Last week, the recipient of our Emerging Female Classical Choreographer initiative, Xanthe Geeves, after much Covid-19 caused delay, finally was able to undertake the first half of her award – a choreographic development residency at the Sydney Opera House. Originally scheduled for 2020, the scheme is now taking place this year.
Xanthe Geeves 2021 EFFC recipient Xanthe Geeves (second from left) with (from left) Brittany Duwner, Nicole Corea, William John Banks and Josh Freedman. Photo: Gregor Thieler.
Xanthe was joined by four professional dancers – selected through a call-out through Dance Australia – William John Banks, Brittany Duwner, Nicole Corea and Josh Freedman. The rehearsal was observed, by special arrangement, by six work experience students from the Tanya Pearson Academy.
Over the week of June 7 – 11, the dancers developed a piece which will be shown at The Australian Ballet’s Bodytorque season, scheduled for the end of the year.
Enjoy Xanthe’s account of the experience below.
I had applied for The Australian Ballet’s Emerging Female Classical Choreographer Award well over a year ago, before “lockdown” became a familiar concept. My application was lodged with no solid expectations, but the initiative appealed to me as a unique opportunity.
During the middle of the first lockdown, I received the uplifting news that I was the recipient of the EFCC Award and would choreograph for The Australian Ballet. The news was a positive experience in a time of general anxiety. With the continued uncertainty in 2020 regarding the performing arts, I was relieved to find that my residency had been re-scheduled to take place in 2021.
The Choreographic Process
Initially Nicolette Fraillon (Music Director and Chief Conductor for The Australian Ballet), gave me the guideline to find music between eight and 10 minutes long. The composer had to be deceased for over 70 years (for copyright reasons), and we needed to involve a smaller ensemble of musicians. The performance venue was not yet confirmed and there could have been a restricted space for the accommodation of live musicians from Orchestra Victoria.
My search was then directed to researching music performed by no more than five musicians. The music I chose was a string quintet composed in the 18th century, by Luigi Boccherini. The piece instantly evoked an emotional response in me which in turn encouraged me to envisage particular movement qualities and choreography in my mind. Music is always my initial stimulus. The music is in the Rococco style which is as ornate as the Baroque Style, but much more playful. Boccherini wrote the “party music” of his times!
With this in mind, the life philosophy of “Pura Vida” felt an appropriate theme to inform the narrative quality of the piece. For Costa Ricans, Pura Vida involves living life to the fullest, despite difficult circumstances. In current times, this is a particularly relevant way to find moments of happiness. Acknowledging and accepting loss of “connection”, but having a determination to be happy in the present moment: is the Pura Vida way of life.
Each of the four sections and dramatic transitions clearly presented contrasting moods, movement characteristics, and allowed for the dancers’ contrasting personality portrayal.
My intention was always to fuse classical and contemporary dance en pointe to better showcase the strength and talents of the Australian Ballet dancers.
Prior to my residency, I established the meanings and the theme of each section, which informed the movement characteristics, and visualised the components, possible formations and dancer configurations.
Childhood piano and flute lessons gave me valuable insight in recognition of time signatures, timbre and phrasing. I carefully mapped out musical accents, and melody dialogue with dynamic changes, informed transitions and new sections.
On Day 1, I arrived at the SOH with a clear vision of sectional outcomes without specific steps pre-choreographed. I intentionally began with the joyful section involving the complete cast in order to create a unison feel in the ensemble and develop a collaborative spirit with the dancers. Our initial exploration of movement involved choreographing the male dancers, and then layering the female role complementary to the male voice.
It was during this process I realised that the energy was organic and there was a positive dynamic between the dancers and with me. With their valuable input and diverse professional experiences, we were creating a choreography that we could all be proud of and thoroughly enjoyed making.
I was impressed by the way the TPA work experience dancers -- Olivia, Sienna, Phoebe, Ned, Liam and Levi -- discovered useful strategies and methods for pas de deux grips as we all explored newly devised lifts.
The fast progress of the choreographic process took us all by surprise, and we had completed over eight minutes by the end of Day 3. The only exception was a 15 second transition which demanded a sculptural constellation of dancers and took more than an hour to construct. It was well worth the process.
As the week progressed, and portions of choreography of each section were established, I then had to envisage how sections came together and discover how transitions could be formulated. Formations, spacing and configurations of dancers need to be considered as a part of the whole piece. In each break and at the end of every day my brain was actively buzzing with new ideas and solutions. The music was in a constant loop in my head.
From Day 2 onward, we were all acutely aware of sore muscles from so much pas de deux work and the physicality of exploring new movement material. Initially, there was the concern that pas de deux work was going to be challenging to design and create, but it turned out to be a much more joyful and fluid process than expected.
After Day 3, and eight minutes of choreography, it became apparent to the dancers and to me that we could visualise the possibility of this piece being expanded and translated into a bigger ensemble piece.
It was on Day 4 that we moved into the much larger main rehearsal space off the Green Room and completed the last 10-second gaps here and there along with the last pas-de-deux from section three. The ability to travel the choreography in this generous space added a refreshing new energy to the piece, and the work experience students enjoyed the opportunity to dance full-out and have their own space to work on the choreography behind the dancers. Access to this larger space allowed us all to plot and space out the piece properly for the showing on the final day.
On Day 5 we approached the new day relaxed, relieved and satisfied with a productive week’s effort. I felt reassured that I now had a working choreography to take to TAB for the Bodytorque season in Melbourne later this year.
The stamina required for this piece would normally take more than four days to build, so it was important to ensure that the dancers rehearsed on the detail of dynamic qualities and musicality in the final day’s morning session, rather than physical exertion, in readiness for our final rehearsal session full run-through.
It was lovely to see the work experience students perform an excerpt of the choreography in the presence of the TPA Artistic Director and former Principal Artist of the Australian Ballet, Lucinda Dunn, at the conclusion of the showing. They displayed a refreshing and individual interpretation of my choreography, which highlighted for me its adaptability to a diverse range of dancers.
At the conclusion of my residency in the SOH, it struck me that so much had been accomplished in what was essentially a short time frame. The work was intense, but with all creative processes, there was great satisfaction in seeing the work come to life and be realised by these four very special dancers. I shall forever cherish my memories of working at the Sydney Opera House and enjoying the creative shared workspace and Green Room with the Bangarra Dance Theatre dancers and SOH personnel. I will also cherish the unique collaboration I experienced with these amazing artists and newly found friends.
I look forward to the staging process, costuming and rehearsals with the live orchestra. I also look forward to working with the artists of The Australian Ballet, and how the choreography evolves with their unique contribution and performance of the finished work.
I’m especially thankful to Karen van Ulzen, editor of Dance Australia; Olivia Ansell - former SOH Head of Contemporary Performance; David McAllister - former Artistic Director of The Australian Ballet; The Australian Ballet and The Sydney Opera House for establishing this wonderful initiative for female choreographers.
The Emerging Female Classical Choreographer initiative is proudly sponsored by Dancesurance and Grishko.
All photos above are by Gregor Thieler except number 7 which is by Jacquie Manning.
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Look for more images in the July/August/September print edition of Dance Australia.