A woman singing against a pink drape.
Features, Music, News, Opinion

Balancing the scale

Did anyone else notice?

Featured among the international artists appearing at the Perth Festival were two local composers, and they were both women.

Cat Hope’s searing opera Speechless made a profound impact on audiences at its premiere and scores by Rachael Dease were a large part of the success of the daring dance theatre work Sunset (STRUT Dance and Maxine Doyle, with Tura New Music) and the children’s theatre piece A Ghost in My Suitcase (Barking Gecko Theatre).

A female singer on a dark stage
Composer Rachael Dease in “Sunset”. Photo: Anthony Tran.

It went unmentioned – as it should. A woman composer headlining a national festival shouldn’t be exceptional. Yet until very recently it has been. As we celebrate International Women’s Day today it is worth remembering that the playing field has not been even for women in the arts and in many ways they are still playing catch up.

Everything I’ve ever wanted to do would’ve been easier had I
been a boy. But never mind, I never paid much attention to it,
I just marched in and there I was.

These fighting words come from Peggy Glanville-Hicks (1912-1990), arguably the most famous female composer in her lifetime and one of the first Australian women to march into the male-dominated world of composition.

Back then the costs were high: Glanville-Hicks’ colleague Margaret Sutherland was married to a psychiatrist who thought a woman wanting to compose music was a sign of mental illness, while many women had to lie about their gender to be published. Positions on the boards and in the institutions were held by men, who also received the majority of the commissions. In spite of this Sutherland almost single-handedly pioneered modernism in Australian music and in 1938 Glanville-Hicks was the first person to represent Australia at the International Society of Contemporary Music.

Australian women have made a significant contribution to Australian music history, a subject I researched and celebrated in my book Women of Note; the rise of Australian women composers (Fremantle Press 2012). As I pieced together the missing jigsaw pieces of our music history it became startlingly clear that our women composers have substantially shaped our history, often punching above their male contemporaries and often against great odds.

Today Dease, Hope and their female colleagues make up around 27 percent of Australian composers, sound artists and improvising performers. Sadly our concert programs (in any musical genre) don’t reflect anywhere near this statistic. Musicologist Sally Macarthur noted in 2013 that only 11 percent of the works in Australian new art music concerts advertised online featured works by women. And you can scour the West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s 2019 program without finding any female composers represented.

Album cover for Women of NoteFortunately some organisations and individuals are rethinking their approach to inclusive programming and commissioning. ABC Classic has begun to intentionally program more music by women on its airwaves and, as part of International Women’s Day, has scheduled four days of music entirely by women. The station has also released an album titled Women of Note which celebrates 100 years of music by Australian women. This contribution towards a more balanced canon of music is a crucial part of rewriting history and normalising gender diversity for future generations.

The album includes music by Sutherland, Glanville-Hicks and other trailblazing works including Miriam Hyde’s first Piano Concerto, premiered in 1934 by the composer with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, plus Dulcie Holland’s highly regarded Piano Trio, a work that was unperformed for nearly fifty years before it was unearthed and premiered at the Adelaide Composing Women Festival in 1991.

The album also pays tribute to living composers such as Anne Boyd whose As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams (1975) was an early precursor of minimalism. Elena Kats-Chernin, arguably Australia’s most popular and best known composer, is represented with her famous Russian Rag while Yuin woman Brenda Gifford brings insights from her Indigenous culture to the Western classical tradition. And composers such as Sally Whitwell, Maria Grenfell, Kate Moore, Nicole Murphy and Olivia Bettina Davies represent the myriad ways in which classical music is developing in the 21st century.

Which brings us back to Cat Hope and Rachael Dease and their fresh, absolutely unique contributions to the Perth Festival. I hope I wasn’t the only one who noticed. I hope curators, directors and commissioners noticed. I hope commentators, creators and the audience noticed. And I hope future generations of gender diverse composers noticed.

– Rosalind Appleby

To celebrate International Women’s Day Seesaw has copies of ABC Classic’s album Women of Note and Appleby’s book Women of Note; the rise of Australian women composers to give away. To enter, email hello@seesawmag.com.au with “Women of note comp” in the subject heading. Competition closes 5pm, March 11.

Pictured top: Soloist Karina Utomo in Cat Hope’s “Speechless”. Photo: Rachael Barrett.

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Features, News, Opinion, Performing arts

Celebrating a decade of Performing Lines WA

Last month, Performing Lines WA celebrated its tenth anniversary and officially said goodbye to its founding senior producer Fiona de Garis. At the party, Performing Lines WA Senior Producer Rachael Whitworth gave a heartfelt address, honouring both de Garis and the organisation’s achievements over the last decade. Seesaw editor Nina Levy was so impressed by her words that she has decided to share them with you all.

Ten years ago, Performing Lines WA  was established in Perth, with Fiona de Garis at its helm, a satellite for the Sydney-based Performing Lines. Since then the company has produced an astounding array of performances by some of Western Australia’s most exciting and innovative independent performing artists. In November Performing Lines WA held a party to celebrate its tenth anniversary and farewell de Garis, who accepted the position of executive director of Bunbury Regional Entertainment Centre earlier this year. Please enjoy Rachael Whitworth’s address:

In 2008, Performing Lines WA was established with one staff member, producer Fiona de Garis, who was soon joined by the talented Sarah Rowbottam as a marketing assistant. Performing Lines WA was part of the MAPS program (Management and Producing Services) an initiative by the Australia Council and the then Department and Culture of the Arts. Squashed into a tiny office donated by Country Arts WA, Fiona and Sarah began working with their six chosen MAPS artists: Sue Peacock, Sally Richardson, Chrissie Parrot’s Jambird, Danielle Micich, PVI collective and Marrugeku.

At this time, there were no other independent producers working in WA so it was such new territory – so much opportunity but also, many challenges.

Long before I joined Performing Lines WA, I remember a dancer – a personal friend – lamenting that Fiona was not allowing Sue Peacock and her dancers work on a Sunday without paying double time. The dancer was completely outraged! How dare she put the project at risk by paying the dancers more money. Apparently Fiona wouldn’t even let them work on a public holiday! The artists had no idea of how to work with a producer or, how a producer could offer more than creating headaches and complicating things.

Eventually, both PVI and Marrgeku moved on, with James Berlyn joining the fold and MAPS renewed for a further three years. Rather the replacing the sixth artist, Fiona negotiated that, to suit the WA context, the final sixth slot should be a flexible one, allowing us to go where the need was greatest and we could have more impact. In hindsight, winning that battle and being the only MAPS unit with this extra flexibility may be one of the reasons why, 10 years on, WA is the only state to continue with a “producing services” model. This typically insightful move from Fiona reflected Performing Lines WA’s constant gaze towards the bigger picture.

Transformation is a key driver: James Berlyn in his one-man show, ‘Tawdry Heartburn’s Manic Cures’.

I was lucky enough to join Performing Lines WA as Producer in 2011, while our founder, Wendy Blacklock, was still general manager of Performing Lines. To this day, I feel her legacy. “Change through practice” was something Wendy always spoke about. It is this that Fiona and I have held closely in our hearts and our vision; not just talking about change, but doing something that has impact and models potential, evolving and growing. I can see now that this has permeated everything we have done over the past 10 years, and believe this is why a very small organisation has achieved great things.

