• Photo: Simon Pynt
    Photo: Simon Pynt

STRUT Dance’s production of ‘Sunset’ at the Perth Festival will transport audiences, figuratively and literally, discovers Nina Levy.

WHAT makes a great performance space for dance?

Once upon a time, I would have answered this question in terms of sight lines, comfortable and appropriately spacious seating, stage size. I still think these things are important, if we’re talking theatres.

But in recent years some of the most engaging spaces in which I’ve seen dance haven’t been theatres. I’ve watched dance in someone’s lounge/dining room (Anything is Valid Dance Theatre’s Dust on the Shortbread, 2018), in the parts of a cathedral that are normally hidden from view ("In Situ", 2017), in a stairwell (STRUT Dance’s Maxine Doyle showing at Perth Festival
2018), in a caravan (AIVDT’s Life in Miniature, 2012) – you get the idea.

While the concept of site-specific dance isn’t new (the Judson group were doing it back in the 60s after all), it feels like it’s becoming increasingly popular with Australian artists and companies.

It’s true that site-specific dance presents challenges – often the spaces only permit small audiences, the audience is frequently mobile which requires management and doesn’t guarantee decent sight lines, the floor is almost certainly not sprung – but it also offers experiences for both artists and audiences that could not be found in a conventional theatre setting. Site-specific dance has the potential to be intimate and immersive, to allow punters to see dance, quite literally, from a different angle. It also has the capacity to take the audience on an adventure, to places they wouldn’t normally be able to access, or enabling them to see familiar spaces in a new light.

So it’s no surprise to see a site-specific work on the (impressive) dance line-up for 2019’s Perth Festival. Presented by STRUT Dance and directed by UK choreographer Maxine Doyle (Punchdrunk), Sunset will be performed at the Sunset Heritage Precinct, a heritage building that was established in 1904 as an old age home. Later a hospital, it fell into disuse when the hospital closed in 1995. Although parts of the precinct were reopened in 2016, most of it has remained unused and unseen by the public.

And what will the audience experience?

“It’s a promenading performance that collides local WA stories with classical, mythological, overarching themes,” explains STRUT Dance’s director Paul Selwyn Norton. “It’s going to be intimate in feel but epic in experience. It’s bespoke; 80-100 people per night will move into a bar/holding space, characters will appear to escort them into the old kitchens that serviced the whole hospital.”

The cast is large, he continues, comprising eight dancers and four actors, as well as four musicians from Perth’s Tura New Music, who will play a version of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden by local composer Rachael Dease. “The experience will be as if there’s been a sandstorm that has blown all kinds of earth and foliage into the kitchen, so you’re wandering through a bit of a postapocalyptic storm environment… It’s an art-deco space… we’re going to celebrate the space, we’re not dressing it up too much,” Selwyn Norton says. “It’ll be very visceral and up-close and personal. It will promenade through that building and then out across an old bowling green and then down towards the river for a surprise finale.”

Sunset is the culmination of a three-year partnership between STRUT Dance and Maxine Doyle. Partnerships such as this one are central to Selwyn Norton’s vision for STRUT and, under his leadership, Strut has given Australian independent dance artists the opportunity to experience the work and methods of various internationally acclaimed artists, including William Forsythe, Crystal Pite and Hofesh Shechter. Particularly memorable for audiences was the performance of William Forsythe’s One Flat Thing Reproduced in 2017, which attracted a cast from around the country.

“It’s about international benchmarking, taking international methodology and repertoire and embedding it in the garden of Western Australia, and Perth in particular,” remarks Selwyn Norton. “And then local artists can feel what it is to have an international voice and what… aspirational work they have to do to match that. It’s about developing the local sector, but
benchmarking it with an international voice.”

In fact, he says, a number of artists have landed up working internationally as a result of these programs. “Most of our mandate is about trying to attract and retain talent here, but [those dancers working overseas] will come home. And they’ll come home with that kitty bag, full of goodies, and then spread the love even further. It’s about providing a tool-kit for artists to be able to operate in the wider context.”

‘Sunset’ plays at the Perth Festival until February17. For more about that work and the full dance program go to www.danceaustralia.com.au/news/dance-to-savour-at-the-perth-festival.

This article appears in the February/March issue of Dance Australia... OUT NOW! Want more like this? Buy the issue from at your favourite retail outlet, or buy it online here... OR never miss an issue by subscribing here.

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