Perspectives on contemporary dance
Julianne Pierce on multidisciplinary approaches to working across contemporary dance and visual arts
Contemporary dance emerged in the second half of the twentieth century as a response to the rigours of classical ballet and modern dance. It is defined by a re-thinking of the body and physicality in relationship to space, time and gravity; and by a cross-disciplinary and collaborative approach with disciplines such as philosophy, cultural theory, experimental music, visual arts and multimedia.
The iconic Merce Cunningham (1919–2009) is renowned for collaborations with composer John Cage and artists Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Dance was moving away from narrative, responding to non-linear experimentations across visual arts and music. These collaborations, commencing in the 1960s, fostered choreography that was fluid, intense, interacting with objects on stage, using film projectors with imagery screened on a range of fabrics, sets and bodies.
At around the same time in Europe, Pina Bausch (1940–2009) was forming her company Tanztheater Wuppertal. One of the most influential choreographers of the 20th century, Bausch created a choreographic language that was charged with emotion and empathy, that explored the many types of human relationships. It was bold and evocative movement and works such as Café Müller (1978), show the human connection in all its sadness, joy, love and remorse.
The work of Pina Bausch embodies the power of contemporary dance to connect to audiences on a subliminal and emotional level. To tell a narrative without words, expressed purely through music, lighting and movement. It is recreating the experience of the theatre, of how and why we sit in the dark and watch live performance. Contemporary dance at its best allows the audience to connect with what's on stage and to feel or interpret that as an individual embodied response to the dance.
Another key influence on the evolution of contemporary dance in the twentieth century is the Butoh movement in Japan. Like European and North American contemporary dance, Butoh was a reaction to the formalities of traditional dance, such as the classical Japanese Noh theatre. It was also charged with the horrors of the Second World War and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The body is at the centre of Butoh and in particular a body that is disciplined by time and movement that can be incremental and sustained. It is movement that embodies the pain of a nation and the rawness of grief and recovery.
The “guru” and co-founder of Butoh, Kazuo Ohno (who died in 2010 aged 103), danced in Australia several times, including the 1986 Adelaide Festival, where he hypnotised the audience with his piercing gaze and lithe body moving slowly across the stage. Ohno has said of his work: “The best thing someone can say to me is that while watching my performance they began to cry. It is not important to understand what I am doing; perhaps it is better if they don’t understand, but just respond to the dance.”
These three visionary artists are amongst the pioneers whose experimentations with conceptual movement, music and art in the last century set the foundations for what contemporary dance is today. It is a genre that continues to push the boundaries of the body and engage with disciplines from architecture to science to visual arts to technology. It is a dance vocabulary that is informed by politics, culture, gender and social change.
Australian choreographer Garry Stewart is renowned for his work with the Adelaide-based Australian Dance Theatre (ADT). His first creation for the Australian Dance Theatre was House Dance, performed by six dancers and a violinist on the sails of the Sydney Opera House for New Year’s Eve 1999. This bold statement set a precedent for the company and during his sixteen years as Artistic Director of ADT, Stewart has become renowned for his athletic and powerful style that is often paired on stage with striking audiovisuals and interactive technology.
Stewart is fascinated about the limits of the body and the space it inhabits. His dancers are trained in a variety of disciplines including hip hop, breakdance, yoga and the martial arts. They leap and bound across the stage in a powerful confluence of strength and grace requiring extreme skill and agility. The body is like a machine that exudes energy, inspiring awe at the mechanics of the movement.
In Stewart’s work, the appeal is in the skill of the dancers and their ability to take an audience on a transfixed liminal journey, creating a space of heightened electricity that can send shivers down the spine and through a darkened theatre. Beyond the raw physicality is Stewart’s exploration of the scientific and clinical understandings of the body. He says of his 2010 work, Be Your Self: “The self is not necessarily a continuous, unified, unfolding logical progression but can be viewed as a complex bundle of competing, negotiating 'selves’ that we subconsciously edit in order to achieve narrative continuity.”
This interest in the systems of the body has led Stewart to collaborate with Ian Gibbins, Emeritus Professor of Anatomy and Histology at Flinders University. It is a fascinating partnership that fosters a multidisciplinary discourse around such questions as “What is the body?”, “What makes us human?” and “What is the creative potential of science and dance?”.