So what do we do?

We champion artists. We do this by believing in them, supporting them and, at times, challenging them to achieve their goals and create something extraordinary.

Transformation is our key driver, whether that be in an artist’s practice, spotting a gap in the industry, pushing presenters to program something they may have never presented before or surprising an audience with the unexpected. We created many one-man shows with James Berlyn, for example, often designed to be performed for an audience of one. From drag queens, to manicurists, to a show performed in a completely made-up language, these intimate shows touched people as they toured to major Australian Festivals, developing James’s artistic practice and raising his profile – and, no doubt, helping him prepare for his current role as Executive Producer of WA Youth Theatre Company, where he is growing the next generation of West Australian artists.

Our extended engagement with people – not just projects – can create long-term sustainability and transformation for artists, whose ideas can then go further and have more impact.

Developing touring ecology: Danielle Micich’s ‘Shiver’.

We’ve been a passionate advocate for the developing touring ecology in WA, always working collaboratively with presenters rather than just “selling” a show. In 2014 we were awarded the first Pilot Boost Touring grant for contemporary dance work Shiver by Danielle Micich to tour seven regional WA venues. Boost was an experiment to see if deep community engagement strategies built audiences and enriched their experience. Working in partnership with Ausdance WA’s regional facilitator Annette Carmichael, the Shiver tour engaged with local artists and community members in bespoke ways across the state and was incredibly successful in engaging people with the contemporary dance art-form. This landmark tour underpinned what is now the Regional and Remote Touring Fund, which has a unique and much-needed focus on responsive and deeper engagement with regional audiences.

We always want to work with artists who have something important to say about the world in which we live today. Core to our practice as producers is supporting artists committed to pushing the boundaries of their artistic form, and interested in using new performance models and new platforms that may sit outside traditional theatre walls.

In 2017, in partnership with Perth Festival, we premiered Small Voices Louder by Alex Desebrock’s company Maybe ( ) Together. The show has just completed its second tour of WA. A two-part interactive performance project, Small Voices Louder captures kids’ thoughts, concerns and big ideas. Transformed into byte-sized sound-works, these are then shared back to the tour communities via radio, podcast and social media, foregrounding children’s voices in the usually-fairly-deaf adult world.

Using new performance models: Maybe () Together’s ‘Small Voices Louder’.

Outside WA, we have actively grown our networks, intent on profiling the amazing work of West Australian artists to create more sustainable careers for them. At times our artists create a ripple of change on the national landscape.

We have worked with Sensorium Theatre almost from their inception, the only Australian company creating work for children with disability. Working with this company has meant more than just creating high quality artistic product. It is an opportunity to fundamentally change the way the industry thinks about inclusive programming.

Changing the way the industry thinks about inclusive programming: Sensorium Theatre’s Odyssey.

Sensorium’s excellence and best practice models were recognised this year with an invitation for a three-week season at New York’s Lincoln Center. Sensorium not only toured to the Lincoln Center but shortly afterwards to Singapore where the interest in their work was so strong, we are investigating a three year engagement and artistic exchange program.

But it’s not only Sensorium playing international stages. I am increasingly witnessing a demand for West Australian work overseas. Recently, we produced a development of Sally Richardson’s new cross-cultural work Gui Shu, a collaboration between independent artists from Taiwan and Australia with a showing at the Asia Discover Asia meeting in Taiwan in August. At APAM this year, Maybe ( ) Together was approached by an American agent wanting to represent Small Voices Louder internationally. We were invited to present Small Voices, along with Sensorium’s new work Whoosh!, as full shows at IPAY in Philedelphia this coming January. Unfortunately we were not able to fund this, so will instead pitch both works to over 500 international delegates. And before a new project, Layla and Majnun, has even been finished, we have had presenters from across Australia and globally enquire about this epic Persian tale of star-crossed lovers.

The experience of working with Sensorium increased our commitment to inclusion and diversity and we began to question our own claim to be working with artists reflecting the society we live in, as we were mostly working with artists from a similar cultural background. On the bigger stage, we were also not seeing the real diversity of Australian society being reflected. How could we contribute to the sharing of more diverse stories for more diverse audiences? These were big questions that led us back to change through practice. In 2017 we needed a new associate producer and decided to prioritise culturally diverse candidates. This is how Zainab Syed came to be a key member of our team and her appointment has had a fundamental impact on us internally, on our program, and – already – on WA audiences.

Less than three months after Zainab joined us we embarked on creating Layla and Majnun, and almost immediately found a completely new audience. During the development we hosted a talk by Layla and Majnun’s writer and internationally renowned scholar, Feriadoon Mojadedi. The talk sold out, and that night I was completely overwhelmed, mainly because most people that were there I had never seen at the theatre before. I felt immense pride as I recognised quite concretely how a simple decision can have such an immediate and far-reaching impact.

Pushing the boundaries: ‘Dark Matter’ by Praxis

Core to our success has always been our amazing team. Missing tonight is Sarah Rowbottam (now producer at Arts House, Melbourne), and here tonight is Thom Smyth (now marketing manager for Performing Lines in Sydney), each of whom played enormous roles in developing Performing Lines WA.

Supported by our Sydney head office our WA team is actually only the equivalent of 2.8 full time staff. Associate Producer Zainab Syed, Producer Jen Leys, and Marketing and Project Coordinator Cecile Lucas – you are incredible women.

And so, you can see that, over the last 10 years, we, Performing Lines WA, have also transformed and will continue to do so. In the beginning, both artists and producers were learning how to work with each other but in the long-term, we have strived to produce work that the world wants to see backed by the experience and skill to make it happen.

Of course, none of this would have been possible without Fiona (but I’ll talk about her in a minute).

To the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries I also want to say a big thank you. You have been the only State Government with the vision to continue to support producing services for independent artists when MAPS ended and let the model evolve in response to emerging need. Change doesn’t happen quickly and we hope that you can see what an incredible impact Performing Lines WA has had on the arts sector in our 10-year journey.

To all the wonderful artists we get to work with every day. I haven’t been able to mention you all but there is a slide show tonight displaying all the projects by all artists we have worked with over the past decade.

Wendy Blacklock and Fiona de Garis

Lastly, to Fiona.

As you have heard, tonight, this dream of Performing Lines WA has been one that Fiona has nurtured, developed and championed. She  has been such an incredible leader of our team. We haven’t had many staff over the years and I think this is because Fiona is so great to work with; giving, passionate, attentive to detail, demanding of the arts sector, insightful, intelligent… and just a really nice, caring person.

One of Fiona’s biggest strengths is “realising potential”, not just of the artists (who LOVE her) but also of each of the members of the Performing Lines WA team.

This has been particularly true for me. We have been so lucky to have worked together for over eight years. We were the perfect combo – her straight-forward stage management sense and intuitive people skills coupled with my artistic background; challenging each other, pushing each other with a constant focus on how to make better art.

Fiona leads with care and sensitivity and when she says what she thinks, everyone listens.

So, thank you, Fiona, for realising all of our potential and bringing Performing Lines WA to the exciting place it is today.

Read more about Performing Lines.

