Awkward. Catapult Dance Choreographic Hub

27 March 2024. The B, Queanbeyan Arts Centre

Below is a slightly expanded version of my review of Awkward published online by Canberra City News on 28 March 2024.

In just one performance in The B, a former Bicentennial Hall renovated to become a theatre space, the Newcastle-based Catapult Dance Choreographic Hub presented Awkward, a work with a focus on ‘The wit and wisdom of the socially awkward.’

In essence Awkward set out to be a multi-disciplinary work with a strong dance component but centering on a spoken narrative about an event to which six young people, unknown at first to each other, arrived to party together. Some were shy, others weren’t. Some made an effort to connect, others didn’t. A kind of compere, the seventh person in the story, explained to the arrivals how they should behave at such an event, what to do with the eyes when talking to someone new, for example. We watched as the young people slowly began to interact with each other. Sometimes the effort to interact worked, sometimes it didn’t, so there was much changing of relationships.

One performer tries (unsuccessfully) to connect with another in Awkward. Photo: © Ashley de Prazer, ca. 2023

Interaction was most often expressed through dancing, which was performed to popular songs from around the 1980s and 1990s. The songs and the narrative were often closely connected in theme and the choreography, by Cadi McCarthy, a co-director of the Catapult company, was distinguished by some eye-catching lifts and partnering, and tumbles and turns in a grounded contemporary style. The performers, Jordan Bretherton, Cassidy Clarke, Alexandra Ford, Nicola Ford, Romain Hassanin, Remy Rochester, and Anna McCulla, all danced well and performed with strong stage presence. It was extremely frustrating, however, that. without a program or any images on show in the lobby of the theatre, it was not easy to identify which dancer was playing which role. The strongest dancer amongst the seven, at least for me, was the performer in the tartan costume in the left-front position in the featured image. Who is she? No idea. But I really enjoyed her dancing. She also appears in the image below standing across the two bars that make up part of the set.

Photo: © Ashley de Prazer, ca. 2023

The B provided an interesting space for the work. Two levels were used—a relatively small, raised stage became a living area on which the dancers engaged with each other, on and around several lounge chairs, while in front of the stage at ground level was the bar area and the dance floor. Steps on either side of the ground level space led up to the raised area and the dancers used both spaces equally and effectively. I wondered whether or not the Catapult group had used this kind of double performing space when performing this work in other venues? The company certainly looked very comfortable moving up and down, back and forth.

It was a shame, however, that the performance was as long as it was—it lasted around 75 minutes. After a while the choreography started to look repetitive and Awkward could have been 15 or 20 minutes shorter and saved itself from losing its power. The multi-disciplinary nature of the work was somewhat problematic too. While the ‘compere’ took a significant role in the early part of Awkward, the narrative disappeared somewhat as the work progressed and dance took over. I preferred the dance component to the narrative element, which often seemed not so much funny (although much of the audience laughed and laughed) as a little pathetic. But, more importantly, the loss, or lessening of the narrative meant that the intrinsic nature of the work as established at the beginning was lost.

Awkward began as a kind of ‘total work of art’ (Gesamtkunstwerk to use the early name for that idea). But slowly Awkward lost that quality, or the idea of totality was significantly lessened. As a result, and unfortunately the work was uneven in the way it was presented. And, again unfortunately, Awkward was too long. A shortened work and a more consistent approach would have added an ongoing strength to the work.

Michelle Potter, 28 March 2024

The version published by Canberra City News is at this link.

Featured image: The five female performers from Awkward with the ‘compere’ in the central position. Photo: © Ashley de Prazer, ca. 2023

Terra Firma. Quantum Leap

26 May 2022. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre

The constant in productions staged by QL2 for Quantum Leap, the organisation’s auditioned youth dance ensemble for ages 14-26, is the way the dancers are choreographed into groupings. The nature of the groupings varies of course from choreographer to choreographer and work to work, but we can always see groups forming and breaking apart, changing in position on the stage, closing up into tight groupings, spreading apart and joining together with outstretched arms, building up a grouping with one dancer standing on another, and any number of variations on these choreographic ideas. In many respects, that the choreography is based on changing group structures is a result of the fact that Quantum Leap is not an ensemble that features particular dancers over others, or not usually. It is a group featuring everyone.

Of the three works shown as part of Terra Firma, Quantum Leap’s most recent triple bill, it was Melanie Lane’s work Metal Park that used group structures in the most engaging way. Metal Park focused on potential relationships between the human body and objects of various kinds. As the work began, we noticed large black objects in various spots on the stage, which were carried off but eventually brought back and opened up to display a variety of static objects in various shapes and colours. Throughout the work the dancers interacted with these and other objects, which included long poles that were arranged in different combinations on the stage floor. Sometimes dancers were treated as objects and were carried across the stage by other dancers.

But, to the group structures: what was most engaging was the way Lane gave groups of dancers a movement structure as well as a static one. Supported by a sound score from Christopher Clark, there were moments when the dancers moved in unison with beautifully rehearsed, often small but distinct movements of the feet, hands and upper body. It was almost militaristic in detail and performance, but was also engaging to watch.

Perhaps overall the work was just a little too long—perhaps the section with the poles and the floor design created with them could have been a little shorter. But Lane’s choreography continues to be something to keep watching as she continues her already admirable career.

