dancers sitting at a table
Dance, Features, News, Performing arts, The MoveMe Files

Inside the WA Dance Makers Project

This September, Co3 Australia will launch the 2018 MoveMe Festival with a double dance bill celebrating four dynamic West Australian women, led by the legendary Chrissie Parrott. Nina Levy headed into the rehearsal studio to find out more.

It’s a chilly Thursday afternoon but inside Rehearsal Room 2 at the State Theatre Centre it feels summer-warm and a little sweaty, evidence that the black-clad dancers of Co3 Australia have been hard at work. They’re preparing for the company’s upcoming season, “WA Dance Makers Project”, which will be presented as part of the 2018 MoveMe Festival, and I’m lucky enough to be attending an exclusive studio showing of the works in progress. As the name suggests, this double bill is all about supporting WA choreographers, with the headline work created by State Living Treasure Chrissie Parrott, supported by a new piece from the delightfully quirky Unkempt Dance (Carly Armstrong, Jessica Lewis and Amy Wiseman), and a curtain-raiser choreographed by WA born-and-trained Richard Cilli, performed by WAAPA’s LINK Dance Company.

With over 90 dance works in her back catalogue, you’d think that Parrott might be running out of ideas, but the glimpse we get of her new work, In-Lore Act II, indicates that this veteran choreographer is still exploring new concepts. While the whimsical gestures and folky accompaniment of the opening trio (performed here as a duo by Katherine Gurr and Zoe Wozniak because the third performer is unwell) might, fleetingly, remind those in the know of 2009’s The Garden, the pace and precision demanded by this fast and furious number give it a very different look.

Chrissie Parrott and dancers
‘I won’t give away the narrative yet because I think when we get to the theatre it will give people the opportunity to write their own.’ Chrissie Parrott (centre) with Zoe Wozniak (left), Mitch Harvey (seated) and Katherine Gurr (right). Photo: Stefan Gosatti.

In the Q&A that follows the showing, Parrott talks about those folky touches. “I have this inkling towards Nordic folklore,” she explains. “The music that you heard is a Swedish folkloric song and there are ideas of some of the mystery and magic that continues to hold in the folklore of those cold, dark places, so that’s fed into this work. It’s got a richness to it that is universal, I think, even though it’s got that Nordic edge to it. That’s why the work is called In-Lore, because it has a folkloric aspect to it.”

In spite of that folklore element, the starting point for In-Lore Act II isn’t a narrative. “The work has never started with a narrative, except for my secret narrative without a story or story without a narrative,” says Parrott enigmatically. “So we’ve started with very simple abstract tasks that you give dancers and then we put them together, we mix and match dancers and develop them into work, until the narrative starts to reveal itself to me.”

Although Parrott says that the narrative has started to appear at the time of the showing (four weeks from opening), she’s not telling. “I won’t give away the narrative yet because I think when we get to the theatre it will give people the opportunity to write their own,” she explains. “You’ll see it and you’ll decide what the narrative is.”

three girls in black dresses
“We’re all for multiple selves.” Unkempt Dance: (L-R): Amy Wiseman, Carly Armstrong, Jessica Lewis. Photo: Emma Fishwick.

Our In-Lore Act II preview is followed by a peek at Unkempt Dance’s new work, You Do Ewe. Comprised of dance artists Carly Armstrong, Jessica Lewis and Amy Wiseman, Unkempt has been making dance theatre with a comical streak since 2010. True to form, the choreography thus far includes lip-syncing, a hot pink wig, and an acrobatic approach to storytelling.

Those who saw Unkempt’s work for Strut Dance’s 2017 “Short Cuts” season, I Have Health Insurance Now will recall that work’s light-hearted take on what it means to be 30. Listening to the trio talk, it’s clear that there’s a relationship between that work and You Do Ewe.

“Our work for Co3 started from discussions about the phase of life that we’re in,” remarks Lewis. “We’re suddenly very aware of having lots of different roles, different hats we’re all wearing.” Like many independent artists, all three members of Unkempt have multiple jobs on the go, covering a range of skill sets. And so the three got thinking about some advice they’ve heard often, ‘Just be yourself’. “We wanted to unpack that idea,” says Lewis. “’Just be yourself’ is such a loaded statement, really.”

“We weren’t interested in just one ‘authentic’ version of self,” Armstrong adds. “We wanted to discover and explore the different facets of each dancer, and push some of these to a heightened level.”

“We’re also interested in the opportunity to slip into or try on other versions of yourself that might not feel comfortable, but will actually push you in a direction that is exciting or different,” Wiseman concludes. “We’re all for multiple selves.”

