4/4. It sounds like the simplest tempo. But what if there was a deeper dive?
From his early days in the street scene to his present role as the Artistic Director of the Melbourne based contemporary dance powerhouse Chunky Move, Antony Hamilton has spent decades teasing apart the inner mechanics of choreography. With his latest full length work, 4/4, he is seeking to fold simplicity and complexity into a single body.
On one level, the piece is minimal. Eight dancers in an uncluttered space, dressed simply and moving to a stripped back vision. However, despite its title, 4/4 is a complex, almost mathematical undertaking.
“To look at the work, you might not immediately perceive that; but essentially, it’s capturing a movement language that I’ve been working on for over 10 years,” Hamilton reveals. “It involves this complex number counting system to organise the choreography.”
For the dancers, this means a tricky time count. As Hamilton explains, “I suppose where this differs from previous work is the emphasis on that as part of what the dancers are doing; and the endurance layer, in terms of the dancers’ mental attention to the choreography over a long period of time.”
Practically, this entails a “list of counting sequences” the performers will need to memorise. In addition, Hamilton has opted to use a “physical manuscript” that will sit in the space and be read “like sheet music.” This means that, aside from the count, the dancers’ eyeline will be trained in an unusually fixed way.
As the choreographer duly notes, “It’s quite unusual having to dance and read simultaneously.”
Yet, these strictures, he reminds us, are pivotal to the project. Here, mathematical parallels suggest themselves. “Yes, people say that; and it is [mathematical],” he admits. “Maths as a system of organisation that humans have used for millennia and how it can manifest in a choreographic way.”
In this, 4/4 is also an evolution of the approach Hamilton (and sound design collaborator Alisdair Macindoe) used in their multi award-winning 2015 work, Meeting. The latter was a duet. The former is a multiplication of that. In 2023, the two-hander has morphed into a work for two quartets.
“There’s an interesting tension created spatially with this piece, in that each of the quartets work off a very small stage that floats in the middle a very big stage,” Hamilton elaborates. “It’s a low key design that’s intended to be very utilitarian.”
Minimalist discipline notwithstanding, there remains an underlying attention to the details of aesthetic. The work is far from rudimentary. “It’s impossible not to be swept into a design rigour and to try and find a beautiful language there,” Hamilton states. “Again, it’s using restraint as a launching pad.”
His first example is lighting. For 4/4, he describes Bosco Shaw’s design as a being “like the ninth dancer.” Although not pyrotechnic or overwhelming, it moves and breathes.
Likewise, with costume. Although rooted in simple tones (in this case, blacks and greys), Hamilton suggests that Paula Brevis’ work “mimics what I asked the dancers to wear in rehearsal” whilst elevating it “a little bit out of the everyday.” Subtle and nuanced are the keywords here.
A similar dialogue of the complex and the simple is at play in the approach to sound. Fortunately, Hamilton and Macindoe have a long association and, as frequent collaborators, have developed what Chunky Move’s AD calls “a shorthand understanding.”
Unpacking the process, he says, “I will feed him the same number patterns I give the dancers as a template, and we’ll start with very simple ideas, like using a metronome as the baseline sound, and then from there we tend to play with how often the sound will neatly align with the visual, and when it will deviate off.”
In 4/4, as in previous works, the Macindoe/Hamilton partnership will flirt with slippage. “We like to play with ideas like phasing, or offsetting the timing, so that one minute it’s very clear what’s going on, and things are in sync, and then we like to drift it off and shift the audience’s perception.”
It is these perceptions (ours) that Chunky Move’s latest production will seek to stretch this August at the Malthouse Theatre. The meshing of maths and minimalism, with its subtext of veiled complexity, aims to disrupt the quantised certainties of 4/4 and to suggest that, in the fracture, dwells the structure.
Chunky Move will present the world premiere of Antony Hamilton’s 4/4 at Malthouse Theatre from 8 – 12 August. For tickets and more information, visit chunkymove.com/works/4-4.
By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.