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Performance Space: some defining moments

Julie-Anne Long


#1 The Floor
A significant defining moment for dance, especially at Performance Space, occurred when the present floor was laid. The floor is a dancer’s best friend—the spring, the grain, the feel, the blisters, the burns, the slide. It’s a very intimate relationship that the dancer has with the floor.

Russell Dumas and Dance Exchange accomplices spent many gruelling hours preparing the floor in the theatre—cleaning, sanding, coating, polishing. That was a labour of love and a defining moment for dance at Performance Space. There have been a few accidents on the floor over the years but, unlike the patchwork walls of the theatre space with the nails and hooks and holes and gaps, the floor is sacred. Cursed be anyone who damages the Performance Space floor!

When Performance Space moves to The Carriageworks, this floor will be sorely missed, its glowing reflections hard to match—there’d better be a good replacement floor or it may be the demise of dance as we know it.

#2 The Dressing Rooms
For anyone who has not experienced the glamour behind-the-scenes at Performance Space it’s hard to know where to begin. All you need to know is that there are no toilets backstage. If you remember to race to the toilet before the audience comes in, you’re fine. But if you’ve made a fatal miscalculation, the audience is seated and you don’t fancy filling any of the emergency vessels at hand in the dressing room, you realise that you have to perform those ‘amazing feats of virtuosity’ that dancers are known for—with a full bladder. On a number of occasions the discomfort of the full bladder has defined dance at Performance Space.

#3 The Foyer
Dance in Sydney is made up of overlapping, intersecting communities. The place where the collaborative processes of dance have the potential to meet and share information and experiences, to bump into each other, is Performance Space.

I’m described on the program as an “independent artist” and I was wondering when we started using the word “independent” and what it actually means. We are all dependent on each other, on other artists and on the collaborative process. I freely admit that I want to be influenced by others as a circuitous route to making my own decisions. This hardly seems independent. Many of us here are especially dependent on Performance Space for function and validity. We are dependent on audiences we know, and audiences we haven’t met yet. I like the intimacy of dance, the family created by the working process, the sociability of the post-show drink. And I propose that we are dependent on the post-show drink in the Performance Space foyer for the health of our practice.


#1 The full-time Ensemble: Now Extinct
The full-time dance company with an ongoing core of performers is a way of making dance and movement that “works.” It was last seen in the vicinity of Performance Space in the early 1990s. In 1985 One Extra was a dance company with a permanent space and a full-time core of 4 performers. The company had the opportunity to employ guest artists to supplement its core cast, according to the specifics of each work.

In 1985 Rhys Martin, an early One Extra member, returned from Germany to create Dinosaur with the company in Sydney. Dinosaur was an intensely chaotic work matched by an equally intense process. The core members of One Extra for this work were Scott Blick, Roz Hervey, Garry Lester, myself and John Baylis who was also the One Extra manager at the time. We were joined by Clare Grant and Chris Ryan. Significant relationships were forged and developed during Dinosaur—Chris, Clare, John and Roz were in the original line up of The Sydney Front’s first major theatre work, Waltz, which premiered at Performance Space in early 1987. But that’s another story.

In this context I’m not interested in describing the work itself but the conditions defining this moment which centred on an ensemble of performers who had the opportunity to develop a physical practice base because they worked with each other every day. They knew each other VERY WELL—a structure which no longer exists in the small dance company strata in Sydney.

The other significant defining factor was the work’s overt influence from somewhere else. Dinosaur was clearly identified as being from “another side of the world.” At this time (mid-80s) Australian dance artists were returning from Germany, Japan, France and America with new ways of moving, and gradually over the next few years dance at the Performance Space was frequently defined by the fresh interpretations of home from these travellers.

When Tess de Quincey appeared with her haircut, strident in satin striped gown and boots, we suspected that we were in Lake Mungo, a departure from the strong pull of Japan in her earlier works. For me this work is/was a defining moment in dance at Performance Space.

Other full-time dance companies of this period who performed regularly at Performance Space included Entr’acte, Darc Swan, Kinetic Energy and Dance Exchange. Sadly, none of these survives with an ongoing group of dancers. Some of them no longer exist.

Many of us in Sydney miss the work of Russell Dumas and his special attention to bodies and light, cultivated with care over the years, at different times, with lighting designers Margie Medlin, Karen Norris and Neil Simpson. The tender partnership between Jo McKendry and Nic Sable in Dance Exchange could only have been achieved by working day in and day out alongside each other, over an extended period of time. For me, the work of Dance Exchange rarely fell short of defining moments.

#2 The Independent Artist: regularly sighted but often spotted struggling
At the Brisbane Expo in 1988. Sue-ellen Kohler was part of The Sydney Front in the street parade. Sue-ellen was a beautiful butterfly with floating lycra wings on the top of one metre high stilts. In a single moment the beautiful butterfly was caught under foot and became tangled with the ugly moth. She was pulled off and pushed back...Splat! One week in hospital, crushed T12 vertebrae, half the size at the front. That accident, on the job, in Brisbane was a defining moment for dance at Performance Space.

Sue-ellen had done a little bit of yoga practice before her accident but it was yoga that she used to reconnect with her body and get herself back onto her feet. She began to make her own performance work. It came out of her injured body experience. Her rules for making the work were defined by the body with which she found herself. An uncomfortable body, a fragmented body, a desirable body, an admirable body.

