Hav­ing con­quered Ed­in­burgh, Chunky Move has the world at its feet, writes Matthew Westwood

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Arts -

WHEN Gideon Obarzanek called his dance com­pany Chunky Move, the name was meant to evoke ev­ery­thing that clas­si­cal bal­let wasn’t. Obarzanek had trained at the Aus­tralian Bal­let School but his ca­reer had taken him far from bal­let’s clean lines and ide­alised beauty. In­stead, the chore­og­ra­pher and artis­tic di­rec­tor wanted to make dance that was more like the ex­pe­ri­ence of real peo­ple. Life can have its mo­ments of tran­scen­dence and won­der, but more of­ten it is rough around the edges, be­wil­der­ing and a lit­tle em­bar­rass­ing.

So Chunky Move it was. But in a way, the name doesn’t ad­e­quately rep­re­sent what Obarzanek’s com­pany is about. Chunky can also sug­gest im­mov­able, un­pol­ished, dead weight. It cer­tainly doesn’t cap­ture the move­ment, for ex­am­ple, of Sara Black, one of Obarzanek’s pre­ferred dancers, whose mal­leabil­ity can leave the viewer won­der­ing if she is mov­ing of her own vo­li­tion, or be­ing ma­nip­u­lated by some ex­ter­nal force.

Nor does Chunky Move in­di­cate the dis­tance this com­pany has come since Obarzanek founded it in Syd­ney in 1995. In 1997 it won a ten­der from the Vic­to­rian gov­ern­ment to set up shop in Mel­bourne as the state’s res­i­dent con­tem­po­rary dance com­pany. With Obarzanek as artis­tic di­rec­tor and cre­ator of most of its dance works, Chunky Move has pre­sented shows in Mel­bourne, at in­ter­state arts fes­ti­vals and in­creas- in­gly over­seas, some­times pick­ing up awards along the way. Last July, Black and Chunky Move won Help­mann Awards for Glow : a vir­tu­osic piece Obarzanek cre­ated for solo dancer and a daz­zling hi- tech lighting de­sign.

Obarzanek’s most re­cent cre­ation, Mor­tal En­gine , is an evo­lu­tion of that con­cept, this time an hour- long work for six dancers, and with an even more elab­o­rate ar­ray of lighting ef­fects. Us­ing spe­cially de­signed soft­ware, called Ka­lypso, in­frared cam­eras cap­ture the dancers’ move- ments on stage, then trans­late those move­ments into real- time video pro­jec­tions. The ef­fect is stun­ning and a lit­tle eerie: white shad­ows mov­ing in dark­ness, shoot­ing sparks and dis­solv­ing into ab­stract pat­tern. Obarzanek says it’s like mak­ing the in­vis­i­ble vis­i­ble, the ‘‘ ghost in the ma­chine’’.

Mor­tal En­gine had its world pre­miere at the Syd­ney Fes­ti­val in Jan­uary. But be­fore that, Jonathan Mills saw it in re­hearsal and in­vited Chunky Move to take it to the Ed­in­burgh In­ter­na­tional Fes­ti­val, where the Aus­tralian- born Mills is di­rec­tor. The com­pany was thrilled, think­ing Ed­in­burgh 2009. But no, Mills wanted it this year, as a coun­ter­point to — of all things — the mys­ti­cal dance of Turkey’s Whirling Dervishes. So, last month, Chunky Move upped sticks and headed to Ed­in­burgh, home of the world’s great­est arts fes­ti­val.

Mor­tal En­gine is not, as they say in dance par­lance, merely a ‘‘ lights and tights’’ show. The stage is a raked plat­form with pneu­matic ramps; it had to be packed in a ship­ping con­tainer and sent by sea freight. The show re­quires del­i­cate in­frared cam­eras, a laser and spe­cial video pro­jec­tor, and lap­top com­put­ers to drive them. It needs smoke ma­chines and a sound sys­tem.

The tights are per­haps the least hi- tech part of the show, but even th­ese are spe­cially de­signed: sheer and tight- fit­ting so that the cam­eras can ac­cu­rately scan the dancers’ bodies.