Pictured top is the Performing Lines team at the tenth anniversary/farewell Fiona party, with Wendy Blacklock centre, Fiona de Garis, Cecile Lucas and Megan Roberts (Performing Lines General Manager) to her right and Thom Smyth, Rachael Whitworth, Zainab Syed and Jen Leys to her left.

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Features, News, Opinion, Visual arts

A space of one’s own

Artist-run galleries form a vital part of the visual arts ecosystem, acting as breeding grounds for new ideas and practices, as well as bringing vitality to our cities and towns. But finding an affordable and secure lease can be a massive challenge, writes Nina Levy.

The sudden closure of Moana Project Space  late last year came as a shock to the visual arts community. The artist-run initiative (ARI) had occupied a space on Hay Street for five years and was forced to vacate the premises in November, cutting short Tom Blake’s “downstream dreams”, an exhibition which had opened just days earlier.

Co-director Miranda Johnson explains that Moana Project Space acquired the lease on the Hay Street gallery back in 2012, through Spacemarket, a company that acts as an interface between owners/managers of empty spaces and people, such as independent designers and artists, who want space but may not be able to access it for various reasons, including cost. One of Spacemarket’s best-known projects is Many 2.0 in Fremantle. The Moana Chambers project was one of the company’s first ventures, incorporating a cafe, gallery and studio spaces for freelancers.

“The lease for the Moana Chambers floor was always a five-year term, so Spacemarket had warned us it would need to be renegotiated in November, but they were confident that their lease would be renewed,” says Johnson. “However, the owners decided not to renew Spacemarket’s lease on the floor because the owners decided it would be more lucrative leasing it to someone else. I believe there was quite a lot of negotiation behind the scenes, but they couldn’t come to an agreement.”

“ARIs are vitally important to the development of individual artistic practice.” Pictured is the opening of “The Qube” by Tapan Moharana, at Paper Mountain, an ARI combining  gallery space and artist studios.

The concept of letting unused real estate cheaply to artists is not a new one. One of the best-known Australian examples is Renew Newcastle, a project that was founded in 2008 by Marcus Westbury to match artists and creative projects in need of space with empty shops and offices in the then-rundown Newcastle CBD. The project saw numerous artists occupying unused space, which then attracted commercial tenants back to the area. It is widely acknowledged that the project was responsible for the upturn in the fortunes of a formerly declining area of the city.

Importantly you don’t have to wait to be picked up or noticed by a supposedly sanctified second or third party. You can play, experiment and take risks.

While there is plenty of empty space in Perth, however, it’s not easy for ARIs to find a home. Penny Bovell, West Australian artist and chair of WA’s peak body for visual arts, Artsource, explains. “The business sector has to acknowledge that making a profit is not always the answer. Social and ethical transactions can have far more value. There has been much research done about the benefits of artists activating and maintaining spaces, building communities, attracting people and making communities safe. The list goes on.

“It is, however, important to note that whilst artists activate space well, they need clearly identifiable support such as security of a lease and cost-effective rents in relation to their low incomes. I find it very sad that there are so many empty buildings across the suburbs because landlords are holding out for high rental returns.”

In addition to bringing vibrancy to business or retail areas ARIs are vitally important to the development of individual artistic practice, says Bovell, allowing artists the freedom to experiment. “Being involved in an ARI means you have control, you can direct your own career, market and present your work in a way you choose,” she remarks. “Importantly you don’t have to wait to be picked up or noticed by a supposedly sanctified second or third party. You can play, experiment and take risks – these are very important attributes to foster throughout an artist’s career.”

Artsource encourages ARI activity by providing exhibition space for artists. Pictured is Joshua Webb’s work for “High Visions”, currently exhibiting at Artsource’s Old Customs House in Fremantle. Photo: Bennett Miller.

And ARIs aren’t just for early career artists, she adds. “It is generally accepted that ARIs offer an essential incubating environment for emerging artists but I would argue it is important to be involved in ARIs throughout one’s career. Creative people have to make things happen for themselves. A good example of this the ArtCollectiveWA, a not-for-profit made up of well established artists whose task is to support the director with the business of running the gallery and ensuring its financial viability.

The business model for an ARI is frustratingly tenuous. It’s built on high ideals (which I like), hard work and usually involves very little financial reward (if any).

While it all sounds idyllic, the financial reality of running an ARI is anything but, observes Bovell. “The business model for an ARI is frustratingly tenuous. It’s built on high ideals (which I like), hard work and usually involves very little financial reward (if any).”

So why do artists bother?

“The lack of financial reward doesn’t stop artists from setting up ARIs because they are deeply satisfying and exciting ventures to be involved with,” replies Bovell. “Edgy, inventive and enterprising, they are a way of participating in the business of art without the expectations and encumbrances of established gallery and institutional models.”

Not surprisingly, though, there are casualties, says Bovell. “If only ARIs could be self-sufficient and sustainable but sadly people involved in ARIs often burn out and this can become debilitating and demoralising, with artists forced to leave the sector,” she comments.

It’s in response to such challenges that Artsource has planned a new key service for artists in 2018. “We have opened up our magnificent Atrium space to encourage ARI activity,” reports Bovell. “Currently Bennett Miller from Social Media is using the ground floor of Old Customs House (OCH) Fremantle to execute projects with our broad base of members. Other ARIs are encouraged to collaborate and we aim to grow professional development opportunities from the OCH hub.”

It’s a step in the right direction.

If you have any leads for a CBD space for Moana please contact info@moana-ari.com

What is an “ARI”?
“An Artist Run Initiative is formed by a group of artists or creatives banding together to share skills, space and facilities. They collaborate or help each other with projects, exhibitions and events,” explains Bovell. “I like Paper Mountain’s definition “ARIs are loosely organised art collectives often occupying the marginal spaces of repurposed buildings.”

A non-exhaustive list of some of WA’s currently operating ARIs:

If you know of an WA ARI (metro or regional) that you would like to see added to this list please email hello@seesawmag.com.au with the name of the ARI, its street address (suburb or town) and a link to its website.

Top image: Artwork by George Howlett for “High Visions”, exhibiting at Old Custom’s House, Fremantle, until 11 February 2018 . Photo: Bennett Miller.

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How to choose your Fringe World shows

Seesaw’s Nina Levy offers her tips for avoiding a Festival freak out navigating the Fringe World program.

Ah Fringe World. When, for a blissful month, Perth becomes a cultural wonderland, packed to the gills with arty goodness and fairy-lit festival gardens. This year’s Fringe World is bigger than ever with over 750 events to choose from. It’s set to go off with a bang from January 26, with a long weekend stuffed full of free and ticketed treats that will launch us into over four weeks of Fringe fun-times.

Opening the Fringe World program brochure for the first time (or browsing the website if you prefer) is exciting… but it can also be daunting. 750 is a big number. More than 750 is even bigger. It’s not difficult to morph from Fringe anticipation to Fringe panic.

To help you avoid a Fringe Freak Out, Seesaw’s editor Nina Levy has put together this handy guide for choosing a show. These suggestions are in no particular order and may be used independently of one another.

Get comfortable and go old school
As the folk at Fringe World suggest, don’t rush this. Make a cup of your preferred hot beverage (or pour a glass of your favourite cold one), and relax while you browse the brochure. While the program is available online, Seesaw recommends grabbing a hard copy of the program for the purposes of choosing shows.

