by Jordan Beth Vincent

For the first time, the city of Melbourne hosted Asia TOPA (Asia-Pacific Triennial of Performing Arts), a massive event across three months, beginning in January, designed to celebrate contemporary art, performance, food and culture.

Artists from China, Japan, India, Indonesia and Korea, among others, performed in Melbourne across a wide array of events and collaborations. This may sound like a broad remit — it certainly is, and more so because Asia TOPA does not have a central curatorial board. Rather, it employs a model in which individual venues from around the city program works under the festival banner. This is not a particularly unusual way to curate a festival here; in fact, Dance Massive, the contemporary dance festival that overlapped with Asia TOPA in March, is run with the same consortium model.

What Asia TOPA is trying to do, however, in its wide-ranging and diverse programming, is to raise some interesting questions about the relationship of Australia to its region, and to explore how collaborations across cultures and countries can inspire new art. The dance programming was challenging and contemporary (as in China’s TAO Dance Theater’s minimalist unison masterpieces, 6 and 8). It also demonstrated partnerships between Asian and Australian artists in the development of new work (as in Circa’s One Beautiful Thing, which involved Indian circus artists performing the ancient gymnastic sport of mallakhamb) or brought repertoire that is controversial, such as the National Ballet of China’s political drama, Red Detachment of Women. Reponses to Red Detachment were largely positive from the critics (with a few exceptions), although the work — created in 1964 and later depicted in the opera Nixon in China — did prompt protests in newspapers and outside the theatre.

One of the most successful programming choices in Asia TOPA was XO State, which was essentially a program within a program, in that it combined a full-length dusk event with a dark event (an after-hours art party with performances by a range of independent artists). Curated by Gideon Obarzanek and Filipino choreographer-dancer Eisa Jocson, XO State was framed as something cool, contemporary and edgy, with a focus on movement and music. One of the full-length premieres was Attractor, a contemporary dance collaboration between Melbourne-based Lucy Guerin Inc., with Townsville-based Dancenorth. With choreography by Obarzanek and Guerin, Attractor also involved Senwaya, a musical duo from Indonesia.

Obarzanek and Guerin have co-created together previously, most notably during Obarzanek’s tenure as artistic director of Melbourne’s Chunky Move. Tense Dave and Two Faced Bastard integrated Obarzanek’s impulse to haul out and deconstruct big ideas with Guerin’s penchant for exploring modes of communication. Attractor did both of these things by combining the performances of the professional dancers from Dancenorth with audience participation.

A large group of audience members were brought onstage and given headphones, through which they were provided instructions about where to stand and how to move. While the rest of us were not privy to the conversations, we were aware that the communication was live and surprises were possible. These unrehearsed performers drew on simple sequences such as running, dancing wildly in place or reaching out to touch fellow participants, their activities providing an interesting counterbalance against the complexity of movement by Dancenorth. Against Senwaya’s primal and persistent rhythms, the work began to feel increasingly ritualistic and communal, even if only a fraction of the bodies onstage knew what was coming next. This was a conversation that cut across multiple modes, but was fundamentally driven by the rhythm, the almost magpie influences of folk and heavy metal, and keening vocal explosions.

TAO DanceTheater in Tao Ye’s 8 | Photo: Mark Gambino

Since it first became a professional company in the mid-1980s, Dancenorth has had a number of directors as well as a long history of extensive tours throughout Southeast Asia. It is now under the directorship of dancer/choreographer Kyle Page, who spent much of his career at Garry Stewart’s Australian Dance Theatre in Adelaide. Now, as an artistic director on the other side of the country, Page has populated Dancenorth with dancers (and guest artists) who share his style and artistic lineage, such as Samantha Hines, who has also worked extensively with Australian Dance Theatre, and Josh Mu, who has performed with Chunky Move. With so many links and shared influences in training and choreographic style, Attractor felt like something that came full circle at its Melbourne premiere. This work integrates artists whose style and innovations have been central to the development of contemporary dance in Australia in recent years with artists who contradict the notion that distance hinders collaboration.

Amidst the excitement around Asia TOPA, Melbourne’s contemporary dance community was also gearing up for Dance Massive, March 14-26. Now in its fifth iteration, Dance Massive engaged with Asia TOPA through a few shared events, such as Chunky Move’s newest work, Anti-Gravity, which featured choreography by Anouk van Dijk with multimedia artist Ho Tzu Nyen.

Lucy Guerin Inc. also premiered a Dance Massive production, Split, featuring dancers Lilian Steiner and Melanie Lane. Many of Guerin’s recent works, such as Motion Picture and The Dark Chorus, were created for large groups. Split is a pared-back and detailed look at the relationship between two women, operating in an increasingly shrinking space. Guerin is not an artist who is afraid to reveal her choreographic structures and, in Split, the context is four sections of stage and four sections of movement, each of which are half the size and length of the previous one. Within this structure and confines, the women alternately co-exist and battle for supremacy. Guerin plays with notions of vulnerability and strength, displaying the nude female body — not as a sexualized object, but as a kind of battleground for negotiation.

The outlook of Dance Massive has long been international, with one of its key aims being to pitch Australian contemporary dance to international markets and producers, who fly into the country to explore how art (much of it already premiered) can be exported for touring.

The Australian Ballet programmed its own contemporary triple bill within the same period, Faster, with works by Wayne McGregor, Tim Harbour and David Bintley.

In effect, Melbourne audiences enjoyed two major contemporary arts festivals along with a contemporary performance by our major flagship arts company all within the first quarter of 2017. This was an opportunity to see a great deal of contemporary dance and performance from all around the world, in one almost overwhelming onslaught. Melbourne’s cultural community is alive with ideas and inspiration, and no doubt the rest of the year will seem quiet by comparison.

TAO Dance Theater in Tao Ye’s 8 | Photo: Mark Gambino