Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Touch Compass remixed by THROW

I was recently involved in a professional development process called Improv-E with Touch Compass, a mixed ability dance company based in Auckland New Zealand. The focus was to build a consistent and formalized practice of performance improvisation. It began with a four day workshop taught by Janice Florence and Martin Hughes (State of Flux, Melbourne)which was designed to develop the company’s improvisational skills. The information Martin & Janice presented in the workshop had a generalized focus ie; looking for ways to support the main action in an ensemble performance improvisation. Martin's teaching was flavored with the positive feedback model used by Al Wunder in Australia. There was a lot of improvising in groups followed by analysis and feedback. The feedback was specifically pitched in an uncritical and positive fashion for example: what worked or what was liked and enjoyed in that situation. Working in this way nurtures recognition and instinct but more importantly generosity and enthusiasm. This is particularly healthy for the culture of contemporary dance here in NZ. I am not convinced of its effectiveness in creating sharp critical and intelligent thinking in a devising situation however. I felt that the workshop was without a clear technical framework to improvise from and many fundamentals were not addressed. In spite of the positive feedback in the social setting of the workshop there was communication 'behind the scenes' as it were about the groups limited skill base. So in the subsequent sessions leading up to the performances at Auckland's Tempo Festival I decided to teach a skill base could be practiced, that allowed for an abstract movement composition to happen, in real tine, in front of an audience. In those sessions I taught theoretical and practical information that was designed to enable the performer to improvise and understand situation in an ensemble. This included practical processes such as understanding time space in a movement composition / performance sense, recognition of structure as it occurred, physical vocabulary skills, dynamics, reading and listening skills, performance states, exits and entrances, sensitizing the eye, ear & skin to the physical conditions, working with repetition and ongoing critical analysis and discussion. There probably needed to be considerably more time given to the process of rehearsal for Touch Compass. Rehearsal is not antithetical to improvisation; it is in fact vital because it is skill based. So the lead up to the Tempo performance could have been more dense, comprehensive and consistent in order to filter directly into the stage work of the company. Having said that, the learning rate of the group in terms of their ability to read, compose, and generally improvise was rapid and beautifully understood. The first Tempo performance was calm, clear, and there were abundant instances of individuals reading each other superbly and making creative and sincere gestures to each other. This is profoundly important because what makes the company work so well is their collective spirit and their abilities as performers is of an extremely high standard. The second performance was less coherent and this is where the group’s relative lack of experience with the skill set began to show. The group was more diffident and performers had less of a sense of the whole composition. Touch Compass has only begun to work in a technically detailed way in their improvising. Time and practice in front of an audience as well as consistent studio time is really the only way to address this. In the follow up discussions there was articulate and concise discussion. Watching the videos of the performances provided new perspective despite the fact that video tends to distort the information to a degree. Out of this discussion several things came up. But the most prevalent was the need for individual and group practice. More specifically identifying what those practices needed to be for each individual. This included defining and understanding the word ‘technique’ in the context of a physical practice, a practice that facilitated creative response that could be used in an improvisational performance situation. A practice that invoked and addressed limitation in such a way that each artist could find new ways of understanding and making use of their physical limitations as well as an expanded movement range. Touch Compass are a group of remarkable artists with an extraordinary range of skills that is underpinned by a deep and humorous sense of humanity that makes them a remarkable and unique entity in New Zealand contemporary dance. It's been a pleasure and an honour as always, to play with them.

bathwater comments

Jack Gray wrote:
I want to tautoko what Kristian has brilliantly captured in his blog re: Unitec's changing of the times and disassociation with the practicing arts community. I have previously had a great connection with the performing arts school, being a first year student in the 'last' year at the Ponsonby studio before moving midway to become the 'first' at the Unitec premises under Alison East in 1995. I returned to complete the first degree year in 1998 with Chris Jannides. My first teaching job was at Unitec a year out of school, which flourished under Chris's passion and spirit and most of all love for choreographic practice. I was lucky enough to have maintained an ongoing relationship with the school as a teacher/guest lecturer, being a guest choreographer in 2005 and having assessed the students choreographic works throughout the years kept my finger on the pulse. My role was important I believe in that I had an empathy with having had been a student, yet also brought the practical experience of having worked around NZ and the world and seeing how the students measured up in terms of development and creative direction. With the recent policies that led to massive restructuring by Unitec, I have felt more and more distanced as a practitioner from having any connection with the current school, students and artistic vision. The offshoot will be a generation of dancers dispossessed from a community that thrives on its collectivity as much as its individualism to survive. NZ is a small country but fostering and acknowledging it's history is a significant pathway to creating links and development of contemporary dance (contemporary as opposed to ballet!).
Ali East said...
Tautoko, tautoko, Jack and Kristian. Thankyou for taking the time( unpaid) to express, so clearly, your deeply felt views regarding the direction that the Unitec dance programme has sadly gone. You are both absolutely right. The original kaupapa upon which the course was founded and which provided the driving underpinning philosophy would seem to make as much sense today as in 1989 when the programme began. Our mission to educate (and I use this word rather than “train”) intelligent and versatile dance artists with a sense of connection both to their own community and to the broader (local and international) community of artists, art theory and practice did not exclude study of classical forms (European and pacific). Some of our earliest supporters were members of the Samoan, cook island and Maori communities along with Dorothea Ashbridge, who made it clear that no more than two ballet classes per week should be taught- and that those would focus on solid training for contemporary dancers. As Kristian states, when an institution loses its connection with the very community that will feed and foster it then it simply becomes like floating dead wood , waterlogged and weighed down by its own arrogance and administrative top heaviness, and in danger of sinking out of sight. Unfortunately those poor unsuspecting current students are likely to go down with it unless they can find some lifeline to cling on to from the outside professional dance world. Oh well, perhaps the phoenix will rise again somewhere else. It’s not the dance that will die even if the Unitec programme does. I want to salute all of the many former Unitec and Performing arts dance diploma students that are still making wonderful and innovative work. Lets keep our connections and conversations going. By the way we should come together in 2009 ( 28 May 1989 to be precise) and celebrate twenty years of the programme’s existence. Regards, and aroha

Mark Harvey said...

Hi, Kia ora all, Thank you Kristian, Jack and Ali for your comments and sharing your insights, as a graduate and former casual staff member of Unitec, these issues and sentiments concern me as well. I have heard quite a lot of graduates and former staff express similar stuff. (Please note, I am not representing where I lecture in this email - Dance Studies at the University of Auckland - I speak here as a graduate and former employee of Unitec.) It's definitely not a stable world in the land of dance tertiary institutions - yes, I agree with you in that we who are in the institutions need try to keep in touch with our surrounding communities. This is no easy task when you are not often able to have complete control over your dance programmes due to institutional demands such as funding pressures and student demands for employability when they graduate - I'm not trying to justify the changes at Unitec here, because I am not aware of them enough to be able to comment on them, however, I think it's important for us to consider the complex variables involved in such situations, no matter how they may appear and feel. (And, I am not also assuming that neither of you have considered such issues, but I feel it's important to bring this into the conversation here.) Considering what you bring up, how about as a professional dance/choreographic/artist community we propose to have an open public consultative meeting with the head of the Dance section and Tina Hong at Unitec for all stake-holders? This way we may be able to air such concerns and hopefully contribute to some positive developments for Unitec. I understand that Unitec has in recent years called for input from the local professional community, though I do not know the outcome of such calls (having been too caught up with where I work and with family life). Perhaps making attempts to dialogue with Unitec in relation to such concerns may have some positive outcomes - giving direct feedback to institutions can be constructive and I have seen it work on many occasions, both at Unitec (years ago) and at the University of Auckland in recent years. Such a meeting may also open up dialogue between Unitec and other dance teaching institutions so that we can work together in a more efficient manner for our surrounding communities. If possible, can you please indicate by replying here if you or your colleagues would be keen for such a meeting? If we have enough of you then I suggest then let's propose as a community to Unitec for such a meeting. As graduates and/or former staff who keep up our practices, I believe it is important for us to keep positive working relationships with our dance training institutions for many reasons and it seems that this is not happening in this case enough at present (at least from what I keep hearing). Let's try to be constructive as a community and attempt to do something about this, at least so it is all out in the open in a positive way. Cheers

