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The Three Dancers, Dancenorth The Three Dancers, Dancenorth
photo Amber Haines

The Three Dancers represents a departure from Lee Serle's recent works. Since the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative 2010-11, when he was mentored by choreographer Trisha Brown in New York, Serle has turned to creating interactive sonic and choreographic installations (such as Multimodal, coming shortly to Melbourne’s The Substation). The Three Dancers, however, is pure, abstract dance performed to a recording of Elena Kats-Chernin's orchestral 2015 composition of the same name (premiered in the UK in 2015 by the Rambert dance company, choreography by Didy Veldman). The only interactive option Serle has given us this time is to “...let the audience find their own narratives within the dance” (program note).

Kats-Chernin's composition was in turn inspired by Picasso's painting The Three Dancers (1925). The arts-astute audience gathered at Dancenorth for this leg of the annual Australian Festival of Chamber Music (AFCM) Sunday Concert Crawl is presumably not short of reference points from which to derive meaning for this dance work.

The canvas is a black stage, with a series of black curtained wings. The simple lighting grid is utilised judiciously to alter the mood during the 25-minute piece. The five ensemble members, three of them on stage at the outset, are topless, dressed only in loose black trousers. Nothing detracts, yet everything suggests a passion play. The deliberate visual minimalism allows full focus on movement and music—and these elements amply bring colour, albeit darkened, like blood slowly drying.

Kats-Chernin's piece is rich with emotion, drama and mystery, lifting and dropping the audience with each aural rise and fall. It is spare and sinister one moment, all bass-y cello resonating in the gut; lush with accordions the next; then descending again into frenzy and discordance. I read with some surprise after the event that Serle has partly structured the choreography without reference to the music. The movement, without narrative, is difficult to describe, but it appears complicit with the score, elucidating parallel emotional tangents. It is in turn (and sometimes simultaneously) balletic, contemporary, athletic and gymnastic.

The Three Dancers exudes unrelenting energy, capitalising wonderfully on the strengths of the young ensemble. The motif of the trio is constantly shifting, re-integrating and separating again. I cannot help but read into it the story behind Picasso's painting, the melancholic inevitability of a tragic outcome to his friends' love triangle. It reeks of love, sex, jealousy and death. The dancers outside of the transitioning trio are perhaps implicated bystanders (like Picasso?) or external forces influencing or observing the disintegration.

Mason Kelly, The Three Dancers, Dancenorth Mason Kelly, The Three Dancers, Dancenorth
photo Amber Haines

Among graceful arcs and staccato contractions, a small gesture of fingers clenching and unclenching, eerily sidelit, suggests a fuse burning, and I see a momentary reference to the shadowed figure on the right in Picasso's painting. There’s a passage where the whole ensemble rushes forward and back repeatedly, all five in a row, then oppositionally as two and three. The movement appears compelled rather than co-operative, individuals chasing direction, not a deliberately shared experience. Yet it is beautiful and paradoxically cohesive, and sticks in my mind.

The Dancenorth ensemble is maturing apace under the canny directorship of Kyle Page. In the program the dancers are credited for their input in Serle’s choreography. Even with such a consistently bold troupe, each choreographer and performance this year seems to bring a particular dancer to the fore: Ashley McLellan in Rainbow Vomit, Jenni Large and Harrison Hall in the double bill If_Was_. In The Three Dancers, it's Mason Kelly's solo of graceful, controlled elasticity which provides the 'whoah' moment, revealing Serle's choreographic breadth, even outside his usual oeuvre.

At last year's AFCM closing concert, Kats-Chernin’s The Three Dancers was performed live by a septet in the presence of the composer. I feel wistful knowing that perhaps it could have been within the realm of possibility to repeat the live performance in tandem with the dance work this year. There is a precedent for live collaboration between Dancenorth and AFCM, with Iain Grandage creating the score for Gavin Webber's poignant Remember Me in 2008. Live music would have taken The Three Dancers from wonderful to sublime.

Dancenorth, The Three Dancers, choreographer Lee Serle, composer
Elena Kats-Chernin, performers Harrison Hall, Mason Kelly, Jenni Large, Ashley McLellan, Georgia Rudd, lighting design Bosco Shaw; Townsville School of Arts Theatre 31 July-2 Aug

Lee Serle’s Multimodal will guide randomly selected audience members through a series of physical, sonic, olfactory and choreographic experiences in Melbourne’s The Substation, 30 Aug-4 Sept.

RealTime issue #134 Aug-Sept 2016 pg.

© Bernadette Ashley; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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