Raewyn Hill, artistic director of Co3, takes Nina Levy behind the scenes of the contemporary dance company’s upcoming season of Frank Enstein, a darkly comic retelling of Mary Shelley’s classic tale, with a message for young and old.
WA’s Co3 and Queensland’s The Farm may be dance companies based on opposite sides of Australia but their respective directors go back a long way. The common link is Townsville-based company Dancenorth (An aside: if you were lucky enough to catch Attractor at this year’s Perth Festival then you saw Dancenorth in action). Gavin Webber, now co-director of The Farm, was artistic director of Dancenorth from 1997-2005. “And I took over Dancenorth when he left,” explains Co3 director Raewyn Hill. “When I left Dancenorth, Gavin had just arrived back from Berlin, and was setting up The Farm on the Gold Coast [with co-director Grayson Millwood].” It was 2014, the same year that Co3 was established in WA.
As the two newest contemporary dance companies in Australia, it made sense to collaborate, continues Hill. “Because we’d had such a long artistic association I invited Gavin to be one of our guest choreographers for Co3’s launch season. Then the opportunity came about for a full-length work. Gavin and Grayson had been talking to me about Frank Enstein and I decided it was a great time for it.”
And so, in April 2017, Frank Enstein premiered in WA. Webber and Millwood are no strangers to our state capital – they toured to Perth as Splintergroup with lawn in 2006 and roadkill in 2009, and collaborated with Ochre Contemporary Dance Company to present Good Little Soldier last year – and those who have seen the pair’s work will know it ranges from blackly comic to downright disturbing. Frank Enstein sits at the lighter end of their spectrum. As the name suggests, the work references Mary Shelley’s famed nineteenth century novel, with a lone scientist who creates a monster (or three)… but Frank Enstein is full of quirky touches. A monster pops out of a smoking wheelie bin, a vacuum hose wreaks suction-based havoc… it’s classic Webber and Millwood, lavishly kooky.
“Gavin and Grayson are… some of the bravest, most courageous artists working currently. They constantly push the boundaries in terms of concept and in terms of content delivery,” muses Hill. “They have a very distinct style of work, a very clear and established aesthetic in terms of movement language, design and working process. They come with an enormous amount of personality, an enormous amount of desire to create something original, they have this incredibly ability to tackle big subjects and balance them with humour and irony.”
Frank Enstein will have its second outing in Perth this April, but the production won’t be quite the same as last time. In the premiere season, the cast was entirely composed of adults, with Daniel Monks taking the lead role of Frank and Brianna
Kell as the young woman who discovers the inventor and his creations. This time those two characters will be played by teenagers, William Rees, a young actor based in Canberra, and Luci Young, a West Australian dancer and Co3’s Act-Belong-Commit CoYouth Ensemble member.
The recast took place because Monks was not available to do the repeat season. “That led to lots of different conversations about the work and where it could go next,” explains Hill. “We were drawn to idea of creating the characters using younger performers, to bring a new voice and perspective to the work.” For Hill, incorporating young performers was a philosophical decision too. Co3 was formed by amalgamating Buzz Dance Theatre and STEPS Youth Dance Company, two companies that focused on working with young dancers and young audiences, and Hill is conscious of upholding that heritage. “Youth and education are a big part of the company’s legacy, but I also believe that’s where our future is,” she reflects. “I hold that responsibility really strongly, to nurture the next generation of dancers. That idea of the younger dancers joining the company dancers onstage will continue as the company develops.”
As well as strengthening the link between generations of performers, the recast has seen the work develop and change, says Hill. “The way we work as a company is that the personality and character of the performers plays a big part in how the work is developed. So there are big changes to the work because of the cast changes. Luci and William bring an enormous amount to the work in terms of their life skills and where they’re at, in relation to the subjects that Frank Enstein deals with. Gavin and Grayson have drawn on that and also on their particular personalities.”
Like the works made by Co3’s predecessor companies, Frank Enstein is pitched at both children (eight and above) and adults, with its story line about Frank, a lonely guy who wants to bring his imaginary friends to life. Managing a physical impairment, Frank longs for acceptance by others… a concept that we can all relate to, says Hill, no matter what our age. “That idea of the struggle to find our place, our worth… we all experience that regardless of age, race, religion,” she reflects. “A 10 year old’s concept of fitting in and finding place and worth is actually the same as an 80 year olds, just on a different level. The work is a reminder, too, to be a little less judgmental and a little more accepting of others around us. It’s as much about acceptance of others as about self-acceptance.”
Pictured top are (L-R): Luci Young, Andrew Searle and William Rees, rehearsing the 2018 season of ‘Frank Enstein’. Photo: Stefan Gosatti.