Finding her place in the world

By Dionne Christian

Complexity of Belonging explores what it means to live in a hyper-connected, globalised world. Photo / Jeff Busby
Complexity of Belonging explores what it means to live in a hyper-connected, globalised world. Photo / Jeff Busby

"I don't suppose I could have researched the topic of identity and belonging in a more extreme way than by coming to the other side of the world."

In 2012, choreographer Anouk van Dijk moved from Holland to Australia, with her partner and daughter, to become artistic director at Melbourne-based dance company Chunky Move. The company uses contemporary Australian culture as its springboard for work that questions who we are and how we find our place in the world.

Being on the other side of the world led van Dijk to reflect on the meaning of home and the physical changes that might happen when you're miles away from the place you've always called home.

"Do you want to stand out or do you opt to be quieter so you'll blend in? Do you want to take risks? How safe do you feel in an unfamiliar environment?"

Meeting dancers like Joel Bray also prompted further questions.

"He's got an indigenous Australian father and a Scottish mother; he's gay, he lives in Israel with his partner and may convert to Judaism. His is a completely international story."

The result is Complexity of Belonging, a contemporary dance/theatre collaboration between Chunky Move and van Dijk's close friend, German theatre writer Falk Richter. The duo, both self-described outsiders, met in 1999 when he drove a bus from the airport to take van Dijk to perform at a festival in Hamburg.

For their latest collaboration, they asked dancers and actors for stories about identity and belonging then created nine composite characters who contend with the existential questions that face us all: who are we and where do we belong?

"But we weren't ticking boxes, we didn't want to make the United Colours of Benetton for the stage," she says, referring to the European clothing chain known for its use of multicultural models in its advertisements. "We were interested in strong individual stories."

There's a mix of dance and theatre as the characters do their best to survive in a hyper-connected, hyper-sensitive, globalised society, set against a backdrop of the Australian Outback. As the performance unfolds, notions of freedom - of bodies moving through space through dance - but also to make choices and mistakes, are explored. It also draws attention to the inevitable tensions between acting as individuals and being part of a group.

A second Australian offering, Small Metal Objects, heads out of the theatre to Wellington's waterfront. Amid pedestrian traffic, a seating bank will be put up for the audience who, wearing headphones, tune into a private conversation between two characters, Garry and Steve, who are small-time drug-dealers doing business on a street corner. Their clients are a lawyer and a psychologist. When Steve experiences an unexpected personal crisis, Garry must choose between making $3000 or helping his friend.

It's made by Back to Back Theatre - a company with nearly three decades of work behind it - and aims to "question the assumptions we hold about ourselves and others". Its actors are perceived as having intellectual disabilities, so the company's work is often about subverting norms and exposing everyday prejudices.

Artistic director Bruce Gladwin says in Small Metal Objects, the very people who could help Garry and Steve are the ones who take advantage of them. "It's about how do we define success? Is it about the accumulation of wealth or is it more about friendships and meaningful relationships?"

Taking it outside means it also questions assumptions about theatre. Gladwin says the show doesn't stop unless the actors, who might be difficult to spot, and audience are in danger. It has continued through buskers who, spotting an audience, start to perform and skateboarders who show off their skills.

"They soon give up and go away when they see the audience is obviously far more engaged in something else," says Gladwin. "At Flinders St Station [in Melbourne], during the Spring Racing Carnival, we've had people in their taffeta and stilettos stumble through the start to strip ... It's a very interesting window on the world."


What: Complexity of Belonging, New Zealand Festival
Where and when: St James Theatre, Wellington; March 11-13
What: Small Metal Objects, New Zealand Festival
Where and when: Under the Sails (outside TSB Arena, Wellington); March 16-19

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