By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.
Choreographer/director Kate Champion’s swansong with Force Majeure will surely ruffle feathers. By teaming up with ‘fat activist’ Kelli Jean Drinkwater, she hopes to exit the dance world with a very large bang.
“I was once lifted by a male dancer and when he put me down he said, ‘What did you have for dinner!?’ I mean, if you get that every day it’s pretty demoralising.”
Everyone in the dance industry knows that body shape and body size really do matter. Whether its classical, traditional ballet or the most daring contemporary work the preference for slender, athletic and ‘beautiful’ is rarely challenged; at least not on stage. So when you hear one of the country’s best known and critically lauded dance artists tell such a story, you know that the dominant aesthetic is no respecter of talent.
However, for Kate Champion the ‘fat’ issue has recently come into sharp relief. In what will be her final production with Force Majeure, the dance theatre company she founded back in 2002, Champion has teamed up with renowned artist, filmmaker and fat activist Kelli Jean Drinkwater to create a work that will challenge industry and audience notions of what a dancer’s body, (or indeed yours and mine), should look like.
When Nothing To Lose makes its world premiere at the Sydney Festival it will do so using seven very large dancers. As Drinkwater says, “A lot of the work that I do artistically and politically is about reclaiming spaces that are prohibited to bigger bodies and the dance world is definitely one of those. For instance, a lot of the performers that we have in this show haven’t felt comfortable with regards to access to training because of that idea about what a dancer’s body should be. That then creates this knock on effect in terms of what we see on stage.”
As someone who has spent her whole life in dance, Kate Champion acknowledges that although there are some practical drivers behind the industry’s physical preferences the artform sometimes suffers because of it. “When you’re very athletic and train eight hours a day you probably will develop a certain body type, like athletes do,” she explains, “but I have seen dancers I know who are fantastic not get work because they are perceived as being too big or not the right shape.”
To underline her point she recounts the oft recited anecdote about the legendary choreographer George Balanchine. “He decided one day that he liked women with breasts and so you had all these skinny girls with breasts; and then he decided that he didn’t like them and so they all had them lopped off.”
Whilst this may seem an extreme and quite possibly apocryphal tale it highlights the broader societal view of desirable form. “We are bombarded with images of larger people but most of the time it’s coming from a reductionist perspective,” Drinkwater argues. “Y’know, them on their weight loss journey or whatever. Or, it’s coming from a place of shame or panic around the obesity epidemic.”
For this reason Nothing To Lose contains absolutely no health messages; a fact which clearly delights Kelli Jean Drinkwater. “Kate was so willing to work with us and our bodies to find what it was we could really do and to try and create something that we haven’t seen before in Australia.”
Picking up the thread, Kate Champion adds, “Some people have jumped to the assumption that I’m doing this voyeuristically or as some kinda freakshow but I made it very clear to Kelli Jean that wasn’t where I was coming from and that’s where it gelled.”
Previously, Champion’s curiosity had initially been aroused by watching bigger bodies socially on dancefloors and wondering why she never saw them on stage. “So I thought, what would it look like if we had a whole cast of what we perceive to be larger or fat people?”
A few moments online and she found Drinkwater, who herself had been flirting with idea of creating a dance work. Getting their heads together they laid the foundations for the piece that is now Nothing To Lose.
“What’s interesting with Kate is that she is not taking the performers and asking them to perform dance moves that we’ve traditionally seen with smaller bodies,” Drinkwater points out. “Working with these performers to create their own vocabulary is really fascinating; and hopefully that in itself will broaden people’s perception of what a dancer’s body can look like.”
Yet, buried beneath issues around body shape are fuzzier notions of beauty. “It’s interesting that these conversations always come back to beauty,” Drinkwater notes. “I understand that when people think about dance they think about beauty, or aesthetically pleasing performance, but I’m really passionate about deconstructing what we perceive as beautiful and why we consider it so.”
For all that, Nothing To Lose remains a work of art; a Force Majeure production rather than a political broadcast. Although the piece draws on the personal stories of the seven dancers it is neither “therapy on stage” nor a token nod to affirmative action. As Kate Champion says, “I think that by actually being fascinating and compelling you can shift someone’s perspective on their face value judgement more readily than if you wear the message too loudly at the front. If you just be magnificent you can get your point across.”
All of which brings us to the F word. “I’m always interested with things like how contentious the word ‘fat’ is,” Drinkwater admits.
Indeed, she and Champion have not shied away from it during the development and promotion of the show. As the latter observes, “Journalists often ask us if they’re professional dancers and we like to joke that we got them from the Fat Professional Dance Company.”
And doubtless there are many dancers out there who would love to see such a thing.
Get tickets to Nothing to Lose from Jan 21-25 at Sydney Festival at www.sydneyfestival.org.au/2015/nothing-to-lose or at Dance Massive, Melbourne from March 11-21 at http://dancemassive.com.au/program/nothing-to-lose/
Photo (top): Dancer Claire Burrows in ‘Nothing to Lose’. Photo by Toby Burrows.