March 2012

The Nation Reviewed

Rejecting the Centre

By Christine Kenneally
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Chunky Move’s Anouk van Dijk

On a cool January day at Melbourne’s Southbank, the line of dancers for Chunky Move’s morning class is twice as long as usual. A handful of disappointed latecomers is turned away but the rest file in to learn from the Dutch choreographer Anouk van Dijk. The day’s class is part of a two-week flying visit to Australia; when van Dijk returns in June, she will take over as Chunky Move’s artistic director.

At 45, van Dijk has scrappy short brown hair, a single silver earring that flashes when she spins and a strong, beautiful face like a profile on a Grecian urn. In more than two decades as a dancer and choreographer, she has been lead soloist for the Rotterdam Dance Group and founded her own company. She begins this morning by getting the dancers to flop their bodies around, slap their sides, and loudly exhale, “Ha!” The auditions for her first Australian show begin tomorrow, so I expect the atmosphere in the room to be tense, but there is an unusual mix of focus and good cheer. Later, as van Dijk has lines of dancers criss-crossing the floor and stepping their legs high, she encourages them to connect with one another. They make eye contact and chat, and soon the buzz becomes so loud and happy that it looks like a contemporary dance musical is about to break out.

Van Dijk will replace Gideon Obarzanek, who founded Chunky Move in Sydney 16 years ago. “We started in my bedroom in Bondi,” says Obarzanek. “When we got bigger, we moved to the living room.” In 1998, the fortunes of the company were completely altered when they won a tender from Victoria’s Kennett government and became the state’s official modern dance company. Since then they’ve become internationally known for daring experimentation, performing in abandoned shopping centres and nightclubs and using technology to change the look and feel of a performance dramatically. How does it feel to hand over the reins? “It’s time,” said Obarzanek. “Chunky Move will thrive with Anouk’s incredible energy. She is going to have a very interesting influence on the company and on Australia.”

You don’t have to talk to van Dijk for long to see that wherever her influence stretches, it’s going to have a lot of thought behind it. We spoke after the class about her philosophy of movement and a dance method she developed called the Countertechnique. It sounds like a cross between Zen Buddhism and Newton’s third law of motion: to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The idea is that whenever dancers move their bodies in one direction, they must also make a balancing countermove. Van Dijk explains that what might at first strike a non-dancer as a pretty uncomplicated idea has profound consequences for a dancer’s physical and mental health. The Countertechnique increases speed and gives dancers more choice, she says, while paradoxically encouraging to them to put in less effort. The proof of any method, of course, is in the performance, and van Dijk’s choreography has inspired some rapturous responses. Brett Sheehy, the newly appointed director of the Melbourne Theatre Company, first saw van Dijk’s work on a tour of the Netherlands when he was director of the Adelaide Festival. He found it so exciting that he booked her on the spot. “What she had the dancers’ bodies doing,” he said, “was something I had never seen before.”

Van Dijk developed the Countertechnique over many years but only after first stumbling into it. More than a decade ago, she began to notice that when she tried to teach a move she found easy, most other dancers just couldn’t do it. How so? “Well, they would fall over and I wouldn’t,” she told me. But it was one thing for her to make the move and another to understand it so she could teach it to others. “I’m not the most technically gifted dancer,” van Dijk says. “But I can analyse movement really well.” She spent a long time paying attention to her own body and breaking the moves down. What was the sequence of the breath? Which direction did the movements go in? “It was almost like a personal game.” She consulted with other dancers, and explored how parts of her approach made them feel. Eventually, she asked herself: Was this a whole package that made sense in terms of itself or a loose collection of techniques? After many years searching, she concluded it was a new system.

The Countertechnique system sits inside a pretty radical philosophical framework. Many other dance methods, and in fact a whole lot of western thought, rely on the notion that we all have a centre. Whether you call it the soul or the core or simply ‘you’, the idea is that actions and thoughts come from a single distinct place. But not for van Dijk. “I reject the whole idea of the centre!” she told me, sending her hands emphatically in opposite directions. When dancers use the Countertechnique, she says, their energy is balanced throughout their bodies. What results is not people dancing a dance, but rather people expressing themselves. “That’s what I want to put on stage,” she says. “People! Not the representation of an idea I had in mind.”

There are no ideas in sight when van Dijk herself dances. As I watch her demonstrate in the class, I can’t find the words to pinpoint what is going on. As she places an elegant leg in the air before her, stretches her torso back, and drops her head to glance at the ceiling, she is neither tense nor loose nor ethereal or heavy, or maybe she is all of these things. By contrast, it’s easy to describe what the students are doing. I see one hold back from completing a movement; another wobbles in confusion; yet another pushes too hard and falls. “Less energy,” she says, demonstrating again – somehow not dancing the dance, but instead letting the dance move her.

Christine Kenneally

Christine Kenneally is the author of The Ghosts of the Orphanage and is now writing a book about the orphanage experience for Public Affairs and Hachette Australia. She has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, Slate and New Scientist.

@chriskenneally

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