Don’t try to do it in one go
Life is short but the program is long. It will be easier to make decisions if you’ve had a few chances to peruse the program before you start the selection process.

Break it down
a) By genre: The hard copy guide is conveniently organised by genre and tackling a genre at a time is a great way to avoid overwhelm.. although – be warned – some of the genres seem like festival programs in their own right. If too much choice stresses you out we suggest starting with one of the following: dance & physical theatrefree & community, music & musicals, street performance buskers or visual arts.

b) By hub/venue: Some of the Fringe venues run curated micro-programs under the Fringe World umbrella. Seesaw’s pick of the bunch is the ‘Summer Nights’ program which operates from the Blue Room Theatre, the State Theatre Centre of WA and COMO The Treasury. Check out some of the suburban programs too such as the Sunset Verandah in Scarborough, or further afield, regional programs like Geraldton’s Funtavia.

Second time around
If a show is returning from last year it’s likely that it was popular the first time around. You can Google the reviews and/or talk to friends who saw the show to get a better idea of whether it’s for you; likewise artists who are returning with a sequel/follow-up show. Case in point: Lucy Peach’s My Greatest Period Ever was a huge success at Fringe World 2017, winning the Martin Sims Award (the top prize at Fringe World). Peach is back in 2018 with that show plus How to Period Like a Unicorn, aimed at teens and their parents.

Take a risk
Don’t play it safe, though. There’s always that show that takes your fancy even though you know nothing about the artists or company involved. Maybe they have a super cool promo photograph or the blurb made you laugh out aloud… whatever, having a strong image or copy doesn’t happen by chance and does tell you something positive about the presenter. Go with your gut – most Fringe shows are relatively cheap (especially the ones that are lesser known) and only take up an hour of your life so you can afford to back some outsiders. And there’s nothing like the thrill of realising, a few minutes in, that you totally picked a winner. (My gut tip is Turquoise Theatre’s Seventeen. Premise: actors over 60 play 17 year olds. Cool pic. I’m in.)

Support your local
Seesaw is all about WA so we strongly suggest you include some WA acts when booking your Fringe shows. While we can’t guarantee enjoyment, we reckon you’re in with a good chance of a solid show – one of the reasons we started Seesaw this year is because of the high quality of artistic work coming out of our state. If we want WA to remain a cool arty place we need to support our artists, so make sure you’ve got some WA in the mix. Handily Fringe includes this info in each listing, alongside an age rating and sizzle factor or you can head to the Homegrown Heroes page, which has a link to all the local acts.

Once Fringe starts there’ll be reviews to read (keep an eye out for Seesaw’s coverage) plus recommendations from friends. It’s worth leaving some space in your calendar for impulse tickets but remember that Fringe venues are often small and word-of-mouth spreads quickly, so it’s worth booking for anything you really want to see.

See you there!

– Nina Levy

Photo: John Leonard

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A necklace of words

What’s it like to be an arts critic? Seesaw editor and performing arts critic Nina Levy answers your questions about the highs and lows of writing reviews.

How do you manage next day deadlines?
Actually, the pressure to get the piece online as quickly as possible is one of the aspects of reviewing that I enjoy most. As any writer knows, it’s easy for a job to take way more time than it should, as words are pondered then lovingly selected, honed and pruned. Writing reviews for an online publication (or a daily newspaper), however, is a bit like doing an exam – I’ve usually got about three hours to write approximately 500 words so discipline is a necessity. As I flex my typing fingers, I feel a surge of adrenalin. There’s nothing like the thrill of a deadline to sharpen the mind.

Do you watch work differently when you are reviewing, in comparison to when you are an ordinary audience member?
Yes! When I’m not reviewing, I’ll sit back, in a sense, and let the performance wash over me. Maybe the ebb and flow will suck me in, or maybe not… it depends on the work. When I’m reviewing, however, I’m engaged from the start, alert to detail, no matter how I feel about what I am watching.

How do you remember what you’ve seen?
I always take notes while watching work, even though I can’t see what I am writing in the dark of the theatre. Those who’ve seen the resulting scrawl usually also ask, “Can you read what you’ve written?” Sometimes I can’t… but it doesn’t matter because I don’t rely heavily on those notes when I write the response. It’s the simple act of taking notes that helps to transfer scenes into my memory.

Is it hard to write reviews?
Although I love being a critic, it comes with challenges. The hardest review to write is one where I have neither loved nor loathed what I have seen. Indifference can be difficult to describe and justify. Sometimes reviewing something I have absolutely loved is challenging too – finding words that will adequately and eloquently convey the experience to the reader.

What if people don’t agree with your review?
A review is an opinion piece. As such, it’s inevitable that not everyone will agree with the conclusions reached. That’s another challenging aspect of being a critic. Whilst I strive for diplomacy in my writing, I’m not always afforded the same consideration by readers… but I’ve learned to harden up.

That doesn’t sound like fun! Why do you do it?
Reviewing brings me joy! I love writing about performances, especially dance. In the auditorium words begin to bubble in my head. Back at my desk, I string adjectives together like beads; a necklace of words.

Sometimes I will see or hear quotes from my reviews used in other contexts – to promote works, artists or companies. That’s always a lovely moment – to know that a review is serving a purpose beyond the page.


Nina Levy has been a a dance critic for over ten years, writing reviews for The West Australian newspaper and Dance Australia magazine. 

A version of this article was first published in dancewest magazine, March 2015.


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The interpretation of [downstream] dreams

An essay about Tom Blake’s “Downstream Dreams”, exhibited at Moana Project Space, 17-19 November 2017 ·
By Belinda Hermawan ·

Within ten minutes of arriving at the opening night of Tom Blake’s “Downstream Dreams” at Moana Project Space, I find myself standing next to an old schoolmate of Tom’s, the two of us looking inward at the space with our backs to the entrance. I, too, am a former classmate of Tom’s – we met at university, studying law.

There seems to be a moment of shared awe at Tom’s works. The ubiquitous Wi-Fi signal – a familiar circle from which curved lines radiate outwards – has been deconstructed in playful yet thought-provoking ways. New patterns form on blue backgrounds and on mirrored surfaces. Our own reflections are reflected back at us, and a hitherto banal symbol that we had all, arguably, taken for granted seems to be prompting us to think about connectivity at a personal, as well as technological, level.

The schoolmate remarks that he always thought Tom would end up as a hotshot lawyer and/or a judge, and that this artistic genius is a pleasant surprise. I concur wholeheartedly. We discuss possible meanings of some of the motifs. The use of blue is deliberate, we decide, reminding us of water, an integral element of life (probably the way most of us would class the internet as well). This aquatic sentiment is echoed in the blue silk towel adorned with a freeform Wi-Fi symbol that hangs on a chrome rack on one wall, diametrically opposite a chrome tap installed on another wall and spilling the internet from up high. It is a daily ritual to immerse ourselves in, and consume, streams of online imagery and data, to the point where doing so is largely unremarkable.

And then, like a fleeting encounter on an internet messageboard, we disconnect politely and I never see the schoolmate again.

