Perth Festival review: Ochre Contemporary Dance Company & Daksha Sheth Dance Company, Kwongkan (Sand) ·
Fremantle Arts Centre, 16 February ·
Review by Varnya Bromilow ·
Creating overtly political art is hard. As an artist, how do you strike the balance between missed message and straight-up didacticism? Where does beauty fit into the picture, or should it not matter? Considering the fraught nature of the path, it’s unsurprising that many artists steer clear of broader political messages, irrespective of the depth of their personal convictions.
As a creator, Mark Howett has always dived fearlessly into this fray. As artistic director of WA’s Ochre Contemporary Dance Company he has directed 3.3 (2018), Kaya (2016) and Good Little Soldier (2017). Each of these productions was notable for its deft handling of thorny social issues and for the high calibre of technique and artistry. Whether the topic was Indigenous incarceration (3.3) or PTSD (Good Little Soldier), Howett straddled the line between preachiness and meaning with certainty, creating compelling shows that spoke truth as they engaged. With Kwongkan (Sand) however, that sweet spot is missed. It’s a deeply felt, impassioned treatise about climate change… but it’s also deeply flawed.
Like Kaya before it, Kwongkan is the fruit of a cross-cultural exchange between Ochre and Daksha Sheth Dance Company in Kerala, India. The work began life as a film, which some audience members may have seen preceding 3.3 last year. This first, film version of the work is lushly evocative, signalling an interest in the environment, but lacking the overt political agenda that forms the core of Kwongkan as a dance work. The most effective parts of 2019’s Kwongkan feature sections from the original film as backdrop, with dancers Ian Wilkes, Isha Sharvani and Kate Harman silhouetted in the foreground.
As a former lighting designer, Howett has a terrific eye for the visual and in this way, Kwongkan meets the high bar set by his previous efforts. Unfurling plastic film sheaths Harman, as she leaps across the grassed stage of the Fremantle Arts Centre; a blanket of soft plastics unrolls down an incline; Sharvani shinnies up a silk suspended from one of the eucalypts bordering the stage – there are some wonderful visual elements here but they feel like additions bolted onto what is an unfocused and uncertain narrative.
Kwongkan’s troubles begin with a split narrative focus – we start with climate change and humanity’s destruction of the planet, then we shift suddenly to the Stolen Generation and back again to the climate, this time with an emphasis on plastics. Each of these themes is worthy of a dance work of its own – to combine them all into one hour feels cruelly brief.
There is some truly remarkable filmed footage of the camps Aboriginal children lived in after being torn from their parents. This is complemented by incredible traditional dancing from Wilkes, who is one of the best young dancers at work in Australia. Sharvani and Harman join him in this sequence, one of the only joint sequences that enjoys a synchronicity noticeably elusive elsewhere. The accompanying skit of Wilkes’ forced adherence to Western dress codes is embarrassingly simplistic, seriously underestimating the audience’s capacity for a more nuanced depiction of this abhorrent period of our shared history.
Then, without notice, we are back to the environment. Admittedly, Howett faces a tremendous challenge in creating work about climate change – socio-cultural fatigue. Even the most ardent among us are sinking into a kind of inert despair at the lack of political action on this front. We understand the danger, we make lifestyle changes… but I’m ashamed to admit that I now actively avoid looking at the plastic ocean imagery because it makes me feel so awfully hopeless. There’s no avoidance to be had here – image after image of plastic-choked sea creatures were projected in a sequence that had many in the Fremantle audience in tears. This was followed by the dancers chanting (“we can’t eat money”) and exhorting the audience to join in. But rather than feeling like an uprising, it felt to me like a sad, desperate refrain.
There is no doubting the urgency of the themes tackled here, or the passion of the players. But despite these noble aims and some flashes of brilliance, Kwongkan fails to live up to expectations, both of Howett’s work and of Festival curated fare.
It’s November 1, 2018 and the Perth Concert Hall is packed for Wendy Martin’s final Perth Festival programme launch. Anyone who has paid attention to Martin’s programming over the last four years will know that the Festival’s artistic director is a passionate advocate for contemporary dance. When the banner for STRUT Dance’s Sunset opens her 2019 line-up, however, the ripple of excitement is about more than dance.
It’s a historical moment. A local show is leading the charge.
Martin’s decision to open her final Festival launch with a home-grown show is part of a greater plan to showcase local work in this year’s programme. Alongside a terrific selection of international and interstate works, there are numerous shows and events by local artists and companies that are appearing this year under the newly-created banner, “Made in WA”. That list includes six Festival commissions.
Martin is immensely proud of the 2019 Festival’s local content. “It’s important to have a fantastically curated international programme, but it’s also important that, whichever place you’re in, the artists of that place are seen on the same platform,” she explains.