Be­cause of this gad­getry, Mor­tal En­gine re­quires more tech­ni­cal sup­port than Chunky Move’s other shows. The Ed­in­burgh tour has a party of 13. Six are dancers; the rest are man­age­ment and tech­ni­cal crew, in­clud­ing laser artist Robin Fox. The Ger­man en­gi­neer whose soft­ware makes the mag­i­cal il­lu­mi­na­tions hap­pen, Frieder Weiss — a tech­ni­cal wizard with a glint of mis­chief in the eye — has come along for the ride.

The show is play­ing for three nights at the Ed­in­burgh Play­house the­atre, and the en­tire

com­pany is stay­ing in a ho­tel across the road. By now the stage has been in­stalled and the dancers are re­hears­ing with Obarzanek, ‘‘ find­ing their feet again’’ on the sharply in­clined stage.

But not ev­ery­thing is go­ing to plan. Obarzanek is un­happy that the enor­mous 1920s the­atre, which seats 3000, has too much am­bi­ent light in the au­di­to­rium, when to­tal dark­ness would be bet­ter for the show’s in­dus­trial chic.

There are prob­lems, too, with the video pro­jec­tor. It has been in­stalled on a rig above the stage, but now needs to be eas­ily ac­cessed by a

Mor­tal En­gine is not, as they say in dance par­lance, merely a ‘ lights and tights’ show

tech­ni­cian so it can be cal­i­brated. The the­atre doesn’t have a me­chan­i­cal lift that can be op­er­ated on the stage, how­ever, and in­stead a tem­po­rary scaf­fold has been erected, a far- from­sat­is­fac­tory so­lu­tion.

Over break­fast in the ho­tel, the day be­fore open­ing night, the crew is dis­cussing the pro­jec­tor and the in­flex­i­ble work hours at the the­atre: cir­cum­stances that are threat­en­ing to put the show be­hind sched­ule. There is talk of a del­e­ga­tion to fes­ti­val head­quar­ters. ‘‘ I’m won­der­ing if I should chuck a spaz,’’ says Obarzanek, whose of­fer of a brief and in­tense show of anger won’t be nec­es­sary. In­stead, the com­pany’s ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer, Rachael Az­zopardi, makes a call to the fes­ti­val’s op­er­a­tions di­rec­tor, who gives Chunky Move the over­time in the the­atre it needs be­fore cur­tain- up. Even­tu­ally a lift is found so that, high above the stage, a tech­ni­cian can en­sure the pro­jec­tor is work­ing cor­rectly.

Tak­ing a show of this com­plex­ity to Ed­in­burgh is an am­bi­tious ex­er­cise. With its com­bi­na­tion of soft­ware and so­phis­ti­cated equip­ment, the room for er­ror is large. It doesn’t help that the show is play­ing at the Ed­in­burgh Fes­ti­val — the world stage for per­form­ing arts — in only its sec­ond sea­son. The risks are high, but so is the level of ex­po­sure. Seated in the Ed­in­burgh au­di­ence will be agents and pro­duc­ers from lead­ing arts cen­tres in Europe, North Amer­ica and Asia. Chunky Move is hop­ing they’ll like Mor­tal En­gine and want to take it into their own the­atres. OBARZANEK was born in Aus­tralia, but while still an in­fant, his Zion­ist fa­ther and mother moved to Is­rael, and his child­hood was spent on a kib­butz. Later the fam­ily re­turned to Aus­tralia and Obarzanek grew up do­ing typ­i­cal Aus­tralian things. He learned to surf in his early 20s, and with his dancer’s sup­ple­ness and agility, he didn’t have much trou­ble get­ting up on a board.

With flinty blue eyes and ath­letic poise, he gives the im­pres­sion of re­mark­able self­pos­ses­sion, al­though not to the point of cool­ness. The day be­fore the Ed­in­burgh pre­miere, he will dis­cuss his chore­og­ra­phy and Chunky Move for an hour be­fore re­veal­ing his anx­i­ety about the prob­lems his crew is hav­ing in the the­atre.

Mor­tal En­gine , he says, is not a dance work in the con­ven­tional sense; more a con­cert be­tween dancers, sound and light. One of the crit­i­cisms of the piece, he says, is that for a quar­ter of its du­ra­tion, there are no dancers on stage, just the video pro­jec­tions. He shrugs it off. ‘‘ The video pro­jec­tion re­ally is like chore­og­ra­phy: it’s like an ex­ten­sion of the body, of move­ment.’’