Tom Blake, ‘downstream dreams’ (exhibition view), 2017. Photo: Jess Boyce.

Prior to the opening, my last vivid memory of Tom dates back eight years. I sat opposite him at a special luncheon at the University Club at UWA, with Justice Gummow of the High Court presiding over our table. Tom’s intellect was neither boastful nor ordinary, and I remember thinking how relieved I’d been to have held my own in the casual conversation about U.S. constitutional law.

So to reconnect all these years later is a treat. Tom is excited to hear many of the insights being discussed in the gallery space. I mention that many of us are reminded of the blue branding of social media, as well as the blue light emitted from our electronic devices. I ponder out aloud, is it a surprise that we are so addicted to the internet? What does this mean about our present and our future?

Indeed, depictions of the future in film, television and print media all seem to involve the evolution of electronic devices. They seem to be a moniker of progress as projected from our imagination, these new and amazing screens – razor thin surfaces in high definition, multi-sensory touchpads and sweeping holograms – showing us what we can access through the internet and what we can do with this information. Tom mentions that sci-fi movies perpetuate the idea of a blue screen. Intrigued, I subsequently look this up and find an entire podcast discussing the idea that “future screens are blue”. A researcher “posits that, because blue is so rare in nature (if you discount the sky and the ocean, which are arguably not blue) there’s something fundamentally mystical, unnatural, and inhuman about it.” These wild imaginings then influence current design – our present. This all goes beyond the oft-dreaded, much maligned ‘blue screen of death’ on PCs (I have been a loyal Mac user since 2011).

Perhaps the lit-up motifs are fissures in the space-time continuum, beautiful but dangerous.

Tom also explains that the Wi-Fi motif in the pieces transform into an end symbol that is completely new. I note the whimsy and free-flowing nature of this result, appreciating how the mirrors are backlit to illuminate these works of epiphany. The internet has brought society together but has also torn it apart. Perhaps the lit-up motifs are fissures in the space-time continuum, beautiful but dangerous. What Tom presents his audience is an opportunity to interact with something around us, and to think about how symbols form meaning over time.

With the sad and abrupt news of Moana’s closing – the reason the exhibition only runs for a weekend – I look back wistfully and reimagine myself and the old schoolmate in the gallery space, dressed in white lab coats with clipboards in hand, ruminating over Tom’s idea of a “spiral echo chamber” or, perhaps less academically, drawing the curves of a Wi-Fi signal with blue ballpoint pen on a blank piece of paper.

It is ironic that the delay in getting these reflections to you, dear reader, across the otherwise instantaneous internet, is that I am belatedly studying to gain admission to the legal profession. Tom himself always knew he would not become a lawyer. Instead he seems to be advocating for greater expression and thought through the creative, and I, for one, will be interested in what he produces for his next show in Melbourne.

Top: Tom Blake, ‘downstream dreams’ (exhibition view), 2017. Photo: Jess Boyce.

Belinda Hermawan is a graduate of UWA Law School (2009). Her short fiction has appeared in ‘Westerly’, ‘Going Down Swinging’ and ‘Typishly’

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Cream of the crop

What were Seesaw writers’ favourite shows this year? What were the highlights and lowlights for the arts in WA? And which artists will our contributors be looking out for in 2018?

As 2017 draws to a close, Seesaw writers reflect on the year that was and the year that will be.


Xan Ashbury
Seesaw contributor

Top shows
Blink by Phil Porter. Starring Andrea Gibbs and Sean Walsh, the play was directed by Melissa Cantwell and staged as part of the Winter Arts Season in July.

Windmill Baby by David Milroy, directed by Eva Grace Mullaley, staged by the Aboriginal Performance students at WAAPA in November.

Hypatia by Open Lid Ensemble, at the Blue Room in September.

Courtney Turner and Kat Shaw in ‘Hypatia’, a top pick for Xan Ashbury. Photo: Marshall Stay.

Arts highlights
WAAPA branching out to the beautiful south. From 2018 it will run a Diploma of Acting course through ECU’s South West campus in Bunbury.

I am loving the new live music venue The Sewing Room in Wolf Lane.

Looking forward to…
Baba Yaga’s Dream Yurt
Fringe World, Jan 30-Feb 5
Close-up, individual and interactive story creation… in a very intimate venue. Presented by the incredibly talented WA creatives, Flame Collective.

Above the Mealy-Mouthed Sea
Fringe World, Jan 27-Feb 3
Unholy Mess is an award-winning London-based theatre company whose productions combine performance poetry, live singing and physical theatre.

Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour
Perth Festival, Feb 9-Mar 4
“No rehearsals. No preparation. Just a sealed envelope and a new actor reading a script for the first time every performance.”


Varnya Bromilow
Seesaw co-editor

Top show
Co3’s The Zone – just brilliant. I think this is the best work produced yet by our flagship contemporary dance company.

Arts highlight
This is a silly one – I loved the new arts minister’s end of year address in parliament – he sang it. It just made me feel like a like-minded soul was in charge of the WA arts portfolio 🙂 Check it out here

Arts lowlight
I was disappointed I missed the Proximity Festival! #sickkids

Looking forward to…
I am beyond excited about Robert LePage’s work touring for Perth Festival… The Far Side of the Moon. I still talk about the last Festival work I saw of his (Seven Streams of the River Ota) so my expectations are high!

I’m also really excited about James Berlyn’s upcoming work yourseven at PICA – because I’m a sucker for participatory one-on-one performance!


Belinda Hermawan
Seesaw contributor

Top shows
“Downstream Dreams” by Tom Blake, Moana. Works contemplating the psychological frameworks and technological networks that surround us.

“Energies” by David Haines and Joyce Hinterding, PICA. Highly engaging multi-sensory art delving into the science of radio waves, satellites, sun and natural/unnatural forces.

“Montages: The Full Cut 1999–2015” by Tracey Moffatt and collaborator Gary Hillberg, Wanneroo Gallery. A suite of eight short montage films which do much more than showcase highlights from cinematic history.

Parlour Games, Tooth+Nail Theatre Company by Blue Room Theatre (Fringe Festival 2017). Playful and disturbing physical theatre involving acrobatics, shadow-play and an inventive visual style in a story set in 1927 and 1945.

‘Montages: The Full Cut” was a top pick for Belinda Hermawan. Pictured: is a still from Tracey Moffatt and Garry Hillberg’s ‘Other’ 2010, 7 minutes, looped video, sound. Courtesy of artist, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery and Tyler Rollings Fine Art, New York, copyright: the artist.

Arts highlight
I would particularly like to highlight the Centre for Stories’ diverse program of book clubs, writers’ groups, cultural and social issue discussions, book launches, workshops and poetry events in 2017. The Centre has cemented itself as a great hub of literature in Northbridge, and renovations are underway to make the space even better for community members, writers and readers alike, for 2018.

Arts lowlights
With the Department of Culture and the Arts being subsumed into a diverse portfolio under MLA David Templeman, it remains to be seen what level of funding the State Government will commit to across disciplines. The Organisations Investment Program needs further review and revision before the next round of applications is opened to arts organisations in 2019. Funding cuts affect a whole range of disciplines and groups, big and small.