Jillian Davey wrote...Thank you, Kristian for posting such a bold and true blog. I'm currently enrolled in UNITEC's programme and because of its unfortunate headlong jump away from its original kaupapa (along with my utter disgust and disbelief that they have chosen to hire a commercial jazz tutor) I have decided not to return next semsester. I realised, not even two weeks into this year, that the golden days so fondly recalled by former graduates, are gone. I've learned more in these past few months from my flatmate, who just so happens to be a graduate from those golden years, than I have from the programme as a whole. Although I do respect the industry professionals they bring in as a token window to the outside community, I sometimes feel the majority do so grudgingly and without the desire to take the new generation under their wing. I'm now forced to forge my own path and while it does seems exciting it's a shame NZ no longer has an alternative contemporary programme to point a path out to me.

"Changing the bath-water" Michael Parmenter I have been a little disturbed by the tenor of the current debate concerning the change in focus at UNITEC. Firstly, I am surprised that within the discipline of contemporary dance, which defines itself by continually re-defining itself, there are those that expect that UNITEC should cling to a decades-old vision. The dance scene in New Zealand is constantly changing, and one would hope that the training institutions would be changing along with it. Also I would certainly not, as Kristian does in his blog, want to consign the training of dancers solely to the New Zealand School of Dance. This is something that we all need to be interested in and take responsibility for. Yes UNITEC has changed, and there are many changes that I personally feel are changes for the better. One only needs to look at the sophistication of the choreographic contributions of the current students to recognise that a lift in the technical standard of the dancers will result in a more articulate and informed dynamic to their choreographic ventures. Dancers who are well versed in the negotiation of somatic and kinetic possibilities will learn to think with their bodies, and not just in their journals. A number of correspondents complain that UNITEC has lost contact with the dance community. However among the choreographers and teachers currently working at UNITEC, I can name Charles Koroneho, Malia Johnston, Taane Mete, Moania Nepia, Louise Potiki Bryant, Katie Burton and myself. Charles in particular is making a remarkable contribution and certainly keeps alive the vision of creative invention that has marked UNITEC’s past. I personally have a number of concerns regarding the generic nature of the theoretical component of the course, but it must be acknowledged that the dance faculty are very focused on keeping dance-specific studies before the students. The UNITEC course is running efficiently and smoothly. The enrolment numbers have improved markedly over the past couple of years, and I can testify that the focus, sense of enjoyment and morale of the students has never been higher. It seems that UNITEC is fulfilling the desires of the students who are the reason for its being. As for the “South Africans”, rather than bagging, them, I think we owe them a huge show of thanks. They stepped into a difficult situation, when others abandoned ship, and have worked tirelessly to keep the course focused on a creative and rigorous, practice-based pathway.

Unitec never responded to this my blog post publicly or otherwise. That was predictable. Michael predictably did respond but doesn't represent the views of Unitec. Simply his own. His letter makes it sound as if things had improved at this institution. If you actually talk (and listen to) the students a slightly different picture emerges; its more of a case of life goes on. Its not that things things are no better, they are simply no worse. Since Michaels letter The Beijing Dance Academy mysteriously withdrew its interest and presence at Unitec. Michael himself has dramatically declared that the students are not interested in learning and will not teach there again.

Life goes on. Some things never change eh Mr P.

Carly Townrow wrote...

I would like to begin by asking some of the well informed, ready to judge, very respectable persons who have commented on this forum how many of us currently studying at Unitec that they know personally? With what grounding and knowledge can they so confidently elude to the fact that we are a bunch of dull, uninteresting clones without the tiniest spark of creative ability or artistic voice? I am particularly upset Kristian that you chose now as the moment to air your views when so many of us who you know well and who respect you are still attending the course, doing our best to graduate and clutching at the straws of advice we can remember you and yes even Chris giving us. Not because they are more worthy than the advice we are being given now but because we, unlike a lot of people apparently, respect and appreciate every opinion given to us with regards to our work because the world does not have just one mind. By the way I think you would have really enjoyed the recent Year Three choreographic showing Kristian. Also, is it so wrong that I want the technical proficiency that will enable me to express my creative notions in a clear and interesting way? Why do I seem to be getting the feeling from these posts that real ‘art’ should not have a technical base? In defence of Charene; We are very lucky to have a head of department who puts so much time, passion, energy and care into us and our development. Everything she does she does for the benefit of the students and Michael is right when he says that morale is generally pretty high. And we are very lucky to have as a ballet technique tutor an ex principle danseur, he has extensive knowledge to offer and he was hired for that reason. It must be no easy job teaching ballet to a bunch of frowning girls who don’t always want to be there. He does remarkably well. I have the upmost respect for the way Unitec used to be run. I can almost remember word for word the speech given by Chris Jannides about the foundation of the school on my first day more than two years ago now when I was so wide eyed and hopeful about the future. But I also have an immense respect for the way it is run now. It only wish that this was a mutual respect and that the community which I am very shortly about to join will not belittle me for having attended, and the most horrible of all actually enjoyed Unitec, like it seems that they will. Kristian, I respect your opinions and I miss your classes but don’t create this kind of animosity for our sake. We’re doing just fine. You should know that. It was you that gave us our choreographic grounding. Have more faith in yourself for teaching and us for listening. And as for those newbies who weren’t lucky enough to have you teach them, they’ve still got Charles. Have faith, we’re not that bad.

Kristian responds to Carly...

I think youve taken this kind of personally, the key issues in the blog post (and lets get this into perspective people, its my OPINION on my little corner of the internet ) are; insularity, and the question of Unitecs accountability to the profession. Its not about your potential as practitioners or about technique or any of the other 'interesting' topics that have sprung up out of this storm in a teacup.

Sunday, December 17, 2006


This image was taken by Robert Fear, a man whose dance imagery has in my estimation been overlooked and undervalued. The image is of me dancing a solo called "You Are Not Alone, You Are Just in New Zealand" (credit where credit is due, that title was a line from an email from Lisa Densem, a friend in Berlin)

