Two elderly people dancing
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What is it like to slowly but surely lose your memories? For most of us, it’s an unimaginable concept but a new dance theatre work, Dust on the Shortbread, invites us into the home of a person with dementia, to explore what happens when the moments that have shaped your life begin to crumble.

Ahead of the premiere of Dust on the Shortbread at the 2018 MoveMe Festival, Nina Levy spoke to one of the work’s co-creators, Serena Chalker.

It’s summer 2012, at the height of Fringe World. In a vintage caravan, my mum and I sit alongside three strangers, as two dancers negotiate the cramped confines, slotting their torsos into unexpected kitchenette spaces. This is Life in Miniature by Perth’s Anything is Valid Dance Theatre (AIVDT), the dance performance set in a space so small that it’s performed to just five audience members per session. In spite of the fact that dancing in a caravan sounds like a contradiction in terms, it’s Life in Miniature’s physicality that makes the work utterly compelling.

Using non-traditional sites for dance performances is a central part of AIVDT’s remit and the company has performed in a variety of surprising places, from laneways to an office block. “We’re interested in what a site can offer dance that a theatre can’t, and in utilising the stages that the world already has, so that you can look at those spaces in a new way, or you can have an experience with dance that you wouldn’t have in a theatre setting,” explains AIVDT co-director, Serena Chalker.

That wasn’t the catalyst for establishing the company, though, says Chalker. AIVDT started out life ten years ago, as “a rag-tag group of second year dance students at WAAPA”, she says with a grin. The group, which included current co-directors Quindell Orton and Chalker, was simply interested in improving the visibility of contemporary dance. “We had this idea that there would be a bigger audience for dance if only people could actually see it, and get over this issue of going into the theatre,” Chalker elaborates. “We started doing improvs in the city. Funnily enough there is a big audience for dance if you put something where people don’t expect it.” It was from here that Chalker and Orton’s interest in alternative sites developed.

While AIVDT’s home is still Perth and both Chalker and Orton are still officially based here, since presenting Life in Miniature at Fringe World, the pair have worked extensively in Europe, under the banner of AIVDT and as individual artists. Consequently, we haven’t seen AIVDT works in recent times… but that’s about to change, with their new work Dust on the Shortbread playing the MoveMe Festival this September. Featuring two acclaimed Australian performers, founder of Australian Dance Theatre Elizabeth Cameron Dalman OAM and WA actor George Shevtsov, Dust on the Shortbread explores the way in which dementia impacts one’s sense of identity and intimate relationships. As is traditional for AIVDT, the setting is non-traditional and intimate. The work will be performed inside a house in North Perth, for an audience of just 15 per session.

Two people sitting at a table, not looking at each other
‘Something that came up in the work is this tension between vitality and fragility in an older body.’ George Shevtsov and Elizabeth Cameron Dalman in ‘Dust on the Shortbread’.

For Chalker this topic strikes close to home; she lost her father to dementia in 2013. Understandably, then, when she and Orton began developing the work two years later, they didn’t want to rush. Not only was Chalker’s grief was still very fresh, but the pair felt they needed to plenty of time to research before beginning the creative process. “Lots of topics require research but there are some that, due to sensitive subject matter, take more thought about the best way to go about it without offending people, or glossing over it, or trivialising it,” Chalker explains.

While the intimate setting and the use of physical theatre to explore the non-physical are trademark AIVDT concepts, working with critically acclaimed senior performers is something new for the company. In dance, too, it’s unusual to see older performers on stage. “I think we, like society, underestimate what [older] people can do,” reflects Chalker. “You start diving into the creative process and you realise how much you can push.

“Something that came up in the work is this tension between vitality and fragility in an older body. [George Shevtsov and Elizabeth Cameron Dalman are] extremely capable performers. They bring such a wealth of experience and knowledge, and knowledge in the body. This is why we (Chalker and Orton) and couldn’t perform the work ourselves. We don’t have that lived experience. It wouldn’t be authentic.

“But it’s not a one-way street, we’re not just basking the glow of these great performers. We work with a lot of improv and tasks that come from a looser point than they have worked with before. So it’s definitely been exchange. They’ve been great; we’ve given them all sorts strange things and they’ve dived into it. They’re both very generous people.”

“Dust on the Shortbread” plays the MoveMe Festival September 11-15 and 18-22 at a secret venue in North Perth.

Pictured top: Elizabeth Cameron Dalman and George Shevtsov in “Dust on the Shortbread”.