Metal Park was followed by Shifting Ground from Cadi McCarthy. It focused on navigating the changing nature of the world, whether seen globally or in a more personal manner, and the cast included some dancers from Flipside Project, a youth group from Newcastle directed by McCarthy. The most obvious feature coming through the work, at least for me, was that personal relationships are sometimes difficult, which was clear not so much through choreography but through facial expressions.

Scene from Shifting Ground. Photo: © Lorna Sim

The evening closed with Tides of Time by Synergy Styles (Stephen and Lilah Gow), which set out to examine ‘temporal orientation’ and the ideas of time present, past and future. It began in a mesmerising fashion as filmed clips (created by Wildbear Digital) played across the stage space. They showed dancers, seen in a variety of poses, gliding through space as if extracted from reality. The work then moved on to live performance against a background of watery images, which provided a captivating environment for the choreography.

I felt, as I often do with Quantum Leap productions, that the themes were easily explained in words and the social and political implications were strong and contemporary. But those themes and their implications were not always expressed well in a choreographic sense. I continue to wonder what Quantum Leap’s shows would be like without such highly detailed and theoretical scenarios. Dance can convey the deepest of meanings but the meaning has to come from the choreography, which doesn’t always happen with Quantum Leap productions.

Terra Firma was, however, beautifully produced and dressed (costumes by Cate Clelland) and the standard of performance by the dancers was outstanding. And the manner in which Quantum Leap manages its curtain calls continues to be exceptional!

Michelle Potter, 29 May 2022

Featured image: Scene from Metal Park. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Talking to Melanie Lane

My first encounter with the choreography of Melanie Lane was in 2019 when her work WOOF was part of a Sydney Dance Company triple bill called Bonachela/Nankivell/Lane. WOOF, which two years earlier had been a hit in Sydney Dance Company’s New Breed program, was for me the outstanding work on the 2019 triple bill. I had also seen Lane perform, along with Lilian Steiner, in Lucy Guerin’s SPLIT in 2018. But really I was way behind the times. Lane had already established herself as a choreographer and performer well before I had the chance to see her productions.

Lane was born in Sydney but grew up in Canberra and undertook intensive training with Janet Karin at the National Capital Ballet School. Lane recalls with pleasure and admiration the influence Karin had on her development and remembers in particular a program Karin staged in 1989 for the school’s National Capital Dancers. It featured newly choreographed works by Joe Scoglio (Midstream), Natalie Weir (The Host) and Paul Mercurio (A Moment of Choice). ‘Janet was so supportive of new choreography,’ Lane says. ‘I really got connected with contemporary movement as a result.’

After completing her school studies at Canberra’s Stirling College, Lane went to Perth to study at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) from where she graduated with a Diploma of Performing Arts, and where she developed further her interest in contemporary dance and choreography. Between 2000 and 2014 she worked with a range of companies and in a range of cities and venues in Europe as both a performer and choreographer. Now Lane is back in Canberra and her newest work, Metal Park, will be performed by Quantum Leap, Canberra’s youth dance company, in a triple bill named Terra Firma.

After the opening in Vienna in April of The Trojan Women, a theatre piece directed by Australian Adena Jacobs with choreography by Lane, and following a brief stint in Heidelberg doing preliminary work on a dance theatre piece due to open next year, Lane arrived in Canberra just two weeks before Metal Park’s opening night. I wondered how she would go about teaching the new work, and preparing the dancers of Quantum Leap for the experience.

‘I began working with Quantum Leap on Metal Park, which is the first work I have created in Canberra, in January of this year,’ she says. ‘We had an intensive two and a half weeks of development time. It was a little challenging because of the pandemic, which was at a peak. We had dancers in lockdown, dancers zooming in and a number of other difficulties. Then I had to go back to Europe. But now I’m here and I am looking forward to getting back to work in person with the dancers. I find working with young people quite inspiring. There is something magical about the sense of imagination and creativity they have, and their level of enthusiasm and energy is thrilling.’

Quantum Leap dancers rehearsing Metal Park, 2022. Photo: © Lorna Sim

Metal Park is an extension of aspects of some of Lane’s earlier works in which she has examined links between the body and objects or props. ‘It’s about zooming in on everyday reactions we have with materiality,’ she explains, ‘and using those reactions to question how we relate to our environment. It is a way too of encouraging the dancers to work with materials—objects of various kinds— as part of their practice.’ Metal Park will be performed to a sound composition by Lane’s partner, Christopher Clark, and will have lighting by Mark Dyson.

We can look forward too to further work from Lane in Canberra. In June she will be appearing at the National Gallery of Australia with Jo Lloyd (details to be confirmed). Also in June the Brisbane-based Australasian Dance Collective will present her work Alterum at the Canberra Theatre Centre as part of a triple bill, Three. She will also shortly start preliminary work on a future production in collaboration with the Canberra Symphony Orchestra. Stay tuned.

Terra Firma, which will include works by Cadi McCarthy and Steve and Lilah Gow in addition to Lane’s Metal Park, is at the Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre, from 26 to 28 May 2022.

Michelle Potter, 15 May 2022

Featured image: Melanie Lane conducting a summer intensive for her new work Metal Park, 2022. Photo: © Lorna Sim