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Champion & Whaites: dance theatres

Erin Brannigan

Kate Champion, About Face Kate Champion, About Face
photo Heidrun Löhr
Sydney audiences have recently seen substantial new programs by 2 experienced practitioners who have returned to Australia after working with the 2 companies most associated with the dance theatre genre: Michael Whaites (Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal) and Kate Champion (Lloyd Newson’s DV8 Physical Theatre).

Dance theatre is an interdisciplinary approach combining movement and dance with theatrical elements such as narrative or drama, characterisation and spoken text. This type of dance is distinguishable from other contemporary approaches such as deconstructed or abstracted ‘pure’ dance (Merce Cunningham, William Forsythe) or more research-based, less theatrically-oriented work (Deborah Hay, Lisa Nelson).

What rises to the top with dance theatre, and is common across the 2 divergent schools represented by Bausch and Newson, is an investment in the potential of gesture to both produce and subvert meaning. Combining dancerly skill with the gestures of everyday to create ambiguity, provide commentary or deconstruct social and cultural norms, is the most common methodology.

In Oysterland, directed by Whaites and performed by Kay Armstrong, Julie-Anne Long and Jan Pinkerton, a dramatic, gestural kind of movement is used to fill out a rambling meditation on the female experience. We’re introduced to these women via the sort of frenzied and loose solo that reveals people’s truest moves and makes an immediate impression. From here on in things are much more carefully articulated, deliberate and pointed. Pinkerton in full ski gear parades the stage, shaking her hands, which rattles the clasps on her ski gloves, chattering like a rat; Long slides along a wall and across the floor in sensual delirium (or is it merely exhaustion). Talk about flabby upper arms, weight problems, menstrual mythology and face creams slips around uneasily and is gone, but the quality of a familiar movement that’s been forced off kilter, like the simple swing of Long’s bob as her head drops pathetically sideways, fills me in and opens things up.

Reading the gestures of Champion’s character in About Face, we find ourselves in a vacuous urban life, drained of any meaningful relations, memories, clues. A treadmill walks her to nowhere, tentative steps check out her apartment and locate the furniture, desperate and repetitious gestures of frustration erupt at the kitchen table, yogic balances, wobbling tip-toes, a choreographed inventory of her physical self…Everything points in one direction and it’s off the map. While these gestures manipulate and transform everyday activities and actions, their messages are clear, creating a definite thematic of lost identity.

Another key element of dance theatre is the workshop process which draws on the experiences of cast members to construct a piece from the ground up, building it around the particularities of the performers’ bodies and lives. Whaites’ Achtung Honey was created with another Australian, Allison Brown, while they were both working in Germany and circles around the theme of displacement. In one section, movements from other works in other places bubble up accompanied by the names of European cities. A game of hide and seek in lederhosen, a melodramatic solo with telephone, and an intimate—perhaps cheekily Romantic—pas de deux all bristled with homecoming joie de vivre.

While the connection between the performers and the theme in Achtung Honey is clear, Champion, as with her previous solo work Face Value, has us speculating about the boundaries between art and life. The physical inventory described above is obviously an account of her body, yet this character is caught in a surreal no-man’s-land. I wonder what kind of exploration led Champion to this work. The thematic choices she makes find their voice in her body, and the 2 things become thoroughly entwined.

The proximity of the performers to the theatrical material, and that material’s close connection with the gestures and postures of everyday life, brings us to a third driving characteristic of dance theatre—an emphasis on social and cultural relevance. Both Oysterland and Face Value trace out intensely feminine spaces, suggesting that these artists have something to say about the contemporary female condition, but the dimensions and nature of the worlds depicted are very different.

There is an odd sense of order in Champion’s world despite the apparent chaos. Isolated, disorientated and stressed as she is, the neat and effective design elements, slick projections and seamless performance frame the characterisation with a sort of comforting control. How is this isolated woman going to operate beyond the parameters of her home and the security of her competent, exploratory movements? How does her state of mind project beyond this surreal domestic enclave? The general thrust of the work is more inward and singular than a general commentary.

In contrast, Oysterland seems at times to be opening up to infinity. Kay Armstrong explores the particularly feminine ploy of dressing-to-please. Jan Pinkerton often retreats into intimate activities at the back of the stage such as eating, bathing or reading. Julie Anne Long sometimes trudges around the stage and leans against its supports as if she is at home. And then there are trolleys and historical texts that open up yet more spaces where the feminine lurks.

Champion and Whaites, Long and Armstrong, as well as other Sydney artists including Brian Carbee (see page 35), Jenny-Newman-Preston, Lisa Ffrench and Dean Walsh, all explore the terrain of dance theatre which has room within its general form for the various approaches they represent.

Kate Champion is currently working with Michael Whaites on Stir, a 5-week 1st Stage Development produced by One Extra involving 3 choreographers (Whaites, Julie-Anne Long & Rosetta Cook), 9 dancers (including Champion, Kay Armstrong, Narelle Benjamin and Linda Ridgeway) and 7 dance students from CPA, QUT and WAAPA.

Achtung Honey, choreographer Michael Whaites, collaborator Allison Brown, performers Michael Whaites, Celia Brown; Oysterland, director/ choreographer Michael Whaites, performers Kay Armstrong, Julie-Anne Long, Jan Pinkerton, One Extra, The Seymour Centre, May 23 - June 2; About Face, deviser/ performer Kate Champion, composer Max Lyandvert, filmmaker Brigid Kitchin, The Studio, Sydney Opera House, June 15-16.

RealTime issue #44 Aug-Sept 2001 pg. 36

© Erin Brannigan; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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