• Amrita Hepi in her work 'Rinse'. Photo: Zan Wimberley.
    Amrita Hepi in her work 'Rinse'. Photo: Zan Wimberley.

Catapult Dance Choreographic Hub: “Mixed Bill”
Monkey Baa Theatre, Darling Harbour, 8 March 

Keir Choreographic Award Finals
Presented by Carriageworks, Dancehouse, The Keir Foundation and the Australia Council for the Arts
Bay 20, Carriageworks, 12 March

For those audiences with an appetite for new works choreographed by up and coming artists, March 2020 in Sydney has been an especially rewarding month so far. Now in its second year, the March Dance Festival offers a range of workshops and performances that place the spotlight on independent dancemakers and artists who so often operate along the fringes and margins of Sydney’s arts scene – not by choice, but for lack of better opportunities in Sydney.

Catapult Dance Choreographic Hub’s “Mixed Bill” was presented as part of the March Dance program. Nine professional dancers performed four new works by Australian choreographers (Omer Backley-Astrachan, Craig Bary, Adam Blanch and Kristina Chan), all set to new scores by Hunter Valley composers James Hazel and Zackari Watt. Catapult Dance Choreographic Hub is a Newcastle based organisation comprising a company (with choreographic residencies attached), youth dance company and community classes/workshops. I haven’t had the opportunity to see their work previously, and on this viewing was quite impressed by the standard of dance being presented and performed.

The program opened with an excerpt from a work called Whose World Is It Anyway? – danced by 14 members of Catapult’s youth dance program. With choreography by Catapult Director Cadi McCarthy, Alexandra Ford and Mikayla Nangle and music by Zackari Watt, this excerpt is choreographically well structured and interesting to watch. The young dancers performed it with authority and presence.

Photo: Ashley de Prazer
'Trip for Biscuits' by Adam Blanch. Photo: Ashley de Prazer

Out of the four subsequent works I was particularly interested by Adam Blanch’s Trip for Biscuits and Craig Bary’s Laden Blue, both of which are, again, set to music composed by Zackari Watt. There was no costume designer listed, so I can only assume each choreographer took charge of choosing costumes for their own work. In Trip for Biscuits the dancers had a sporty vibe, wearing white singlets, short red shorts and red socks with white stripes. I have previously seen eisteddfod solos choreographed by Blanch and his choreography for this work is less overtly classical by comparison, but still maintains a fluid style that focuses as much on the transitions between each movement as the actual movements or “steps”.

Laden Blue has two distinct sections. Following a series of danced duets and trios, the focus moves to one dancer (Alexandra Ford), who becomes the central focus for the other five cast members. She seems to be being bullied, victimised or tormented by the group, whose black painted hands leave grubby marks over her face and body. She is laid out motionless towards the end of the work, and washed in some kind of ceremony by a couple of the other dancers. A final section sees her come back to life and dance a fierce solo, with plenty of floor work, momentum and energy.

The written synopses for each of the four works were, for the most part, relatively unspecific and open to interpretation. Omer Backley-Astrachan’s synopsis for his work Human Remains (music James Hazel) was the exception in this instance. While I can envisage the kind of dystopian event that would make the dancers huddle together, warily, as they do in this work, as a dance piece the movement simply isn’t as engaging. Kristina Chan’s Simmering Towards Silence (music James Hazel) is good, but was not especially memorable in regards to the mixed bill as a whole. Dancers Allie Graham and Alexandra Ford were particularly mesmerising to watch throughout, but I would also like to acknowledge Nicholas Jachno, Mikayla Nangle and Skip Willcox, who danced in all four pieces with only a short break (costume change required) between some pieces.

And so to four more new works – all commissioned for the Keir Choreographic Awards – and presented by Carriageworks at the Finals in Sydney. This biennial competition is one of the richest in Australia, with the winner receiving $50, 000 and the People’s Choice award recipient $10,000. I attended the opening night of a series of three performances, with the winners being announced at the final performance, and subsequently publicised across social media. This year’s winner was Angela Goh, for her solo work Sky Blue Mythic, with the People’s Choice award going to Amrita Hepi for her work Rinse. The remaining two finalists were Alison Currie and David Cross (Delimit) and The Farm (Hold me closer, Tony Danza). Only The Farm’s Hold me closer, Tony Danza had more than one performer onstage.

Angela Goh, winner of the 2020 Keir Choreographic Award, performing 'Sky Blue Mythic'.
Angela Goh, winner of the 2020 Keir Choreographic Award, performing 'Sky Blue Mythic'. Photo: Zan Wimberley

The Keir Choreographic Awards is dedicated to, “promoting innovative, experimental and cross-artform practices”, and there were certainly some very experimental works on display. In my opinion two of them, in particular, were disappointing: the winner Angela Goh’s Sky Blue Mythic and Alison Currie and David Cross’s Delimit. An acquaintance whose opinion I respect once told me that when you really dislike an artwork it’s worth trying to understand exactly what it is about that work you dislike so much. In the case of Delimit it was this sense of having my patience tested, as a viewer, so that the artist could, “examine the relationship between menial, process-driven labour and dance.” And to what end?

In Delimit the artist (Cazna Brass) sets up the stage for almost the entire duration of her performance. There are many large, colourful props, some of which are inflatable, and a functioning electric air pump. She cleans some props with a small hand cloth (eliciting mirth from other audience members) and right at the end she starts to move in a dance-like fashion – but then it all fades to black.

Sky Blue Mythic certainly conveys a sense of being stuck in a loop, and of time repeating itself. I am at a loss as to what the spilling of a can of soft drink symbolises, but I suppose the sundial on the floor symbolises the repetition of time. Angela Goh moved throughout this work with a control that would not have been easy to maintain. And there was a particular move she did in the beginning which seemingly tricked the eye, as, from a kneeling position her whole body gradually rotated while one arm stayed in place. It looked for all the world as if there was a rotating disc in the floor, and she was being moved by external forces rather than initiating the movement herself. But to be awarded first prize for this piece, when choreographers of more engaging and interesting works struggle for every opportunity…?

People’s Choice award winner Amrita Hepi’s work Rinse was the standout performance and work of the night. Her simultaneously spoken/danced narrative moves seamlessly from the “beginnings” of time, and of the world itself, to her own personal journey as a dancer of colour finding her path as an artist. In contrast, while The Farm’s work Hold me closer, Tony Danza has some merit, it starts quite well - but then doesn’t really go anywhere.

While The Keir Foundation, as a private, philanthropic entity, has the right to support whatever types of art it wishes to; the Australia Council for the Arts should take a long, hard look at the projects it chooses to support. And by extension, at those it doesn’t.


Pictured top is winner of the People's Choice Award, Amrita Hepi, performing "Rinse". Photo: Zan Wimberley.

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