These questions inspired the 2012 work Proximity, which Stewart says is “primarily an investigation into the body’s interactive participation in the act of seeing the world with reference to neurological body maps and the French philosopher Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception.” In this work the dancers film themselves during the performance with their images projected as live graphic interactions. As described by ABC Arts: “The video effects, created by French video engineer Thomas Pachoud, emphasise the space that exists around the dancers on stage. In one sequence, a web of polygons expand and contract in the negative space between dancers. In another, a dancer’s movement across stage leaves a trail of doppelgangers, echoing the work of photographic pioneer Eadweard Muybridge. For Stewart, Proximity is an expression of the way our brains unconsciously map the space around us.“
The most recent work by Garry Stewart, Multiverse (2014), made in partnership with the Motion.Lab at Deakin University is an ambitious exploration of the body against a backdrop of multiple dimensions. The Deakin Motion.Lab is a movement, art and technology research centre led by Professor Kim Vincs. It extends across the practices of dance, theatre, animation, digital and transmedia art, and across technologies, such as motion capture, robotics, haptics and augmented and virtual reality. Housed in a modest building on the Burwood campus, Professor Vincs and her team are pioneering technology-enabled performance in a state of the art 36-camera optical motion capture studio.
The result of this collaboration is what The Guardian calls “not quite performance, not quite cinema, sitting somewhere in between” The ideas behind Multiverse are as novel as the many elements of the dance, as the concept of a “multiverse” is based on the hypothetical branch of physics that attempts to explain the building blocks of the universe. The entire 50-minute performance, viewed through 3D glasses, performed by three dancers in front of a large screen and presenting luscious computer animations is a visualisation of cosmology, string theory, black holes and parallel dimensions. It is a slightly disorienting experience where the viewer is pulled between the layers of the 3D imagery and the physical presence of the dancers.
Another practitioner pushing boundaries and new frontiers is Antony Hamilton, a former dancer with Australian Dance Theatre, who is establishing himself as one of the most interesting and experimental choreographers working in Australia today. With a strong influence from visual arts, Hamilton’s work is striking and disturbingly compelling. His first full-length work, Blazeblue Oneline, premiered in 2008 and featured live graffiti painting as an integral set element but also as a trigger for the movement and dance. The work, influenced by pop culture, music videos and electronic music and made in collaboration with composer Luke Smiles, is a contemporary maelstrom of image, sound and dance.
Hamilton’s triptych the Black Series has premiered over a five-year time frame (2009–13) as Black Project 1, 2 & 3. The Black Series defies conventions of dance, presented in a totally black space with the performers all dressed in black and their faces concealed or covered in black make up. The experience of the work is akin to being part of a dark ominous art installation, where bodies move in front of you, sometimes indecipherably, sometimes right in your face.
Hamilton’s choreographic language can seem as black and as visceral as his visual settings. Bodies writhe and jolt as if emerging from the primordial slime into an unknown world. In Black Project 1, Hamilton calls them “beings”, it is a “linear journey of two entities, who journey from one side of the space to the other”. The dancers merge and meld with the totally black space and interact with each other like probing inquisitive insects. The influence of Butoh can be felt in Hamilton’s work: it is sparse, minimalist and stripped back. There is a sense of containment, and of a journey across time that fundamentally explores the human condition.
At times an uncomfortable experience, with intermittent strobe lighting and a driving sound score, Black Project 1 takes the audience into a sensory head spin. Its rationale is to explore a lack of context, through limiting visual and outside references. It creates a type of emergent space, where the “beings” inside that space explore and evolve their own context. One of the most striking stages of the work is when the dancers start to rip black tape from the set and off themselves to reveal the white below. The sound of tape ripping and the subsequent series of graphic lines is an engrossing spectacle. It is an insight into Hamilton’s imagination and instincts for creating a dance experience that is alive and complex as a profoundly visual medium.
Hamilton’s Keep Everything is a newer work commissioned by Melbourne-based contemporary dance company Chunky Move. With an electronic soundtrack by Julian Hamilton and Kim Moyes of the band The Presets, Keep Everything is a cacophony of light, smoke, text, voice, sound, dance and objects. Hamilton says of the work: “The development of Keep Everything began with the premise that from a single point of departure, an endless array of events can unfold when the subconscious is given permission to lead”
In stark contrast to the Black Series, the performance space for Keep Everything is littered with detritus that appears to have come from the cutting room floor of a foam factory. It is a colourful and chaotic mess, starting out as a mound from which a dancer emerges. On stage another performer delivers spoken text about how humans derive order from chaos and have an obsession with codifying, sorting and arranging. The motivation to take the unruly elements of the universe and create meaning and structure from them is in our DNA.
