Women in arts leadership positions have been a bit of a hot-button topic in the last couple of years. Dance is a field clearly dominated by female performers but they are often underrepresented as choreographers. Rafael Bonachela, curator of this year’s Spring Dance, decided to tackle it head on by commissioning four of Australia’s foremost female choreographers to create short works for his Sydney Dance Company. They were pretty much given free rein to create work about whatever they wanted, and the themes, motifs and styles on display are diverse: sexual desire, the delicate balance of relationships, the dynamic exchange between the individual and the group, Alien vs Predator fans on YouTube. None of these things sound particularly 'female', whatever that even means, which is why Contemporary Women is so great.
Lisa Wilson’s Desire starts the evening with an ensemble of seven dancers exploring the powerful and occasionally destructive force of, as it says on the tin, desire. The central motif of two people gripping each other’s heads in what could turn on a dime to be a passionate embrace or a deadly snap of the spine encapsulates the work perfectly: at once tender and dangerous, Wilson’s choreography is fluid and full of longing. It never quite explodes with the force that seems to simmer beneath the surface, but it packs a fair punch.
Its natural companion piece is Emily Amisano’s yield, which appears third in the programme. It’s a gentler, happier piece which looks at the softer side of human connection. Four dancers in street clothes curve, dip and blend into one another. The ease and enjoyment of the dancers is palpable and it’s a sweet antidote to some of the more tortured imagery on display.
Between these two comes Larissa McGowan’s Fantatic, a hilarious mashup of sound, gesture and pop culture. McGowan takes audio extracts from fans of the Alien and Predator movies lamenting Alien vs Predator on YouTube and plays them off against exaggerated physical re-enactments of their facial expressions and classic moments from the films. Natalie Allen embodies Sigourney Weaver’s famous Ripley with startling accuracy, and the work as a whole starts an interesting conversation about the value of faithfulness and purity of cultural products.
The evening is rounded out with Stephanie Lake’s Dream Lucid, which is the least narrative-driven work of the evening. With seven dancers, Lake creates a frenzied and jagged picture of a lone figure desperately struggling to be or create something unique. The forms and shapes Lake asks her dancers to make are weird and wonderful and they obey with relish. Special mention must go to Charmene Yap, whose body contorts and spasms in extraordinary, beautiful and grotesque formulations with a ferocity not often seen on Sydney stages.
Contemporary Women is, at first glance, an almost banal title. But these choreographers are diverse in styles, forms and themes, and to attempt to bind them by any similarity other than their gender would be a fool’s game. Pretty soon, the need to remark on that gender will be too. Commendation must go to Bonachela, the SDC and the Spring Dance team for bringing these four women into the spotlight. They certainly deserve to dance there for a long, long time.