Dance and the ageing body. Sue Healey

15 August 2015, ARC Cinema, Canberra

Recently I posted a review of Sue Healey’s outstanding new work, On View: Live Portraits. On the day I went to see the show, however, a second component of the work, two short films featuring ‘icons’ of Australian dance, Lucette Aldous and Shirley McKechnie, was not being shown. So I was pleased that I was able to catch these two short films in Canberra as part of a session called ‘Dance and the ageing body’ during National Science Week.

Of the two films, one was thrilling, the other interesting, although both showed Healey’s remarkable expertise as a dance film maker. The one that truly shone for its dance component, and for its relevance to the subject of the ageing body and its capacity to continue to move, was that featuring Lucette Aldous, former star of the Australian Ballet and before that of Ballet Rambert and other English companies. Aldous is now 78 and yet she continues to dance daily. The film shows her giving herself a floor barre, which has long been a hallmark of her teaching and her own practice. Then we see her performing a temps lié-style exercise and then dancing outdoors, first on a grassy area in front of a contemporary Australian homestead, and then beside a flowing stretch of water. She is still an absolutely stunning mover. Some parts of the film are shot in slow motion so we can see very clearly the shape of every movement and the space each movement occupies and fills. Breathtaking.

Lucette Aldous in a sitll from Sue Healey's short film 'Lucette Aldous'.

Lucette Aldous in a still from Sue Healey’s short film ‘Lucette Aldous’

Some of the most exciting parts are when Healey uses excerpts  from the Australian Ballet film of Don Quixote in which Aldous famously danced Kitri to Rudolf Nureyev’s Basilio (and I might add gave Nureyev a run for his money). Using a layering technique Healey has Aldous behind a scrim watching and commenting on her performance as Kitri. And in another sequence Aldous dances with a billowing red scarf as we become aware, within the Don Quixote film, of an exchange between Aldous and Nureyev, which features a shawl. It made me hunt out my Don Q DVD and enjoy it again.

 Shirley McKechnie in a still from Sue Healey's short film 'Shirley McKechnie'

Shirley McKechnie in a still from Sue Healey’s short film ‘Shirley McKechnie’

The second section focuses on Shirley McKechnie, now 88 and much less mobile than Aldous. McKechnie has influenced many people working in the area of contemporary dance in Australia and, when a stroke left her unable to continue her own practice, she turned to writing, largely in the field of cognition. As a result, this short film is not so much about how to continue to drive the body physically as one ages, but about how to reinvent oneself in order to remain active within the field of dance.

Healey uses photographs to show the ageing process beginning with childhood shots of McKechnie and moving through the decades until we encounter McKechnie as an older woman. Once the film moves to McKechnie as a live subject, she remains seated leafing through a book. Pages of writing flutter through the air and land at her fingertips as the titles and dates of her academic articles are thrown onto the screen. The fluttering pages are pretty much the only movement throughout the film and so it suffers somewhat from being shown alongside ‘Lucette Aldous’ where movement is such a vital and astonishing component.

Although I did not see the films as part of the On View installation, it is easy to imagine how they might fit as part of the whole show, and the triple screen images link nicely with a similar arrangement in the live show. But Healey has a number of ideas on how these films might develop. They deserve to be developed further, perhaps with other ‘icons’ in addition to Aldous and McKechnie. But the issue of how to juxtapose veteran performers so that one doesn’t steal the limelight (deservedly in the case of Aldous) will remain an issue.

Michelle Potter, 17 August 2015

Martin del Amo in 'On View. LIve Portraits', 2015. Photo Gregory Lorenzutti

‘On View. Live Portraits’. Sue Healey

22 July 2015, Performance Space, Carriageworks, Eveleigh (Sydney)

The printed program for Sue Healey’s latest work, On View. Live Portraits, contains a short essay by Christopher Chapman, senior curator at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. Writing of screen-based digital portraits, or video portraits, he says: like any portrait, the genre should succeed when it communicates a compelling sense of person-hood, or identity, or individual being. This is exactly what Healey’s work does, even though it is so much more than an exercise in digital or video portraiture. It communicates a strong sense that we are watching the very separate identities of five extraordinary individuals—Martin del Amo, Shona Erskine, Benjamin Hancock, Raghav Handa and Nalina Wait.

Dancers in Sue Healey's 'In View. Live Portraits', 2015. Photo: Gregory Lorenzutti

Dancers in Sue Healey’s On View. Live Portraits, 2015. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

On entering the darkened Bay 20 of Carriageworks, the venue for On View, it took several seconds for our eyes to adjust. But when they did we were confronted by those five individuals scattered, seemingly randomly, in one half of the cavernous space. The performers were all moving, if sometimes just slightly, and were involved in some way with a moving image as background or projection. But in essence they represented an image that, although clearly live, we could interpret as a portrait in a relatively traditional sense.

The movements were interesting enough, but it was only later that their significance emerged. In this opening segment, Shona Erskine, for example, sat quietly in a corner twitching slightly on occasions and adjusting a red item of clothing that partly covered the upper section of her body. A fox fur, complete with head, tail, and feet, was spread on the floor beside her and, with the moody lighting in which she was shrouded, the image had the quality of a Baroque portrait. Later, Erskine danced a solo with the fox fur, wrapping it around her, wearing its head on her head, and otherwise utilising it as an addition to her solo. That initial portrait had come to life and the slight twitches we noticed earlier had turned into more obvious fox-like movements.

