’s independent artists. Vivienne Rogis’ Ya Ya was threaded throughout the program, developing in three mad episodes over the course of the evening: Ya Ya, Ya Ya The 1st Corner, and Ya Ya The Last Lap. Six ‘drivers’ struggle for position in a race; hands clenched on imaginary steering wheels, eyes focused, chewing gum, feet shuffling in a frenzy that mimicked the accompanying music by Cake. The climax is perfect chaos.

Like Ya Ya, A Perfect Day used music as an important part of the story. Choreographer Janine Ayres examines what makes a perfect day and what follows a perfect day, using Lou Reed’s song to set the scene. It’s a playful, investigative work, with more than a touch of melodrama. A video showing the performers strolling the streets of Canberra in their pyjamas, doing weird and wonderful things, like goofily sliding down escalators, gives the piece another layer of performance—although the connection between the video and the real bodies in the space could possibly have been explored more fully.

Also ‘spontaneously combusting’ was Tiger by Beren Molony. With the music of April Stevens’ fabulously wicked Teach me Tiger filling the theatre, two performers have a ludicrous seduction battle over an imaginary love interest. The war is fought using props like a loaf of bread, egg beater and broom in mysteriously sexy ways. The leopard skin outfit and fantastic wigs make this a fun work that says a lot more than my short and sweet response may suggest.

Canberra Dance Theatre presented Visions 7…1997, a collection of works by choreographers Sandra Inman and Stephanie Burridge. Abstract movement images, bold spectacle, virtuosic dance and comic moments were strong features of this mixed program. Burridge in particular seems to have a canny ability to incorporate absurdities into her choreography, turning the focus of the dance on its head in curious ways. This was most evident in joop/.sb. and still life, the latter with Patrick Harding Irmer and Anca Frankenhaeuser taking on some freakily funny roles. Burridge’s dysfunction, performed by Amalia Hordern, explodes at a frantic pace to the music of Bang on a Can, with lots of agitated movement: arms flailing, darting about the space, stumbling. Set against slow, restless movement, the pace is constantly unresolved. It’s a short piece that punches. Inman’s weavers reworks more traditional and familiar modern dance with a distinctly dynamic quality: jerky jumps, leg swings, precise footwork and signature steps of contemporary dance technique.

In Speaking of Winged Feet by Canberra Choreographic Centre residency recipient Niki Shepherd, Kuchipudi Indian Dance Theatre is interwoven with percussive rhythms and intimate song. This is a collection of works by Shepherd, with each verse in her poetic movement story revealing new explorations. Shepherd spoke after the performance about her attraction to the Greek god Hermes, “messenger of the gods, guardian of music and bringer of dreams”. This influence was palpable, with Shepherd’s winged feet taking us to Hermes. Her connection with the Greek god is contagious for a few moments there. She stomps around the space, and yet there’s a sense of weightlessness to her movement, with a strong use of the lower body balanced by a subtle fluttering of fingertips. The dance has many forms—at times joyful and others more introspective. But throughout, her connection with the audience is held and fostered, drawing me in with each new development.

Tuula Roppola’s movement story Aino is a mesmerising interpretation of The Drowned Maid, canto 4 of the epic poem The Kalevala. What strikes me most about Aino is the way Roppola moves through poses and expressions so fluidly, making me cringe with discomfort in reaction to some of the awkward physical tensions she creates. The detail in Aino pinches the nerves: a wrist bent back, head twisted away from the rest of the body, eyes either downcast or wide open and to the side, mouth open but saying nothing. Combined, these subtle, uncomfortable touches give rise to something more momentous. Like the clues in a well-constructed crime novel, in reading these details we see so much more and begin to bristle with the slow and steady unravelling of the melancholy tale.

And finally then, I feel I can begin to establish my own sense of place through these performances, varied as they are. Strangely enough it is these last two solo performance works, which each sought to recast and explore the movement potential of ancient myth in entirely different ways, that proved to be the more contemporary on the program. It’s something I’ve been mulling over for awhile now; maybe it’s my constant need to experience innovations, new histories, and the fact that ‘contemporary’ is such a fundamentally shifty term.


Festival of the Contemporary Arts, Canberra, October 9–19

RealTime issue #22 Dec-Jan 1997 pg. 34

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

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