You can catch “WA Dance Makers Project” at the Studio Underground, State Theatre of WA, 12-15 September.

Pictured top: Co3 Australia dancers rehearsing Chrissie Parrott’s ‘In-Lore Act II’. Photo: Stefan Gosatti.

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3.3 is about an emerging young Indigenous dancer, on the brink of an international career, thrown into a holding cell because of his skin colour and torn between two cultures. Ian Wilkes dances the young man. His mentor and choreographer Indigenous dance legend Michael Leslie Challenges him in this new adaptation of a new work by Michael. Ultimately, he just wants to dance. The young man is caught in the middle. The terrible legacy of this dilemma is that the young black fella believes gaol is also a rite of passage for young men in his community. Aboriginal people represent 3.3% of the total population, yet more than 28% of Australiaís prison population. Don't miss this dynamic and powerful dance conversation between this dance mentor and the next generation dance legend As a commitment by Ochre to the support of West Australian dancers and choreographers, we will be presenting ëBeyondí the work of internationally acclaimed choreographer Chrissie Parrot and dancer Floeur Alder. Chrissie has been commissioned by original Ochre member Floeur Alder to make a solo to commemorate the dancerís 40th birthday and a professional relationship spanning almost 30 of those years. A transformative solo that is mesmeric enigmatic and virtuosic taking dancer and audience on a transformative journey traversing an imaginary landscape.
Dance, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Extraordinary dance from Ochre

Review: Ochre Contemporary Dance Company, 3.3 and Beyond ·
Subiaco Arts Centre, 29 May ·
Review by Varnya Bromilow ·

Shadows on shadows, a body slowly makes its way onto a dark stage. Is it male or female? Does it matter? In the cramped confines off the mainstage of Subiaco Arts Centre, the audience is confronted with questions, most of which remain unanswered. Opening this triple bill by Ochre Contemporary Dance Company, Chrissie Parrott’s latest work is, in many ways, the antithesis of her more famous choreographies. Beyond is unadorned minimalism – a single performer (the extraordinary Floeur Alder); no props; none of the detailed staging that characterises many of Parrott’s works. Here, we’re presented with the human form – as canvas and tool – and the end result is as compelling as it is opaque.

For more than a decade Parrott has been creating works that make effective use of multimedia technologies. With each successive work, her skills in this brave new world are finessed. For Beyond, Alder’s body is used as a screen onto which animations are projected. Colourfully obscure, it’s never entirely clear what the images are or what they signify but visually, the effect is stunning. In other phrases, Alder whips through the air, a frenzy of muscular movement.

Floeur Alder in Beyond
A frenzy of muscular movement: Floeur Alder in ‘Beyond’. Photo: Maree Laffan.

Alder’s years of training are evident in her control of her vessel – her limbs a perfect embodiment of the taut rhythms of the music providing the sonic backdrop to the work. Music is always upfront in a Parrott production (although interestingly here, her musician partner Jonathan Mustard is responsible only for animation) and Beyond is no exception. The soundscape is dense, driving, a cloud of sound that at times reminded me of This Mortal Coil, though it turned out to be something more obscure. As a visual spectacle, Beyond exceeds expectations – just don’t ask me what it was about.

Following this was a sensory feast of another kind – this time on film. Kwongkan (Sand) is directed by Ochre Contemporary Dance Company’s artistic director, Mark Howett. The film opens with four dancers emerging from calm, palm-fringed waters; their bodies conducting the rivulets dripping from their bodies…is it Arnhem Land, far North Queensland? Wrong – Trivandrum, India. Shifting from sea to land, from water to earth to fire, Kwongkan is a meditation on the natural elements. The team created the film while working on a dance work to be included in next year’s Perth Festival…a sequel of sorts to the wonderful Kaya, performed in 2016 by Ochre Contemporary Dance Company. Evocative, sensual, sumptuous…assuming this film is a sort of teaser for the full work, we’re in for a treat next year.

The main event of the evening was Michael Leslie’s 3.3, also directed by Howett. Tackling Indigenous incarceration – one of the most significant moral questions of contemporary Australia – is no small feat, but somehow Leslie and co. manage to present a work that is as fearless as it is necessary.

From the opening moments, we are slammed with reality. Ian Wilkes is exceptional as a man, an artist, incarcerated. I’m not sure how he’s going to last the season – he is unflinchingly physical for almost every minute he’s onstage. Whether crushing his body against the bars of his cell, scaling the walls or smashing his face into the Perspex window, Wilkes’ onslaught sweats with tension, bristles with fury. But then, just as you’re overwhelmed, there’s a sudden tonal shift – a gorgeous wash of classical music replaces the industrial soundscape and Wilkes is dancing, released within.

