The Melbourne festival FRAME not only shows the breadth and strength of the city’s dance sector but also moves beyond usual programming and performers. By Anador Walsh.
FRAME: A biennial of dance began 18 months ago with mass sector consultation, led by a curatorium of dance community members. It is the pilot of a 10-year program of Naarm/Melbourne dance festivals, and a departure from its predecessor, Dance Massive.
The biennial is underpinned by 10 guiding principles and a framework for working, both of which outline best practice standards for presenting performance. FRAME’s principles articulate award rates for artists, stipulate the presentation of a plurality of voices and dictate that its partners commit to the ongoing representation of dance in their programming. FRAME’s foundation outlines a practice of collective organising and shared responsibility, grounded in transparency and equality.
But as the biennial draws to a close, I have been pondering whether FRAME adequately reflected the current state of dance in Naarm. Did it address issues pertinent to today and contemporary dance practice? Did it connect with audiences?
The second work I saw in FRAME’s program, after Alison Currie and Alisdair Macindoe’s Progress Report, was Rebecca Jensen’s Slip, which premiered as a 20-minute piece in the 2022 Keir Choreographic Award and was expanded at Northcote Town Hall Arts Centre. Slip plays with Foley sound effects to create heightened “realism”. For this, Jensen is joined on stage by musician Aviva Endean in a duet that sees them soundtrack Jensen’s movements in at times absurd ways.
To begin with, when Jensen eats a packet of chips, Endean chews a celery stick into a microphone. When Jensen stands up, Endean scores this with a kazoo. Then things become more literal: Jensen drinks soft drink from a name brand bottle and Endean drinks a home brand one. When Jensen sings “Where did my memories, beaches, oceans go?” so, too, does Endean. Eventually, Jensen and Endean reverse roles. When Endean plays an electric guitar solo, Jensen intervenes, exposing this as a prerecorded track.
Through the establishment and rapid dissolution of reality, Slip contends with our present moment of rampant disinformation. Functioning much like a social media feed – presenting a fact, then immediately presenting us with another opposite fact or misdirecting us with something unrelated – Slip confronts us with how little we actually know about the unfolding climate crisis, in a way that is humorous but sobering.
The next work I saw, the double-bill of Atlanta Eke’s Body of Work and QWERTY, presented by Darebin Arts Speakeasy at Darebin Arts Centre, was my FRAME highlight. Body of Work premiered at, and won, the inaugural Keir Choreographic Award in 2014 and was shown here with its quasi-sequel QWERTY. Made almost 10 years apart, these works contemplate the relationship between the dancing body and its documentation.
In Body of Work, Eke and her collaborators, video artists RDYSTDY and composer Daniel Jenatsch, displayed vast technical skill. Using a camera fixed on a tripod and two screens, RDYSTDY aided Eke in creating and endlessly layering images of herself on top of one another, from inside the work. In accompaniment of this, Jenatsch’s soundtrack oscillated between the ambient and carnivalesque, rendering some moments comical and others contemplative.
This real time documentation of Eke’s dancing body placed multiple digital avatars on stage alongside her, which she then had to navigate. In this way, Eke forced the audience to questionwhether the dancing was choreographing the documentation or the documentation was choreographing the dancing. The question is as relevant now as it was in 2014, and is one that I struggled to answer in moments of this work, as Eke traversed the space between the two screens.
Made with the same creative team, in QWERTY Eke is again the master of her domain. She is a technically brilliant dancer, but her movement is outshone here by the control she and her collaborators exercise over every element of its staging. Using a combination of home movie footage, computer graphics and a hand-held video camera, Eke explores the capacity that technology gives the dancing body to expand infinitely beyond itself.
In the beginning Eke’s own hand – filmed on stage – lowers from the ceiling to imprison her. Eke then extrapolates herself to journey through a series of digital worlds. Towards the end, to a soundtrack of notification bells and whistles, Eke thrashes about, as the lights come on and all elements of the staging glitch and then are stripped back. Playing with the attention-distraction of contemporary existence, Eke sets up a situation in which the audience is constantly negotiating which is more compelling: the Eke of flesh and blood or the pixelated ones.
