Tra Mi Dinh has been awarded the $50,000 jury prize at this year's Keir Choreographic Award, held last weekend, and Jenni Large is the recipient of the $10,000 Peoples Choice Award. Below, Rhys Ryan overviews the Melbourne finals.
With the pipeline of new shows all but drying up as a result of the pandemic, the Keir Choreographic Award burst back onto our stages with a glut of fresh choreographic works. Now in its fifth iteration, Australia’s largest (and most lucrative) contemporary dance award seeks to showcase eight of the country’s most exciting artists whose primary medium is choreography. Unofficially, the competition serves as a biennial stocktake of independent dance in Australia; a chance to see how the form has changed and where it might be headed.
This year’s commissioned artists were Alan Schacher & WeiZen Ho (NSW), Alice Will Caroline (Vix), Jenni Large (Tas), Joshua Pether (WA), Lucky Lartey (NSW), Raghav Handa (NSW), Rebecca Jensen (Vic) and Tra Mi Dinh (Vic). While previous seasons had seen only four artists progress to the finals, all artists this year were given the chance to perform the same number of times at both Dancehouse in Melbourne and at Carriageworks in Sydney.
Tasked with the tough call of awarding the $50,000 prize was a jury of five, which included Australian Dance Theatre’s new Artistic Director Daniel Riley (Wiradjuri/Australia), dancer and choreographer Eko Supriyanto (Indonesia), festival producer Laurie Uprichard (Ireland), performance-maker and community artist Lemi Ponifasio (Aotearoa/New Zealand), and dance scholar and dramaturg Nanako Nakajima (Japan). An Audience Choice Award of $10,000 was also up for grabs.
The omnibus format of the KCA is both its best and worst feature. Capped at only 20 minutes, each work is bursting at the seams with ideas. There’s a delicate balance to be struck in offering just enough of a concept to impress, but also recognising the limitations of the short-work format. Only some of this year’s shows hit that target; the others feeling underbaked or overdressed.
By the same token, this variety is what makes the competition so compelling. Eight different artworks all pulling in opposite directions, each one serving as flint for the others. Dissonance, patterns, dialogues – all outputs of the fast and furious setup. There’s a butressing effect too, where each work seems to define the voices of the other artists more sharply.
The political body was a site of focus in several works for 2022. Lucky Lartey’s Exoticism used the embodied histories of two performers of colour to both present and problematise the idea of diversity in contemporary arts discourse. With influence from Lartey’s West African dance lineage and co-performer Vishnu Arunasalam’s training in Indian Bharathanatyam, the movement vocabulary ossified then melded different styles. Clunky voiceovers and unsubtle props made the work feel a little heavy handed, but the dance phrases – which canvassed a vast range from high tucked jumps to delicate finger articulations – offered enough interest.
The female body, specifically, was the concern of Jenni Large in her duo Wet Hard. Balancing on 8-inch heels, Large and fellow performer Amber McCartney executed a series of ultra-difficult physical feats in a bid to upend societal expectations. With exceptionally strong performances, this slick affair may not have used the most extensive choreographic language, but its composition and pacing delivered sharp imagery and a quietly powerful punch.
In Raghav Handa’s solo, Follies of God, the sacred text of the Bhagavad Gita served as both a source and vehicle for exploring the seduction of violence. Precariously standing atop a giant tyre, the Kathak-trained dancer delivered a rousing call to arms before moving through sequences of scurried shuffling and looped arm phrases with inward-rolled shoulders. It was an intense work that evoked grand themes.
Another common thread for 2022 was the exploration of performed realities. In Slip, Rebecca Jensen used an on-stage Foley artist (Aviva Endean) to create, and then distort, everyday scenes. Simple actions like eating crisps and unzipping a bag were recreated in real-time with uncanny likeness. Gradually, the movement and sound dissociated, as looped phrases of swinging limbs played out against fuzzy sound baths and ominous surges. Commenting on “intersecting temporalities” is a big topic and no doubt the work would have benefited from a longer duration.
Similar concerns with rewriting time unfolded in The ___ by Tra Mi Dinh, which sought to chop up and re-sequence the linearity of a theatrical performance. Starting with a curtain call, this tightly rehearsed duet (performed by Dinh and Claire Leske) unfolded in short phrases of soft, curving torsos punctuated by long limb lines, before eventually descending into compositional chaos. With a wonderfully disorientating sound design by Robert Downie (warped applause and overly sustained crescendos), the work’s subversion of natural rhythms was highly enjoyable.
Melbourne collective Alice Will Caroline offered an even more abstracted rendering of reality in their darkly comic and gently absurdist What’s Actually Happening. With vague themes of memory and death, the three dancers felt their way through their own internal narratives, occasionally intersecting each other’s kinesphere with glove-covered arms, giddying spins and bursts of idiosyncratic improvisation. Those looking for logic would have been disappointed, but the piece was richly coloured in both tone and texture.
Rounding out the program was Evaporative Body/Multiplying Body – a collaboration between Alan Schacher and WeiZen Ho. With light projections and a long strip of reflective foil, the two performers occupied an evolving landscape of surfaces and spaces. A simple affair, the work felt like an assemblage of ideas that warranted further investigation or at least a more rigorous curation of content.
Overall, the 2022 KCA program offered its usual variety but, when compared to previous years, it felt tame. With the sharpness and contrast settings dialled down, most works occupied a safe or familiar middle-ground. No boundaries of the genre were redefined. But for those looking to check the pulse of independent contemporary dance in Australia, they’ll be pleased to know it’s still beating strongly.
Note: Due to unforeseen circumstances, Joshua Pether’s work ‘As Below, So Above’ was not performed on July 1 or 2 and was therefore not able to be included in this review.
The KCA finals were held over two weeks at both Carriageworks, Sydney, and Dancehouse, Melbourne, as well as on-line. Rys Ryan attended the June 25 (matinee) and July 2 (matinee) at Dancehouse. The full KCA program was also recorded in-season and is available digitally On Demand worldwide from 3—17 July: HERE.