QUEENS OF DANCE
Choreography is an exciting new stage in the careers of Fiona Jopp and Kristina Chan, the accomplished dancers tell Sharon Verghis
It’s early morning in Furth, Germany, when Fiona Jopp takes a call from Review. She’s just wolfed down a breakfast omelet while waiting patiently for this interview, an hour later than scheduled following a case of amnesia on Review’s part. She sounds chirpy despite her recent long flight from Sydney. On the eve of her international choreographic debut, the 29-year-old Sydney Dance Company performer is running on nerves.
Jopp is in the northern Bavarian city for the Festspiele Ludwigshafen, where she will debut her first professional dance work. For the rank choreographic novice, it’s a pinch-me moment. “Here I am in Germany, of all places, and I’m like, my god. When they said I was going, I was like, are you kidding me? Germany? It’s so nerve-racking.”
For the dancer, a full-time member of the SDC since 2013, there’s comfort to be drawn from numbers. Joining her in their own festival debuts this week will be her company peer Bernhard Knauer as well as independent artists Daniel Riley and Kristina Chan ahead of an Australian debut season next week at Redfern’s Carriageworks.
For all four, this Cinderella journey comes courtesy of New Breed, a talent-seeding threeyear partnership between SDC and Carriageworks, supported by the Balnaves Foundation. Launched last year, it offers four handpicked aspiring Australian choreographers (two from the SDC, two from the independent sector) the opportunity to create new works made on the company’s dancers. They are then professionally produced and staged.
Rafael Bonachela, the SDC’s artistic director, can already see the fruits of the program, with Gabrielle Nankervis’s smash hit Wildebeest, created for New Breed’s inaugural season, to be part of the SDC’s 2016 season. He’s eager to see what the new crop of dancemakers will come up with this year.
“For an up-and-coming choreographer to be awarded a commission is a rare and fantastic opportunity,” Bonachela says. “With the New Breed program, not only are the choreographers commissioned, they are also supported every step of the way in carrying out their creative vision … As far as I know, this is a unique opportunity in Australia.
“The only reason that I am here now, working in this position, is because when I was a dancer, full time for 12 years, I also had the curiosity and the desire to choreograph, and within the structure of the company I was working for I was given the opportunity to create work and to practise.”
Jopp says she was “hugely chuffed” when Bonachela picked her work, so much, doesn’t matter, after a workshop at the company early in the year. A 15-minute piece for six company dancers with original music from her operasinger husband Tobias Merz and his musician sister Alicia, it has a curious aural motif — Greensleeves, that maddening earworm known to generations of icecream-craving children.
First appearing in the 16th century, this traditional English folk lament became wildly popular so quickly, Jopp says, that it was mocked as a symbol of all things “trashy and populist”. For her, the song says something about today’s rapacious culture of acquisition and consumption. “I thought it was interesting that even back then this song raised ideas of popularity versus merit, as well as [critiquing] materialism.”
Also resonant for Jopp were the nostalgic images of childhood and innocence conjured by the song, so familiar from all those Mr Whippy vans. “For me, those memories are quite strong, those Sunday afternoons in the garden and hearing that song, and thinking, oh great, let’s go get ice creams.” Switching hats from dancer to dancemaker has been “quite a rollercoaster of emotion”. She initially found it difficult, Jopp says, to take on the role of “having to boss them around and tell them what to do and set rules”, but her peers’ collegial support has put her at ease. Bonachela hails Jopp’s creative flair. “She is a very bright and imaginative woman and performer,” he says. “She is taking a theatrical approach to her work, taking a popular historical song as a starting point and exploring it in a philosophical way. I can’t wait to see what such a talented artist comes up with.”
Joining Jopp in this debut season will be award-winning dancer Chan, also launching her first big professional work after several smaller pieces such as Crestfallen and Adrift. Chan’s piece, Conform, is for eight male dancers. It comes out of a long-held fascination with the way male dancers move, and touches, Chan says, on various aspects of contemporary masculinity, from rigid gender roles to homophobia and male inarticulacy.
These powerfully topical issues, dominating public debate on seemingly soaring domestic violence rates in Australia, sparked in Chan a curiosity about what kind of pressures men are under. “Maybe this was because of things happening in my life, to different men in my life, and hearing their struggles with stuff and not being able to express it. It’s about what it is to be a man, what is acceptable male behaviour, getting bullied in school for being a sissy. I think it really takes a toll in how they express themselves in the world — in extreme cases, they become very angry people.”
It’s not easy material, but Chan has never walked that road. Bonachela says: “I have always believed in movement as an intelligent action and Kristina’s work is an example of that. A powerful moving work of pure movement that speaks volumes.”
Chan began work with the company dancers in June. The starting point for the piece, featuring Sydney-based composer James Brown’s angular, electronic, percussive score, were compressed, intimate movements based on physical pressure.
“I was interested in looking at the sort of ambiguity between two men struggling, an alpha male dominating the other, almost as if in a headlock — or a headbutt, actually, like goats going head to head, but also that ambiguity of: are they fighting or are they holding each other up? Also, looking at the relationship between two men, not in a sexual way, just man to man.”
Her dancers, she says, are not gods, just everyday people, wearing sneakers and street clothes. “They’re really right on the edge, I was trying to push them to the point of not being able to do it, to capture that struggle. I’m interested in watching other human beings dancing, not watching some kind of unachievable ideal
I DID ABSOLUTELY FOOL MYSELF THAT I COULD BE A BALLERINA