The ferocity returns, another wave of injustice served and Wilkes is back to slamming his body against his constraints. Leslie comes to visit the prisoner. The two engage in a sparring match that pits pragmatism against emotion. Wilkes is enraged – at his situation, at the persecution of his people, at the rank violence of his nation’s history. Leslie acknowledges the injustices with a kind of acceptance that is deeply sad but also grimly realistic. He wants Wilkes to move forward, to seek his own victories in odds so steeply stacked against him. Leslie’s not excusing the system or the history – one gets the sense he’s just over it. On one level, it’s deeply depressing to witness; on another, strangely hopeful. Wilkes agrees to rehearse the steps for a dance – they go through the routine together, one man outside instructing, the other still in his cell. It’s uplifting and fierce and devastating all at once.

3.3 is based on Leslie’s Master’s thesis – a work investigating black history, neo-colonialism and incarceration. Transforming it into dance that is this transfixing is nothing less than extraordinary, cementing Leslie’s place as one of Australia’s foremost dance artists.

3.3 and Beyond” plays Subiaco Arts Centre until 3 June.

Read Seesaw’s interview with Michael Leslie and Mark Howett.

Pictured top: Unflinchingly physical: Ian Wilkes in ‘3.3’. Photo: Martine Perret.

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Ian Wilkes and Michael Leslie in 3.3
Dance, Features, News, Performing arts

Reclaiming language through dance

It’s been decades since Michael Leslie has taken to the stage but the legendary Aboriginal dancer and choreographer is about to perform in his new work, 3.3. The piece will be presented by Ochre Dance Contemporary Dance Company alongside Beyond, by another Australian dance legend, Chrissie Parrott.

Why is 3.3 so close Michael Leslie’s heart? Nina Levy caught up with him to find out.

Michael Leslie
Michael Leslie. Photo: Mark Howett.

Talking to dancer and choreographer Michael Leslie about the upcoming season of his work 3.3, the first thing that strikes me is that this man is all about movement. It’s another (globally warmed) balmy May day and we’re sitting at a picnic table at the edge of the Subiaco Arts Centre’s lush gardens… at least Ochre Contemporary Dance Company artistic director Mark Howett and I are sitting. Leslie occasionally sits, but mostly he’s on his feet. It’s as though some thoughts and ideas are too vital to be discussed in a sedentary manner.

It’s not difficult to understand why Leslie is speaking with such passion. The title 3.3 is a reference to the fact that Aboriginal people represent 3.3% of the population of Australia, but more than 28% of its prison population. A Gamilaraay man, Leslie made 3.3 in 2017, as part of his master’s degree. The work focuses on a successful young Indigenous dancer (played by Noongar dancer Ian Wilkes), who has been arrested and thrown into a holding cell, persecuted on account of his skin colour and torn between two cultures. Blurring the line between fiction and reality, Leslie plays himself, the young dancer’s mentor, who deliberately gets himself arrested so that he can speak to the boy and encourage him to stay on the right track to succeed in the “white fella world”.

While the scene in the cell isn’t autobiographical, Leslie’s own story also involves navigating two different worlds as a young dancer. Born in north-west New South Wales, times were tough growing up, he says, subject to the racist government policies of the era. “Dance would have been the furtherest thing from my mind,” he recalls, but by chance, a television advertisement, featuring dancers, ignited his passion for the artform, at age 19. “I was hooked,” he remembers. “Taking the initiative, I commenced dance classes at the Bodenwieser Dance Centre on Broadway in Chippendale, Sydney, a school founded by Mrs Margaret Chapple, a pioneer of Australian Contemporary Dance.”

At Bodenweiser Dance Centre Leslie met Carole Johnston, an African-American dancer who founded the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA). One of five founding students at NAISDA, Leslie became part of a growing Aboriginal dance scene, performing with the newly formed Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre (AIDT) around Australia and internationally through the 1970s. In 1980 Leslie won a Churchill Fellowship, which enabled him to train at the famed Alvin Ailey American Dance Centre in New York.

Leslie returned to Australia seven years later. A co-founder of both Black Swan State Theatre Company and Broome-based dance theatre company Marrugeku, he also began to work extensively with young Aboriginal people, establishing the Aboriginal Centre for Performing Arts at WAAPA in 1996 and the Michael Leslie Pilbara Performing Arts program in 2006. He has received numerous awards and accolades for his work as an artist, educator and mentor.

