A dance company in Canberra? It has Michelle Potter's vote.
Party Leader is not the usual name for the director of a dance company. But Alison Plevey leads the Australian Dance Party (ADP) in Canberra and her official title is Party Leader. The company’s name, and hers, reflect the role Plevey hopes ADP will fill in the nation’s capital, where political issues are major areas of interest.
When Plevey moved from Bathurst to Canberra a decade or so ago, there was no professional dance company in the city, and there hadn’t been one for a number of years. Plevey could see potential for a company that could address some of the issues, including political issues, that confront the Canberra community. She also recognised the gap that existed for young people who trained at dance schools in Canberra and then went on to tertiary studies with the hope of making dance a career. They had nothing in Canberra to come back to.
“For me, dance is about place and I wanted to build a dance company connected to place, one that would unite people who belong to that community,” she says. “I saw the potential that Canberra had as a creative city, and a leading city in terms of political issues. It also had a strong cultural identity through its national collecting institutions.”
The Australian Dance Party gave its inaugural performance, String Attached, in 2016. It was a collaboration between four dancers and six musicians from the Canberra Symphony Orchestra and was designed to explore the relationship between music and dance. Plevey has pursued the notion of using live music, and having musicians constantly interacting with the dancers, in others of her productions since Strings Attached. Weave, hustle and halt, for example, was created on commission from the National Portrait Gallery. It was an outdoor event in conjunction with an exhibition Dempsey’s People: A folio of British street portraits 1824–1844, a show of miniature portraits of those who plied their wares, or who engaged in other activities, in the streets of London and elsewhere in Britain in the nineteenth century. Plevey did not try to replicate the portraits in any way but set out to give the audience a feel for the way people might interact with others on the streets today. Two musicians, one playing an electric violin, the other an electric cello, were an intrinsic part of the cast and moved freely among the dancers.
Then there are particular social and political issues that Plevey feels strongly about. Environmental issues, “the disconnect with the environment”, are at the forefront of her thinking. In 2018 she completed four short dance films under the umbrella heading of Move to Zero. Each had a focus on ways to reduce emissions, including one called Use no plastic, another called Dive into a car pool. Also in 2018 she made Energeia for an outdoor performance at a solar farm just out of Canberra city. It explored the nature, power and qualities of the energy that drives resources, including our personal devices.
Plevey has also looked at the fashion industry with Seamless made originally for a Fringe Festival in 2017. Seamless focused on an industry Plevey felt was responsible for a significant percentage of carbon emissions. At the same time it examined the human face of the industry, including the anorexia that sometimes characterises those who engage with it. Her 2019 work From the vault also had a strong focus on human psychology. Performed in a bunker-like space that was once used by the Royal Australian Mint as a storage area, From the vault began with an interest in how we value money but developed to consider the personal values that the dancers of ADP thought were important. They included, in addition to wealth, safety, freedom, individuality, truth and connection.
Plevey’s work rarely, if ever, is performed in a traditional theatre space. In addition to a solar farm, various of Canberra’s gallery spaces, and a secret vault, ADP has danced in the moat surrounding the Australian Academy of Science building, on Canberra streets, in a CBD car park, at Mt Stromlo Observatory, and in the city with a 14 tonne ex-military cargo truck (painted pink).
Plevey was born in Dorrigo, a small farming community on the Northern Tablelands of New South Wales. She used to travel once a week to Bellingen for a ballet lesson. Later the family moved to Bathurst where Plevey completed RAD exams to Advanced II level. A degree at WAAPA followed where Plevey immersed herself in contemporary technique. Her current company consists of a core of five dancers, including Plevey herself. The company was recently awarded a two year program funding grant, which will enable Plevey to pursue her work as one of the country’s most creative dance artists.
“Program funding gives us the ability and space to map out plans, as well as giving more scope to develop strategies,” she says. “In addition, I see it as an acknowledgment of the work we are attempting in Canberra, including that we are finding new audiences for dance.”
Like most dance companies, however, during the time of crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Plevey has had to radically rethink her plans. During April and May, the major period of lockdown in Canberra, Plevey and her dancers sought out ways to engage with each other and with audiences through a range of online activities including film-making and online classes, and with more politically-oriented discussions with colleagues about the kind of support that was available from government sources, and what the pandemic has meant for the arts industry as a whole. Plevey, and dancers Ryan Stone and Cloe Fournier, even managed to engage in a five-day residency in Canberra’s Haig Park where they addressed the issues of physical and geographical distancing between the three dancers and a group of artists and curators working in Jervis Bay for the 2020 SeeChange Arts Festival.
Then, as restrictions in Canberra began to change, Plevey set up various projects including Lake March, an event in which nine dancers and two musicians marched, while observing spatial distancing, along the water’s edge of each of the three major lake areas in Canberra, Lakes Burley Griffin, Ginninderra, and Tuggeranong.
“Lakes have become core refuges for reflection, connection and health here in Canberra,” Plevey explains. “In this topsy turvy time it is more apparent than ever how privileged we are to have this opportunity, to leave the house, to perform at all, to walk on the lands of the Ngunnawal people, to have a platform to express, and the responsibility this holds.”
Plevey says she is taking life a day at a time for the moment and is well aware of how precarious the situation still is. But she believes strongly that the arts are important in times of crisis. They are a means “to contemplate, share, express, heal and unite.” She is the Party Leader.
- MICHELLE POTTER
This article first appeared in the Sep/Oct/Nov issue of Dance Australia. Stay up to date!
Get the latest dance news, tips and reviews delivered direct to your door for only $6 per issue. That's a 30% saving on the cover price + receive the digital issue for FREE!