Monday, October 16, 2006

Beautiful City

Rob Appierdo (camera) Larsen (leather jacket)2005 There was a show called Beautiful City which was the brainchild of multimedia artist and project director Rob Appierdo. Its initial manifestation was as a film idea shot in a Wellington car park the night of the London Underground bombings last year. As a result of this work Rob sought to develop it into a live performance format. It went to Interdigitate, the Dunedin Fringe Festival, Wellingtons 'Dance Your Sox Off' festival, and returned to Auckland for Tempo dance festival. At each venue there was a different configuration of performers. At the Tempo festival Beautiful City was a real time collaboration between artists Eden Mulholland (music) Rob Appierdo (projected visuals), Paul Young, Julia Milsom, and yours truly (dance). This work was at one level an attempt to drive a dance/theater work with VJ style multimedia and a solitary theme;urbanization and its effects on the human psyche, or something like that. Ultimately I was never able to fully grasp the point of view or commentary that Rob was trying to communicate. This weakened the creative relationship and subsequently the work itself. In attempting to deal with a situation where dance did not lead the project,it was integral and subservient to other sentiments I came up against the limits of my own practice, and at times my own ego. After spending years working to understand space, time, form, trajectory, vocabulary, meaning, theatrical conventions, dance techniques / practices, and composition in this context I can say that all I am doing is making dance, essentially I have the same outcomes as set choreography. Its simply different in that the processes occur in real time; building structure whilst performing that structure to an audience. But this is only where my practice currently lives, I have not addressed narrative, text, sub text, moving image directly...yet. Nor have I grasped the apparent 'crush' that we seem to have on technology, its benefits for theatrical dance, and I have deep suspicions that it is something that is moving us still further from our bodies and reality. The performance space had challenging attributes for dance. There was a screen behind the dancers, set a meter or so off the floor, the galley like space of Galatos with its cabaret style table and chair set up for the audience, and clutter that distracted the eye. Then there was the conflicting natures of two of the media; dance and projected image. Projected light onto a flat screen is media that exists in 2D or planar space. And the images by themselves exist on their own terms. They don't need to reference the situation as it exists ie: there is an audience in a space with dancers etc. Digital light flickers and draws the audiences eye. By itself it can seduce audiences brains into forgetting the immediacy of their surroundings. This seduction gets interfered with when performers are placed in front of the projection. Dancers exist in 3D space and deal with the actuality of the architecture they are in, and the implications of the events and pathways they creating in real time. They are responsible to their own actions. There is no fiction when a body goes to the floor, or when a hand accidentally strikes a face. But projected digital image has no such responsibility, it can do whatever it pleases without having to justify its actions in the material world. This work provoked critical analysis and frustration for me, partly because its sentiments were admirable and honorable. It's important that work gets made, that people can engage with performance, that practitioners get to put their thinking out there. The other edge to this is when a project feels impotent, when it doesn't manage to transform beyond its individual elements, there is a sense of dissatisfaction that distorts the perceived value of the experience. Beautiful City provided an arena for provocation at a personal level, helped me to consider what to keep and what to let go of.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Last notes on Last Year

