Theatre

This year’s Liveworks at Sydney’s Carriageworks considered what performance might be if we’re not present to make or share it. By Cassie Tongue.

Liveworks at Sydney’s Carriageworks

A scene from Sue Healey’s On View: Panoramic Suite.
Credit: Naoshi Hatori and Pippa Samaya

“What you are about to see is not what you were supposed to see.”

This is how Sue Healey, the 2021 recipient of the Australia Council Award for Dance, introduced her work On View: Panoramic Suite, which closed the Performance Space’s 2021 Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art as a Sunday night live stream. But the statement could apply to the festival’s offerings as a whole.

Liveworks is a beloved staple in the Sydney arts calendar and home to some of the city’s most exciting, exploratory performance art. Its works frequently tease and problematise conventional boundaries such as genre, mode and medium to discover new ways of connecting with audiences.

Amid extended lockdowns through 2020 and 2021, artists have shelved, adjusted or adapted their creations to keep themselves and their communities safe. This year, with works in progress, conversations and digital adaptations, Liveworks asks: What does work look like when we can’t get together to make it – or to share it?

Artists are questioners, but this is an enormous question to consider. The artists in this program have also been faced with a slate of others: Do we throw out old ideas and grapple with new ones? Do we let audiences into the process of work and reveal unfinished concepts? Do we take this time to consider the structures in which we make work and reassess the ways in which we are viewed?

Liveworks 2021 explored these questions and in doing so created a new intimacy that revealed art as process rather than product, experience rather than transaction, and as a troubling of gaze, refocusing our point of view to decentre cultural defaults.

In On View: Panoramic Suite, the festival venue Carriageworks opened up under Healey and director of photography Ken Butti’s nimble cinematography. Pillars and walkways marked platforms for choreography and played host to video installations as performers danced on stages and in seating banks, their playing space expanded and made new.

Created during eight years across Australia, Hong Kong and Japan, On View: Panoramic Suite considers how we view and experience dance as a portrait of the individual and as a portal to new ideas. It features a variety of animals, including tortoises, cows and praying mantises as well as a range of locations – pools of water, graveyards, fields and beaches – and 27 different bodies in motion, revealing many selves exploring how to take up, expand and define space.

Interspersed with the dance are sound bites from Healey and dancers, one of whom – Shona Erskine – is also the dramaturg. These vignettes offer moments that bridge the gap between digital viewership and expectations of live performance. Healey suggests that the pandemic has changed how we view things, and On View: Panoramic Suite seems to be aware of that, shifting itself to match restless digital habits and creating moments that draw the attention and focus the eye.

It reaches beyond the dance to touch a locked-down world, where the lives of many of us have been compressed into smaller spaces. We are all a product of our environment, says Healey, and the thought lingers as we consider the dancers in their space. Draped in white, 106-year-old Eileen Kramer dances from a chair on the Bay 20 Carriageworks stage as live footage of her movements is projected behind. She moves in partnership with a massive tree, and differing notions of space and environment create a gentle tension, connected but removed. Even in the empty space on stage, we sense the tree.

In Public Speaking, art is taken into the environment. A series of audio broadcasts by Field Theory – a critical piece of community groundwork that serves as a precursor to a new live work that will be presented by Performance Space in 2022 – invites participants to walk around their neighbourhood while listening to a conversation between Field Theory and a young person from Sydney’s LGBTQIA+ community.

Late in the afternoon on Saturday, I walked the Princes Highway into Newtown’s King Street as Kaisha, a young trans woman from the Hills district, described the way Sydney’s inner city comes alive for her. We walked streets a few kilometres apart and considered the safety and connection that comes from a bustling central location, how landmarks are collectively held and personally felt, and how a city such as Sydney both offers and withholds sanctuary for its queer inhabitants, often at the same time. Public Speaking took the isolation out of empty streets full of masked people. With its confidential, conspiratorial tone and easy immediacy, the series served as a bridge between isolation and re-emergence. It was a balm for the heart.    

Conversation as performance, and conversation about performance, coalesced in How do you cope with constant beginnings? Originally artist Amrita Hepi was to present Rinse, a dance work primarily focused on beginnings that received the People’s Choice Award in the Keir Choreographic Award. In the absence of presenting and viewing it, Hepi joined Rinse dramaturg Mish Grigor for a rigorous artistic conversation.

Hepi and Grigor’s warmly collegiate shorthand – the intimacy of collaborators – spilled over to invite audiences into the sacred space of devising, then pulled up and back to observe the world in which art is made and the patriarchy and white supremacy that are often reflected in rehearsal rooms. In a space devoted solely to art, Hepi and Grigor wove a vision for artistic practice that can resist or deconstruct those structures.

Grigor describes dramaturgy as “like deciding on a methodology for the room – how are we going to speak together?” How, in other words, can artists come together to navigate different types of bodies, backgrounds, training and experience, and create room for these perspectives to be in dialogue? How can artistic collaboration extend to artistic institutions or bend structures to accommodate underrepresented voices?

Hepi and Grigor may not have provided answers, but they and the festival allowed room for reflection and consideration.

Over its five days of recordings, live streams and broadcasts, Liveworks became home to the essentially artistic magic of reimagining: reshaping the borders of viewing live performance beyond a durational experience bookended by dimming lights and rounds of applause. It was more than an evening of entertainment bought and consumed. It was an artistic process of cultural and social response, of structural investigation or compromise. A conversation with our environment and our bodies that asked how we make sense of the world.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 30, 2021 as "Art in flux".

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Cassie Tongue is a theatre critic and writer living on unceded Gadigal land.