Ken Unsworth’s Studio, Alexandria, July 16
Right up front I need to say that Anca Frankenhaeuser and Patrick Harding-Irmer – who together with Susan Barling and Ross Philip make up Australian Dance Artists – are close personal friends.
As a result, I haven’t featured or reviewed any of the wondrous work that they have done in Sydney over the past two decades. Now that I have my own blog, the time has come to rectify that, while declaring my connection.
Last week, in collaboration with eminent sculptor Ken Unsworth, composer Jonathan Cooper and The Song Company, Australian Dance Artists (ADA) gave seven performances of a production called The Arrangement, which a small invited audience (around 50 each show) was privileged to see.
The seeds for ADA were sown in 1993, when independent choreographer Norman Hall worked with four dancers from four different generations (Elizabeth Dalman, Harding-Irmer, Barling and Gideon Obarzanek) on a production called 4 Generations. (A history of the company can be found on their website www.australiandanceartists.com).
The four performers that make up ADA are senior artists (veterans, in dance terms) who have had long, prestigious careers in contemporary dance. Among other credits, Philip danced with Sydney Dance Company from 1977 to 1992, while Barling was a member of SDC from 1978 to 1991. Frankenhaeuser and Harding-Irmer performed for 15 and 17 years respectively with London Contemporary Dance Theatre during the 1970s and 80s.
Their experience brings an emotional depth to their dancing that speaks reams.
Since 2000, ADA has collaborated with Unsworth (now 84). Their productions – which are part-performance and part-installation, frequently with live music – are something of a mindf**k. Stunning visual images from the wonderfully whacky world according to Unsworth, which often have you feeling like you have fallen down a rabbit’s hole, combine with profound connections between the four dancers whose choreography is a response to both Unsworth’s imagery and the music.
Together, Unsworth and ADA have presented work at a range of different venues including the Art Gallery of NSW, Cockatoo Island and Unsworth’s studio in Alexandria, where he has created a stage and a small auditorium with three rows of church pews.
The Arrangement, which, like all their work was totally financed by Unsworth, features a newly commissioned score by Cooper for piano, cello, flute and clarinet. A song cycle with settings of texts by A.E. Housman, Federico Garcia Lorca, W. H. Auden, Barnabe Googe and Rainer Maria Rilke for six singers, the score also includes musical interludes.
With Roland Peelman, director of The Song Company, as musical director, the music is beautiful and well suited to dance.
For The Arrangement, staged at Unsworth’s studio, Unsworth dug a pit beneath the stage especially and moved a pillar to extend the stage width-wise.
The production begins with projections (AV design by Tim Hope) of the dancers’ faces. Unsworth then glides across the stage behind a black shape suggesting the back of a piano. With his long, silvery white hair gleaming in the lights, he turns his head from side to side like one of those galleries of clowns at the fairground where you attempt to throw a ball into their open mouth. Then, sounding a large tuning fork like a magician conjuring the show with a wand, the music begins.
The non-narrative production is full of arresting images and vignettes around themes of ascension and descent, levitation, love, consolation, the passing of time and the inevitability of death – at least that’s what I took from it. Unsworth has never been one to spell anything out.
Early in the production, a singer (soprano, Susannah Lawergren) rises angel-like from the illuminated pit beneath the stage through a trap door, disappearing through a hole in the ceiling, chanting “again, and again, and again”. Later she descends in a space-age looking bubble (pictured) and at the end of the production descends back into the pit.
The vocalists all have a fair amount to do while singing. Alto Hannah Fraser flies through the air on a swing. (Mathew Lynn’s portrait of Unsworth in this year’s Archibald Prize features the sculptor on a swing, referencing Fragonard’s famous Rococo painting The Swing). The six-strong vocal ensemble climbs a frame along the back wall of the stage and pass wine from glass to glass. An archangel-type figure in long golden gown with stick arms and legs (baritone, Mark Donnelly) is suspended over the stage from an overhead track.
Visually, as in all the collaborations between Unsworth and ADA, the tumult of images never ceases to surprise and delight, enhanced by Pamela McGraw’s costumes and Eddi Goodfellow’s lighting. Barling reclines in a quivering bed of flowers, Philip interacts with a leg and arm from a mannequin, Harding-Irmer hangs listlessly in a hammock while Frankenhaeuser clambours over him in cajoling fashion. A large doll crosses the stage on a wooden rocking horse as a baby’s cries fill the space and, in a beautiful moment using video, Frankenhaeuser appears to levitate.
The choreography is by the four dancers, with Hall as choreographic collaborator. One of the most powerful moments is a duet between Frankenhaeuser and Harding-Irmer. He stands on an illuminated ball, back to the audience. From behind him, Frankenhaeuser’s hands, arms and feet float and flutter in a dance of their own. Appearing at his side, her body seems charged with an agitated, buzzing energy, which she then plucks and flicks from her, channeling it into his body until his hands and arms start to shake as hers had done.
The duets between Harding-Irmer and Frankenhaeuser seem to speak of nurturing and symbiosis. Those between Philip and Barling suggest something spikier, edgier, more tempestuous and perhaps combative.
Without the budget of a big commercial production where hydraulics and computerisation make for fluid scene changes, some of the scenic elements judder, clank and bang but that is part of the charm of a production, hand-made with so much love, unfolding there for us, so close to us.
The collaborations between Unsworth and ADA are unique, idiosyncratic and special. There is an element of the weird and wonderful as well as the impishly playful, yet the work is underpinned at every turn by a sense of humanity and layered emotion. It is a shame these productions aren’t being picked up and given another life. I’m surprised festivals aren’t tuning in. As it is, Unsworth and ADA have already started talking about the next one.
* The singers from The Song Company also included Clive Birch, Richard Black and Anna Fraser, while Ollie Miller played cello, Lamorna Nightingale played flute and Jason Noble played clarinet.