Performances and Collaborations: The Boiler Room – National All Media Improvisation Laboratory (Hobart, Australia) This is a laboratory set up by ex-pat Ryk Goddard. Improvisers from around Australia gathered to share up their practices by teaching workshops and performing in different configurations in curated performances. The most memorable performers for me were Ryk Goddard (physical theatre, text), Clare Bartholomew (clowning, comedy)and Tony Osborne(physical theatre, text) The most challenging situation for me in all of this was on the "Movement Night" curated by Ryk. It involved being placed behind a screen, sitting on a chair, atop a bench, back lit whilst two performers improvised in front of the screen. What made this deeply uncomfortable was that I had no way of reading the audience or the material being created by my 'collaborators'. So when the audience laughed I had no idea why or what I was doing was even being seen. I think I crawled out of the theatre that night. THROW disposable choreography @ the OT301, Amsterdam Dancers: Kristian Larsen, Sarah Sproull Sound Design: Kristian Larsen Sound Op: Andrew Foster Lights: Ellen Knopps The OT301 is a former film theatre that has been developed into a squat/ cultural centre. This was the host venue for my inauspicious 'European Premiere'.The audience was intimate – between 15 & 20. No reviewer was present. Marketing was a thumbnail image on a website accompanied by a few lines of text and an en masse email from Katie Duck to her contact list. I performed a solo approximately 20 minutes in duration using a sound collage made on cool edit pro.2 (using 'found' sound from NZ, Melbourne, Hobart, & Rotterdam)I can’t comment objectively on the quality of my own work save to say I have never performed to an audience in Europe before I was scared shitless. Ellen Knopp's lighting design and extraordinary timing combined with Andrew Fosters empathic sound mixing made this a survivable experience. This was followed by a 30 minute duet between Sarah Sproull and I. We'd decided that Sarah would begin in solo. I came in after 5 or so minutes with a performance energy residue from the solo I'd just done, but my energy was a total mismatch of what Sarah had set up. This made for an interesting and unusual chemistry. Under normal circumstances Sarah and I perform wild and irreverent improvisations. But there was more at stake for me and I was not feeling so playful so I found myself being less trusting. Again I feel I was carried through by the others on this one.
As Guest Artist with Magpie Music Dance Company @ the OT301, Amsterdam on Two Evenings What struck me from the outset was the family / rock band empathy that was prevalent in this groups chemistry. The pre-show warm ups were held at Katie’s apartment where she has a small studio. This involved people doing their own ballet barre, taking bath's(me - my back went into spasm for no apparent reason in Sylvain's class) drinking of wine, smoking of cigarettes, low conversation, stretching, massage, and generally relaxing pre-show. There is something to be learned here. The last night of Magpies 10 year Anniversary was a collaboration between the dancers and a punk band called ‘The Ex’ This band have been together for twenty years and have toured with Sonic Youth. Katie didn't really relax that night so she set up an improveography score whereby there were no more than 2 dancers on at any one time and they had a limited timespan to do their thing and get off. I tended to not stay on for a short burst then leave apologetically and felt like I got in the way.(Later when I met another Amsterdam based improviser - Lily Kiara she said that in that show my timing had been 'a bit predictable', thanks Lily). The band simply did not care who was on or off. “ALSO” @ Dans Centrum Jet, Brussels Dancers: Kristian Larsen, Claire O’Neill Musicians: Herman Martin & Sam Gyselbrecht
This was a duet with Claire O’Neill, in collaboration with two musicians and performed in a single lighting state. This is one of the finest improvised compositions I have ever performed. Claire is an outstanding dancer with acute choreographic skill. Together with the highly accomplished abilities of the musicians and their understanding of the improvisation process made this a high resolution work. That was witnessed by a small group of students Claire and I had been teaching and a couple of their friends. Roxanne, the woman who ran Dans Centrum Jet made sure we all kept the noise down over our post - show wines and got us the fuck out of there by 9.55pm just in case the neighbors complained. Teaching: Improvisation workshop over 2 days (@OT301, Amsterdam) In a truly unusual turn of events out of 8 people who registered for the workshop, 7 canceled. The remaining one failed to show up. Luckily there were three New Zealanders around at the time: Sarah Sproull (dancer), Andrew Foster, (director/writer/actor) & Anita Alexander (acrobat, performer) who cheerfully agreed to let me practice teaching my material to them. I'm grateful that last person never showed up because I would've felt very small. . Improvisation Workshop over 5 days (@ Dans Centrum Jet, Brussels) This workshop was taught with the support of Claire O’Neill (who also got me the gig) and was taught to approximately 11 or 12 twelve people. Claire taught the technique part of the morning. Then the studio provided a meal for all participants. Then I took the afternoons. I felt a little less confident in this environment because A: English was a second language for most of the participants and B: I was acutely conscious my work has been developed largely from the work of practitioners here in this part of the world. I would also have liked to have had musicians to work with. However one thing that set this workshop apart from any other I have done as a participant is that the dancers got the opportunity to test their skills in front of an audience before the workshop finished. Classes and Workshops Magpie Workshop (Improvisation/Composition) Teachers: Day 1 Sylvain Meret (France)/Masako Noguchi. Day 2 Martin Sonderkamp. Day 3 Michael Schumacher. Day 4 Sharon Smith (UK)/Vincent Cacialano. (@ The OT301, Amsterdam, Nederlands) This workshop was formatted into 4 days with 4 sets of teachers. There was a warm up followed by skill building work and exercises. The musicians would also be work shopping in the studio next door. After a short coffee break the latter half of each day was devoted purely to jamming sessions between dancers and musicians. The floor was concrete, I hurt my back. Sarah hurt her knee. Katie Duck is by far the most gifted teacher out of all of them. Frey Faust (Contact Improvisation Workshop) @ Espace Catastrophe, Brussels, Faust is a highly competent teacher, dancer, and thinker. Creator of the ‘Axis Syllabus’, an accessible method of organizing information in order to facilitate deeper efficiency in movement Faust has a remarkable understanding of the body in movement. Faust unfortunately has an unusual edgy aggression that surfaces in his teaching and transforms him into an egocentric asshole. Sigh. Another one. David Zambrano (classes in his Flying Low technique – a rigorous approach to floor work) @ Michele Anne De May’s studio This was the cheapest 'workshop' available (5 euro per class for 5 classes) with this man who is in demand all over the place as a teacher and as a performance improviser. His hybridised work is rigorous, tricky, and fun. Peter ? A 23 year old adept from Slovakia. Taught a class using focussed improvisational exercises, acrobatics, and a lot of floor work. An unpretentious class from an unpretentious & talented man. Conference on Improvisation Panel: Mary O’Donell (USA) dancer, choreographer, academic, creator of Release Technique Jaap Flier (Nederlands) founder and former director of Nederland’s Dans Theatre George Lewis (USA) a professor @ Columbia University Vitor Garcia (Portugal) former member of Frankfurt Ballet and Pretty Ugly Kristian Larsen (New Zealand) etc A 3 and a half hour conference / forum / debate attended by about 40 or so people that was chaired by Mary Fulkerson O’Donell. Organized by Magpie this occasion was a remarkable dialogue with intelligent people fielding relevant questions about the practice of improvisation and where the arts are heading in the current macro economic climate. (This conference will be addressed more explicitly in future writings, it was too important to just be allowed to slip by) Performances Witnessed: Studio Showing @ Dancehouse, Melbourne Duet with Jacob Lehrer and David Corbett Two improvisers from “State of Flux” (a group that uses contact improvisation in a performance setting) have been away in Canberra at doing research together and came up with an impressively rigorous duet that showed contact as a primary technique but didn’t use it as a compositional tool. That sentence means ‘I liked it’. Danceworks, Melbourne "The View from Here" choreography Sandra Parker, Composer/Performer: Steven Heather, Text/Performer: Siegmar Zacharias Minimal. Relevant. Under rated and overlooked.( I believe their funding has been recently cut also) Magpie Performance(s): The gig @ the Muiderpoort Theatre, Amsterdam Dancers: Katie Duck, Sylvain Meret, Eileen Standley, Martin Sonderkamp, Vincent Cacialano Lights: Ellen Knopps The opening of Magpie's anniversary week offered some blistering moments of genius and energy. In particular the drummer, Michael Vatcher astounded me again and again with his choices and timing, and an opening provocation from Martin Sonderkamp. A spectacular example of virtuosity came in the form of the group working a highly integrated ensemble of explicitly diverse material whilst maintaining an extraordinary awareness of each other. Six dancers, three musicians all working on solo like material - but together. This kind of 'telepathy' is rare and extraordinary. The gig @ the Bimhuis, Amsterdam Dancers: Vincent Cacialano, , Martin Sonderkamp, Eileen Standley, Katie Duck, Michael Schumacher, Sylvain Meret, Sharon Smith, Masako Noguchi, and guest Vitor Garcia. Muialano, Masako Noguchi. Musicians: Mary Oliver, Yannisicians: Han Bennink, Mary Oliver, George Lewis Lights: Ellen Knopps This particular evening was made up of 3 half hour sets. Magpie have never before worked with all of their dancers together in one constellation. This performance although providing a broad swathe of stimuli seemed to speak more openly of incoherency and diversity of ideas within the group. There was a standing ovation at the end of the show at the Bimhuis. In my own view I felt that there was some kind of incongruence between the spirit of the group and the energy and psychological impact of the structure and atmosphere at the Bimhuis. My concentration was admittedly lacking as an audience member on this particular night. That’s because I kept going back to the bar to get more wine during the show and would kind of forget to go back in. “Desh (the second part of the night)” Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker & Salva Sanchez. Kaaitheatre-Brussels-Belgium The wings of the stage had been removed revealing two men whose job it was to fly the backdrops. When the first 2 dancers entered they did so in a state of affected nonchalance that was a consistent performance quality throughout. In this choreographic collaboration with Spaniard Salva Sanchez, DeKeersmaeker danced in different groupings of solo, duet, and trio with one other female (Marion Ballester). Her facial expression seemed incongruent with the technical flow of movement vocabulary. At times she seemed to be commenting on the piece, sometimes disinterested, at other times she looked simply pained. Partnering work was all but absent from the choreography, floor work was relatively unexplored. The movements were executed with a technical thoroughness that became both tedious when it took precedence over the performers humanity, and insincere when the pretension of DeKeersmaeker. Salvas solo caused me frustration. Here was a work that was improvised but in a way that was too safe to be satisfying to witness. The audience was highly appreciative but I was bewildered by that. It was a feeling that persisted the next two times I saw work in Belgium. ‘05/06 Opening” Charlerois / Danses (Michele Anne de Mey, Pierre Droulers, Thierry De Mey) Charlerois / Danses is a company & a choreographic centre. It makes the states ib its promo blurb publicly that it is representative of Belgium’s French community. It currently has 4 artistic directors. Three works were presented this particular evening. The first by choreographer Pierre Droulers was a solo for a male dancer who came on stage with a piece of chalk. Working from the outside of the stage into the centre he then marked off sections of the stage using parts of his body as measurements. After completing this task he removed his clothes and made completely inexplicable movements. The second work was by composer Thierry De Mey. It featured the man himself playing with expensive software. He placed his hands into beams of light that crossed the stage and the movements were processed & projected onto a wall behind him. Also the movements created sounds. I felt like I was watching a children’s show by Jean Michele Jarre’. The third work by choreographer Michele Anne De Mey saw groupings of young dancers in “rehearsal gear” outfits throwing themselves through space using partner work reminiscent of Wim Vandeybus but without that level of imaginative flourish. Their group work looked reminiscent of De Keersmaeker’s Rosas but here again just looked poorly rendered and assimilated. I came away from this evening feeling as if my intelligence had been insulted. “Chunking” Needcompany/Grace Ellen Barkey. Kaaitheatre - Brussels - Belgium Needcompany is a popular physical theatre group in Belgium. In this work a man in overalls entered making Chaplinesque movements. The set he performs in is a whole lot of freestanding upright plinths covered in wallpapers of gauche and childlike design. Similarly these wallpapers covered the back wall. He fumbles with 5 microphone stands and sets them downstage front.. A woman appears wearing black lingerie and sings lines of a song into the different microphones. Variously she is interfered with by new characters that appear on stage. One who moved in a permanent forward bend appeared to be obsessed with her ass and crotch,burying his face in it repeatedly and placing his hands there. Other characters hump each other. Commonly the movements look sexually infantile and so do the facial expressions. Sections were given overlong durations in the performance. These characters exited after an hour. A projection of children’s drawings appeared on the screen behind. Eventually new characters emerged in brightly crocheted costumes that make them appear like human sized sock puppets. The 1st threw the plinths harmlessly offstage, then 3 more made appearances consecutively, repeating childlike movement motifs to a Sonic Youth track. Before the 5th entered and the work finished I left the theatre to listen to Radiohead on my mp3 player and drink wine. “Catastrophie Communication Combinatoria” Caroline Hainaut & Palle Dyrvall (Part of the Klapstuk International Dance Festival #12, Stuk – Leuven - Belgium) In this solo work a man in a suit (Palle Dyrvall directed by his partner Caroline Hainaut) made clear gestural choreography and established a character very early on in the work. After a time he came up to the audience and looked as if he was going to speak. To my relief he did. And he made sense. His words were bound to specific gestures. The ending was both intense and somehow comical. I felt like the whole thing worked. “Tongue Tied” Sacha Steenks, Dansateliers, Rotterdam, Netherlands An interesting feature of this work in progress showing was that it was the third of three showings in as many days. This allowed the choreographer to try different ways of presenting the material. Two dancers, a story teller, video projection and pre-recorded original music were the primary elements. The strongest idea of this work was in the way it was presented. The choreographed section with the dancers and sound and projection was performed first. Then after a break the storyteller (who also featured in the 1st section) came in told the story of Rapunzel. Her movements were minimal. As she told the story memory of the 1st section began to resurface for the audience causing them to find new meaning and associations in retrospect. A potent but simple device. This writing is an oversimplification of a multi layered and complex work. Sacha Steenks

