Maxim Boon finds the silver lining in the latest collaborative work from the principal choreographer and Artistic Director of Melbourne's leading contemporary dance troupe.
For Chunky Move artistic director Anouk van Dijk, the act of choreographing isn't merely a matter of inventing steps and gestures, but rather sculpting the dynamics of an experience. "I choreograph everything that's happening on the stage. Of course, that means the people performing, but it's also about the lights and props, the gaze of the audience - where they look and what they hear. It's all interconnected," van Dijk shares.
Her productions are feats of precision engineering, but the Dutch-born Melbourne-based dance maker is no control freak. In fact, her creative practice is firmly built on a foundation of collaboration. Van Dijk's body of work for Melbourne's flagship contemporary dance company features an impressive rollcall of contributing creatives, from sound designers to videographers, actors to playwrights, as well as a vast collection of inter-disciplinary artists, who like van Dijk, are drawn to working on the blurred edges between artistic mediums.
The results speak for themselves. In the past few years alone, ambitious projects such as Depth Of Field, an outdoor performance featuring sophisticated sound design piped to the audience via individual headphones, or Lucid, a technically virtuosic amalgam of live-streaming video and dance-theatre, have revealed the rich variety of expressive potential unlocked by such partnerships.
But, given her chosen profession, perhaps the most intriguing facet of van Dijk's attraction to the collaborative is the way in which the mingling of different artistic elements makes her work less dance-centric and more emotionally led. "I've always had an instinctive desire to engage with things that don't relate to a choreographic process, in a traditional sense," she explains. "Partly, that's because the work is experimental - it isn't the kind of dancing that someone might see on TV - so it offers other entry points to the work for an audience that may not necessarily care for dance. But it also generates an interesting tension. I work with performers who are used to high levels of physicality, but introducing emotional demands challenges the way they perform in this really guttural sense that I hope comes across in the piece."
These double-hinged, deeply visceral influences are a vital catalyst in van Dijk's productions, and it's an aspect of her work that is particularly supportive of the evolution of the dance medium, for both artists and audiences. "We store so much in our bodies that go far beyond what our muscles can do. When you work in and practice any form of dance, your awareness of what happens in your body and how that is shaped by your mind, rapidly accelerates," she says. "Dance artists are incredibly in tune with that connection between the physical and the emotional. So, dance can be a magnifying glass for universal experiences - things that are happening to all of us. In dance, you can't hide behind anything; it's a very pure and direct form of expression. And yet, it can transcend and communicate so much emotional energy; love, passion, desire, perseverance, vulnerability, joy - not by trying to depict something, but just by doing."
For her most recent collaboration, van Dijk has worked with Singaporean multi-media artist and filmmaker Ho Tzu Nyen, to explore a subject matter long pondered by people throughout time: the nature of clouds. Anti-Gravity is an immersive, theatrical response to Ho's installation The Cloud Of Unknowing, described as "an evocative world inhabited by six extraordinary dancers in various depths of control and abandon."
In some respects, this piece very much plays to van Dijk's strengths, most notably her experience responding to the creative energy of other artists. "Once Ho Tzu Nyen and I began talking about his research into clouds, there was so much that came out of that conversation than we could ever put into a single piece. So we focused on dissecting the components of clouds - the cycle of how clouds are formed and how they return to being water," she recalls. Much like a cloud, finding form from the formless, these early conceptual exchanges began to take shape in the physical world, on stage. "We started to assemble this catalogue of objects - bits of stone, grass, a screen that we could project onto. And as we began building this world, all these individual elements began to influence each other. They are all, superficially, unrelatable and yet they share a synergy."
However, in other aspects of this piece, even within the context of van Dijk's eclectic portfolio of past collaborations, Anti-Gravity takes leaps and bounds into previously uncharted territory. As an expansive, installation-style production, the densely layered use of the stage offers multiple ways for the audience to engage with the action. Certain parts of the show will allow audience members to self-guide their individual experiences, choosing their own adventure through the densely layered action. But van Dijk has not left all facets of this piece up to chance. As she explains, it's a delicate balancing act between freedom and control.
"There is a challenge in creating a space for a performance experience that remains managed enough for the audience to feel safe, because not everyone will want to go on their own journey, necessarily. In a big, expansive production like Anti-Gravity, we have to acknowledge there should be some guidance while at the same time avoiding the need to tell the audience how they have to think or feel," van Dijk elaborates. "There needs to be a sense of adventure for the viewer, but that has to exist in a space where you are allowed to linger and wonder and make your own connections to the work. I want people to be intrigued and drawn closer to what they're seeing."
First published 13 Mar 2017, for The Music.