Dancing from down under to Dublin

The Dublin Dance Festival is always comfortably familiar. Now on its third artistic director, the festival’s format hasn’t changed much since it’s inception in 2002, even if the individual artistic choices have.

As ever, the bulk of the programme will be based at Project Arts Centre and includes children’s performances, a film strand, outdoor performances, master-classes and, returning after a hiatus of a couple of years, headline acts at the Abbey Theatre.

There is good reason why this template works. Catherine Nunes, the festival’s founding artistic director, spent years making the case for a festival through feasibility studies and consultations, so she could judge the best multiple points of entry into contemporary dance. What changes is the content, and this year present artistic director Julia Carruthers has focused on Australian dance.

Companies such as Australian Dance Theatre, Chunky Move or Lucy Guerin Inc have a considerable international profile, but many contemporary dance groups remain undiscovered outside their homeland. So what does Australian dance offer international audiences?

“ Australian contemporary dance now is characterised by extreme physicality and by an interest in diverse source material, from new technologies to medical science, as a starting point for creative practice,” says Canberra-based dance writer Michelle Potter. “But this may well be as much a universal trend as it is an Australian one.”

The four Australian choreographers featuring at this year’s festival represent a cross-section of practice, blending the experienced Lucy Guerin and Ros Warby with the emerging talents of Larissa McGowan and Stephanie Lake.

“At the risk of making generalisations, McGowan and Lake, in addition to developing a choreographic career, have also had significant careers as outstanding performers with major Australian contemporary companies,” says Potter.

“They bring a certain raw physicality to their own works, whereas Warby and Guerin tend to focus more on how dance can be a means of bringing attention to social and intellectual issues.”

Geographical separation has both hindered and helped dance development in Australia. Festivals play a major role as presenters of contemporary dance, but touring remains expensive and funding is not easily obtained, especially on a regular basis.

“The development of dance and the interests of artists and audiences differs quite dramatically depending on where you go,” says Jordan Vincent, dance critic with the Age newspaper in Melbourne.

“Audiences in Melbourne have a really good idea about what Melbourne dance looks like, but we have a much more hazy notion of Townsville dance or Perth dance or even Sydney dance.”

Audiences might be deprived of a balanced geographical diet, but the separation allows individual expression to flourish. “There has always been a dichotomy in Australian cultural discourse, the tyranny of distance versus ‘from deserts prophets come’,” says Potter.

What might have been
In addition to the live performances, the Irish Film Institute will host Life in Movement , a film about Tanja Liedtke. The choreographer was a rising star who was appointed artistic director of Sydney Dance Company at the age of 29, after Graeme Murphy’s 30-year reign. Before she could take up the position, she was run over and killed by a garbage truck.

“Tanja Liedtke’s story is one of the great tragedies in Australian dance,” says Vincent. “ Life in Movement is quite an intimate portrait, and provides great insight into how she thought about the making of dance. But it is certainly a case of ‘what might have been’ in Australian dance, and it is terribly sad.”

The anniversary of The Rite of Spring ’s tumultuous premiere in Paris on May 29th, 1913, will be marked at the Abbey Theatre with a Stravinsky programme by Finnish choreographer Tero Saarinen. His artistic stock has risen considerably since his appearance at the Dublin Fringe Festival in 2000, and he has notched up nearly 200 performances of his 2002 solo Hunt , which is choreographed to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring .

This is the last year he will perform what has become a signature work that also features lighting design by long-time collaborator Mikki Kunttu. It opens the festival, along with his version of Petrushka, featuring live music played on two accordionists.

Wim Vandekeybus also returns to Dublin with What The Body Does Not Remember . His choreographic debut epitomises the maximalist style that emerged from Belgium in the 1980s and 1990s. The aggressive physicality is propelled by music by Thierry De Mey and Peter Vermeersch and captures what Vandekeybus calls the “intensity of moments when you don’t have a choice” such as “falling in love, or the second before an accident”.

It was an instant hit when it burst on to the stage in 1987, particularly in New York where it picked up a Bessie Award. It will be intriguing to see how it has weathered, particularly if a fresh, younger company can recapture the raw eagerness of the original casting.

A new strand, New Irish Work , features premieres by Fearghus Ó Conchúir, Coiscéim’s David Bolger and Aoife McAtamney and Nina Vallon. It is an intriguing blend of established and promising talent and a welcome opportunity to shine a light on Irish choreographers while international producers are in town.

McAtamney is a name to remember and is one of a number of young Irish choreographers gaining international attention. Last year she featured in the Representing Ireland showcase. This year’s artists include Liv O’Donoghue, Rob Heaslip and Iseli-Chiodi Dance Company, and can be seen at the Peacock Theatre and DanceHouse.

There are also performances for children – aged 18 months to whatever – in theatres and playgrounds, including the very giggly What on Earth? by Scottish Dance Theatre that includes a pre-show pyjama party for you and your teddy.