Larsen/Magpie at the OT301Amsterdam 2005

These images were taken over a year ago at the Overtoom 301 in Amsterdam. The occasion was Magpie Dance Music's "10 years in a Blink Anniversary." In a stroke of cruel irony this was also the year their funding was cut. Pictures from top to bottom 1. Masako Noguchi(foreground) Sylvain Meret(lying on floor, background) 2. Musician from Dutch punk band "The Ex"(foreground) and Kristian Larsen 3. Sharon Smith & Vitor Garcia 4. Martin Sonderkamp and Sharon Smith 5. Vitor Garcia 6. Sharon Smith backlit very nicely thank you.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Spoilt for Choice

This piece I wrote for DANZ magazine re: a trip to Europe last year. Photos by Francisco Rodrigues, taken at a workshop led by yours truly at Dans Centrum Jette in Brussels 2005 “How does New Zealand dance compare to dance in Europe?” It is a question I was asked not long after I arrived back after a recent work and research period in Brussels and Amsterdam. And it is a question that is impossible to talk about with any degree of accuracy because European dance is far too diverse to oversimplify with generalizations like “European dance” for example. What I am prepared to say is that dancers in Europe have access to a large array of technical approaches from gifted, accomplished, and influential teachers In Brussels (where Claire O’Neill is well respected as a teacher and performer) on any given weekday there are professional dance classes in two or three studios in different areas of the city. Company classes are also accessible to a lesser degree. The teachers are often choreographers drawing on a very broad knowledge base to create their own hybrid practice which in turn is what they offer professionals. The atmosphere in class was consistently friendly and supportive. At one studio there was a volunteer whose job it was to simply welcome you at the door. The range of abilities, skills and backgrounds of the freelance professionals are so diverse that it sabotages any narrow notions of what a good dancer is. It seems acceptable to be who you are, working on whatever it is you want to work on. Walking into any freelance class you are likely to encounter trained dancers at student, semi professional and professional level with technical influences too extensive to list. Also you find circus acrobats, martial artists, breakers, contact improvisers, and people with relatively little training who have somehow found work with choreographers (men relatively common in this category). There is a constant and extensive choice of workshops available. A few things I saw were: acrobatics and floor work for dancers, ballet adaptively geared for contemporary dancers, the usual physical theater and voice workshops and a workshop devoted entirely to learning the air track (a break move). I attended a four day workshop in Amsterdam in improvisation and composition taught by two different members of Magpie Dance Music Company on each consecutive day. There is extensive history in this group. Each member has their own artistic concerns and are very strong individuals. But onstage and off they work together like a cross between a punk band and a close knit family. As I was invited to perform with them I got to experience that directly. I got to sneak in a ‘rehearsal’ and share ideas on the practice of composition with another accomplished Amsterdam based improviser Lily Kiara at the School of New Dance. Lily is a disciple of Julyen Hamilton whose work I studied in 2003 in Spain. In Brussels I attended a contact improvisation workshop with Frey Faust whose system of movement organization called “The “Axis Syllabus” not only helped me sort out a chronic knee condition but also taught contact improvisation in easily understandable biomechanical principles as opposed to the more mystical language of image based approaches I’ve encountered. At a jam at the PARTS school I found myself being caught off guard simply because people I didn’t know smiled at me as I entered the room and I wasn’t used to that. Every person I worked with that evening was a highly competent dancer and capable improviser. David Zambrano, a veteran improviser and a teacher in high demand all over Europe, taught a week of classes at a special price of five euro per class (when he runs a workshop there is a higher price tag) Approximately forty to forty five dancer’s attended everyday and the guy on the door whose job it was to welcome you also got to stop excess dancers from coming in. David’s technique is called ‘Flying Low’, works on getting in and out of the floor efficiently at high speed, and has been in development since before Catherine Chappell encountered it in the nineties An essential idea that I gleaned from all this is the idea that technique is treated as a servant of the required task. By this I mean that the aim is to achieve efficiency of function rather than being focused on a look. In working in this way the dancer was not a victim to the aesthetic of dance. A lot of practitioners are working this way. I was surprised at the common usage of improvisation in a class setting. It was used as an exercise to achieve specific technical aims and to facilitate different enquiries. This meant that there were sections of class that were tightly choreographed exercises and sections where guided improvisation was used to appropriate a specific outcome. The net result was that the dancer worked on developing a body consciousness that was intelligent, sophisticated, articulate and responsive. Of the performances I saw I observed that hybridization and references to the past were prevalent in every single work. Influences from the eras of romanticism, modernism, late modernism, post modernism, and whatever phase we are in now were all on display. Minimalism, athleticism, complexity, simplicity, physical theatre, abstraction, multi media, fashion, design & performance improvisation were all made use of in different ways. Hybridized vocabularies of cultural dance, popular dance, martial arts, somatic practices, character based movement and different contemporary dance techniques meant that anything was put with anything. And voice was used, often extensively in almost every work. Contemporary dance appears to be a significant blip on the broader cultural radar in Europe. The art form is both relatively visible in the media and prolific in output. Dance and its practitioners interact with popular culture in a range of media. From artist initiated spaces and squats, to project based networks, to fulltime companies there is an abundance of practitioners and works. And they have a public that are both relatively dance literate and very willing to meet what it is that dance demands of them.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

How to Provoke Dialogue with Postive Feedback

I was given this by a visiting masters student from America. Its about a solo performance I did for Late Nite Choreographers.
These are notes Rachel Bruce sent to her professor in the US.

"I went to Late Night Choreographers tonight to get a glimpse of the local fare. Almost everything was crap except for an improvisation performance by Kristian Larsen and some interesting film work by a woman who's name I will insert later (damn, my memory). He has a really keen sensibility for improvisational choreographic structure and his piece was satisfying at multiple points. He set up a dialogue with the space almost immediately – actually, yes, immediately. He was in performance as we approached the building. He was sitting in a chair in a suspended glass hallway outside the entrance. In the performance piece, there was more than just repeating motifs, they informed our sensibilities as the piece progressed. We were set up for the experience and then carried along throughout the duration. As he tried to get reception (almost like antennae reception from some outside communica), I found myself totally immersed in the details of what was being received and yet I was unconcerned with what it all meant and how it might inform me. What I mean to say is that I found myself unconcerned with what the 'big message' was and was instead intrigued at the business of him placing himself in a position to receive it rather than the 'message' itself being the end-all-be-all. I just received it as it came and as I experienced it. I found myself complying with the suggestions to relax but perceiving tension as a result – living somewhere in between, in some sort of liminal space, like the space of a door frame in between two rooms. He ended with that song, 'stuck in the middle with you…' as a sort of closure to an unfulfilled expectation. Relief didn't come, but relief wasn't needed. Being okay with ambiguity was. The trying could continue, this was the course and I was fine with it. Nice bit of work."

