Sydney Dance Company x SSO collaboration. Photograph by Rafael Bonachela

Taking Shelter

Dance collaborations created during confinement

All around me, things are beginning to ‘return to normal’ which is misleading in both meaning and reality for things cannot return to normal; what was normal—what was before—was precisely the problem. In our separation from nature, and a balanced system of replenishment, driven by our greed and need for super-sized efficiency, our grand-scale consumerism, as Arundhati Roy writes, “another world . . . . She is on her way.” And how she forms, it is up to us all. “As the ice caps melt, as oceans heat up, and water tables plunge, as we rip through the delicate web of interdependence that sustains life on earth, as our formidable intelligence leads us to breach the boundaries between humans and machines, and our even more formidable hubris undermines our ability to connect the survival of our planet to our survival as a species,” we need to change the way we live, the way we manage the land, the way we are. Through our actions, and through “our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness—and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different” from the ones we are being fed through algorithms. Stories from different voices. In the “collective silence” as we take “inventory of ourselves, our lives, the world; the value systems in place” as Heather Lang, freelance artist, describes in the film “Shelter,” we need to care for the environment so it can again care for us, and in doing so, avoid the worst effects of the climate emergency.

As dancers gradually return to classes in the studios at the Australian Ballet Centre, there is still no word as to when and how we may be able to see the company perform on stage. These steps are small, but important. Everything is linked, root to tip, from the biggest of big things to the tiniest ladybug poised on my fingertip; social justice is climate justice.1 As the many dance classes now available online indicate and afford, the Australian Ballet and Sydney Dance Company included, a reconnection to our bodies through movement, to dance, is just what is needed right now.

A reconnection to our bodies through movement, to dance, is just what is needed right now.

Inside, working from home, without being able to walk through a gallery or museum (though some are opening in a limited capacity at the end of the month as restrictions ease across the country), to see a performance in a theatre, can I move through a gallery in my own home, observing what I see, can I see dance in movement on the screen, in settings not dissimilar to mine? Working from home I have found, and perhaps you have too, that the interior space, my shelter, is held in the perpetual present. It is almost without time. There has been a shift in how I perceive a nest built to keep the outside, the exterior world, at bay. What was once a refuge from the noise and chaos of life ‘out there’ has become my whole world. And to this ‘whole world’ comes digital art to one’s living room in the form of “Shelter” by Alexander Reneff-Olson, Danielle Rowe, Garen Scribner, and Valentina Reneff-Olson; “#QuarantineCreation” by Nederlands Dans Theater; and “Cuatro” by Sydney Dance Company in collaboration with Sydney Symphony Orchestra, produced and directed by Pedro Greig, with choreography by Rafael Bonachela.

As Jared Wright, soloist with Dutch National Ballet, comments direct to camera in “Shelter,” “being in isolation is not my thing, and I don’t think it’s anyone’s thing.” Cassandra Trenary, soloist with American Ballet Theatre, picks up the thread, “this isn’t going to be easy to come back from.” Filmed “at the theatre for the last time for the foreseeable future,” Joseph Walsh, principal dancer with the San Francisco Ballet, performs in the hold-your-breath hush of the War Memorial Opera House as members of the public were requested to shelter-in-place. It is surreal to watch this dance unfold as a different one unfolds on the streets and is in turn reflected in the dance. “Shelter” speaks of this ripple of news and its accompanying, varied emotions and bodily responses, “as cities all over the world began to issue their own shelter-in-place mandates;” the creators of “Shelter” reached out to dancers around the world “to participate in this project, with the intention of capturing artists’ resilience in the face of unprecedented times.”2

And just as through “retreating into my physicality and into my movement, even in this confined space,” as Spenser Theberge, freelance dancer and choreographer formerly at NDT and the Forsythe Company, conveys there comes a sense of “travelling in a day that helps me feel like I’m leaving the house.” New ways to create kinship unfold. The point is that we all need “to keep on dancing and to keep on connecting with others,” as affirms Anne Jung, dancer at Dresden Frankfurt Dance Company.

To Jessica Collado, principal dancer, Houston Ballet, dance has a way of unifying us all, despite the current and continued separation. From Amber Scott and Ty King-Wall, principal dancers with the Australian Ballet, inside their garage, before a roller-door stage-set to James Gilmer, dancer, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, squeezed into the hallway (“This is all the space that I have; and I’m a big guy so staying in dancing shape has been extremely hard.”), a collective “Moonlight Sonata” leap I, too, feel a part of. It embodies and is the spirit of freelance dancer Babatunji Johnson’s words: “to share more of myself; more of my heart, and to be vulnerable to others. I think that’s what we all need at this time; vulnerability and love.”

Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.

Arundhati Roy

In NDT’s “Stay home and keep on dancing,” video concept and edit by Ennya Larmit with music this time by Niels Mudde instead of Thomas Lauderdale’s improvisations of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, there are less words, but the message taps a similar vein of connection and collaboration. It is the shared intimacies of the interior spaces that become steps in the choreography. Jesse Callaert: house plants; Meng-ke Wu: paintings of house plants; Chuck Jones: shoes on the floor by the door; Annika Verplancke: a large, partially hidden, dog asleep by the glass door, in the sunlight; Tess Voelker: a collage of images collected and magnetised to the side of the fridge; Auguste Palayer: a teddy bear on a double bed, off-centre; Donnie Duncan Jr. and Marne van Opstal: together, outside, on a quiet street composed of parked cars and no moving traffic; Mikaela Kelly, a drawing on the wall central to a small side table; Boston Gallacher, dressed in fuchsia, head to toe, a pair of earphones on the window ledge.

Domestic, personal, real spaces, from Jay Ariës in the kitchen to Yukino Takaura moving like a caterpillar on the couch. Chloé Albaret and César Faria Fernandes, in vertical iPhone format, sliding-gliding the film’s brief on timber flooring: this is art in isolation. It is the electricity sockets in an empty room, the backdrop behind Cassandra Martin, a light source now to screen-left, as well as my own backlit monitor. Above all else, it doesn’t feel intrusive, climbing into these spaces. The invitation has been extended and accepted. While I cannot move like those on the screen before me, nor ever could, there is a conversation that is being had: I could; I do. Vicariously. Which, of course, is what I relish about dance. A transference of that twitching, flick-and-jerk feeling. The chance to feel what it is like to move in this way, to navigate the world though the senses, to embody a feeling. Fernando Magadan opens the door, and Paxton Ricketts steps out into a courtyard space he passes with a palm-together clap to Madoka Kariya. A white sheet pulls up to close. Words roll: “Stay home and keep on moving. Stay home and keep on creating. Keep on dancing.” Without that, all is lost. Without creating, there is nothing.

Sydney Dance Company have been having a similar dialogue with Sydney Symphony Orchestra. For the four Fridays of June, 2020, they are releasing “Cuatro,” a quartet of short films. “Cuatro 1” opens with Charmene Yap in response to Diana Doherty performing Heinz Hollinger’s Sonata for solo oboe, I. Präludium, which, like all things, can also be viewed the other way around—with the oboe responding to the searching movements of Yap. “Cuatro 2” follows with Davide di Giovanni paired with Andrew Haveron on violin, and Niccolò Paganini’s 24 Caprices for Solo Violin, Op.1: No. 11 in C. Once more, a dancer in an interior space, in a box, reflecting as a mirror, as Yap describes “a combination of an emotional human response and a more virtuosic expression of being confined during Covid-19.”3 Four films, like the four-sides of a room, with a suggestion of hope and a possibility. “Life cannot be without a body, existence cannot be without a space.”4

“Cuatro 3” and “Cuatro 4” are scheduled to be respectively released on Fridays, June 19 & 26, 2020.

  1. /“social justice concerns are always intertwined with public policy—and absolutely central to climate policy.” Julian Brave NoiseCat, “No, climate action can’t be separated from social justice,” The Guardian, June 11, 2019, accessed June 17, 2020.
  2. About “Shelter,” accessed June 17, 2020
  3. The last two episodes will follow this month with “Cuatro 3” (released June 19) with dancer Juliette Barton and SSO principal cello Umberto Clerici; and “Cuatro 4” (from June 26) with dancer Chloe Leong and SSO associate principal flute Emma Sholl. All four episodes will be available to watch online until the end of July.
  4. “For the human mind, claimed Augustine of Hippo, self-consciousness is witnessed by way of the interiority of the corporeal, life cannot be without a body, existence cannot be without a space.” Augustine, “City of God,” trans. and ed. R.W. Dyson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 22–29, cited within The Imagery of Interior Spaces, edited by Dominique Bauer and Michael J. Kelly (Earth, Milky Way: punctum books, 2019), 18.
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