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Bangarra perform “Terrain” by Frances Rings. Photograph by Kate Longley

A Living Future

DanceX Part One

Performance
DanceX Part One: The Australian Ballet “I New Then” / Sydney Dance Company “ab[intra]” / Lucy Guerin Inc “How To Be Us” / Bangarra Dance Theatre “Terrain”
Place
Playhouse, Arts Centre, Melbourne, October 20, 2022
Words
Gracia Haby

The night begins with a homophone. With a playful swap of the knowing word ‘knew’ for a word that sounds the same when you speak or read it, but which now conjures up things shiny and in the present: ‘new.’ Johan Inger’s high-spirited, wistful memory, “I New Then” premiered in 2012, but it looks back further still, to what we now know was a ‘new’ time, one “that was both pure and simple but with the distinct challenges of becoming an adult.”1 With an invitation to “walk and talk in gardens all misty and wet with rain,” plucked from Van Morrison’s Sweet Things, this seems the best place to begin The Australian Ballet’s three-part festival DanceX. With honesty. With new explorations that can only be expressed through understanding and expertise. In the moment, before it passes.

DanceX brings together nine dance companies, in a celebration of unity in community, at the Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne. Part One, which begins with the Australian premiere of “I New Then,” is accompanied by an excerpt from Sydney Dance Company’s “ab[intra];” Lucy Guerin’s “How to Be Us,” a new site-specific, dancer-specific work commissioned by the Australian Ballet; and an excerpt from Bangarra Dance Theatre’s salt lake exploration, “Terrain.” Like Guerin’s “Pendulum,” recently experienced in its new location, wharf-side, DanceX, take two, is ready. And while it has waited in the wings, it has also taken the opportunity to grow, and so DanceX now includes Karul Projects (in Part Two), and Marrugeku (Part Three).

On the heels of “Romeo and Juliet,” with only one night between the close of the Melbourne 2022 season, the Australian Ballet makes a cheeky return with all the swagger and young love fumbles of “And I shall drive my chariot/ Down your streets and cry/ ‘Hey, it’s me, I’m dynamite/ And I don’t know why’” (Van Morrison, Sweet Things) as it stumbles upon transcendence, typified by Callum Linnane and Nathan Brook. Set to music from Van Morrison’s 1968 jazz-doused album, Astral Weeks, spanning “Madame George” to “The Way Young Lovers Do,” Dimity Azoury and Corey Herbert’s every euphoric leap with hands high in the air carries the lament “never, never, never/ Grow so old again” upon landing.

The Australian Ballet’s Coco Mathieson in “I New Then” by Johan Inger. Photograph by Kate Longley

In costumes by Bregie van Balen, old and new, then and now, life and death, ecstasy and anguish are the coins’ two sides that all the dancers, from Benedicte Bemet to Coco Mathieson, spin wildly. Heartful and full of heartache, as Inger explains, “Dancers face the difficult challenge to develop their own artistic identity throughout their careers. There is nothing harder for them than to just be themselves during the dance. It takes courage to leave your façade behind and question your own identity.” Everything feels and looks spontaneous, but just as the album has an improvised feel, it is because of the artists involved and the framework beneath it which has cast off those unnecessary gestures.2

Samantha Hines and Lilian Steiner in “How to Be Us” by Lucy Guerin. Photograph by Kate Longley

Finding your footing, as you lose those unnecessary gestures in the search for new, pure, direct ones is at the heart of Guerin’s “How to Be Us.” As Guerin describes, the title for the work refers to “an ideal way of being in the world: to be able to maintain our individuality, but to be able to cooperate and work together with others as well.”3 In costumes designed by Geoffrey Watson, Lilian Steiner and Samantha Hines openly explore and test the strength of what individual freedom could look like to them. They reveal bright streaks of purple, yellow and green down their limbs when they rotate them or combine them as things unfold: when in flux, keep your flex. This discovery radiates! In a concentrated window of time, direction and structure become improvisation, and somewhere overhead a gullery of birds call at the switch.

Dean Elliott of Sydney Dance Company in “ab[intra]” by Rafael Bonachela. Photograph by Kate Longley

These two premieres, “How to Be Us” and “I New Then”, rub shoulders with Rafael Bonachela’s “ab [intra]” in which the dancers appear illuminated from within, as the title suggests,4 as they find new patterns of connection, and Frances Rings’s “Terrain,” which brings to light how “we treat our land, how we understand its spirit [informs] how we regard its future.”5 As Rings asks, “It requires [non-Indigenous audiences] to maybe take a step back and maybe reset what [we] think [we] know about Country and go to those people who have lived with and cared for it for a long time and have learned through generations. . . . Those knowledge systems, they still exist around us today. You just have to be open to see it through the lens of Indigenous people to understand.”

Stories we need for a living future in every sense.

  1. Johan Inger, “I New Then” choreographer’s statement, https://www.johaninger.com/#/i-new-then, accessed October 21, 2022.
  2. When percussionist Warren Smith talks of the spontaneity of Astral Weeks, it chimes with how I experience “I New Then”: “It wasn’t all improvised. You had a structure within which to work. But the people that they called were experienced musicians, and it wasn’t unusual to encounter such situations. That’s what you get your reputation for doing.” (From “Van Morrison’s ‘Astral Weeks’ Sideman Looks Back: ‘I Was Lucky to Be There’” Rolling Stone, November 29, 2018, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/van-morrison-astral-weeks-warren-smith-interview-760209/, accessed October 21, 2022.)
  3. Lucy Guerin in interview with Rose Mulready, “How Lucy Guerin made ‘How to Be Us’,” The Australian Ballet, October 18, 2022, https://australianballet.com.au/blog/how-lucy-guerin-made-how-to-be-us, accessed October 21, 2022.
  4. ““ab[intra]” meaning ‘from within’ in Latin is “an exploration of our primal instincts, our impulses and our visceral responses”, Rafael Bonachela, choreographer’s statement, DanceX foldout program, 2022.
  5. Bangarra Dance Theatre, ‘“Terrain” cheat sheet’, https://www.bangarra.com.au/about/terrain-cheat-sheet/, accessed October 21, 2022.
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