Monday, May 22, 2006

An Appropriate Metaphor

An Appropriate Metaphor A consistently awkward social experience for me is being asked by a stranger what it is that I do for a living. “Contemporary dancer? What’s ‘contemporary dance?’ Or if they do know something about it they often follow up with something like “Is there any money in it?” Given that our luminaries in NZ are barely known outside the sphere of the dance community, it’s very tricky to describe our work without common ground references between practitioners and the mildly curious. Then again it’s tricky to describe contemporary dance…period. During one project I spent a great deal of time and energy working with a designer and a publicist on providing text that integrated marketing language, and dance speak for the layman order to describe improvised contemporary dance. This was specifically done to attract an audience that was likely to be unfamiliar the genre. It was a difficult task. I used a story to describe a personal experience and used metaphors such as a dinner party. After one show an audience member left me an angry note saying that the show was nothing like a dinner party and wanted her money back. The language of marketing and advertising is not the language of dance. It has its own agendas and outcomes to fulfill. That’s why it has evolved the way it has, to sell product. If dance was clearer about is functions and objectives its text would be clearer. When asked what he felt was the most important development in New Zealand culture in recent times a representative of the British Arts Council talked about the publishing of the dictionary of New Zealand English. As part of the coming of age process of our ‘national identity’ we have taken ownership of a language otherwise known as English and made it distinctly ours. Somehow Any subculture, special interest group, trade, corporation, nation develops its own ‘language’ over time. This is part how it finds context and relationship (or not) within the larger culture that it occupies. Our language for communicating about dance isn’t yet sufficiently developed for us to communicate concisely and clearly to each other, to other groups and to the broader culture that we are a part of. This makes it very difficult to take ownership of who we are and what we do. To quote Steve Paxton: “...we have but we do not use our literacy. We are still pre cultural. A culture after all is a construct understood by its members. We have no useful words to define that construct, nor ways to limn aspects of that construct. We remain mystical and so fail to provide the terms with which the public could understand that culture…” The old argument that one media does not adequately describe another i.e: words don’t serve movement, that a dance performance should speak for itself is an argument that refuses to understand that actions are based on motivations. Onstage there is a reason for the behaviors and actions of the dancers. There has to be otherwise it’s nothing but an irrational act. I recall a review of an art exhibition in the Listener and feeling a degree of envy as the writer did more than a good job of contextualizing the works in the exhibition. There are not many reviewers and dance writers up to the task of identifying and describing our work to a high degree of detail. We shouldn’t complain though because most practitioners can’t either. An overlooked component of the relatively sporadic development of dance here is the lack of understanding of history of art, dance, politics, significant individuals, events, & practices. The things that specifically shape and influence who we are and what we do in dance. We don’t seem to demonstrably and accurately locate genealogy, materials and references. Without a capacity for developed communication it’s not only impossible to describe dance but it’s impossible for us to locate social context as artists living, working, functioning and making quality contributions in the broader culture. Without a developed language we don’t have permission to speak. Clear and intelligible process articulated by clear and intelligible language is a key to sharing information with each other. It is also a key to taking ownership of what it is we do.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Glossary of Terms (non alphabetical order)

Fundeographer - A dance maker whose key talent lies in their ability to consistently secure funds for their copious output of relatively benign works.* Choreopathy - Therapeutic choreography. Cathartic work based on intense periods of suffering endured by the choreographer for future benefit of an audience(& usually made at the expense of the dancers immediate sense of well being) Choreopath - A tyrant. A sociopath with choreographic tendencies.(NB: male examples of this genus are mystifyingly popular with female dancers) Improveography - A combination of set choreography and improvisation. Obviously. Neurophiliac - A compulsive mind fucker. Foresighth - A quality strangely lacking in various funding bodies who pull the plug on artistic initiatives that a:work and b:are actually any good. Fourth Wall - Imaginary barrier between audience and performer(s)Doesnt actually exist, although there is one behind the audience. Keeps the heat in the theatre. *thanks to Johnny Second CDE for this one

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

A Critical Masse

“How does New Zealand dance compare to dance in Europe?” It is a question that is impossible to respond to with any degree of accuracy because European dance is far too diverse to oversimplify with generalizations like “European dance” for example. In Brussels and Amsterdam contemporary dance appeared to be a significant blip on the cultural radar. The art form is both relatively visible in the media and prolific in output. The Netherlands has a population of over sixteen million people on a landmass one eighth the size of New Zealand. There is audience enough for anyone’s work and attendance was either high or healthy at the performances I saw. As for the work shown it was as good and as bad as anything I have seen here. However I was more intrigued by what I perceived as differences between dance audiences in Europe and dance audiences in NZ. There was generally a greater degree of sophisticated critical engagement. Responses were mostly ‘positive’ as exemplified by full houses, standing ovations, and a proliferation of performances. Negative critical reactions did not seem to taint the art. Dance in general was not perceived as a failure because of adverse reaction to a singular work for example. Nor for that matter were the choreographers or dancers perceived as failures. There was a certain kind of maturity of approach on the audience’s part that gave me the impression that they weren’t simply being passive consumers of entertainment. On return home what struck me immediately was a sense of the coming of age of New Zealand culture. There currently seems to be a buoyant mood of national pride, a celebration of identity as such. Some modalities of the arts are thriving as vehicles for that mood, notably film and music. It’s interesting to note that these are also powerful industries with a high degree of influence on popular culture. New Zealand culture is young. Its history and development is short and alarmingly accelerated. The arts, particularly the more Eurocentric arts (as distinct from Maori and Polynesian) are especially young. There is a shift towards the arts playing a more significant role in cultural identity however a great deal of that identity is arguably still tied to, amongst other things, sporting achievement. Given the youth of the arts it follows that the arts audience is even younger. By younger I am referring to a state of maturity as well as measurement in years. In my perception the overall audiences for the arts in New Zealand have significantly less critical facility than our European counterparts. There is intolerance and impatience for that which is not understood and does not entertain. Commonly when a dance show provokes a negative response there tends to be an associative generalization that all contemporary dance must be ‘this bad’. And then there is the frustrating infatuation that audiences here have with overseas performing artists that sees attendance rates soaring above numbers for local content of equal merit. In saying this I am not blaming the near invisibility of dance in this country on the amorphous entity I am calling ‘the arts audience’. The subculture of dance is very young and is still has a fair way to go in establishing its place in this country. Subversion is inherent in contemporary dance. Any noteworthy practitioners who have significantly developed and influenced this art have done so, at least in part, as a response against mainstream culture and to perceived conventions of the form. Currently that dynamic of subversion is being muted by a growing need to be recognized by mainstream culture. We want a piece of the pie. Contemporary dance doesn’t seem to intersect with popular culture here. The practitioners are confronted with isolation from each other and other arts. We struggle to define and illuminate our work. We haven’t yet found a way to communicate the terms by which an impatient and consumption orientated public can understand what it is we are communicating. Currently marketing and business skills are being held up as keys for greater visibility and viability. What isn’t considered is that the processes in marketing and business are antithetical to the spirit and values that drive contemporary dance. Art and culture are not actually valued beyond a fiscal motive. Everything that goes into the marketing shopping trolley becomes commodity. The game is to sell product and this is symptomatic of the broader drive for economic ‘growth’ that is propelling New Zealand’s fervent need to achieve significance in world affairs. We have a healthy number of capable choreographers and dancers. But without access to affordable spaces for class, rehearsal and performance, without interacting with other arts practitioners, and without a rethink of the project funding model then business and marketing plans are premature. We can’t ‘market’ when we have precious little to offer Creative New Zealand currently puts more funding into the dance sector than it does into the entire Pacifica arts sector. And there is growing organizational support; working to create infrastructure, lobbying to gain official recognition from government departments, and providing educational opportunities for dance practitioners in management, production, and marketing. But despite good intentions these are top down solutions. Transformation for contemporary dance isn’t being achieved partly because the greater picture isn’t being understood by the dance ‘sector’ and thus we are not organizing ourselves and our resources appropriately to meet current conditions. All we want to do is dance. But if we continue to work in isolation from each other and from practitioners in other forms, if we continue to pursue personal ambitions without recognizing the value of contributing to the whole and sharing resources, if we do not proactively rethink the framework that favors the success of individual, and most importantly if we do not understand what it is contemporary dance has to offer the wider community then we will not reach critical mass. K

