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The Idea of South by fLiNG

 

The Regional Arts Fund (RAF) is an Australian Government initiative that supports sustainable cultural development in regional and remote Australia.

The Regional Arts Fund is managed in NSW by Regional Arts NSW.

 

Last November, after 10 months of rigorous development, fLiNG Physical Theatre  staged a bold and sensory movement performance which was inspired by the early, pioneering expeditions to the Arctic and examined the multifaceted concept of “south”. The Idea of South was the culmination of an intense period of training for the 18 young movement artists who performed a realisation of Creative Director, Lee Pemberton’s, ambitions for her company. Recently shortlisted for an Australian Dance Award for Outstanding Achievement for Youth or Community Dance 2013, which recognises the experimental limits the performance takes the dancers and the audience to; suspended on the frozen edge of the earth.

Before moving to the Bega Valley and founding fLing Physical Theatre (a contemporary dance company and school for young people) 11 years ago, Lee danced with Legs on the Wall. It was through her contact with the established Australian aerial dance and physical theatre company that she had forged relationships with Alexandra Harrison and Rowan Marchingo, a duo who both began performing with Legs on the Wall in 1999, and who continue to work on projects with the company. The Idea of South was an ambitious project, under the direction and choreography of this pair, and the aerial direction of Tully Ward (also ex-Legs on the Wall), which pushed fLing to a new level of performance work.

 

A Vision of South

Harrison describes the theme in her notes as, ‘inspired by exploratory expeditions of the late 19th Century and the lived experience of the present day inhabitants of the remote south east of NSW, The Idea of South is a journey of playful inversions, exploration and exposure, of glacial creep and sudden storms, extended pressure and violent cracks. The myths and truisms that have accumulated to form the identity of the region will be drawn upon, reconstructed and resisted to create mesmerizing patterns, flights of fancy, imaginative wanderings and wild encounters.’

‘The idea was birthed by Alexandra Harrison, she has a passion for the Antarctic,’ says Lee. ‘However, the extensive workshopping and development that went into the show meant that the performers were key to fleshing out the idea.’

Most of the young people that were involved with the show had been involved with fLing for 3 years and some of them had toured with the company. Aged between 14 and 19, their training demanded up to 5 hours a week for classes,  with weekend workshops, rehearsals and fulltime workshops during school holidays. ‘They were quite skilled and seasoned dancers, already engaged as company members. Because, I considered the directors who were coming in of a very high calibre,’ says Lee, ‘it was the kind of thing where a high level of competence, commitment and ability from our dancers was necessary.’ For the show she had always wanted to make, it was essential that the participants were ‘as close to a professional standard as we are able to be.’

 

Three Points on the Compass

The directors encouraged fLiNG performers to create movement with their bodies invoking imagery of early explorers trials, severe weather trauma and pioneer experiences. During the workshopping phase, the dancers were split into 3 groups which each looked at a different angle of the concept.

The themes, explains Lee, were:

‘The performers were involved in the creation of the show,’ she says. ‘We were also exploring what the idea of south means to people. We did a walk here in the bush [Bournda National Park] where we travelled south. During the walk we stopped and did some explorations of perception. The performers were blindfolded and led along with a partner, as you would be in a blizzard, to help them imagine that experience.

‘I asked the kids to explore their response to that area.  I took their mobile phones off them, had them carrying backpacks, to explore the movement potential of their ideas.’

Other workshops tested the limits of the dancers’ discipline. Alexandra Harrison asked them to hold a pose for 15 minutes without rest and to come out of that pose very slowly. ‘She gave them physical tasks to create the enormous pressures on the limits of their strength and discipline,’ explains Lee.

 

Taking Flight

In order to achieve the bold acrobatics the show demanded, extensive training and safety work was done during the workshopping stages to prepare the artists. This tested the physical limits of the company. ‘I think some of the dancers were quite surprised to realise they weren’t able to do the aerial stuff.’

‘When I set up fLing, I was influenced by the kind of work Legs on the Wall makes,’ says Lee. ‘We had done aerial work before (it had always been my interest) but this show was very well supported and we had a professional show-rigger on-board [Tully Ward], which made the difference in what could be done.’ The company worked intensely with Ward and even though only 4 of the group were selected as fittest for the aerial work, the other dancers were incorporated into the hauling teams to visually enhance the drama of the show.

‘It takes a lot of organisation, quite a bit of training, and as you can imagine, an enormous safety procedure and teaching process. While a dancer might look like she’s floating, the forces on the body are actually so much greater,’ Lee explains. ‘There are particular ways that things are rigged, luckily we had a show-rigger who understands aerial performance and has worked creatively with this before.’

Using the same harness and pulley technology applied in abseiling and window cleaning, but paired with the creative process and collaborative aspect, the group achieved incredible results in the performance. In one sequence, a storm was recreated, bringing in incredible sound effects created for the piece by evocative score composer Bob Scott; and a dancer performing movements to appear as though she was being blown by the wind.

 

The Emotional Journey

‘He [Scott] incorporated the sounds of people walking on ice…and he used the sound of seals,’ says Lee. ‘During a Saturday afternoon workshop the kids were using sleeping bags and they were making really amazing shapes which Alex [Harrison] loved. They transformed themselves into seals.’ The seals found their way into the show, as did a workshopped piece where the ‘Discovery’ group were pointing in all different directions, ‘ looking quite lost,’ she laughs. ‘It was quite an intense show, so these were moments of light relief.’

Over 5 shows, the performance was staged as a sensory spectacular. Audiences were treated to sustained movement practice, bold acrobatics, sensitive and edgy versions of performativity, sculptural installations, movement flows, spoken word and aerial performance. A volunteer production crew helped to build a simple set and the atmospheric environment was enhanced by lighting designer, Gerry Corcoran’s, aurora of flickering illumination. The show incorporated installations in the foyer, consisting of a short film made from the bush-walk, readings and writings, mapping and recordings of audience reactions, to steep the audience in an experience that spanned space, time and places; from the Arctic, to the Bega Valley, to the vast and trecherous scope of their own imaginations.

The ripple-effect of such a radical production is already evident, just 6 months on.Two of the senior performers in The Idea of South, Matthew Hyde and Kyall Shanks, have gone on this year to study dance at the Victorian College of the Arts. This triumph was followed by the announcement last month that The Idea of South has been nominated for an Australian Dance Awards. The awards are a non-commercial event produced by Ausdance to celebrate outstanding contributions to Australian dance. An Awards Ceremony will take place at The Playhouse of the Canberra Theatre Centre on August 5. ‘I’m just really, really happy,’ Lee told the Bega District News when the news broke that the piece was up for an award in the category of Outstanding Achievement for Youth or Community Dance. ‘It means that fLing is acknowledged on a national level, and that is incredible for a regional youth dance company.’

 

Image credit: Matthew Hyde (2013) Photo courtesy of Bega District News