After a few minutes spent absorbing this introduction, we were ushered to the other end of the bay and invited to sit down. Five screens confronted us now and each had three digital portraits of the five dancers, with one screen for each performer. Slowly the portraits began to move and it was quite a remarkable experience to watch how costume affected the dancerly image. Raghav Handa, for example, wore three different costumes in his three portraits—white, loose, Indian-style trousers (no top) in one, a casually elegant shirt and trousers in another, and a suit in the last. He executed the same, quite simple bending movement in each of his three on screen portraits, but it looked quite different in each case. I found myself unable to do anything but favour the movement when Handa was wearing his Indian outfit. It was his dance costume, which I knew, and the power of that knowledge coloured my perception.

As the piece progressed the dancers appeared live, dancing around the screens as well as appearing on them. The interaction between film footage and live performance grew stronger.

Shona foreground

Shona Erskine (centre), Nalina Wait (centre screen) Benjamin Hancock (background left), Martin del Amo (background right). On View. Live Portraits, 2015. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

Particularly affecting were a series of solos where the dancers seemed to take on the attributes of a creature from the natural world. Handa was seen on screen handling a horse as if breaking it in, while at the same time he performed live with the fluid quality that marks his dancing, and with something of the freedom and wild abandon of the horse. An extraordinary performance by Benjamin Hancock was the highlight of this section. His acrobatic style of movement, punctured by a vocabulary that often looked quite balletic, along with the film footage on the screens of a praying mantis, was mesmerising.

Benjamin Hancock and praying mantis, On View 2015. Photo Gregory Lorenzutti

Benjamin Hancock and praying mantis, On View. Live Portraits, 2015. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

Later, Martin del Amo was seen in a cemetery moving solemnly. A stone bird perched on one of the headstones seemed to loom over him.

There were segments when the dancers performed together, or when they came forward and stared at the audience. The gaze of Nalina Wait was especially powerful and, in one filmed section, her expressions told an entire story. Her dancing was incredibly lyrical and an absolute joy to watch, especially her solo where she appropriated the fluidity of a fish, which we saw on screen as Wait performed on stage. And there were  some exceptional moments when she danced with Handa and del Amo, who adjusted her long hair and circular skirt, manipulating the image we received.

Nalina Wait, Martin del Amo and Raghav Handa in 'On View. Live Portraits', 2015. Photo Gregory Lorenzutti

Nalina Wait, Martin del Amo and Raghav Handa in On View. Live Portraits, 2015. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

On View. Live Portraits had so many layers of meaning at every turn. It was absolutely exhilarating to watch and is a major work that deserves wide exposure. While Healey as choreographer and film maker, and her director of photography, Judd Overton, have worked strongly together before, with On View they have taken their collaboration to new heights. The links between live performance and the high quality moving image material, rather than being frustrating as they sometimes are when dance and film aim to coexist, were absolutely fluid and illuminating of each other. The show was enhanced by lighting from Karen Norris and an original sound score from Darrin Verhagen and Justin Ashworth. Definitely a five star experience, which can be savoured post show by some wonderful photographic images by Gregory Lorenzutti.

Michelle Potter, 23 July 2015

Featured image: Martin del Amo in On View. Live Portraits, 2015. Photo: © Gregory Lorenzutti

Martin del Amo in 'On View. LIve Portraits', 2015. Photo Gregory Lorenzutti

‘The Golds.’ A film by Sue Healey

The Golds is the latest production from Sydney-based film maker, Sue Healey. It does much to strengthen her position as a leading maker of dance films in Australia. With an earlier career as a dancer and choreographer to inform her work, Healey is able to hone in on what is intrinsic to dance, as indefinable as those intrinsic qualities might be.

The Golds are the dancers of Canberra’s mature age dance group, GOLD. (Growing Old Disgracefully, is the expanded form of the name). They are all over 55, some are much older. What is especially noticeable, and what is perhaps the most moving aspect of the film, is that most of these older men and women dance without a trace of self-consciousness. Their bodies are not, and mostly never have been, dancers’ bodies but they show the transformative power of dance. From this point of view The Golds is a truly beautiful film and much credit must go to Liz Lea for her inspirational leadership of the group.

I especially enjoyed a solo by Greg Barrett, a tall man with a long white beard. Made as a slow motion segment, his beard and his black, loose-fitting outfit moved beautifully with his very fluid body. Then there were some lovely segments with another dancer, whom I only know at this stage as Jane, a nun of (I think) the Brigidine order, dancing with Abbie, her little blind dog. She showed such honest movement, both with Abbie and in another section, in which she performed in front of a wall covered in what looked like graffiti or old, torn posters.

