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Swing Time

I grew up watching Lucky and Penny spin about the dance floor. I knew their every line, and, more importantly, their every move, and their every move’s lines. Studied on a Beta video and later a VHS, their moving forms were so familiar to me. And perhaps through my repeated viewings I’d hoped for some sort of talent transference through the screen to me lying in Cobra on the floor, my chin resting in my hands. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, as John ‘Lucky’ Garnett and Penelope ‘Penny’ Carrol, in George Stevens’ Swing Time (1936), were my idols in Primary School. They were natural and joyous to watch when they danced, and it was for the dance that I watched Swing Time.

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch performing “Nelken” at the Adelaide Festival. Photograph by Tony Lewis

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They knew how to move and glide, and were utterly in tune with the other. Their mutual delight drew me in. They danced for the audience, and for each other, and at the end of each number they appeared to share a look of mutual respect that was outside of their characters, a sort of private yet public ‘thank-you for the dance; you were great.’ Thanks to Astaire’s insistence that all dance pieces should be filmed in as close to a single take as possible, with the whole of the figure visible, the effect now, as was then, is just like watching a live performance. The figure uninterrupted is free to tell its truth. Jean-Luc Godard would later echo this unbroken line sentiment in his films: “the cinema is truth 24 times a second, and every cut is a lie.”

Watching Swing Time, or indeed any Fred and Ginger film, it feels entirely plausible that dance numbers should spontaneously spark into being. That’s how people communicate. It all makes sense. All you need is a body, and we’ve all one of those. Though some, why, some can move with grace and rhythm as they speak their truth. As Martha Graham advised (and we’d all do well to adhere to): “there is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action [when you dance/make/do], and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”

And so, as I sit now before the keyboard looking back over what I have seen this year, the pieces I recall are those that conveyed honesty and “an energy.” Unfeigned, full-hearted, call it what you will. With my eye, Godard’s camera, my life coach, Graham, and the effortless hover and charm of Lucky and Penny only in dream, let’s look back at 2016.

I cannot go past the 3,000 pink carnations of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch’s “Nelken” (“Carnations”). “Romance in the Dark” in Adelaide, thanks also to film’s introduction, “Nelken” was the embodiment of gesture as palette. How people moved conveyed how people felt; and what propelled them in turn moved me. It went straight to my heart, which still recalls Scott Jennings’ solo in sign language to Sophie Tucker performing “The Man I Love.”

Add to that, the inescapable, infectious vim, the exploration of cause and effect relationships, and the glorification of fleeting moments in the Australian Ballet’s “Vitesse” triple bill, featuring choreography by Jiří Kylián, William Forsythe, and Christopher Wheeldon. But it was John Neumeier’s flesh and bone, fractured and brilliant “Nijinsky” that burrowed deepest of all and stole away with my heart: will it break or will it explode? Will I reassemble it and do it all over again? You bet. More please.

The burn of snow on the skin, thanks to Nederlands Dans Theater’s “Sehnsucht” and “Stop-Motion” by Sol Léon and Paul Lightfoot, and Crystal Pite’s “Solo Echo.” Together, they were an antidote to feeling helpless offered in the form of twenty-four dancers who were by turns hooked and gutted, untethered and liberated, linked, giving, and utterly glorious as they soared across the stage, as if puffed by fire bellows. From face to foot, more, please, more.

Nacera Belaza
“The Shout” by Nacera Belaza. Photograph by Gregory Lorenzutti

Now, let’s add two voices working in accord not discord within Melanie Lane and Juliet Burnett’s “Re-make,” and Jo Lloyd and Nicola Gunn’s “Mermermer,” both commissioned by Chunky Move as part of Next Move. Together, ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain in the spirit of Camus’ philosophy of the absurd, this was what collaboration is all about: two artists creating a third work not possible without the other. Place alongside these pairs, Nacera Belaza’s movement meditation that built to a beautiful roaring blur in “The Shout.” Performed by Belaza with her sister Dailila Belaza, and presented by Dancehouse as part of Dance Territories, the hypnotic effect was a slow burn highlight.

Full-frame, without close-ups, my eye was the camera, and 2016 was in itself one long take. With hats off to Alice Dixon, Caroline Meaden, and William McBride for so earnestly, humorously “Blowin’ Up” at the Substation. To Dancehouse, for its steadfast existence, too—long may she shimmer silver and probe. May there always be venues that on a quiet Saturday afternoon one can wander off the street and become a part of assemblage theory.

Blowin' Up
Caroline Meaden in “Blowin' Up.” Photograph by Mischa Baka

I am not normally a list maker, but it turns out it has been a very good year in dance for this anchored spectator. Before I list all of the pieces I have seen, for all, in their own way, had merit and gave me much to mull over (thank-you, all, for your generosity, expression, and exploration), I will call my reflection to a close. I await the 2017 DanceMassive, and the Australian Ballet’s “Faster” triple bill, featuring choreography by David Binter, Wayne McGregor, and Tim Harbour, early in the new year; and to later be bathed in the moonlight mythology of Sydney Dance Company’s “Orb,” featuring “Full Moon” by Cheng Tsung-lung.

To get me there, I have naturally saved Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time (amongst other things) to read over my summer break.

Gracia Haby

Using an armoury of play and poetry as a lure, Gracia Haby is an artist besotted with paper. Her limited edition artists’ books, and other works hard to pin down, are often made collaboratively with fellow artist, Louise Jennison. Their work is in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia and state libraries throughout Australia to the Tate (UK). Gracia Haby is known to collage with words as well as paper.



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