Monday, January 02, 2006

Johns response

Thank you Kristian - I hope you feel better now. My first response is that the assumptions you make about me and my approach to my work are so personally pitched and so offensively judgemental that I feel no desire to buy into a dialogue. Not at that level anyway. Secondly, you may wish to know that I have set up a blog through NBR so that people can respond to this year's reviews and some sort of meaningful dialogue can happen. For the record, the only preconception I have about any performing arts event is that it should engage its audience. And because 'entertainment' is made up of'enter -to go in' and 'tain - to hold', I think that anything that draws its audience in and holds their attention is, by definition,'entertainment'. I tend to feel especially positive about a work when its component parts add up to more than their sum; when it transcends itself through 'chemical change' rather than remaining a mixture. I freely admit I do not have a professional background in dance,although my drama school training (NIDA) did include a lot of class work with Margaret Barr (Martha Graham-trained) and Keith Bain (jazz ballet). This gives me some small understanding of what it takes for dancers to 'tune their instrument' and dance. But I know I don't talk the same dance language as contemporary practitioners. At best I know enough to know what I don't know. My partner teaches school teachers to teach dance and is instrumental in implementing the dance component of the primary and secondary arts curriculum but (although she is a member of Jan Bolwell's Crows Feet group)she does not claim to be a contemporary dance practitioner. I always ensure she comes with me to any dance shows I review so we can discuss it,although she doesn't always concur with what I write and is in no way is responsible for it. We also see quite a bit of dance I don't review and often discuss it at length with dance fan friends. I only began to include dance in my performing arts reviews because producers asked me to. I've usually told them its not my specialty and I can only approach it as theatre performance from the point of view of the more'general' audience. If I didn't say that specifically to you, I apologise. Nevertheless I still feel awkward about bursting into print about it - and you've probably convinced me not to do so again.Regarding my Certainty review, I chose to put it in the context of improvised performance for paying audiences because provoking thought and discussion on that level seemed more relevant than exploring the detail of a performance that would never ever happen again. They points I raise may or may not have provoked such thought and discussion - and/or may now do so on the DANZ website. It is what it is and if anything it displays my ignorance. Critics always expose themselves in this way. It's a risk we take in the process of contributing to the wider discourse. The bits in quotes are clearly your words and don't purport to be anything else. It's a principle of mine to represent the rationale of practitioners wherever possible so their intentions are understood. Of course I read your entire performance manual but when it came to the performance I cleared my mind and opened myself to what was happening moment by moment - as you and your colleagues were doubtless doing. For the moment I'll keep and eye on the DANZ website and await the response of others. I may or may not respond there myself. Best wishes for whatever you're up to this year.

Kristian Larsen reviews John Smythe

One typically overcast humid Auckland Christmas Eve I was in conversation with a dancer friend.. Among the numerous sub topics’ lazily being poked at was the subject of ‘dialogue between artists’. I said that in terms of what I was doing in improvisation this idea of dialogue was fundamentally important. It had been the main thrust of recent research and practice for me. As the conversation progressed I expressed a sentiment, a kind of frustration at not having as clear a sense of communication with the audience as I was with the people I was collaborating with. This was underscored by a suspicion that this relationship was a more important station in the process of making art than I had previously considered. At this point my friend interjected with a questioning statement about this audience / art interface; “Isn’t that what it’s ALL about?” Communication with audience is something I have given more priority to in the publicity and marketing stage of a work than during the performance itself. This is from a tunnel vision mindset of “get the audience in the door first then hope they like it.” So in that vein I go about publicity and marketing in consultation with specialists in order to create media that will both draw an audience and represent the show and the art form in general. It’s from the same mindset that I have invited reviewers to attend. It has never occurred to me not to. They are part of the publicity machine. Admittedly my motivations have included vanity, I want them to love my work, think I’m fabulous for making it happen and tell the whole world in writing. I am inevitably disappointed, sometimes hurt if the review is negative or even seems like a personal attack. However if I get a positive review I generally feel dissatisfied. Something important has usually been missed. Somehow there is a lack of equality in the dance producer / reviewer relationship. A review seems to be both beginning and end of a dialogue with a singular audience member. This particular audience member has the power to influence ticket sales, and to provoke distress and other strong emotional responses in the artists they are reviewing. They are not answerable to the artist in any way. And the artist has little if any recourse to the public statements made by a reviewer. The hardest thing to swallow is the knowledge that these few paragraphs will be read by a greater population of public than the entire group of people who attended the total season. It is increasingly rare to find a reviewer who is as intent on contributing value to art as the artist they are reviewing. A review is seldom an act of bravery on the writer’s part. I question the value of the review in the current media environment. What is the benefit to someone who at tremendous personal cost has put on a show only to have it attacked, belittled, misunderstood or even ignored? I am curious as to what the public make of such writings. And very specifically I am wondering if I will ever bother to invite John Smythe to write about my work again. There is writing on dance that has some degree of quality, research, thought etc. There are infamous scathing attacks and petty snipes. There is even the odd encouraging note every now and again. Then there is writing that is simply bewildering. This review was written by John Smythe & appeared in a high profile publication called the National Business Review. The work he reviewed (‘Certainty’, created by yours truly) was night four of a season of fifteen new works over a fifteen night season. The cast originally consisted of four dancers / choreographers, one lighting designer/operator, one musician / composer, and one video mixing artist whose projections were beamed at the floor into the dance space that audience members sat either side of. A fifth dancer / choreographer joined us when one of our group sustained a back injury. The task we had set was clear and simple: unilaterally collaborate to create a brand new live performance every night. We all improvised, dance, light, moving image and sound. This reviewer attended and wrote about one of those works. He did not attend any of the other fourteen. At first I didn’t feel compelled to respond to this review at length. However I feel that this is one of many instances where a reviewer has done nothing to add any value to, shed any light on, or invigorate any quality discussion about contemporary dance. I find this low resolution communication hard to tolerate A letter of response could’ve been submitted to the NBR however it’s far too late for it to get published. It’s very likely that I would’ve come off second best anyway i.e., looking like a bad sport, on the defensive etc. And although I have a personal stake in responding to this particular example of mediocrity (because it’s about my work), I also feel it points to a greater issue. Critic Walter Benjamin puts it better than I ever could” We are turning into a nation of instant but uninformed critics and we are developing a keen impatience for what art demands of us.” This review indicates that Smythe has made no effort to understand the work on its own terms, to engage with it at all it seems. When a poorly informed opinion dressed up as benevolently authoritative critique is passed off as a piece of quality writing then a disservice is done to two things: Art, and Thinking. There is a vulgarizing of culture when art is confused with entertainment and it seems that to John Smythe the two are approximately the same. In Smythe’s review I see an example of an uninformed critic. This is hinted at in the second paragraph of the review. Paragraph two wasn’t in fact written by Smythe. It was written by me. An entire section has been lifted out of ‘Certainty’s’ performance manual and transposed as filler. And further into the review it appears it seems that the last two paragraphs of my personal statement in the manual appear to be solely what that the reviewer has read. There are those who argue against the necessity of programme notes saying the public shouldn’t need them to access the work. I disagree. I use them because of the abstraction prevalent in my work. I state explicitly what’s going on, & how the dance is being made. This I believe is particularly necessary in a country where the public’s knowledge of contemporary dance is as negligible as the profile of contemporary dance itself. ‘Certainty’ was problematic from a marketing point of view because few people have any idea what contemporary dance performance improvisation is. Often seasoned and schooled dance professionals do not know how it works. This is because it’s largely unpracticed. The key reason I was concerned with marketing was because we were doing a three week season in a little known sub genre of a marginalized art form and I wanted to have an audience every night. . So the thrust of the marketing was to ‘inform’ and one of the things we came up with was the performance manual. It outlined clearly some of the principles we were rehearsing with and developing onstage. I explained how our improvisation worked. There is coincidentally a great deal of space given to explanation in this review. There is a break down and justification of improvisation as a devising tool, and how actors use it. In theatre sports to be exact. Smythe seems at a loss to explain how it worked in this dance production: “But the Certainty audience, unlike those who flock to theatresports and its improv spin-offs, is not told what game is being played”. Everyone who came to the show got a performance manual for free. It also went out as part of the press kit. So not only is this statement peculiar, it reveals the reviewer has simply neglected to do any reading. Which in my mind equates to neglecting to do his job. Smythe got hung up on what the improvised dance wasn’t i.e.: theatre sports. Mystifyingly, jazz too is linked to theatre sports (see paragraph 4 of the review) which lead me to imagine Smythe getting impatient at a jazz concert when the musicians fail to make him laugh with their unscripted comedy routines. All that aside the rules and outcomes of those two genres are different as are their attributes and processes. Sculpting is not photography, opera is not painting and theatre sports or jazz is not improvised contemporary dance. Admittedly this writer’s biases were interesting in that they may reveal what the layman might want from contemporary dance. For example”humour”, “narrative” and “a sense of play, of human emotion, of relatedness and possibility.” Smythe craved the obvious when there was a woman and two men onstage: The “eternal triangle.” The thing about the eternal triangle is that it has been done and is bound to be done ad infinitum. If you want romantic cliché’ Mr. Smythe there are other forms of dance you should be going to see. Shouldn’t any contemporary dance reviewer know that narrative and its variant structures is seldom a key feature in developing contemporary dance choreography? Granted these things can and are used. But this is an art with a history of experimentation, investigation, and questioning of established practices. It’s an art form that is built on rigorous intellectual pursuit and abstraction as a means of expressing those ideas. This reviewer has only recently begun watching and writing about contemporary dance. Why he has made this choice is lost on me. From the writings I have read he appears to lack any real affinity for and knowledge of the art. His apparent lack of research and understanding is frustrating because it is a public criticism made by someone who has hardly put a fraction of the thought into their statements on art as I have put into my work. Same goes for any other artist he has reviewed for that matter. This taking for granted of not having to write a worthy response to a considerable amount of effort by groups of talented and intelligent people is shall we say…common place. And shows a lack of generosity. . Another example of lack of generosity in this review is a curious turn of phrase that Smythe has used in other reviews. Here it turns up again: “For my money…” We gave him a free ticket to the show, it was our money not his. And this example self satisfied ‘critique’ is the kind of thing we as dance makers pay for again and again. In his last paragraph Smythe talks about having to see a number of performances in order to get a clear indication of the works success. This is something that other reviewers, to their credit actually did. I have read a number of Smythe’s reviews. I tend to think their consistently earnest tone to be a cover for not knowing nearly enough about the topic he is attempting to write about. This article is yet another garden variety opinion piece. It fails to add anything to the broader dialogue about art. So Mr. Smythe, for my money I think contemporary dance can do without absurd commentary in a national publication from a man who has in the past criticized Saturday Night Fever for being little more than a celebration of disco.* *See John Smythe’s review of Saturday Night Fever on the National Business Review website

