March 2023

Arts & Letters

Movers and shakers: Dance at the Sydney Festival

By Miriam Cosic

Manifesto at the Sydney Festival. Photograph by Wendell Teodoro

While Sydney Festival director Olivia Ansell’s program appeared dance-heavy, it revealed rich developments in collaboration across art forms

“A prevalent feeling among many painters that lets them make a space in which anything can happen is a feeling dancers may have too. Imitating the way nature makes a space and puts lots of things in it, heavy and light, little and big, all related, yet each affecting all the others.”

—Merce Cunningham, 1952


Olivia Ansell is talking exuberantly about dance. Specifically about the dance that dominated this January’s Sydney Festival, which she directed. Ansell’s festival set a keen eye on the uncharted waters that our cultural forms are travelling into. Though the works she is speaking about – excellent in both choreography and execution – went under the category of dance in the festival’s performance guide, that was only partly how they physically manifested. Acrobatics, instrument playing, singing, mime, spoken word, a multiplicity of languages, sprawling on sofas, flying through the air, morphing through costumes, sketching out architectural planning, shifting walls, thinking out loud… and all that just in James Thierrée’s ROOM. He linked dancer-musicians with the instrument of the body. Onstage, Thierrée played the roles of architect and stage director, constantly trying and failing to marshal his materials. The recalcitrant walls of his room, and everything else in constant motion, were meant to stimulate audiences who had been locked up in lockdowns. He confessed, front of stage to the audience, that he was trying to explain to them what is going on. Thierrée was raised with experimentation: his parents were in the circus, his grandfather was Charlie Chaplin. “When you come from circus you try stuff – trapeze, acrobatics, juggling,” he told The Guardian when the show was still in rehearsal last year. “You just put your hands on something and you shake it and see what happens.” And “I never want them to be bored,” he has said of his performers. Never mind the audience.

Stephanie Lake’s Manifesto was something entirely different: precise and rigorous, where ROOM duelled with windmills. I skipped it at the Adelaide Festival last year because I had a headache and imagined the music – simply described as “drumming” in its advertising – as a thrilling thump of deep and reverberating bass. In fact, there was something in it that had been unimaginable: nine men and women, each with a rock ’n’ roll drum kit, splayed across the high rise and fall of a platform at the rear of Carriageworks theatre, drumming with an expertise and flamboyance that took the breath away. Lake’s drummers and dancers realised a stylised form that, even among the boundaries being pushed across the globe today, is as recognisable as it is unique. Collaborating often with her partner in life, audiovisual artist Robin Fox, on music and lighting, Lake shares primacy between all art forms involved. It’s a little like the way traditional opera gave equal billing to the orchestral music, the singing, the story and the mise en scène, except it explodes expectations instead of conforming to them.

A third show found a radiantly different register again: Sara Baras, the famous flamenco dancer from the Andalusian province of Cádiz, who has her own troupe, showered the audience with her own idiosyncrasies in the ensemble performance, Alma. Those idiosyncrasies didn’t only turn up in her interpretations of traditional flamenco, but in the clothing, the set, the gender assumptions, the mellow interactions. Among the nine dancers there was only one man, and the fierce femininity of the dance forms often spread into dominant social exchanges as well. The singers, all men, were called on to demonstrate their dance chops at the end, showing that movement in Spain is part of both political and cultural identity.

Each of these shows left audiences wide-eyed and exultant. As did the opera Antarctica, which also pushed boundaries, including technological ones, with its smoky glass box of a stage perched sticking out, halfway up Carriageworks’ black back wall, plus another smaller one housing another viewer of the goings-on for the ticket-paying audience in turn to watch. The masterful Dutch new music ensemble, Asko|Schönberg, with whom Sydney Chamber Opera premiered Antarctica in Amsterdam last year, provided the notes of Mary Finsterer’s score. And that ranged from early plainsong to post-electronica, playing seamlessly together like a group of brilliant sheep in constant motion, rounded up by the percussion section of one man scampering between all his instruments with the score in one hand, alongside them.


It’s early on in our conversation and Olivia Ansell is using these startling works as bouncing-off points, as if their genius is too obvious to linger on. She moves on to many other works in the program that she sees as pertinent to the point: works in which art forms that occupy a distinct space in traditional festival fare – music, design, even dance – are there for more than visual background or ambience. She has already referred to Manifesto as “nine dancers and nine drummers: a tattoo to optimism”.

Now she is talking about Tracker, promoted as “multidisciplinary” and “weaving together dance, music and text” while still placed in the “dance” category in the festival program. It is one of Daniel Riley’s first works as artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre; he also happens to be a Wiradjuri elder as well as a dancer and choreographer, ex Bangarra. The story of this production is personal as well as national history: Riley’s great-great uncle, Alec “Tracker” Riley, worked in the NSW Police for decades, leading numerous high-profile cases and striving to ease tensions between his own Wiradjuri lore and the colonial system his people were forced to endure.

The roll call of Indigenous creative forces putting it together is impressive: playwright Ursula Yovich, co-director Rachael Maza, composers James Henry and Gary Watling, and visual artist Jonathan Jones. That this team and their cast are all First Nations people is, however, rapidly becoming unremarkable (Ansell’s Sydney Festival predecessor was Wesley Enoch, and his “Blackout” program is a notable example). The work they put together also shows how rapidly the descriptor “multidisciplinary” is becoming superfluous.