At Federal level, it certainly isn’t getting any easier for organisations to access Australia Council funding either. It is disappointing to have to continually lobby for recognition and funding, and even more so to be judged in purely economic terms when cultural value is often so hard to quantify in dollars but is otherwise known to be necessary for a society to thrive.

Looking forward to…
Seeing what Perth Writers Week 2018 will look like under the curation of The West Australian’s Will Yeoman, who has taken over the reins from Katherine Dorrington. The 2017 festival arguably didn’t showcase WA writers to the best of its ability.


Leon Levy
Seesaw contributor

Top shows
In a year when I was more away from Perth than at home, highlights are necessarily scarce. But WA Opera’s Merry Widow was definitely one for the excellence of every aspect of the production and the sheer pleasure that it gave; and at the other end of the spectrum was Ali Bodycoat as Marlene Dietrich at The Ellington during the Fringe Festival, while WASO’s “Wagner & Beyond” was an inspired presentation.

Away from home, the Art Gallery of NSW presented “Rembrandt and the Dutch golden age”, an extraordinarily powerful selection of masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum.

Taryn Fiebig & Alexander Lewis with artists of West Australian Opera in Graeme Murphy’s ‘The Merry Widow’, a top pick for Leon Levy. Photo: James Rogers.

Arts lowlight
The steady reduction in performance arts coverage – both previews and reviews – in the traditional print media.

Looking forward to…
WASO Strings and Chorus in Haydn, Mozart & Schubert masses at St Mary’s Cathedral.

Jordi Savall and Hesperian XXI in Perth Festival.

WA Opera presenting Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen and WASO’s Tristan und Isolde under Asher Fisch.

“The Corsini Collection: Masterpieces from Florence” @ AGWA.


Nina Levy
Seesaw co-editor

Top shows
One Flat Thing, Reproduced by William Forsythe, presented by STRUT Dance – A brave and beautiful rendition of this seminal work.

Bali (The Last Great Hunt) – A follow-up to the popular Fag/Stag, Bali  tackles some tough topics in amongst its sizzling one-liners. I’m hoping writer/performers Jeffrey Jay Fowler and Chris Isaacs will make it a trilogy.

Proximity Festival – in its fifth iteration, this festival of one-on-one works was, as always, pure joy.

Momentum’s Phillippa Clarke and Julie Doyle rehearsing for “Unstoppable”. Photo: Damian Doyle.

Arts highlight
The creation of Momentum Dance, an ensemble of dancers over 45, who impressed with debut program “Unstoppable” in August this year. Traditionally dance is  thought to be a young person’s game, but Momentum Dance is rewriting the rules. Can’t wait to see what they do in 2018.

Arts lowlight
The forced and sudden closure of artist-run gallery Moana Project Space in November, after five years in its CBD home. WA’s independent galleries play a crucial role, both in providing opportunities for emerging and established local artists to exhibit work and in enlivening our city. I hope Moana is able to find a new home soon.

Looking forward to…
What comes next from independent artists Bernadette Lewis (whose work “The Honeymoon Suite” will premiere at Fringe World), Tyrone Robinson and Emma Fishwick. All three presented tantalising works-in-progress at STRUT Dance’s 2017 “Short Cuts” season.

“Bead Friends Forever”, a collaboration between visual artists Alina Tang and Johanna Acs, to be presented at Paper Mountain in January as part of Fringe World. I’m a fan of Tang’s playfully floral aesthetic, which can currently be found gracing bollards on Rokeby Road, Subiaco, and this show looks like it’s going to be a magical riot of colour, iron-on beads and general happiness.

Perth Festival – but I’m going to cheat and say you can read my top picks here. Hehe.


Phoebe Mulcahy
Seesaw contributor

Top shows
“Energies: Haines & Hinterding”, PICA.
 Intriguing collection of interactive, new-media and ‘electromagnetic’ art.
Looking Glass by Gregory Pryor, AGWA
. Stunning and immersive mixed-media landscape, bearing witness to the destructive force of bushfires in WA.

Arts highlight
It’s been encouraging to see greater recognition of the integral role that ARIs (artist run initiatives) play in the local industry, with partnerships between Paper Mountain and Artsource; as well as a growing sense of integration and collaboration between the various ARIs that make up this network in Perth.

Arts lowlight
The closure of Moana’s Hay Street site was disappointing, but I’m excited to see where they find themselves next over the coming year!

Looking forward to…
I’m really excited to see some of the visual art offerings from the coming Perth Festival, including Kimsooja’s “Zone of Nowhere” and Lisa Reihana’s “Emissaries“.

It’s also going to be great to see new exhibition spaces opening in Perth next year, including new sites for both Moana Project Space and Perth Centre for Photography; as well as The Lobby, a small gallery in Swanbourne that will provide a fantastic new forum for local exhibiting artists.


Claire Trolio
Seesaw contibutor

Top shows
Sista Girl, Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company – I cannot stop thinking about this powerful production since its season in August.

“Boorna Waanginy: The Trees Speak” – Perth International Arts Festival – Immersive art at its best.

Coma Land, Black Swan State Theatre Company and Performing Lines WA – Masterful writing and performances that had me laughing, then crying, then laughing again within minutes.

Morgan Owen and Humphrey Bower in ‘Coma Land’, a top pick for Claire Trolio. Photo: Philip Gostelow.

Arts highlight
I’m excited that The Sewing Room has just opened, as a new venue for live music in Perth. (Going to check it out this weekend!)

Looking forward to…
Local songstress Stella Donnelly has had a great year with the release of her EP Thrush Metal, with momentum gaining I can’t wait to see her kick goals in 2018!

Innua Ellams won my heart earlier this year with his show An Evening with an Immigrant as well as appearances at the Perth Writers Festival. I’m looking forward to seeing his new show Barber Shop Chronicles as part of Perth Festival next year.


Pictured top: Jeffrey Jay Fowler and Chris Isaacs in ‘Bali’. Photo: Daniel James Grant.

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Unpacking our libraries: a reflection on creating

Behind every artist is a rich collection, a “library”, compiled of works by other creators, writes Claire Coleman.

Walter Benjamin’s 1931 essay “Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting”  is a favourite reference for literary types looking for ways to articulate, and perhaps justify, their intimate relationships with their books. In the essay, Benjamin captures the affection many collectors have for the texts, tracts and tomes that come to fill their shelves, describing the “thrill” of adding a book to his personal library and the aesthetic enjoyment of books as beautiful objects separate from their reading-use value. Benjamin describes the personal library as an adaptable organism that captures and represents a series of moments in the collector’s life, a kind of physical record of the way interests and pursuits change over time. As Benjamin aptly puts it, “Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.”

Although few avid readers might think of ourselves as “collectors”, the stacks of books that populate our homes are, in reality, a collection. Regardless of how much thought goes into our book acquisitions, our libraries are curated and catalogued according to whatever ordered or disordered system suits us at any particular time. No two collections are alike; each bookshelf’s contents are particular, unique and precious. Some accounts of Benjamin’s exile in Paris even suggest he was so attached to his own library that he delayed his flight from the advancing Nazi forces, not wishing to leave his books behind. Regardless of whether this romanticised version of Benjamin’s grim biography is fact or fiction, after reading “Unpacking My Library” it feels like it could be true. Each sentence of Benjamin’s essay conveys the image of a man deeply enamoured of his book collection.