From the outset Martin’s vision was inextricably linked with WA. “When I [started at Perth Festival, four years ago] I said, ‘There are festivals in cities all over world. The thing that makes a difference is the place in which the festival happens.’ So when I arrived here, I saw myself as a detective, looking for clues and stories and threads to figure out, how I make a festival that really belongs in this place,” she explains.
Martin was immediately struck by what she describes as “the unbelievable list of artists who come from this place, both historically and now“. Her immediate response was to commission “Home” as the opening event of her first Festival, a free, one-night-only celebration of West Australian talent that included the likes of Tim Minchin, the John Butler Trio, Shaun Tan, The Drones, The Triffids and The Waifs.
The opening event of her second festival, Boorna Waanginy: The Trees Speak, was another home-grown special, and one which returns to this year’s Festival. Bringing together the talents of Noongar elder and director Richard Walley, and designers Zoë Atkinson and Sohan Ariel Hayes, under the direction of Nigel Jamieson, Boorna Waanginy sees one of Perth’s most treasured landmarks, Kings Park, transformed by light and sound.
Thus the seeds for the Made in WA programme were sown… but it was an idea that needed time to germinate. “As a curator, you have to know artists and they have to know you, and there needs to be a certain level of trust to be able to work on projects together,” reflects Martin. “So it’s taken this much time, three years living in Perth, to be able to commission all this new work.”
When it came to choosing which shows to commission under the new Made in WA banner, one company caught Martin’s eye early on. “From the time I began [at Perth Festival] I could not believe that The Last Great Hunt, who had toured the world, had never been in Perth Festival,” she remarks.
Martin wasn’t going to rush into anything though. “I had so many meetings, across the years, with Tim [Watts] from The Last Great Hunt. I kept saying, ‘Come on, give me something, I’d love to have you guys in the Festival…’ and then I saw New Owner [by The Last Great Hunt, commissioned by the Awesome Festival] and I loved it. If I’d have known about that show I would have loved to have had it in Perth Festival… but of course, it’s fantastic that it was in Awesome, which is an amazing Festival.
“[Tim and I] met about three times. He wanted to experiment with form and what I didn’t understand – because at that point I didn’t know him well enough – is that Tim is a wonderful storyteller, but he doesn’t start with the idea, he starts with the form of the production.”
And then The Last Great Hunt pitched the idea for Le Nor, a work that weaves together film and live performance, so that audiences witness both an on-screen story and behind-the-scenes action. “When Tim did his pitch for Le Nor I was almost crying, because I thought it was so magic, such a beautiful idea, funny and poetic,” Martin recalls. “Tim’s work, at its core has big heart … and as a programmer that’s one of the things I care about most.”
Another commissioned work that is close to Martin’s heart is STRUT Dance’s Sunset. Created in collaboration with UK choreographer and director Maxine Doyle(associate director and choreographer, Punchdrunk), in association with Tura New Music, Sunset is an immersive dance theatre work that takes audiences on a walking tour of Dalkeith’s Sunset Heritage Precinct. “Sunset is like a dream in terms of my programming aims,” she explains. “It’s a collaboration between a great international artist and local artists, it speaks to the history of this place, it’s a collaboration with more than one [local] artist and company – as well as STRUT and Tura New Music, Rachael Dease is the composer and doing the sound design, and Bruce McKinven is doing the set. It’s also a fantastic opportunity for the artists here to work with an absolute game changer. UK dance theatre company Punchdrunk have created whole new form of immersive theatre … to have someone like [Punchdrunk’s associate director and choreographer] Maxine Doyle in our midst, excited by this place… you couldn’t really ask for more.”
WA’s Tura New Music is involved in a second 2019 Festival commission, producing Cat Hope’s new opera, Speechless. In the case of Speechless, a response to the issue of children in detention that combines four soloists, a 30-voice choir, the Australian Bass Orchestra and Decibel new music ensemble, it was the motivation behind the work that appealed to Martin. “I love that Cat is an activist and a great humanitarian,” she reflects. “She was so disturbed by the decisions that the government was making in our name. So she felt the best thing that she could do is make a personal, artistic response. She read the Gillian Triggs report into children in detention and then figured out this beautiful concept which is her graphic score. The music she has written has kind of been written over the photographs and drawings that the children have done. In a way she’s giving these kids a voice by responding so directly to their art work. There are no words because those people have no voice. Cat is a really important Australian artist.”
Like The Last Great Hunt, Lost and Found Opera was on Martin’s radar from early on. Renowned for presenting unusual operas in unexpected but effective spaces, Lost and Found will be presenting its first commissioned opera, Ned Kelly, in a Jarrahdale saw mill. “Lost and Found Opera have been doing super exciting work,” enthuses Martin. “I think they have a brilliant concept and the fact that they now want to create a work from scratch – they have such a track record that you just have to trust that they’ll deliver. They’ve also got a great following… but I think the platform of the Festival will make it more recognisable.”
