Dance, Features, News, Opinion, Performing arts

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 wears 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 all together.

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.

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

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3 thoughts on “Dancing at any age”

  1. Any thoughts of a group for people who have not been professional dancers, although they may have learned while growing up, and are now in the retired/about to retire age group?

  2. Hey I love it ! and though live in Melbourne at present would love to be art of a performance at some stage while I am still young!!!!
    I believe mature dancers give much much more than just movement.

    X Natasha

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