“We’ve been really fortunate in that collaboration between art forms is getting richer and richer,” Ansell says. “And it’s getting harder and harder to say, ‘Well, this is dance and that’s music.’ You know, this will need different genre labels on productions. Artists are collaborating so beautifully and so deeply now, with so many different forms of art and technique.”

It’s not surprising that a festival director should pick a key ingredient of her curriculum vitae as her preoccupation. And nor, by extension, that she should be preoccupied with the cutting edge of it. Ansell’s background is dance. Before moving to the Sydney Festival she was the Sydney Opera House’s director of contemporary dance, circus and physical theatre.

When her appointment to the festival was announced in 2021, Ansell explained to Dance Informa the reason why dancers’ training automatically makes them good operators across other art forms. “If your background is dance, you’re inherently connected to dance, physical theatre, music and contemporary music because we go hand in hand with contemporary and experimental music,” she said. “Somebody once told me that choreographers make great film editors, because the timing and the rhythm we have within our body make us great editors. So dance and musical theatre and circus and music, to me, are very important languages.”

Although arts festivals are much inclined to easily packaged categorisation, they can also show us precise moments in history when those categories outlive their usefulness. If dance is truly at an inflexion point, it is not for the first time among the arts. The visual arts experienced its own chaotic changes early last century, as modernism cracked open realism for good, taking the premises of impressionism through cubism to their logical conclusion. Some historians agree on 1910 as the birth year of abstraction, when Wassily Kandinsky first abandoned objects as subject matter entirely in favour of pure form: colour and shape, which was once the media through which the story was told, became the story itself. Abstract art, the abolition of representation of reality, became the cutting edge of modernity. After the last blast of its notoriety, post–World War Two American expressionism, individual artists or mini-movements started announcing moments of radical verisimilitude in sculptural pictorial form. Now, in the 21st century, there has to be a theoretical reason for works to look like what they represent: one has long taken a table or a house on the floor of a gallery, or a figure on a video screen, for granted at one’s peril. Think of the dadaists and Marcel Duchamp. No artists are always making points beyond the point the audience can immediately see.

Theatre traded its historical traditions for new forms when modernism felled the fourth wall, abolished the suspension of disbelief and allowed actors to address the audience directly (although Shakespeare had played with that a few centuries before). And then there was Konstantin Stanislavski and his “method acting”, and other ways forward in theatre in the 20th century. Music stepped through its historical movements relentlessly from the early middle ages, allowing composers to grow, alongside their reputations, from journeyman workers, like all artists, to recognised geniuses. Who can take it for granted today that J.S. Bach was just a parish organist, churning out masses and cantatas in Leipzig, alongside secular sonatas and concertos for private clients, to feed his enormous family. The head of a busy family business, he was only seen a transcendent genius when rediscovered in the 19th century. Last century saw the arrival of modernist composers, people who explored atonalism, such as Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Alban Berg, and serialism, such as Terry Riley and Philip Glass, and more.

Dance, too, has its modernist history. Born in San Francisco in 1877, Isadora Duncan, a symbol of her era, was disillusioned with ballet before she was 20. Moving to Europe, she allowed exhibits in the British Museum and the Louvre to inspire an instinctual form of movement. Many of the innovators who followed were women, from Martha Graham and Katherine Dunham (who was also an anthropologist) through to Twyla Sharp, Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, and to dancers-turned-choreographers such as Stephanie Lake today. (Not that there weren’t many great men in the field, from George Balanchine to Merce Cunningham.) And as with visual arts after World War Two, America began to produce great modernist choreographers in great numbers after the Russian Revolution sent a generation of choreographers into exile.

Like all of the arts, dance absorbed modernism not as a gentle evolution but as outright protest against the classical tradition that Catherine de’ Medici had introduced to the French court in the 16th century. Just as music went atonal and the visual arts lost their graphic evocation, dance eschewed the formality and elegance of classical ballet and made statements that were as political as they were artistic. Women came down from pointe, and the crippled old age that promised, and danced on flat feet. Height, which emphasised their sylph-like dimensions, was forgotten and the body’s centre of gravity descended closer to the floor. The horizontal eyeline replaced the vertical. Movement became more unisex, the masculine no longer embodied in strength, the feminine in fragility.

Watching the movement of bodies across so many shows in this year’s Sydney Festival, it was clear to me that what we talk about when we talk about dance is exploding. Dance isn’t dance as our grandparents knew it. It is colliding with all kinds of creativity, including the relatively new category of video art: pre-recorded or live projected as backdrop, or moving in real time among the actors. How quickly before we grasp it exactly? Or are we too savvy in our fast-moving tech age to be left behind?

It reminds me of a misunderstanding of the difference between genres of music I only resolved after years of trying. Late one night decades ago, I attempted to make a rock ’n’ roll obsessive understand how I could love music across such a wide range of styles. Known to identify both politically and aesthetically with punk, even though I played classical, I had just told the group about my rather funny weekend. My boyfriend had rolled his eyes about me going to hear Wagner’s Valkyrie with my mother. She had rolled her eyes when it came up that I was going to an American orchestra touring trad jazz with my father the following night. “All that oompah-oompah,” she said contemptuously. And when I told my dad that I was going to see George Thorogood and the Destroyers with my boyfriend the following night, and he’d just seen them on the ABC news, he launched straight into a tirade. “How can you, with your musical training, listen to such rubbish?”

My rock ’n’ roll friend, fuelled by wine and who knows what else, kept grilling me into the night. Finally a huge smile spread across his face. “I get it,” he said, as though he’d found the Lord. “It’s all music to you, isn’t it.”

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

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