The Influence

For Australian Dance Theatre’s new artistic director, Daniel Riley, William Forsythe’s Three Atmospheric Studies – a dance work about the American occupation of Iraq – was a formative experience. By Kate Holden.

Daniel Riley

A scene from William Forsythe’s 2005 production of Three Atmospheric Studies, and Daniel Riley (below).
A scene from William Forsythe’s 2005 production of Three Atmospheric Studies, and Daniel Riley (below).
Credit: Dominik Mentzos (above), Jonathan VDK (below)

A Wiradjuri man, Daniel Riley began dancing at nine years of age and at 21 joined Bangarra Dance Theatre, performing and touring with them for many years. His first choreographed dance was Riley (2010), which was commissioned by Stephen Page for Bangarra. He followed it up with Keepers (2013), and then a dozen further award-winning works made for companies in Queensland, Canberra, Britain and the United States. In 2015 he featured in Page’s feature film Spear. He has lectured in contemporary dance at the Victorian College of the Arts, where he also developed a First Nations mentorship program for students. Riley has recently been made artistic director of the nation’s oldest contemporary dance institution, the Australian Dance Theatre company in Adelaide.

His chosen work is William Forsythe’s extraordinary 2005 dance Three Atmospheric Studies, in which a fragmented account of war is presented through text, image, narration, dance, theatre, character, silence, soundtrack and noise.

When did you see it?

It would have been 2006 because that was my final year in Adelaide, on Kaurna Country, and it was my third year of my studies. Three Atmospheric Studies was on at the Adelaide Festival while I was here in town. I was studying Forsythe’s choreographic tools and tricks, like any aspiring dancer does. You have to study Pina Bausch, William Forsythe, Martha Graham and all the pioneers, all these giants of contemporary dance who have shifted its direction, shifted the direction of form and function and storytelling and how that works. So, I knew of his work but I’d never seen any of it live before.

Three Atmospheric Studies, in my memory, has two acts, there was an interval. One was very dance and one was very theatre. It was all based around the US occupation of Iraq; I think there’d been a couple of hundred thousand deaths up to that point. In an article I read recently about the work, someone asked him why he’d made this. He said, “Well, as dancers, if we can’t engage in world politics or in world issues then there’s no future for dance. We should be able to utilise our contemporary dance form.”

Dance, in my opinion as a Wiradjuri man, is the world’s oldest form of storytelling. So, it is the ultimate tool to be discussing great matters of world affairs as well as personal affairs. Forsythe took the balletic form and reshaped it. I remember a very stark stage – these incredible dancers – and I just remember the theatricality and the craft of his choreography. The way he told a story and the way he engaged with politics and world affairs … I remember being blown away by the methods he utilised, and how he created a scene by using voiceover – the physicality. And then he deconstructed the scene, and I remember the vividness of my brain just ticking over, having small micro-explosions, thinking, “Oh my god, this is incredible! You can do this with choreography?” It really shifted how I saw contemporary dance and how I saw the possibilities of how to make it.

Can you describe the work? I couldn’t find any video online. It sounds amazing but complicated, with photography and a Cranach painting part of the mise en scène, vocals, several disparate parts.

I have vivid memories of the dancers re-creating scenes that have direct voiceover from the ground in Iraq, they were re-enacting them, and then the guts of the scene. What William did so brilliantly in my mind was reconstructing the events leading into and out of those moments. As an audience we got to see those moments from numerous perspectives; we were given the option to see them from multiple different angles. It was almost like he asked the audience to put on different glasses.

It shifted your emotional connection to something – how you might see half an image constructed, but we don’t see the other half quite yet, like watching a film on repeat, with multiple camera angles. It allows you as an audience to empathise or connect with certain characters onstage; you may see yourself in one or two. You instantly gain an emotional connection, so it makes it very real. It was just masterful.

It appealed to my desire at that time, wanting to be a dancer but looking into the possibilities of not always having to do pure dance. Looking at these other forms we can utilise in a staged piece of storytelling, how we can do that using other forms or technology. Or other media. The multiple characters, the reporter who is describing what they’re seeing, rings on dead fingers on the ground. Forsythe didn’t shy away from the rawness of that time.

In First Nations cultures, dance is an especially potent form of theatre, telling important truths.

Yes. And yes, we did also gather just because we wanted to: dancing to attract a mate, to show how strong you are, or dance to show how much you’ve learnt. Dance in culture is celebratory, it’s for mourning and grief, it’s the passing down of knowledge and it’s storytelling. At one point in time an action was repeated – say, hunting something at a certain time of year – so to pass on that knowledge the idea of repetitive actions became dance. Therefore, it became ceremony, and therefore, it became a storytelling tool and how to pass on knowledge. It is all those intricacies. And also still dancing, because dancing feels good. It is instinctual.

You complete a triangulation: as a Wiradjuri man with culture and as an artist in the broader contemporary dance world.

I find myself in a privileged position. I’ve landed here at Australian Dance Theatre being the first First Nations artistic director not only of ADT but also of any major dance company outside Bangarra Dance Theatre. I’m so excited about this. And thinking back to Three Atmospheric Studies and all the works I’ve seen, Forsythe made me realise the complexity and the choreographical craft that is possible.

I’m in this lucky position where I can introduce my cultural practices and ideas and politic to the non-First Nations side of my identity, and also ADT, but then the other side, the non-First Nations side into my cultural politic, so it is this balancing act.

Three Atmospheric Studies embodies ideas of witness and perception and story. I’m sure you have stories you want to tell at ADT.

Absolutely! This year I’m making three. One is based around the idea of archive: how I have access to my master archive when I walk barefoot on Wiradjuri Country. I can access the past, the future and the present all at the same time. And also my non-First Nations Western idea of archive, as libraries and documents and how we hold our memories. Collective archiving, shared memories…

I think back to Three Atmospheric Studies. It was one of the early works I saw when I was well on the journey to becoming a professional dancer. Three Atmospheric Studies really bolstered and levelled up this idea of the complexity of the form and the complexity of storytelling. I do think about that work and reference it a lot because of the impact it had on the work I want to make. How to elevate the cultural aspect of what I do, to work the craft of it.

Bangarra’s work, for example, is First Nations stories with First Nations people, whereas here I’m finding that middle ground, that place where we can share ideas and knowledge. It is this point of mutual understanding and mutual respect. How are we going to do that? But then I can also do my wholly cultural work too.

Three Atmospheric Studies was a landmark work for me. It blew my mind. It was the first work I’d seen that was explicitly political. He’d made that very bold decision to say something and use his form and his stage as a storytelling tool. At the end of the day, dance is storytelling – we’re sharing ideas and telling stories to an audience, using the world’s oldest form. For me Three Atmospheric Studies was big, it was huge to see work made that was so powerful and strong, and which had something powerful and strong to say.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 23, 2022 as "Daniel Riley".

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Kate Holden is the author of The Winter Road, winner of the 2021 Walkley Book Award and the 2022 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Douglas Stewart Prize for Nonfiction.

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