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With a crew of 65 artist future-tellers over five evenings at Dancehouse, Alexandra Harrison's Futures Festival is a wry prophecy for the future of dance and performance

Alexandra Harrison isn't short on artistic ambition. Her latest dance work, What's Coming – A Futures Festival, is, in effect, a mini arts festival, two years in the making and combining the work of over 65 collaborators, with up to 36 performers appearing each night. More than that, it represents an attempt to combine a bewilderingly non-sequiturial array of influences into single artistic proposition: that coming events cast their shadow.

Knitting mills, tea and biscuits, animal divination, cartography, Borges, grandparents and many more such puzzling subjects have all informed the last two years of Harrison's chorographical research. Finding inspirational material has never been a problem; the question has always been, how to bring it all together?

When Dancehouse put out a call for work that was "manifestly audacious", she immediately recognised an opportunity.

"I thought that was such a beautiful invitation to think beyond a single show," she says. "I had all these ideas, and I had been trying to think how they might fit together in a single dance work. Then I read that and thought, yes, the dance work, it has to be a festival."

What's Coming – A Futures Festival is therefore both a programme of heterogeneous, cross‐disciplinary art happenings, spanning film, performance art, community action, visual art, music and contemporary dance, and also a single dance experience, unified under the possibility of prophecy-through-movement.

Time Out spoke with Alexandra Harrison about the intriguing patterning of esoteric and exoteric influences on this singular work of dance.

Take us back to the origins of this strange project.
I went to visit a woman called Daphne Kingston, who I discovered through a local-history librarian when I was living in Sydney. I was doing a little project out in Western Sydney and I just wanted to have a chat with someone who knew the area. For the last 35 odd years, Daphne, who's 84 now, has been documenting architecture in the Sydney Basin. She goes out to old jerry-built slab huts, farm houses, barns and fences, the really non-descript, unspectacular architecture, and returns to them again year after year, drawing and photographing them in their various states of disrepair and renovation and demolition.

As an artist or historian?
Well, prior to this she was a visual artist, but she told me that around the 1960s or 70s she became disillusion by the commodification of art. I thought that that was pretty extraordinary language to be coming from a lady who is very much somebody's grandmother, serving me tea in this little red kitchen. So I asked her whether this commodification was something that she could articulate at the time, or whether it was something she only came to perceive in hindsight.

She said, "Oh no, I knew it at the time. Coming events cast their shadow."

I was struck by this phrase. I wondered what it meant and what the implications were for the present.

How then did this lead into choreography? How did What's Coming take shape?
I was looking at this idea, that coming events cast a shadow, and that the future is already with us here in the present, maybe in the form of patterns. The idea is that by reading patterns, present and past, you can see the outline of what's to come.

Now, my grandfather is 84 and he still works full time. Amazing. He's an engineer and he is the only person who can fix these ancient knitting machines, which are basically antiques, but which are still functioning. Obviously there's a lot of patterning in knitting, so I was discussing these ideas about patterning with my grandfather, and he said, "Oh, well that's very interesting, because that's the difference between knitting and weaving. Knitting is made up of loops. In weave fabrics you have these crossings and hatchings, and that doesn't allow for much movement. The fabric is quite stiff. Whereas in knitting, the loops allow for maximum movement."

So this became another idea, a choreographic idea, where the looping creates the movement.

That research led me to Nottingham with a company called Dance4 where I was working with Benedict Anderson. While there, I began initial conversations with the composer Bob Scott, conversations which began with excursions to knitting factories.

I remember someone telling me that the point of astrology wasn't so much to accurately predict the future, but more to structure an understanding of the present. Is your own interest in prophecy similarly rooted in the need to pay attention to what is happening around us now?
That's really what my interest is – building relationships in the present. And I guess drawing out some of the people who may be good at reading patterns that are invisible in our society. So, like, older folk, I feel like have maybe disappeared, been put into some kind of past space.

Like Daphne?
Her thoughts are so pertinent. Her eyes are so keen, and they've seen so much. Why wouldn't we ask questions and listen? And my grandparents, too.

Part of this project is to run workshops for older adults, once a week, which I've been doing. So a group of those adults will be doing a work as part of the festival. It'll be a short work, a seven minute work called "Triumph of Activity". It's an articulation of that sentiment, that we need to bring these people in. We don't want them to disappear. These people are out contemporaries. Like, they're older contemporaries, but they're not in the past. They're very much alive and in the world. Just insisting that their obsolescence is not inevitable.

