19 September 2019.
Austinmer Dance Theatre is very much a bridge. The company’s focus on young (17-25yo) dancers and their desire to help them segue into longer term professional careers is both laudable and, most likely, a necessary step off point for performers in a tight market. For the impartial observer, however, this can be a little discomforting. Do we watch with a ruthless eye? Or, do we understand the specific context, and indeed make that framing part of our appreciation?
I mention this because, if we’re being honest, we should acknowledge that But Why is far from rigorously perfect. Good intentions do not necessarily blind us to missed beats and over-balances, nor do they obscure the palpable discrepancies between the good and not-so-good dancers. However, if we allow ourselves to be distracted by mere glitches, we run the risk of overlooking the passion, daring and emotional commitment of both the young ensemble and the older creatives who guide them. (As the nominated ‘critic’ in the equation, I am not about to tell you which eye to behold with. Rather, my intention here is to suggest that Austinmer’s But Why also represents a chance for us to examine our own prisms.)
For there is no doubt that this couplet of short works (Pastiching Tetsuo and Life Interrupted), reveal a boldness of vision — by which I mean that there is nothing dumbed down or ‘junior’ about them. Both are high concept, ensemble pieces that, in their design, embrace the architectural, abstract and elastic qualities we see in the work of superstar choreographers. In addition, both place themselves in the contradictory and imperfect world in which we find ourselves, running the gamut from pop-culture homage to searing social commentary.
The former, by Helpmann Award-winning dancer/choreographer Cass Mortimer Eipper, not only references Anime but, in its use of uniform and Forsythe-inspired rigour, hints at a looming dystopia. In their trackpants and plain coloured tops, the 13 dancers recall Soviet monumentalism and hint at a robotised sci-fi future, where the machines we make to set us free turn us into the drones of a mechanised surveillance state. The dancers wrestle with organic fluidity and hard, mathematical angles, forming, breaking and then re-forming stringent, ordered cadres, and all to the disembodied soundtrack of the Japanese cult classic, Tetsuo.
Meanwhile, Michelle Forte (Austinmer’s AD) brings us back to the grit of the present with her social realist piece, Life Interrupted. The setting here is a female prison. If in Mortimer Eipper’s work the ensemble were more like ‘Daughters of Pioneers’, here they are the human face of the stats we read about in government reports and lurid news rags. By intersecting the movement with live text, Forte creates a kind of Brechtian documentary theatre. At times, the dance is obviously representational, tilting into mime territory. Yet, for all that, it is energised, passionate and driven by a strong purpose. Indeed, Life Interrupted is one of the better ‘text in dance’ pieces, if only because the narrative is well constructed, the lines believably delivered and the blend of dance and theatre elements spring from story and truth, rather than tick-box vogue.
What we can say about But Why is that, imperfections notwithstanding, it is no mere exercise. The ensemble is, if not superbly technical, full blooded. They commit; and both Forte and Mortimer Eipper give them room to stretch out and test the limits of their ability. Yes, it’s young and has much of the earnest over-statement of youth, and indeed does come off as a tad obvious at times; but here again, the question for those of us in the stalls is one of focus. What do we value most in dance? In performance?
It would be easy to savage or make excuses for But Why. Neither would do it justice. There is an audacity about Austinmer’s style, a clear preference for passion and ambition. Perhaps, in the end, they are more prepared to fall short in the stretch for greatness than they are to succeed in the KPIs of safe. And isn’t that what art is for: to take risks on our behalf in order to show us who we are, or might one day become?
By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.