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Experimental Dance Week Aotearoa - Curated by Alexa Wilson
4-9 February 2019, Basement Theatre, Auckland

Reviewed by Jesse Quaid

For one intense and glorious week experimental1 dance artists occupied the Basement Theatre, sharing with their friends, colleagues, and a few innocent bystanders, idiosyncratic takes on what performance might be. Encompassing community discussions, artist talks, workshops and performance events Alexa Wilson’s Experimental Dance Week Aotearoa (EDWA) offered a platform and a spotlight for practices that might previously have been late night bar conversations, or performances in pop-up spaces that only the cognoscenti ever saw. 

It could be argued that perfection is the antithesis of experimental and, as with any first venture, EDWA was not perfect. It was, however, definitely a success; the vibe was ebullient, the shows were sold out, and the talks were well attended. Although the necessary curation of those presenting also highlighted those who were not, it was a joyous relief to see this many “underground” artists on display together; an antidote to conventional, tired forms.

It is a pity that so many of the events were housed in the Basement Studio, a small space with limited accessibility. Although able to accommodate the talks and workshops, during shows the audience was tightly packed, overheated, and sight lines were impaired even for those sitting at the front. Fortunately, many of the works performed were solos or otherwise spatially contained. The larger choreographies pushed against the lack of room, and at times it felt like the performers might overflow and devour the edges of the crowd. Conversely, while smaller spaces are often used to create a more intimate audience experience, for this to be successful more than the size of the space needs to be considered.

I did find it odd attending an experimental festival inside a conventional venue. I wanted more to happen outside the theatre, more of the sense of freedom that is often missing from works enclosed by rituals of tickets, hushed darkness, and applause. But as several attendees observed, in our current social climate operating outside of the structures of theatres and funding bodies is hard enough to do on an individual level, never mind as an entire festival.

Amidst these limitations, however, there were myriads of beautiful moments to be experienced. Among them the careful brutalities of Sean MacDonald and Kosta Bogoievski naming the world with their limbs, the layered dimensions formed by Myriam Hermeline’s attentive gaze and Claire O’Neil’s extended white form, smeared in black paint, the concentration of space as Sophie Gargan’s scrubbed her white nest carefully with red. Interestingly, across the range of performances many artists had chosen to utilise the colour white.

With such an array of artists at various stages of their careers there was naturally a disparate level of skill; those who could use a couple of lights and a small circle of space to bring us fully into their worldview and those who, despite the closeness, could not quite reach us. There were works where concept, performance and artist merged so seamlessly it was seductive, and others where the divide was still starkly obvious. By the third night, however, I was beginning to wonder whether we are at risk of creating a new echo chamber.  Will experimental dance end up following its own set of conventions, as contemporary dance does now?

Granting that the structures that many artists work under do not support a deep, rigorous development of practice, within the experimental dance community there is a wealth of ability and generosity. The conversations during the festival were delicate, kind and at times frustratingly unproductive if you were hoping for tangible outcomes; perhaps there is now an opportunity to form a supportive network of cross-contamination and constructive competition, a chance to encourage each other to strive for more.

Overall, EDWA was reminiscent of an art-lounge. A place where you could wander in and find someone to talk to about something interesting. Or build a fort. Or watch the surrounds be brought into life and focus by a wandering artist. A community space. For a week those who customarily work at the edges were surrounded and buoyed by fellow explorers, carrying audiences along with them. There may now be a need for some of us to decompress from the intensity of social contact yet the sense of possibility persists. The events linger, what was said still echoes, and I find that, looking back across all the various preoccupations and emotions explored, aired and thrown, it is the idea of hope that first comes to mind.

For those of you still unsure about what experimental dance encompasses, don’t worry you’re not alone. Consider a few terms such as risk-taking, political, interdisciplinary, recalcitrant (potentially), intersectional, shake them around a bit with your preferred philosophical outlook and then read Te Ao Live. You may still not understand the concept but it will get you closer, and it’s a damn good book.

Experimental Dance Week Aotearoa 2019 Round-Up

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