Some accounts of Benjamin’s exile in Paris even suggest he was so attached to his own library that he delayed his flight from the advancing Nazi forces, not wishing to leave his books behind.

Benjamin gives a further explanation for the strength of the book-human connection, touching on the influential role books play on artists, in this case writers, and the works they make. Benjamin makes the somewhat extreme suggestion that authors might be partly motivated to write by a desire to improve the world’s available reading resources, “because they are dissatisfied with the books which they could buy but do not like.” Although the process of creative inspiration is certainly more complex than a simple wish to populate bookshelves of the world with texts more suited to the author’s personal tastes, books certainly stimulate the ideas glands of many artists.

The 57th International Art Biennale, held in Venice this year, acknowledged this reality through a project based on Benjamin’s essay. The “Unpacking My Library” project, in which the favourite books of the Biennale’s exhibiting artists have been compiled and gathered in a small library located among the national pavilions in the Giardini, is one of a series of measures taken by curator Christine Marcel to focus this year’s Biennale on “the role, the voice and the responsibility of the artist.”  The Biennale’s complementary projects include a weekly “Open Table” discussion between artists and audiences, and a series of videos called the “Artists’ Practices Project”  in which artists talk about “themselves and their ways of working.” These dialogues, exegeses and examples treat creative practice and inspiration as interactive and interdisciplinary processes.

If books can inspire fine art, can the reverse also occur?

Several titles influenced by paintings and painters spring easily to mind; Tracy Chevalier’s The Girl With the Pearl Earring inspired by Vermeer’s painting of the same name; The Goldfinch, a novel by Donna Tartt and an oil painting by Carel Fabritius. Even Dan Brown’s fanciful homage to religious symbolism in paintings, The Da Vinci Code, demonstrates the power of visual images to act as a kick-off for a story.

Nick Hornby’s collaboration with Ben Folds on the album Lonely Avenue, in which Hornby wrote words which Folds set to music, is a modern take on a longstanding model of creative exchange between musicians and writers.

In fact, creative work in almost any mode can serve as a source of inspiration and, on occasion, collaboration. Much of writer Nick Hornby’s oeuvre shows the influence of popular music, and his work as a music critic, on his fiction writing. It manifests in novels like High Fidelity and its hapless record shop owner Rob, or Juliet, Naked’s protagonist Duncan and his overwhelming obsession with a little known singer-songwriter. Hornby’s collaboration with Ben Folds on the album Lonely Avenue, in which Hornby wrote words which Folds set to music, is a modern take on a longstanding model of creative exchange between musicians and writers.

Various well-known musical theatre partnerships have operated in collaborative models, such as that of librettist W.S. Gilbert with composer Arthur Sullivan, or lyricist-dramatist Oscar Hammerstein with composer Richard Rogers. Operas, too, often involve a composer and a librettist, and may derive their plots from works of fiction, folk tale or myth, such as Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, with its libretto by Cesare Sterbini based on a stage play by Pierre Beaumarchais, or Mozart’s Don Giovanni and its libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte, based on a figure from folklore.

Like Benjamin’s book collection, an artist’s “library” of influences serves as a memorial of her developing interests and passions.

Similarly, it is commonplace for choreographers and composers to draw inspiration from one another, and to work collaboratively – think Petipa and Tchaikovsky, Cunningham and Cage. In the early twentieth century Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes was based on the understanding that every element of a production – the choreography, the composition, the design – was of equal importance and should stand alone, in its own right, as a work of art. Thus Diaghilev commissioned musical works that can be enjoyed independently of the ballets they were composed to accompany, from composers including Erik Satie, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel and Richard Strauss. Working in partnership, artists from discrete disciplines can create multimodal works in which various elements of sound, image, word and performance act cooperatively.

What is clear from this brief gloss is that artists are often influenced, in practice and in product, by the work and works of other creative people. The metaphoric “library” which may underpin any work could draw upon novels, poems, plays, films, TV shows, music of various styles and genres, sculptures, paintings, installations, dances, or some combination of sources. Like Benjamin’s book collection, an artist’s “library” of influences serves as a memorial of her developing interests and passions. What is often unclear is how this individual process unfolds in different artists’ creative lives. “Unpacking” the library of an artist’s influences involves more than perusing a list of her favourite books; it requires deep reflection on the role of various texts in the act of creation. Regardless of the state of artists’ bookshelves, their libraries are far from unpacked.

Over the coming months Seesaw will run a series of interviews with WA artists, inviting them to “unpack” their “libraries” and describe the impact on their practice of a few influential texts or works. Stay tuned!

Photo: Michelle Astrid Francis

Claire Coleman is an Australian musician and researcher currently based in Berlin. In addition to working towards finishing her PhD, which examines nostalgia in indie folk music, she teaches piano and works as a choral director and arranger for groups such as Menagerie Choir (Perth), the Dienstag Choir (Berlin) and Berlin Pop Ensemble (Berlin). Some of her academic writing is available here: http://uws.academia.edu/ClaireColeman

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Dancing at any age

Perth’s newest dance ensemble is rewriting the rules about who gets to perform, discovers Nina Levy.

How old do you expect you’ll be when you retire? 60? 65? 70?

For professional dancers, a final bow is usually taken somewhere between the ages of 30 and 40. There are several common reasons for retirement from performing but injury is a common one – the physical demands of the choreography wear the body down. Family can be another factor – the schedule of a dancer isn’t exactly conducive to parenting, with evening and weekend shows, and time away from home for those lucky enough to tour.

There is also the perception that dancers should retire before the age of 40, that the art-form is best suited to young bodies. Often there is pressure on dancers to make the move into teaching, choreography… or indeed, into a different profession altogether.

But should dancers over 40 be heard but not seen? Back in 2000, the Perth International Arts Festival brought over Netherlands Dance Theatre’s main company, as well as the now defunct NDT III, a company for dancers over 40. As a dancer in my third year of full-time training, I can remember my surprise in discovering that, actually, I preferred the older group to the main company. Their program was quirkier, livelier, more engaging… and the dancers were fantastic. I didn’t feel like I was watching “old” dancers. I just felt like I was watching exceptional dancers.

Phillippa Clarke and Julie Doyle rehearsing for “Unstoppable”. Photo: Damian Doyle.

Since then I have had the pleasure of seeing the odd “older” dancer, here or there (Daryl Brandwood’s 2011 solo show “Helix” was a notable standout, more recently Stefan Karlsson’s short work in 2017’s “In Situ” was another) but it wasn’t until STRUT dance staged Jean-Claude Gallotta’s “Trois Generations” in 2013 that Perth had the opportunity, once more, to see a sizeable group of dancers over 40 in action. The premise of “Trois Generations” is that three generations of dancers perform the same dance score; first children, then young adults and lastly adults over 40.