Much-loved local company Barking Gecko Theatre also has an established following but stands to broaden its reach by being commissioned to appear on the Festival programme. In terms of Martin’s aims, it was the cross-cultural nature of the work that caught her eye. “When Matt Edgerton proposed adapting A Ghost in My Suitcasefor the stage I was immediately attracted to the possibilities that Gabrielle Wang’s award winning YA novel offers up,” she remembers. “I was excited that Matt wanted to create the production out of deep cross cultural collaboration. It’s a rip-roaring yarn – a great adventure story of a young girl who goes to China and discovers her grandmother is a ghost hunter. It seemed to have all the right ingredients to be a perfect family show for the festival.”
Kwongkan is another Festival commission that is a cross-cultural work, and one that has fascinated Martin as she has watched it evolve. A collaboration between WA’s Ochre Contemporary Dance Company and India’s Daksha Sheth Dance Company, the work brings together Indigenous Australian and Indian performers in a ritual of dance theatre, live music, aerial acrobatics and film. “When the artists pitched the idea to me, they intended to explore the similarities between these two ancient cultures, both of whom dance barefoot, but over the course of three years … the thing that sat at the forefront of their concerns, was climate change,” she explains. “They realised that if we don’t do something now, there will be no trace, not just of ancient cultures, but of anything. So in a funny way, ‘Sand’, which was about touching the earth has now become, ‘Well if we don’t do something, sand is all we’re going to have’. To see the evolution of an idea has been exciting.”
It’s clear that witnessing the germination and blossoming of ideas intrigues and inspires Martin. “As a curator and commissioner of work, that’s the really exhilarating thing,” she remarks, “hearing an idea and being able to play some kind of role in those artists realising their vision by offering the platform of the festival.”
That platform offers greater visibility to the home crowd, but also, potentially, further afield. “I’m hoping that we’ll have international presenters and national presenters coming over to see that work, to consider it for their venues and festivals,” she concludes. “I think that’s a really important role that the Festival can play.
– Nina Levy
Perth Festival opens February 8 and runs until March 3. Head to the Perth Festival websiteto view the full program, including the six commissioned works from Western Australian artists and companies, and the rest of the Made in WA program.
Pictured top: Ian Wilkes and Isha Sharvani in Tjuntjuntjara, a remote WA Aboriginal community, during the final development of ‘Kwongkan’. Photo: Mark Howett.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.’”
Review: Good Little Soldier
Ochre Contemporary Dance Company and The Farm
Subiaco Theatre Centre
Reviewed by Nina Levy
Good Little Soldier packs a powerful punch. A collaboration between WA’s Ochre Contemporary Dance Company and Queensland-based dance theatre company The Farm, the work tackles the challenge of post-traumatic stress disorder head-on. First presented in Berlin in 2013, Good Little Soldier was developed in response to director Mark Howett’s own experiences of growing up with a father afflicted by PTSD.
The story centres on returned soldier and PTSD sufferer Frank (The Farm’s Gavin Webber) and the impact of the illness on him, his wife Trish (Raewyn Hill) and son Josh (Otto Kosok). Frank’s flashbacks take the form of the ghosts of two fellow soldiers (The Farm’s Grayson Millwood, and Ian Wilkes). They could be mistaken for live friends, initially, as the three men drink and joke. These spectral interactions, however, quickly become a window on Frank’s nightmarish war memories.
Good Little Soldier often teeters between humour and horror, keeping the audience in a state of high alert. Like Trish and Josh we know that laughter will inevitably give way to a violent outburst — it’s just a matter of when.
While the work is scripted, the highly physical choreography is central, and it’s performed with guts by the Perth cast. An early trio sees Webber literally climb the walls, hauled upwards by Millwood and Wilkes. A push-pull duo between Hill and Kosok is impressive for its finely tuned moments of counter-balance and resistance, especially when one considers that Kosok is a year 12 student making his debut alongside Hill, the artistic director of Co3. Webber and Hill’s final, brutal duo to a rendition of “Falling in Love Again”, that, like their truce, skips and falters, is executed with savage energy by the two performers.
It’s all accompanied by acoustic and synthesised music that ranges from poignant to discordant (Dale Couper and Matthew de la Hunty), and the sound effects of war (Laurie Sinagra).
With its corrugated iron sheets, glass louvres and washing lines, Bryan Woltjen’s set has a gritty beauty, especially in combination with lighting by Howett and associate Chloe Ogilvie.
The only wobbly moment comes when the narrative digresses from Frank’s story to discuss the PTSD suffered by Aboriginal people as a result of European invasion. A necessary conversation, but it feels like a token gesture.
It’s a minor flaw, however. Good Little Soldier is gut-wrenching and compelling dance theatre.
Good Little Soldier plays Subiaco Theatre Centre until July 30.