He doesn’t au­di­tion dancers, he says, but picks tal­ent he sees in other shows; of­ten the dancers he se­lects are chore­og­ra­phers, or they are at least in­ter­ested in dance and its pos­si­bil­i­ties for the­atre.

An­other qual­ity Obarzanek seeks in his dancers might be com­pared to naked­ness, an abil­ity to re­move mask and cos­tume.

‘‘ There is a sense that they are re­veal­ing some­thing about them­selves on stage,’’ he ex­plains. ‘‘ They don’t play them­selves, they are es­sen­tially just be­ing them­selves. I know that sounds very sim­ple, but a lot of peo­ple find it very hard to be like that on stage. They feel they have to have a kind of per­sona. That’s dis­tract­ing.’’

In the past few years, Obarzanek has made dance works in two dis­tinct styles: the hi- tech and su­per- cool; and the ver­nac­u­lar and quasi­doc­u­men­tary. On the flip­side to Glow and Mor­tal En­gine are such pieces as I Want to Dance Bet­ter at Par­ties , Tense Dave and Wanted: Bal­let for a Con­tem­po­rary Democ­racy , in which the dance was de­rived from sur­vey re­sults.

The next piece from Chunky Move, to have its pre­miere at the Mel­bourne In­ter­na­tional Arts Fes­ti­val next month, is an­other of th­ese, called

. It makes a play of du­plic­ity: a di­vided stage of halves, two audiences and, as part of the dance group, two per­form­ers who try to outdo each other.

‘‘ It sounds a bit dry, but it’s ac­tu­ally very funny,’’ Obarzanek says. ‘‘ They both use the stage and the other per­form­ers around them to sup­port their ar­gu­ment: to up­stage, bru­talise the other per­son. It’s ex­tremely low- tech. It has a cur­tain of vertical blinds, some stage lights, a mi­cro­phone and a PA sys­tem to play mu­sic on.’’

Af­ter Mor­tal En­gine , the ab­sence of elec­tron­ics is a re­lief to Obarzanek, who sug­gests he may take a step back from so much chore­o­graphic work. At 42, he says he’s at an ‘‘ un­fash­ion­able age for a chore­og­ra­pher’’. He wants Chunky Move to be a home for new tal­ent, and not be locked into one gen­er­a­tion or set of ideas. So af­ter the pre­miere of Two- Faced Bas­tard , Obarzanek will give over the Chunky Move Stu­dio, in Mel­bourne’s South­bank, to a new work by By­ron Perry and Antony Hamil­ton, one of the dancers in Mor­tal En­gine .

Obarzanek says he wants to ven­ture into doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ing, and ex­plore some of the ideas that can only par­tially be ex­pounded through dance. He is un­likely to re­main far from the dance stu­dio, how­ever; his third new project for this year is to do the chore­og­ra­phy for Shane Warne: The Mu­si­cal , the lat­est cre­ation of one of our bright mu­si­cal satirists, Ed­die Per­fect.

But for now, there’s an open­ing night to see to. The Play­house the­atre lacks the in­ti­macy and ex­actly con­trolled con­di­tions that Obarzanek would like, but its vast au­di­to­rium makes for a spec­tac­u­lar laser dis­play. In­deed, with its com­bi­na­tion of pre­ci­sion dance, lighting and techno sound­track — and un­ex­pected hu­mour — Mor­tal En­gine is given a roar of ap­proval. On the sec­ond night, a larger crowd — boosted, ap­par­ently, by word of mouth — de­lays the start by 15 min­utes.

Af­ter Ed­in­burgh, Chunky Move will take Mor­tal En­gine to a fes­ti­val at Gronin­gen in The Nether­lands, where it will be staged in a tent: a venue with its own spe­cial set of prob­lems.

But the tour has been worth it and, if ten­ta­tive book­ings are fol­lowed through, Mor­tal En­gine could be seen in Lon­don and New York. Chunky Move, the funky dance com­pany with the clunky name, re­ally is go­ing places.

Laser vi­sion: Dancer Antony Hamil­ton in Chunky Move’s Mor­tal En­gine

Tak­ing the high road: Gideon Obarzanek with dancers Lee Serle and Kristy Ayre

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