Hamilton’s choreographic method is to allow the dancers to interpret the space and to respond to his conceptual prompts. What emerges in Keep Everything is a guttural and mischievous sequence of evolution, from naive spontaneous gestures amidst the industrial waste to a complex entanglement of mathematical proportions, performed by the three dancers. In one of the most awe-inspiring moments of recent contemporary dance, the performers recite increasingly complicated sequences of numbers in what becomes a flowing stream of poetic Fibonacci, consecutive and prime numbers.
Antony Hamilton’s ingenious crossover of dance and visual arts led him to undertake a curatorial project for the National Gallery of Victoria. Recognising his significance as a bold new voice in Australian art, the gallery invited Hamilton to program a series of dance performances, events and workshops for Melbourne Now in 2014. It provided an opportunity for Hamilton to invite independent dancers to present to a wide array of audiences and program workshops for children. Participants were also invited to the studios of Chunky Move and Lucy Guerin Inc. to witness firsthand the process of creating contemporary dance.
The lineage of the crossover between visual arts and dance forged in the mid 20th century is thriving today and offers audiences new ways to experience the combined potency of performance, dance and visual media. In a world dominated by information and textual overload, dance is also becoming an increasingly popular form to reflect upon and embody the rapidly changing global landscape. Collaboration across disciplines can offer a more complex and nuanced interpretation of emerging and developing trends in culture and society. In one such collaboration, Sydney-based artists Josephine Starrs and Leon Cmielewski have worked together for over twenty years on interactive and video projects that engage with new technologies, video games and more recently environmental sustainability.
A proposed new work, Augmented Terrain will be a large-scale media artwork that re-presents the relationship between nature and culture. The intention is to configure the land itself as active, not neutral, and to imagine it being able to speak and make comment about human impacts upon it.” A key element to this work is utilising drones to capture aerial images of landscapes in crisis. Primarily a military technology, drones are entering the airspace and the mainstream as both objects of surveillance and utilitarian enterprise.
Starrs and Cmielewski have chosen to work with drones as they offer a more precise means of filming landscapes and capturing the human impact on the terrain. They are also acutely aware of the provenance of drones and their capacity to be intrusive and menacing.
As part of their research into Augmented Terrain and the anxiety around drones, Starrs and Cmielewski have been working with dancer Alison Plevey to record site-responsive performances during a residency at Bundanon, south of Sydney. The artists have said of the “drone dancer”: “In response to the persistently intrusive drone, she exhibits a range of different emotions including curiosity, agitation, engagement and resignation. At Siteworks 2014 she performed live at night to both her own video image and the live drone.
The effect of the drone and dancer together is both repellent and mesmerising. The drone observes the dancer, mimics her and challenges her. It is an experiment in choreography that reacts to a presence that is at the same time malevolent and benign. This research element has developed into an installation in its own right and will be presented as part of the Performance Space program Liveworks in November 2015. Drones will start to appear in more artworks, contemporary dance and performance. With their ability to be so precisely computer programmed, they are creative and performative elements in their own right.
With its substantial history and foundations, contemporary dance continues to be a dynamic and experimental artform today. It is a genre that embraces multidisciplinary approaches and ways of working, engaging with artists and creatives from across many sectors. In Australia it is a significant presence and serves as a laboratory for new ideas and explorations, with artists, dancers and choreographers forging visionary pathways. Australian contemporary dance is toured across the world and has staked a place in the international conversation with the work of the early pioneers of this resilient and evolving artform.
- ^ The Independent, 7 July 2010.
- ^ Garry Stewart, ‘Mind, body and the evolution of a dance work’, RealTime, no. 94, December 2009, p. 14.
- ^ From the synopsis on the Australian Dance Theatre website: www.adt.org.au/current/works/proximity.
- ^ Quoted from ABC Arts online: www.abc.net.au/arts/stories/s3827460.htm.
- ^ Jane Howard, ‘Multiverse review — dancers play with 3D projections and optical illusions’ on the Australian culture blog, The Guardian, 11 July 2014.
- ^ Antony Hamilton interviewed by Tim Stone for ABC Arts Online, 3 May 2013: www.abc.net.au/arts/stories/s3751067.htm.
- ^ Antony Hamilton, quoted from his statement on the Chunky Move website: chunkymove.com.au/our-works/current-repertoire/keep-everything.
- a, b Quoted from the Augmented Terrain project website: projects.josephinestarrs.com.
Proximity (interactive) by Garry Stewart and the Australian Dance Theatre will be shown as part of the 2016 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, 27 February – 15 May 2016. Multiverse will commence its third European tour in October this year.
Antony Hamilton will be presenting NYX, a new work for Melbourne Festival, October 2015. He is also presenting Meeting (2015) in Ludwigshafen, Germany, Helsinki, Budapest and Paris in late 2015–16.