In May 1992 Sue-ellen Kohler and Sandra Perrin presented BUG Body Under Ground. It was a strange and beautiful science fiction, intensely theatrical and very sexy. They were like creatures from an underground dis/organisation. I yearn to see dance work this monstrous, this illegitimate. This was a significant defining moment in dance at Performance Space, in Australia I would say.

Many, many, many defining moments in dance at Performance Space have occurred in many, many, many bodies. Bodies walking, running and in stillness—my favourite! We have seen the body as an intelligence accumulating the information of space over time. I personally am attracted to the small moments of definition in my rememberings, rather than the grand epic sweeping gestures of dance in history books.

Now is not the time for detail but I would like to list some of my favourite defining moments in dance at Performance Space according to the body. I’ll put my self on the line and apologise profusely for omissions which I’m sure I’ll think of tomorrow.

The silhouette of the archetypal mythical feminine creature which was Nikki Heywood’s locker room mutation is etched forever on my retina from Creatures Ourselves. Oh, the agony of the Burn Sonata family. Ben Grieve and Claire Hague screaming in their shells. Anna Sabiel defying gravity in Tensile, her body balancing under and inside her structural scaffolding exoskeleton. We didn’t see enough of this. The Sydney debut at the Performance Space of Chunky Move at the end of 1995 amidst a flurry of media activity. The exciting quality of movement, comic representations. It seemed a shame to lose them to Melbourne. Garry Stewart’s extremes of the body as spectacle—a kind of dance sport—now reaping the benefits of a permanent home and ensemble of dancers in Adelaide. Dance Camp left a trace at the Performance Space with their Stepford Wives and inspired a generation of dancers when they delivered the Bandstand footage of a go-go dancing Graeme Watson. Kate Champion at the wall in Face Value. Katia Molino’s repeated falling in Entr’acte’s Possessed/Dispossessed. I aspired to falling like Katia. Lucy Guerin and Ros Warby in Robbery Waitress on Bail up to no good in those uniforms. George Khut and Wendy McPhee installed—haunting the gallery in Nightshift. Andrew Morrish, Tony Osborne, Peter Trotman—real men (not boys) being spontaneous. Shelly Lasica’s elegant behaviour. Trevor Patrick in costume and again in another and then the orange wall (Cinnabar Field). Alan Schacher across, around, up and down the building. Rosalind Crisp as Lucy. If you saw her you’ll remember the arc of an arm, the reach of her leg. The riotous NAISDA (National Aboriginal & Islander Dance Academy) end of year productions. Open City and their interest in engaging with the dancing body: Virginia will dance yet—wait and see. Legs on the Wall playing and fighting without a safety net in All of Me. The motor mouth of Brian Carbee. The political power of US Antistatic guest Jennifer Monson re-imagining what bodies can do and what they should look like. Helen Herbertson and Ben Cobham’s strange dark world (Morphia Series). An erotic equestrian scenario from Lee Wilson and Mirabelle Wouters (Sentimental Reason).

What about... (SHAKE HEAD FROM SIDE TO SIDE THEN CHANGE TO HANDS) Martin del Amo’s head and (ROLL HEAD SLOWLY BACK AND UP) ...and the experience of being inside Gravity Feed’s Monstrous Body.

Why didn’t we see more of that? Did we have to have so much of that? Well, who am I to say. It’s just what I like. It’s hardly dance sport, there’s no points system and there are only the rules you make to suit yourself.

#3 Short Works—Missing in Action
Bring back Open Week—the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, where the theatre was provided free of charge to a range of performers (usually over 100 during the course of the season) from a multiplicity of backgrounds, having a chance to strut their stuff and swap ideas with other artists and their audiences.

Bring back The Dance Collections originally produced by Chrissie Koltai and Jenny Andrews and Dance Base. Copping a bit of flack, these non-curated events were always a hit and miss affair. But they did give dance artists the platform to make the short work—I love a short work. You’ve got to be making it, working at that craft somehow, anyhow, to develop. I say bring them all back, the more the merrier. We’ve got to stop thinking we have to “produce” work all the time, we need places to show it along the way and move on. We’ve got to stop only showing what is considered a finished work when it really isn’t, claim opportunities for unfinished ideas, incomplete, totally baffling moments of dance at Performance Space.

The three Steps programs presented by Theatre is Moving and the Performance Space were curated by Leisa Shelton who was very clear about what she was doing and starting, dealing with dancers/performers in a transitional phase from working in a professional dance company (not many of them around any more) and moving towards working independently. It was an establishing stage rather than a wholly initiating one and the fact that it was curated was important.

Performance Space produced many event spaces and the much missed cLUB bENT where Dean Walsh won the prize for quantity and quality every year. Dean was the master of the short work. (I say ‘was’ because he’s currently working on a full-length work, although I’m sure he’ll come back to his roots.) Dean’s naked headstand splits got a humungus round of applause at cLUB bENT but created a disgusted stir when performed outside Performance Space. The question must be asked; to go out more or to stay at home?

The Performance Space’s biennial dance research workshop and performance festival Antistatic was originally curated by Sydney based practitioners Sue-ellen Kohler, Matthew Bergan, Eleanor Brickhill, Rosalind Crisp and Angharad Wynne-Jones. It has always encouraged an intense scrutiny and investigation into the body as an intelligence. Forums, documentation and discourse are a central part of its reason for being. Dance is getting better at engaging in these ways, so let’s keep talking.

On that note I refuse to conclude because the best is yet to come, and time has run out.

Performance Space Symposium: Politics & Culture, Museum of Sydney, Nov 6

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 11-

© Julie-Anne Long; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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