Scene from Sue Healey's film 'The Golds' (1)

Scene from Sue Healey’s film The Golds, 2014

The film might also be seen as a series of vignettes as individual dancers recount why they joined GOLD and what their backgrounds have been. Thus The Golds becomes a mini documentary. There are the expected responses to questions posed (off camera and not heard by the viewer). ‘It’s good exercise for an ageing body’, ‘I want to stay active’ and other similar remarks. But there are also some surprises. ‘No I can’t do the splits, but is it necessary? I don’t think so’, or ‘I was attracted by the word disgracefully in the name’.

Director of photography, Judd Overton, has selected some spectacular locations for this film. Canberra’s landscape and some of the city’s well-known architectural features form the background for much of the film. There are some eye-catching shots of figures in the landscape and figures interacting with features of the architecture. But there are also some interior locations. Some are domestic interiors, some are in Canberra institutions, including the National Portrait Gallery. They have all been carefully chosen and add a layer of exceptional visual interest.

Scene from Sue Healey's film 'The Golds' (2)

Scene from Sue Healey’s film The Golds, 2014

The first public screening of The Golds was at the National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra, on 3 October 2014 as part of the Archive’s final Silver Screenings program. Sadly, this program now goes into limbo as part of budget cutbacks.

This screening of The Golds was essentially a preview, as Healey noted in her opening remarks. There are one or two technical issues to be fine tuned, she said, one of which she hopes will make the program suitable as a TV documentary.

Michelle Potter, 6 October 2014

Sue Healey filming Sarah Jayne Howard for 'Virtuosi'

‘Virtuosi’. Sue Healey

Sue Healey has been making dance films since 1997. However, her latest production, Virtuosi, is different in a very major way. At around 80 minutes in length, Virtuosi is a documentary, whereas until now Healey has focused on making short films. Virtuosi is eight stories in one, dance portraits of eight New Zealanders, ‘artists from the edge of the world’, who have made careers beyond their homeland: Mark Baldwin, Craig Bary, Lisa Densem, Raewyn Hill, Sarah-Jayne Howard, Ross McCormack, Jeremy Nelson and Claire O’Neil. And of course both Healey and the composer of the film’s music, Mike Nock, fall into the same category. They too are New Zealanders whose careers have taken them well beyond their homeland.

Healey says when the opportunity arose she was ready to take on the challenge of a full-length film. She says she always enjoyed making short films, using what she refers to as ‘the distillation approach, honing the idea to its essence’, but that it was time for her to investigate ‘a different duration and its inherent qualities and demands’. Not that it was all smooth sailing, apparently. Healey says that finding a structure for the documentary was a huge challenge and that she was more than fortunate to work with an expert editor in Lindi Harrison and with Judd Overton as director of photography. Of Overton, Healey says: ‘Judd’s shooting style is extremely improvisatory—he is willing to solve problems in the here and now, rather than having pre-conceived notions of shot and frame. This is an extremely exciting way of making film and art’. This approach fitted nicely with Healey’s own strategies.

‘As a filmmaker’, she says, ‘I am still very much influenced by the choreographic approach, preferring to allow the structure to find itself organically through the process. Now, this goes against the usual film canon and can land you in very hot water when you realise you don’t have the necessary shots and logic to fully render an idea. However, I was extremely confident that I had more than enough material to create a range of outcomes’.

Specifically, Healey set a range of tasks for her eight subjects asking them, for example, to create movement sequences in iconic locations in their ‘new’ homes. Each of the artists created an outdoor ‘public’ dance (stills and production shots from some of these dances are in the mosaic below). Each also created a ‘still life’ solo in an interior location. And each created an intimate, close-up hand dance.

Raewyn Hill being filmed for 'Virtuosi'. Photo: Jacqui Ferry
Sarah-Jayne Howard being filmed for 'Virtuosi'
Craig Bary being filmed for 'Virtuosi'
Jeremy Nelson in 'Virtuosi', filmed in New York

Scenes from the filming of  Virtuosi.
Top row: Raewyn Hill; Sarah-Jayne Howard. Bottom row: Craig Bary with film crew; Jeremy Nelson
Images courtesy Sue Healey

Virtuosi has already been shown at festivals from New York to Tasmania (and of course in New Zealand where it premiered in 2012). Healey has recently heard that is in competition in the Golden Prague International Television Festival, and also that it will get a theatrical release throughout New Zealand. In addition, Virtuosi exists as a 3 channel installation for gallery spaces.

Canberra audiences have the opportunity to see Virtuosi as part of Scinema: Dance science and dance memories, a week-long program of dance films at the National Film and Sound Archive. Virtuosi screens on Thursday 15 August at 7 pm in the ARC cinema at the National Film and Sound Archive and is preceded by one of Healey’s short films called Once in a blue moon.

Virtuosi is short listed at the 2013 Australian Dance Awards in the category Outstanding Achievement in Dance on Film or New Media. Recipients of awards will be announced in Canberra on 5 August 2013.

More on the Arc screening …   More on the 2013 Australian Dance Awards short list …  [ Update: these links are no longer available]

Watch the Virtuosi trailer below:

Michelle Potter, 19 July 2013

Featured image: Film maker Sue Healey with performer Sarah-Jayne Howard. Courtesy Sue Healey

Sue Healey filming Sarah Jayne Howard for 'Virtuosi'