Propelling its dancers into a state of ecstatic physical abandonment, Attractor has been a hit at festivals in the Eastern states. Ahead of the work’s Perth Festival season, Nina Levy spoke to co-director and co-choreographer Gideon Obarzanek to find out more.
The creative team behind the dance work Attractor is something of a super group. Directed and choreographed by two of Australia’s best-loved dance makers, Gideon Obarzanek and Lucy Guerin, and presented by two renowned Australian dance companies, Dancenorth and Lucy Guerin Inc, the work is also a collaboration with Indonesian music duo Senyawa, who fuse traditional folk music with sounds borrowed from heavy metal bands.
With such a stellar creative line-up, perhaps it’s no surprise that Attractor, a contemporary interpretation of the Javanese tradition of entering trance through dance and music, has garnered praise from audiences and critics alike, taking out the 2017 Helpmann Awards for Best Choreography and Best Dance Production.
“Attractor really blurs the line between professional and amateur, between performer and audience,” muses Gideon Obarzenek, as he reflects on the work’s success. “Senyawa play live and they’re really charismatic, powerful performers. So really it’s also a music concert. And then the virtuosity of the Dancenorth dancers, the power that they have in their bodies, combined with the accuracy, is very attractive, people are drawn to it… and the relationship between the music and the movement works so well.”
Attractor’s popularity with both audiences and critics is due to its clarity of purpose, Obarzanek believes. “From a popular perspective, the dance is very connected to the music, and the music to the dance. That relationship is very straightforward… it’s not some kind of cryptic work,” he reflects. “And yet it is quite sophisticated… it pushes itself hard, physically and musically, and becomes quite impressive in that way.”
The dance is very connected to the music, and the music to the dance. That relationship is very straightforward… it’s not some kind of cryptic work. And yet it is quite sophisticated… it pushes itself hard, physically and musically.
The concept behind Attractor is about experiential art rather than aesthetics. “The performers are not creating beautiful shapes in space or aesthetic compositions,” explains Obarzanek. “They’re getting into a kind of movement pattern, which repeats and goes in circles. It draws the audience in rather than performing out to the audience. And then people begin to join that, from the audience.”
For Obarzanek, who spent his early childhood on a kibbutz in Israel, the motivation to make this kind of work came from a desire to return to his artistic roots in Israeli folk dance. “After many years of working with professional dancers and making highly virtuosic dance, I chose to go back to my early influences in dance. I wanted to make this work which was more like folk dancing and participating, and being in something rather than being outside and looking in,” he elaborates. “When [Lucy Guerin and I] listened to the music of Senyawa, which was very much influenced by trance rituals in Indonesia, this idea of submitting to some state of otherness by doing something over and over influenced us a great deal.”
And how did the group of artistic dynamos come together?
“The background is really quite simple,” replies Obarzanek. “Kyle Page had only been director of Dancenorth for a short while when he asked Lucy [Guerin] and I if we would each make a piece for Dancenorth. We suggested making a single work together. I had been working indirectly with Senyawa in Indonesia. They had taken me on a journey to see some traditional dance and music ritual in far-East Java. We had been discussing the idea of doing a contemporary, secular ritual based on these traditional forms that interested us.”
Obarzanek took this idea back to Guerin who was keen. “Then we proposed a larger work than the resources that Dancenorth had at the time, which was a limited number of dancers,” he continues. “So Lucy suggested a co-production with her company [Lucy Guerin Inc] and we supplemented Dancenorth’s cast with a few other dancers. So it’s a larger cast than Dancenorth would normally have.”
I usually hate audience participation and so does Lucy. We designed it from the perspective of people who don’t like audience participation.
While the ingredients were all there in terms of creative talent, there was something else at play when it came to making to work, says Obarzanek. “I find, with collaborations, that a lot of it is the people but a big part of it is luck as well. We happened to work well together. We had the right balance of respect and interrogation, and knowing when to work together, and when people needed to go off on their own trajectory and make things that were not collaborative to bring back as a proposal to add to the work.”
One of the more unusual aspects of Attractor is that, just over half way through the work, the dancers are joined on stage by 20 audience members. While the volunteers are not rehearsed in advance, arriving just an hour before the show to receive their instructions, this section took a lot of studio time to perfect, says Obarzanek. “We spent between and third and half of the creative development time working on that aspect of the show. During the show there are 10 professionals on stage and then, just after half way through, 20 audience members join the performance. They’ve never seen the show and they get directed by Amber Haines, via these inner ear monitors. It works really well now but it took a lot of test groups for us to get the right instructions to get the outcomes that worked for the participants and worked for the audience. So that was a big part of the development of the work.”
The feedback from participants has been extremely positive, says Obarzanek, perhaps because both Obarzanek and Guerin are not normally fans of audience participation. “I usually hate audience participation and so does Lucy,” says Obarzanek with a laugh. “We designed it from the perspective of people who don’t like audience participation. So I think we’ve made something… you never have to express yourself or ‘perform’. The instructions are very literal. They’re straightforward. They’re not hugely creative. The participants appreciate it. They don’t have to think of anything to do. Once you’re being guided along, you give over to that very quickly and easily. And it’s fun… and it’s busy. You’re so busy doing the show that I don’t know how much time you really have to reflect that you’re on stage with these dancers.”
Pictured top: “The dancers are getting into a kind of movement pattern, which repeats and goes in circles. It draws the audience in rather than performing out to the audience.” Photo: Gus Kemp.