Why try and bring in so many collaborators?
The future can't possibly be encompassed in one person's singular vision. It's only through the accumulation of all of the very many contributions to this project that some vision of the future and the present will emerge.

You talk a bit about maps and mapping. What's the significance there?
I remember reading a story about Governor Arthur Phillip. He was trying to talk with one of his crew, or his men or something. At the same time, some indigenous people were coming up the beach towards them. Phillip couldn't make it clear to the indigenous people that he didn't want to interact with them just at that moment, that he couldn't talk with them. So he drew this circle in the sand around him and his man to indicate that he couldn't talk. And they understood the gesture and left him alone. I just thought that that was fascinating. The first non-indigenous choreographic act in Australia. To draw a circle around one's self.

The first act of urban planning?
Totally, first act of urban planning. So mapping is an important conceptual component: understanding choreography as mapping and mapping as choreography. The way that maps prescribe movement. The work is a great deal about orientation in space and time.

Generally, also, I guess I'm interested in building bridges between all these acts of separation and alienation, trying to make everything flow into one stream, or invite everything to be in dialogue with everything else.

Underneath the cartography, what is the significance of place? Of this place, Dancehouse?
I'm fairly new to Melbourne. I only moved here a year ago from Sydney. It's been a wonderful experience finding a community of practitioners. Part of my residence here in the Housemates program has involved this phenomenon called "open practice" where I've opened the studio to artists to come and work. They come and sing, make music, paint, whatever. This serves a function for my art and for my practice, but it also builds a community and establishes relationships and opens the way for collaboration.

Take us through some of the other contributions?
Artists from all over the place have contributed to a "Library of Future Forecasts", in paintings, photographs, pieces of writing and letters, which are displayed as an exhibition. It's a library and not a gallery because I'm inviting the works and the future to be read, not just looked at.

There's also small proscenium stage and each night there'll be something different, a one hour drum roll, the "Triumph of Activity", a lecture on mapping as choreography. There's also be a line up of twenty different artists from the dance community. They will just pour into the space in a line and do their future work.

And the centrepiece each evening is a longer dance work?
There's a fifty-minute dance that will happen in the main dance hall. The satellite events inform that choreography.

What kind of work is that longer piece?
It's a solo with others. It was just me, but now there are others. Although they're also me. I'm interested in the way that movement can produce movement, as opposed to image. A lot of dance can be quite sculptural, full of images. But then there is also dance where, through movement, you arrive at a kind of understanding. The accumulation of movement through repetition is itself creative, it generates something. What that something is can't be prescribed. It's only because of the movement that something else is produced.

Festival Program:

Evening 1: Tuesday, 31 July 2012
6.30pm: Installation – Forest of Gesture
6.30pm: Installation – Library of Future Forecasts
7.00pm: Performance – The Build Up
8.00pm: Dance – What's Coming – dance as forecast

Evening 2: Wednesday, 1 August 2012
6.30pm: Installation – Forest of Gesture
6.30pm: Installation – Library of Future Forecasts
7.00pm: Performance – It's All Downhill From Here (the warmth of entropy)
7.30pm: Dance – Triumph of Activity
8.00pm: Dance – What's Coming – dance as forecast

Evening 3: Thursday, 2 August 2012
6.30pm: Installation – Forest of Gesture
6.30pm: Installation – Library of Future Forecasts
7.00pm: Film – Study of Habitual Passengers
8.00pm: Dance – What's Coming – dance as forecast

Evening 4: Friday, 3 August 2012
6.30pm: Installation – Forest of Gesture
6.30pm: Installation – Library of Future Forecasts
7.00pm: Lecture – Mapping as choreography
8.00pm: Dance – What's Coming – dance as forecast

Evening 5: Saturday, 4 August 2012
6.30pm: Installation – Forest of Gesture
6.30pm: Installation – Library of Future Forecasts
7.00pm: Dance – What's Coming – dance as forecast
8.00pm: Dance articulation – The Line‐Up

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By Andrew Furhmann   |  

What's Coming - A Futures Festival details

Dancehouse, 150 Princes Street, North Carlton
Around Melbourne, Melbourne 3000

Telephone 03 9347 2860

Price $20.00 to $25.00

Date 31 Jul 2012-04 Aug 2012

Director: Alexandra Harrison

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