First published by The Canberra Times on 17 July 2015
Contemporary dance is no stranger to cynics. One common criticism is the assertion that it is a self-indulgent art form, whose abstract subject matter remains elusive to audiences. It is precisely this divide between making and understanding that Strange Attractor: The Space in the Middle, is hoping to bridge.
A project of Ausdance ACT supported by Ainslie and Gorman Arts Centres and QL2 Dance, this choreographic development platform is uniquely beneficial to dancers, offering them space, time and conversation in which to research and experiment with their ideas in a supportive environment. "It's been a real luxury," Perth-based choreographer Laura Boynes says, "to have space and time to investigate." Working without a brief, without restrictions, she says, has given the dancers an opportunity to see if their thoughts are interesting to others. Along with her collaborator Alexander Boynes, she has built a giant zoetrope to create a live dance film. Audiences wander around an enormous spinning cube and peer at the moving body inside through tiny windows, effectively framing their own viewing experience.
This is perhaps the most important element of Strange Attractor: the role of audience. Rather than being invited to file in quietly, view a finished product and applaud once it's all over, they witness projects early in their gestation and are encouraged to offer feedback in a series of lively Q&A sessions.
"Audiences of contemporary dance are often shut out of that process," artistic curator Adelina Larsson says. External reflection, she says, is vital to a work's evolution.
So then, if dancers are required to communicate – to dance about something – where do they begin? Biomimicry, vision impairment and cycles of violence were just some of the concepts under the microscope.
Wandering around the studios, it's easy to see where the term choreographic laboratory comes from. Gone are the days of leotards and legwarmers; what you'll find instead are round-table discussions interrogating concepts such as neuroplasticity and the limitations of technology. It seems contemporary choreographers are just as busy talking as they are moving.
The most notable example of this is Melbourne-based dancer Amelia McQueen. McQueen dons a headset and sits, out of sight, with her laptop and a looping machine, asking audiences to close their eyes while she reads and loops a series of collected statements relating to the emotions of shame and humiliation. The only giveaway that she is a dancer and not in fact some kind of social justice anthropologist is that later, in the course of a conversation about perpetrators and victims, she goes from sitting to standing via downward dog.
Also from Melbourne, Janine Proost is researching natural vision improvement based on her own experience of myopia and exploring the metaphorical implications of this healing process. In Proost's work, dancers run through and around a huddled audience, playing with ideas of periphery, depth and proximity.
Completing this incredibly diverse choreographic cohort are Canberra dancers Alison Plevey and self-described "newbie" Olivia Fyfe. Plevey has become fascinated by the structures of our brains on a microcellular level, and is contemplating how they are mimicked in external environments such as public transport networks and electricity grids.
By stark contrast, Fyfe has chosen the very personal subject matter of pressure and its impact on her life. Audiences meander in a landscape of paper – textas in hand – jotting down their own personal thoughts in response to Fyfe's questions and half-finished sentences.
What is striking about all of the dancers, aside from their differences, is their eagerness to hear from audiences. If Strange Attractor is anything to go by, dance is making some impressive new leaps towards accessibility.
Strange Attractor ran from June 22-28. This article was commissioned by Ainslie and Gorman Arts Centre as part of the Strange Attractor Writer in Residence program.