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Natalie Abbott: Purpose is a latecomer

Cheryl Cameron and Natalie Abbott. Photo by Phebe Schmidt.
Cheryl Cameron and Natalie Abbott. Photo by Phebe Schmidt.

“In a way, making shows and art for me are a way to understand things that I’m questioning in life, and to offer up alternatives for people,” declares Melbourne-based choreographer Natalie Abbott. “So, like, here’s something we recognise and understand, but what if things were slightly different?”

Welcome to (re)PURPOSE: the MVMNT, Abbott’s multi-tiered investigation of aging, female roles and our expectations around form and spectacle. It’s a two-hander that borrows from ballet, Bieber and ’70s horror, mashing high art with pop culture and past with present to create a work at once recognisable and disconcerting.   

As she says, “In this work, I’m trying to push into things that I know and am trained to do, and understand and am obsessed with, but set it up in way that’s just a little off-kilter or unexpected. So, there’s the seduction of familiarity but then, pulling away from that, realising that it was slightly odd.” 

The intention, it seems, is not simply to break the rules but instead to utilise them for a different purpose. In this way, Abbott is able to weave in her disparate passions for Italian horror maestro Dario Argento, popstar Justin Bieber and the traditions of classical ballet (as embodied the work of the legendary Anna Pavlova). It’s a fusion that respects, re-fashions and re-enacts through the agency of two quite different female bodies: Abbott herself and dancer Cheryl Cameron.

Yet, in truth, (re)PURPOSE: the MVMNT begins more than a hundred years ago, with Mikhail Fokine’s four-minute solo for Pavlova, The Dying Swan. Since it was first staged in St. Petersburg in 1905, it has become a much studied, imitated and adapted piece. Its theme of age and mortality (and, perhaps more importantly, that Pavlova herself performed the work 4,000 times across different stages of her life) is something that obviously fascinates Abbott.

Indeed, as part of her research for (re)PURPOSE, Abbott has been talking with Marilyn Jones from the Australian Ballet (who herself danced The Dying Swan at different stages of her life) about the intricacies involved. “She said that she felt like she understood it better when she was older and coming into retirement,” Abbott explains. “And then she did it even later, and there was even more information in her body about being older and how that felt compared to when she first did it.” 

Now in her 30s, Abbott will team up with the “more mature” performer Cameron to further tease out notions of age and the body, particularly as it relates to the female body in culture and performance. “There’s this thing of the invisibility of older bodies within the dance and pop framework,” she contends, before adding, “I haven’t done ballet or pointe work for 10 years, so I guess I feel this is relevant for me because I turned 30 last year, and I’ve been thinking about aging and what it means to sit between youth and being older.” 

The work also retains another tangible link to dance’s past – namely, the use of the theremin. Indeed, as thereminist Miles Brown told Abbott, the score for Pavlova’s famous solo (Camille Saint-Saëns‘s Le Cygne from Le Carnaval des animaux) is reputed to be the first piece ever performed publically on the instrument.

It’s all part of the work’s interconnected but displaced architecture, a web of relationship and relevance designed to create an unexpected shift. “I think that art should expand the mind laterally and also agitate in some ways, so not necessarily meet the expectation,” Abbott states. “I tend to make non-linear things generally, but I’m using a linear narrative more this time by using a known construct but unpacking it a little bit.”

Having previously worked with the likes of European iconoclast (and molecular biologist) Xavier Le Roy and been part of the Marina Abramovic Residency, Abbott is versed in the notion of art and performance as disturbance, as rupture. And of course, in this frame, the role of the observer is often co-opted and challenged. After all, if we’re talking expectation, of whose are we speaking?

“I can’t control what the audience read,” Abbott observes. “No matter how you frame stuff, the language of movement doesn’t always directly translate into communication. It’s more expressive. Something I’m interested in is creating an embodied experience, something visceral, and you can go away afterward and put words around it post-show.”

Perhaps here, what Abbott is offering us is the opportunity to do exactly as her title suggests, to look and to ponder, and then, later, to “re-purpose the movement”.

Natalie Abbott’s (re)PURPOSE: the MVMNT runs at Dancehouse 5-9 July. For more information and booking, click here

By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.

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