Chore­og­ra­phy is an ex­cit­ing new stage in the ca­reers of Fiona Jopp and Kristina Chan, the ac­com­plished dancers tell Sharon Verghis

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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



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