“There was a law called linguicide, where it was forbidden for my people to speak their language and if they did they’d be thrown in gaol. That added to the demise of people speaking language. So when I did my master’s, I looked at creating 100 dance steps from the Gamilaraay language.”

Now 60, Leslie speaks with great anxiety about the future of young Aboriginal people, and one of his primary areas of concern is racial discrimination within the judicial system. An important part of 3.3, therefore, is highlighting the horrific miscarriages of justice that have been and continue to be inflicted on Aboriginal people since white invasion. As Leslie notes, the breadth of these is “mind-boggling” and so, for practicality, he has chosen to focus on massacres and violent incidents that have affected his people, the Gamilaraay. The first of these is the infamous Myall Creek massacre in in 1838. “The fact that [the settlers] didn’t shoot [the Aboriginal people], that they killed them up-close with swords? That’s hatred,” comments Leslie. “Then the second massacre was the Waterloo Creek massacre,” he continues, “when [white people] killed 300 of my people, on 26 January 1938 – that’s why a lot of black people don’t like Australia Day – and all [the perpetrators] got was a slap on the wrist for killing 300 people. Then in 1982 there was the murder of Ronald “Cheeky” McIntosh in Moree, and they shot Stephanie Duke, Warren Tighe, Michael Foote. When they pronounced Cheeky dead, my people came riding across the bridge and you know who’s waiting for them there? The Tactical Response Group. They’ve got sirens going, they’re holding hand guns, holding shot guns, mustering my people back to the fucking mission. This is 1982!

“So the story here is, where is the justice? There’s no justice for my people. What about Elijah [Doughty]? What about Miss Dhu? You tell us we’re citizens, we need to take responsibility. Well you need to wear that too. What they did to Miss Dhu was terribly, terribly wrong. And all they got was…” Leslie mimes a slap on the wrist. “And that’s what this piece is all about. It’s speaking for my people.”

But the work is about more than simply making people aware of these acts of murder and subsequent lack of justice, adds Howett. “It’s also about healing. Even though we ask hard questions, we’re trying to open up a topic enough so that people can discuss it and the can recover from it. There’s a chance for healing by showing the hardest part of one’s life.”

Ian Wilkes
Reclaiming language through movement: Ian Wilkes rehearsing ‘3.3’. Photo: Mark Howett.

Part of that healing is about reclaiming language through movement. “There was a law called linguicide, where it was forbidden for my people to speak their language and if they did they’d be thrown in gaol,” says Leslie. “That added to the demise of people speaking language. So when I did my master’s, I looked at creating 100 dance steps from the Gamilaraay language. This was not only an artistic reclamation of language but a political act against linguicide.”

Those 100 dance steps, based on the rhythms and meanings of words from Gamilaraay language, form the basis of the choreography for 3.3. “I did a reclamation of my language, of my culture, to create what I’ve created in the cell there,” explains Leslie. “So every word that I chose, there had to be something where I could create a step. Like the word “Muti”, which means lightning, that’s a tour (a jump that turns in the air)… quick, like lightning. Or “barurra”, the word for a red kangaroo, the anatomical characteristics of the kangaroo have inspired this contemporary movement: staunch and powerful with muscular shoulders and elongated torso… very intimidating when threatened.  Even being sick, there’s this impulse, we say ‘wiibi-li’, so I used that rhythm, those three beats, and did a movement like this” – Leslie’s torso ripples as though something is propelling upwards and out. “So it’s all very contemporary. They’re not cultural steps because I haven’t been trained in cultural dance. My style comes from the athleticism of the training I’ve had in African-American contemporary dance. So I’ve drawn from the rhythm and meaning of Gamilaraay language to create these steps. For me it’s saying to Ian and other young people, ‘Look into your culture.’ And we’ve also drawn from Ian’s Noongar dance knowledge and technique. He and I have collaborated in making another vocabulary for this production.”

The concept of reclaiming language has extended beyond the creation of this work, adds Howett. “Daily dance class is all in Noongar,” he notes. “What I find interesting is seeing Michael’s way of bringing his dance background and cultural background together to say, ‘This is who I am, and this is what I think about things.’”

3.3 and Beyond, a solo by Chrissie Parrott for Floeur Alder, will be presented alongside a screening of Snake Dance, a short film my Mark Howett, at Subiaco Arts Centre, 26 May – 2 June.

Top photo: Ian Wilkes and Michael Leslie in ‘3.3’. Photo: Mark Howett.

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