Melanie Lane and Jo Lloyd’s exhibition REALREEL at The Substation showcased a collection of video works by a diverse, intergenerational group of artists including Sarah Aiken, Deanne Butterworth, Angela Goh, Yolanda Lowatta and Cass Mortimer, and Dalisa Pigram. The program troubled the relationship between dance and film as it currently exists in Australia, “post”-pandemic. While I was impressed by this exhibition at large, I was particularly struck by the works of Aiken and Goh.
Aiken’s Make Your Life Count premiered at Arts House last year and was one of the most moving pieces of dance I saw in person after lockdown. Even in its video form, Make Your Life Count is greatly affecting. A successor to Eke’s Body of Work, Aiken’s blurs the line between performance and documentation, using an onstage camera to create, minimise, expand and extrapolate her own image in real time. She critiques the constant performance of identity demanded by techno-capitalism and asks us to indulge in our own insignificance.
Goh’s The Concert is a cinematic ode to the transparent, doughnut-shaped acoustic stage reflectors that were retired during the Sydney Opera House’s renewal. Around these objects, Goh and a suite of collaborators, including Corin Ileto and Verity Mackey, forge a narrative that travels through the bowels and stages of the Sydney Opera House to examine memory and mythology making. Commissioned by the SOH in 2022, The Concert speaks to a broader mode of dance presentation that has become prevalent “post”-pandemic: dance commissioned specifically for the screen.
Unlike the other works I encountered at FRAME, I struggled with Currie and Macindoe’s Progress Report, presented at The Substation. Originally commissioned through Vitalstatistix’s Incubator program in 2019, Progress Report deals with plastic consumption and waste via a soloist’s negotiation of a series of polystyrene props, as they deliver a monologue that is in moments sourced directly from Wikipedia.
Everything about this work felt dated to me. The dancer’s (Cazna Brass) heavy reliance on props felt like a throwback. The dialogue’s attempts at humour fell flat and at times I found my attention wandering. The costuming felt unnecessary and appeared to somewhat restrict Brass’s movement. There was a moment where she pulled a mountain of polystyrene onstage, exposing the mammoth beyond the tip of the iceberg. I wish it had ended there, on a high, but it didn’t.
On the whole, FRAME was a festival that met its intentions – it provided a snapshot of contemporary, Naarm-based dance practice and included a cohort of artists who extended beyond the usual suspects we’ve come to expect from dance programming in this city. It addressed important questions about the relationship between dance and its documentation; what happens to dance after its initial presentation or run; how dance is re-presented and in what form; and the ways that the Covid-19 pandemic has affected how we engage with this medium. It also highlighted dance’s increasing digitisation, as we move towards hybrid and wholly online methods of presenting works of performance.
But beyond the programming choices and conceptual ideals put forth by this new biennial, what strikes me most is its exemplification of the strength and capacity of the dance sector. By banding together and collectivising, the 18 program partners of this festival have successfully found a way to create and fund new performance opportunities for dancers in Naarm. In the face of broader arts funding issues, FRAME speaks to the power and potential of a community united rather than divided.
FRAME: A biennial of dance closes this weekend.
EXHIBITION Pop Masters: Art from the Mugrabi Collection, New York
Home of the Arts, Gold Coast, until June 4
VISUAL ART DEBUT XIX
Blindside Gallery, Melbourne, until April 22
TEXTILES Interwoven Journeys
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, until July 2
PHOTOGRAPHY Paradise Camp by Yuki Kihara
Powerhouse Ultimo, Sydney, until December
National Museum of Australia, Canberra, until April 30
DANCE Lucy Guerin: NEWRETRO
Australian Centre of Contemporary Art, Melbourne, until April 2
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 1, 2023 as "Frame of deference".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription