Postcard from Perth 36
STRUT Dance: Move Me Improvisation Festival
Since his appointment as Director of STRUT Dance last year, the effervescent Paul Selwyn-Norton – South African-born dancer/choreographer and alumni of William Forsythe’s Ballet Frankfurt – has been busy transforming the organisation into a national choreographic centre, with invited residencies and workshops by interstate and international luminaries like Anthony Hamilton and Byron Perry from Melbourne and former members of Ballet Frankfurt and Batsheva Dance in Israel. Paul has described his vision as ‘mulching the garden’, which is a great image for a landscape like Perth, where the sandy soil supports a small community of tough survivors who support each other across disciplines and generations. In the context of our relentless economic and cultural obsession with global and national export, it’s good to focus instead on enriching the local scene.
Last week saw STRUT hosting its inaugural Move Me Improvisation Festival, featuring a raft of performances, workshops, lectures and forums by local, national and international dance, music and theatre artists across Perth venues including PICA, The Blue Room, King Street Arts Centre and the State Theatre Centre. It was an exhilarating week, and I made the most of it, especially as the city’s cultural activities were winding up with the approach of Christmas, and my own capacities were about to be reduced by impending knee surgery. In fact I’m writing this now in recovery, in bed, with my leg in a brace and pain killers at the ready; so forgive me for waxing lyrical about my memories of Move Me.
The Festival kicked off on Saturday 22nd November at PICA with an opening three-night season of a double bill: Beast #3 by local choreographers Jo Pollitt and Paea Leach – performed by them and six other local dancers with a soundscore by Mace Francis and lighting by Ellen Knops – and No one will tell us, an improvised performance by international Australian artist Rosalind Crisp in collaboration with her partner improviser Andrew Morrish, Swiss-German musician Hansueli Tischhauser on electric guitar and German lighting designer Marco Wehrspann. I saw the show last Monday night. The evening was introduced by local actor-improviser legend Sam Longley as amiable festival MC; waiting for the doors to open, we were also entertained by the Festival Imp, a silent, inscrutable, red-masked and body-fitted dance-improviser who made unpredictable appearances across town throughout the week. As for the shows themselves: as a 25-minute opener, I found Beast #3 engaging if a little underwhelming (and wasn’t sure how or how much improvisation was involved); but was then gripped and held for 55 minutes by three charismatic mature artists making a relentless work of substance, beauty, ferocity and delicacy on the edge of chaos with No one will tell us. If at times the sound-palette of the guitar was a little restrictive, and Andrew’s playful verbal interventions occasionally a little reductive, these (perhaps inevitable) restrictions and reductions only served to highlight the emotional and semantic richness of the dancer’s body as a vehicle of pure unbounded expressivity. I left pondering the fundamental differences and possible relationships between music, text and movement, as demonstrated and explored by three virtuosi absolutely attuned to each other in a performance that was also a master-class.
The following evening in Studio 3 at King Street Arts I attended Unwrapping Danse: a performance lecture by Ros Crisp about the history of her practice that folded together improvised dance, semi-improvised discourse, filmed dance footage and written text. Here the free-flow of meaning was gently underpinned by artistic and personal reflections, ending with a short reading from a journal entry about leaving the rural landscape of her childhood. The result was an infinitely generous gift to a small but privileged audience. It only went for 50 minutes, but we didn’t want it to stop. It gave me a context for the previous night’s show – and a level of depth, an economy of means and elegance of structure that ironically exceeded the show itself.
On Thursday night I unhappily missed seeing Ros Warby’s solos Court Dance and No Time to Fly due to other commitments and scheduling issues, but made it to PICA in time to catch Happy Little Accidents: a one-off, one-hour improvised theatre performance by Sam Longley and fellow local artists Shane Adamczak and Sean Walsh (all longstanding members of much-loved ongoing Perth improv comedy show The Big Hoo-Ha). I was a little anxious about how this performance would fit, in the context of a festival predominantly oriented towards contemporary dance. In the event, the boys rose to the occasion and delivered a well-judged mix of gentle comedy, poetry and pathos based on a tacit but profound understanding of the game, each other and their respective roles as joker, straight-man and puppet-master (or ‘pirate’, ‘robot’ and ‘ninja’, to use the terminology imparted to me by a fellow improviser) – including a stand-out cameo by an invisible (and inaudible) talking teddy bear which took the show to another level for me in terms of form, plot, emotional substance and imaginative engagement.
Friday night however provided my festival highlight with The Ferrymen: an improvised performance by Andrew Morrish and Peter Trotman, with minimal and perfectly judged lighting (again) by Marco Wehrspann. This was a truly sui generis work of improvised movement and text (spoken and sung) hovering like a moth between lightness and darkness, comedy and tragedy, life and death. If the sketch-bound situations and characters in Happy Little Accidents remained largely within the generic confines of pop culture, pulp fiction, film and TV, The Ferrymen took us deeper into the realm of myth and folklore, archetypal psychology and the animal dimensions of being human, ageing and mortality. This was a performance that took its time to unfurl in a manner at once genuinely unpredictable and utterly inevitable. Andrew and Peter began working together continuously in Melbourne back in the early 80s, and subsequently established an international practice; but they hadn’t performed together recently for some years until invited by Paul to reunite in Perth for Move Me; so the show had an added sense of occasion, which they graciously acknowledged after the last performance. (I also had the privilege of participating in a four-day workshop with them along with about fifteen other local artists, which I found transformative.)
The closing night of the Festival saw dancer-choreographer Michael Schumacher (also ex-Ballet Frankfurt) and cellist Alex Waterman (both from the US) perform Dans le jardin, a site-specific work originally created for the courtyard of the Museum of Fine Arts in Lyon – and here reconceived for the courtyard of the State Theatre Centre (sensitively lit by Ellen Knops). Notwithstanding its heavy-sounding credentials, this was an engagingly light-handed finale, with Schumacher moving around and through (and occasionally interacting with) the crowd of onlookers, while playfully appearing and disappearing in and out of the somewhat grim, penal architecture. Best of all was the involvement of three young children in the audience, who followed the dancer like a Pied Piper and became his spontaneous assistants. The event was followed by the closing party and launch of the STRUT 2015 program across the way at the PICA bar; but I made my way to Perth Station instead, weary from a long week and with one final workshop with Andrew and Peter the next morning.
I haven’t even touched on all the events in the Festival I didn’t attend, including new works by local performers Jacob Lehrer and David Corbet; workshops with Ros Crisp, Ros Warby and Michael Schumacher (the latter culminating in a group performance by local participants at The Blue Room); and a one-off improvised concert by local and international musicians from across the festival including Rachael Dease, Tristen Parr, Louise Devenish, Madeleine Flynn, Tim Humphrey, Hans Tischhauser and Alex Waterman.
It’s too early to assess the impact of the week, both personally and on Perth; but there’s no question in my mind that Paul has initiated a major new event on the national and international stage. Improvisation is a great theme for a festival at the edge of the world. More profoundly, I’m convinced that – as a concept and a practice – it lies at the heart of all performance, and perhaps all creation.
Move Me Improvisation Festival presented by STRUT Dance took place in venues around Perth from Sat 22–Sun 30 Nov. Parts of the program were developed in partnership with Dancehouse in Melbourne and Critical Path in Sydney. Ros Crisp, Andrew Morrish and Ros Warby subsequently performed in Sydney from 29 Nov–5 Dec; Ros Crisp also performed in Brisbane from 3–5 Dec courtesy of Ausdance QLD; and Ros Warby is at Dancehouse on–12 December.