And boy did those “older” dancers impress. Here’s an excerpt from my review for The West Australian newspaper:

As Generation Trois, aged 40-65, takes to the stage, there is a sense of peace. The dancers catch one another’s eyes and smile knowingly, as if they realise that “this too shall pass” but they’re going to have a damn good time anyway.
Watching this cast, I can’t help but wonder why contemporary dance is the domain of the (relatively) young.
These “older” performers have a beauty that comes of age and experience . . . but it’s not just about the non-physical.
Watching Liz Cornish slice the air, Ronnie Van den Bergh jete lithely, Michael Whaites’s joyful, springy jumps, I am struck by the realisation that, quite simply, these dancers are all beautiful movers.
As the oldest generation turned their heads in preparation to leave the stage, I felt my throat tighten and my eyes fill.

So when I heard that a group of older dancers, a number of whom were part of “Trois Generations”, had formed a company, I was excited. The company is called Momentum and will be presenting it’s first program, a triple bill entitled “Unstoppable”, this Saturday 5 August. The group includes the aforementioned ex-West Australian Ballet principal Ronnie Van der Bergh and Liz Cornish, as well as Julie Doyle and Phillippa Clarke, both of whom danced in “Trois Generations”. The group is not solely made up of ex-professional dancers though, explains Cornish, when I catch up with her about a month from Momentum’s debut. “It’s also people who have danced in the past, and they might have given up for ten years or so, but they’ve come back.”

It was “Trois Generations” that was the catalyst for the formation of Momentum, says Cornish. “When some of us got to hop around again, we all went, ‘This is fun. We should make another opportunity.’ So we decided, we’ll rehearse three hours on a Sunday. If you want to be involved you’ve got to pay. We all pay a set amount of money and that money goes towards commissioning choreographers, paying for the space and the occasional Tim-Tam.”

Jacqui Otago & Mike Makossa (standing) and Claire Sullivan (lying down) rehearsing for “Unstoppable”. Photo: Damian Doyle.

The three works on the “Unstoppable” program are created by Daryl Brandwood, Phillippa Clarke and Israeli choreographer Jin Plotkin. Each is about 15 minutes long and time has been of the essence, says Cornish. “Each choreographer has had about ten weeks with us… which isn’t very much, when you break it down… half an hour for warm up, leaves two and a half hours a week… so that’s about 25 hours per piece… it’s not even a week’s worth of rehearsal.”

Another challenge for the dancers is that, while they’re old enough to be retirees from full-time performance, they’re mostly not retirement age. “We all have other full-time jobs, so the brain’s not going through the choreography every night. So you come back to the next week’s rehearsal and you go… oh yeah!” Cornish laughs. “And because of the age we are massive things happen in people’s lives. During the rehearsal period for Phillippa’s work, I think three people had parents or parents-in-law die, and in the work before that someone became a grandparent. Most people are dealing with children of some description and some of those are quite small still.”

Nonetheless, the program has come together. Plotkin’s work, A Memo, is influenced by her training in Ohad Naharin’s Gaga technique. Clarke’s In the Blood is based on the dancer’s own movement and memories. Brandwood’s Subsided Vortices is described as a “pure movement piece”, created from images of nature.

Like me, Cornish vividly recalls seeing NDT III back in 2000 and says it changed her views about older dancers. “When NDT III came, that was eye-opening because they were gorgeous and the choreography was suited to them,” she reflects. “I think that’s the trick, finding choreography that actually fits the bodies that are in front of you.”

And me? I’m just looking forward to seeing some of my long-time favourite dancers strutting their stuff again.

You can catch Momentum performing “Unstoppable” at the Redmond Theatre, Prendiville Catholic College at 2pm, Saturday August 5 2017.

*** Update 2019! Catch Momentum performing “Unmanned” at the Redmond Theatre, Prendiville Catholic College, June 8-9.

Pictured top: Julie Doyle rehearsing for “Unstoppable”. Photo: Damian Doyle.

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How to watch contemporary dance

If you’re not familiar with it, watching a contemporary dance work may seem like a daunting prospect. Seesaw editor and contemporary dance critic Nina Levy is here to help.

If you’ve ever attended a contemporary dance performance and walked away feeling like you missed something, you’re not alone. I’ve been involved with the art form – as a student, then teacher, then writer and critic – for over 20 years and when I tell people that my specialty is contemporary dance, I am often met with tentative smiles and/or a remark along the lines of, “I don’t really understand contemporary dance.”

Dance is an ancient and universal form of communication. So why do so many people find contemporary dance challenging to interpret?

Niharika Senapati & Tyrone Robinson in Rachel Arianne Ogle’s ‘precipice’ (2014). Photo: Traianos Pakioufakis.

Maybe it’s a function of today’s world, in which so many of us are distanced from our bodies, making only the most basic uses of our physical potential. Perhaps we have lost touch with that most universal of vocabularies… the language of human movement.

So let’s start our guide to watching contemporary dance there, with the body and its capacity for movement. What I love about contemporary dance is watching the performers explore what the body can do, both by itself and in collaboration with others. Undulating, trembling, jerking, freezing, floating… the capacity of the body for physical expression is vast. Just as we describe those with highly developed verbal language skills as articulate, so too, a great dancer is physically articulate, with a masterful command of the language of the body, and an extensive and varied movement vocabulary. When you’re watching contemporary dance, a starting point is to appreciate that highly developed body language.

Tyrone Robinson and Storm Helmore in Rachel Arianne Ogle’s ‘precipice’. Photo: Traianos Pakioufakis.

Next, let’s break down movement into two categories – the choreography and the way that choreography is performed by the dancer or dancers.

First, choreography. In the main, the choreographer will have some kind of starting point, a story, theme, idea or concept to explore. I suggest not getting too bogged down in the information provided by the program. Frequently, choreographers will take an idea or a story as a starting point, a springboard. Maybe the result will tell a story, or convey a clear message… or maybe it will be abstract.

Let’s face it, often it will be abstract. That is, to me, the beauty of movement – it isn’t pinned to semantics. So I suggest watching contemporary dance the way you might listen to a piece of orchestral music or view a work of abstract art. Allow yourself to be absorbed in the mood, the feeling, the emotion… or even just the sheer physicality of the work. I like to remember the words of the famous choreographer Merce Cunningham, who said, “When I dance it means, ‘This is what I am doing.’” Sometimes a choreographer is simply exploring movement.

Remember the words of the famous choreographer Merce Cunningham, who said, “When I dance it means, ‘This is what I am doing.’”

Cunningham and his collaborator and partner, composer John Cage, also believed that it was up to the audience to decide what dance means… if anything. This is another useful way to view choreography. There is no “right” or “wrong” interpretation. What you find in the dance is what it means. That might be different for each audience member.

And so to the second element, the way the choreography is performed. Watch the way a trained contemporary dancer’s body moves – the lengthened limbs, the supple spine, the seamlessness of transitions. Notice the little details too. Even if the dancer is simply moving from lying to sitting, or walking from one part of the stage to another, that movement will be thoughtful.

Take pleasure in the dancers who stand out to you, the dancers who pull your eye, the ones you can’t stop watching. It might be their movement style – perhaps their fluidity or their precision or their buoyancy – and it might just be the sheer audacity of a particular personality.

Most of all, take the opportunity to revel in the fact that this art form is not tethered to words. There’s a freedom in that release from spoken or printed language that’s there to be relished. Sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.

Nina Levy

Top photo: Rachel Arianne Ogle’s ‘precipice’ (2014). Photo: Traianos Pakioufakis.

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