A new dance company is taking shape in Australia's most southern city.
"Great Southern Dance". As a name for a company, it has quite a ring to it – a breadth of scope, ambition and geography. It also tells it as it is: dance taking place in the southern most city of the southern most part of Australia – Hobart – which is one of the most southern places in the world, as says founding Artistic Director, Felicity Bott.
The name also reflects Bott's sense of connection to landscape. Although she is best known for her long experience as a dance creator and director, she also has a degree in anthropology from the University of Western Australia. These two branches of her life come together in her artistic preoccupation with how the environment and landscape shape human action.
Bott founded Great Southern Dance (GSD) in 2019. The company will have its first public, in-theatre season in April at the Theatre Royal in Hobart. The program will be Human Ba La La, which has been developed over the past two years, between Covid restrictions, at historically significant outdoor sites, such as Hunting Ground, in the southern midlands of Tasmania, and the Port Arthur penal settlement. In these beautiful, often haunted landscapes, Bott and her collaborators drew their movement inspiration from their impressions and sensations. "We engage with topography," Bott explains, "with what I would describe as built and unbuilt terrain, this time with heritage buildings." Film and sound recordings of these sessions have been incorporated into the staged work, bringing the outdoor settings indoors into the live performance.
This combination of film and live dance is the direction that Bott intends to explore with the company. "Pre-Covid I was already curious about the difference between dance and live performance. Throughout my career, the dance sector has increasingly embraced the screen. Dance on screen has come such a long way and through film dance is able to be broadcast to a wide audience.
"By deliberate contrast, I am also going to have what I've nicknamed 'narrowcast', where we are live performance engaging with the nervous systems of people in the room."
She uses the phrase "nervous system" deliberately. One of her inspirations in the development of this work is polyvagal theory, a way of looking at the nervous system, she explains, that is not informed by psychology but by physiology. In contrast to the usual "fight or flight" description of the nervous system, polyvagal theory is more nuanced, she says. (It identifies a third type of nervous system response – the ‘social engagement system,’ a hybrid state of activation and calming that plays a role in our ability to socially engage (or not), according to Wikipedia.)
"The nervous system is always reading whatever environment we're in, below the level of the brain's activity," she explains. "That's why in the first instance [of developing the work] we went onto heritage sites, three or four of which were penal factories and which reflect a time in history that was highly punitive. So the work is about taking our nervous systems into different environments, some of which were natural as well, and the films are about interpreting that bodily response in that environment, which then become a key part of the performances.
"This is certainly a major preoccupation of mine at the moment, understanding our humanity through the degree of danger we perceive ourselves to be in, how that informs our behaviour and what that looks like in a choreographic setting."
Bott is originally from Western Australia and has a distinguished career as a choreographer and artistic director. She was leader of STEPS Youth Dance Company from 2000 to 2003, Artistic Director of Buzz Dance Theatre from late 2003 to mid 2009 and director of Ausdance WA from 2013 to 2015. She has many awards, is a Churchill Fellow and was the recipient of the Department of Culture and the Arts’ Creative Development Fellowship in Western Australia. She moved to Launceston in 2015 to take up the position of artistic director of Tasdance. Two-and-a-half years later she resigned suddenly, with no official reason offered at the time, leaving the company without a leader and the dance world in a fever of speculation.
Even now, talking about her break with Tasdance makes her emotional. She says her decision was due to a "clash of approaches" and "the behaviour of the Tasdance board" which left her unable to fulfil her role as a leader and creative artist. "It was a schism I couldn't bridge," she says.
Despite her departure from Tasdance, she and her family were invested in Tasmania and decided to stay. In a very short time she channelled her creative drive into GSD, for the first time establishing a company from the ground up, on her own terms, rather than fitting in with a pre-existing structure. She has a studio in the heart of the Hobart CBD, which she shares with her architect husband, with an "enormous view onto Kunanyi /Mt Wellington", where she can choreograph and continue her independent and freelance work. "We are happy here," she says.
Her plan with GSD is to involve artists who have a strong link with Tasmania and to provide a pathway for their professional development. Human Ba La La brings together five dancers – Alya Manzart, Trà Mi Dinh, Gabrielle Martin, Rob Alejandro Tinning and Olivia McPherson – along with Tasmanian composer Dean Stevenson, architect Paul Wakelam and filmmaker Nicholas Higgins.
– KAREN VAN ULZEN
'Human Ba La La' will run from April 1-9 at the Studio Theatre, Theatre Royal, Hobart. For more, go here.
All photos in gallery above are by Paul Wakelam.