John Smythe reviews Kristian Larsen

“Dance: Uncertainty is when the game might be up John Smythe Certainty By Throw Disposable Choreography Initiated by Kristian Larsen At Bats, Wellington To November 27 At first glance Certainty may seem a strange name for an improvised dance show. "This is the way I want to move," writes the initiator of Throw Disposable Choreography, Kristian Larsen, in his programme note for this contribution to the 2004 Bats Stab season. "Making my own decisions in my own time with people who know how to listen and respond back with authenticity, wits and skill. Despite the seemingly tremendous risks and vulnerability in performing this way, I feel a perverse kind of safety onstage. That safety is linked to the feeling I am not interested in dancing anyone else's steps. Of this much I am certain." Improvisation can be a useful development tool in the performing arts rehearsal room. Trial, error, rejection, acceptance, reworking and refinement are key components of all creativity. Usually an audience turns up trusting that such a process has already created a distilled product deemed worthy of being recreated in exchange for their time and money. And the challenge for performers is to make their recreated performance seem spontaneous every time. The first requirement for public improvisation, like jazz, theatresports and other forms of improvised drama, is that the audience is in on the deal. Audiences know the rules and what challenges must be met for the game to be won, and they respond in the knowledge that what they witness is spontaneous, ephemeral and singular. Only they will witness it. (It's worth noting that such creations are never transcribed and regurgitated for further performance because audience expectations for predetermined work is entirely different.) All forms of group improvisation require participants to let go of their egos and respond generously and constructively to the offers made by others. The fundamentals of theatre- sports, for example, are don't block and don't wimp out. That is, accept an offer with alacrity, build on it, don't anticipate the counter-response but accept that too for whatever it is, respond with alacrity ... etc. Thus every part of the spontaneous creation remains germane to the whole and whatever evolves contributed to a coherent and cohesive whole. Improvised theatre, in its various forms, has become a popular spectator sport, with humour high on a short list of predictable outcomes. By contrast, Throw Disposable Choreography's Certainty show, comprising four dancers (Kristian Larsen, Guy Ryan, Stu Armstrong, and Solomon Holly-Massey), a lighting designer/operator (Jen Lal), a live sound exponent (Jeremy Mandrake) and an AV operator (Rob Appierdo), takes itself very seriously indeed. As with improvised theatre, what gets practiced in the weeks before a performance is committed starting points, sensing when to finish something and the skill of being creatively inter-reactive in the space between intuitively timed entrances and exits. But the Certainty audience, unlike those who flock to theatresports and its improv spin-offs, is not told what game is being played. The night we went (the fourth of a 15-night season), the first half involved the four male dancers in various combinations (quartet, trio, duo, solo), exploring space through movement with a fairly studied seriousness that was reasonably interesting and impressive in and of itself. But because I was not privy to the principles that guided their games, the outcomes rarely transcended the simple statement "we are dancers, see us move." In the second half Holly-Massey was replaced by a guest-appearing Sarah Sproull and the dynamic changed significantly. At last there was a sense of play, of human emotion, of relatedness and possibility. There was even a moment when humour happened, accidentally but nicely developed by Larsen and Ryan, whose work together was especially responsive and cumulatively creative (mostly, I think, because Ryan was willing to build on Larsen's moves). But the potential for the development of some sort of, dare I say it, narrative, involving the classic eternal triangle, came to nothing, not least because dancers have to keep watching each other to know what's happening, whereas jazz or speech-based performance is not so limited. For dancers in the audience, Certainty may well offer levels of intrigue and empathy beyond objective interest. For my money, however, the evening lacked the cumulative surge of creative energy I have often experienced with good jazz and the various forms of improvised theatre. If the statement "I am not interested in dancing anyone else's steps" means even one dancer in the ensemble is resistant to accepting wholeheartedly what others initiate, it is inevitable that the work will not transcend its component parts. But one would have to see a number of performances to conclude that will be a certain outcome of every Certainty show.”


Things that Move Me Created and performed by Oliver Connew - NZ Fringe - BEOP Studios , Mt Eden, Auckland - 2017 Dear Olive...