Contemporary dance tutu weird for ballet brigade

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Auckland dancer Kristian Larsen. Photo / Kathrin Simon.
Auckland dancer Kristian Larsen. Photo / Kathrin Simon.

In New Zealand, more girls learn ballet than boys learn rugby, according to contemporary dancer and choreographer Kristian Larsen. So there are a lot of us ex-barre-bunnies who have at least a vague idea of what to expect of the Royal New Zealand Ballet: a striving for virtuosity and athleticism, and above all, beauty.

But what about contemporary dance? What is it striving for? Its strength, says Larsen, quoting British choreographer Hofesh Shechter, "is that it's weird". Larsen sees the eclectic genre as blending different "movement languages" and questioning how and why dance is made. In other words, contemporary dance is to ballet what contemporary art is to Rembrandt. Social commentary is a strong theme: Michael Parmenter once quipped that "New Zealand audiences like their dance to be about something. Like incest. Or biculturalism."

The contemporary dance spectrum in Auckland does the splits - one foot pointing at popular, modernist companies like Black Grace and the other foot turning up its toes at experimental choreographers.

Saying "I don't like dance" after going only to one or the other is like saying "I don't like music" when all you've ever heard is only metal or only easy-listening.

In spite of the advertising convention - sexy, muscly bodies captured in gravity-defying leaps - dance nearer the experimental end of the spectrum can involve contorted faces, silent screams and twisted bodies. It can offer visceral, disturbing images, like a man in nappies who pours treacle on his chest before crawling into a sack, watched by a black crow. (Go on, wrinkle up your nose and go "eww". Causing reactions fills performers with glee.)

More esoteric again, the Brent Harris work I saw earlier this year involved repetitive tasks, walking and talking - it was subtle and worth paying close attention to. But if I hadn't been told beforehand that it was dance, I would have identified it as "performance art".

What makes such pieces "dance", says Larsen, is that they are interacting with dance traditions. The fact that someone isn't moving might not be significant in performance art, but in dance, no one is immobile unless the movement has been deliberately stripped away.

Larsen describes his own works - such as Nest, playing tonight at Tapac as part of the Tempo Dance Festival - as "anally-skilled improvisations". Sure, anyone can improvise a booty-shake in a nightclub given enough beer, but improvising choreography and composition to create a coherent work is difficult. It's like making up a piece of music or a poem on the spot.

One contemporary dancer's anathema can be another's celebration - a balletomane might sneer at onstage ugliness; some postmodernists sneer at virtuosity. Given that, it's important to know who's doing what before you sit down to watch them.

Yet, poring over the Tempo programme, it turns out to be harder to decode the descriptions than expected. I think I've discovered an esoteric double bill when I read "hyper reality" and "Advanced Dance Construction" but Larsen tells me that while Anna Bate is an experimental choreographer, the other work by Tim Podesta is likely to be "neo-classical" and very balletic.

So what's a dance watcher to do? Larsen's advice is to be open and unassuming when watching any contemporary dance, and to pay attention to our own emotional experience, instead of just sitting passively or asking "what does it mean?"

Hopefully, watching people "behave very strangely" quickens the imagination.

- NZ Herald

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