Sydney Dance Company’s Adelaide connection

Former ADT dancer and assistant choreographer Larissa McGowan will present Fanatic as part of the Sydney Dance Company’s upcoming triple-bill De Novo.

In 1969, Suzanne Musitz, a foundation member of the Australian Ballet, established a small dance-in-education group she called Ballet in a Nutshell. The kernel in the shell sprouted, first as Athletes and Dancers, then in 1976 as The Dance Company (NSW). In that year, the 25-year-old Graeme Murphy, also from the Australian Ballet, was appointed its artistic director and three years later renamed it the Sydney Dance Company (SDC). As well as being an accomplished dancer, Murphy was already developing as a choreographer with an original mind. With fellow dancer, collaborator (and since 2004, wife), Janet Vernon, Murphy developed SDC into the country’s leading modern dance group, with an eclectic style initially based on classical technique, an impressive roll-call of commissioned musical scores, and a remarkably wide range of works, almost all by Murphy himself. In 1978, he produced Australia’s first full-length original ballet, Poppy, derived from his fascination with one of the 20th century’s most brilliant and eccentric artists, Jean Cocteau. Murphy appeared as Cocteau, in a work bristling with ideas, challenging the audience to think not only about Cocteau and his milieu, but also about the possibilities of dance theatre, and in 1979 brought it on the company’s first visit to Adelaide. A 1981 tour to New York was a huge success, and SDC continued to visit Adelaide about every second year throughout the 80s and 90s. Murphy went on to create more than 45 works, including some for the Australian Ballet and other companies; take the company on more than 25 international tours and direct operas before retiring in 2007. Tanja Liedtke, well known to Adelaide audiences as a dancer and nascent choreographer with Australian Dance Theatre, followed by an international career, was appointed to replace Murphy as SDC’s artistic director but, shockingly, was killed in a road accident before taking up the position. Spanish-born Rafael Bonachela, a dancer and choreographer, who, for 13 years, had been a leading dancer and choreographer with London’s Ballet Rambert before starting his own company in 2006, accepted the post in 2008. His first work for SDC, 360°, was also his first full-length piece, and was instantly successful. It came to Adelaide in 2009, and I found it a provocative, exciting work, very different in style from Murphy’s, but with the same kind of urgent inventiveness. In 2013 we saw 2 One Another, which was beautifully crafted to integrate sound, design and choreography. The company had just won a Green Room Award for best ensemble and the piece itself was listed among the best new works in Dance Australia’s critics’ survey. Bonachela has the commissioning of Australian talent alongside international contemporaries as one of his guiding principles. De Novo, the triple bill SDC is performing in Adelaide (August 6-8), brings together composer Nick Wales and singer-composer Sarah Blasko for the score for Bonachela’s own Emergence, in which he takes a sometimes satirical look at the influence of popular culture. Swedish Alexander Ekman’s Cacti is a fun piece celebrating dance – 16 dancers and a string quartet on stage, going like the clappers. And then there’s Fanatic, Larissa McGowan’s laugh-out-loud piece for three dancers – a Sci-Fi Fan, an Alien and a Predator. When she was back in Adelaide recently, I was able to ask McGowan about Fanatic, which was the star turn at the Sydney Spring Dance 2012 Women’s Program, and about life after Australian Dance Theatre – she danced, brilliantly, and choreographed for ADT 2000-11 and became assistant choreographer to artistic director Garry Stewart in 2008. “Fanatic,” she tells me, “is based on Alien vs Predator from the fanfiction perspective. It’s short, it’s sharp, it plays on the fantasies that we want to create with our superheroes, these amazing characters we see on film. In fact it grew out of an [ADT] Ignition season.” She feels that she was “very lucky” to have come through this system of encouragement and practice of company members and independent dancers being given the chance to choreograph, which was started back in the 1970s by then ADT director Jonathan Taylor – it was initially called The Dancers Choreograph. She makes an insightful point when she says, “It also, I think, assists the directors of the companies and their making of work, due to them actually actively training their dancers and making them be creative and think about what it is to be off the stage and looking on”. So how did Fanatic come about? “Sam Haren came to me one day and said, ‘Do you want to be Sigourney Weaver?’ So, I said ‘Well, yes!”’ That led to a six-and-a-half minute piece tracing Weaver’s characters talking to each other through all the Alien movies. And so on to Fanatic, in which the characters are Weaver (danced by South Australian Jessie Scales) who also plays the Alien, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who also plays the Predator, and the disgruntled Fan, who only likes Alien films, and sometimes plays an alien. “Towards the end,” chuckles McGowan, “there’s a weird fight between the Fan/Alien and Arnold/Predator.” To find the most appropriate lines for the work, she and Haren sat through all the Alien and Predator films. Originally from Brisbane, the newest powerhouse of classical dance, McGowan was a ballet student at the Queensland dance School of Excellence. “It’s funny – I really disliked ballet for so long, but I don’t think I’d be where I am without my classical,” she says. “Over the last 10 years it’s something I’ve used in all my technical classes. It’s so necessary for alignment.” She won a scholarship to the Victorian College of the Arts, where she came under the stimulating influence of Shirley McKechnie, and, on graduating, won the award for Most Outsanding Talent. Creating dance there, she discovered the significance of working with other artists, especially composers. Joining ADT in 2000, she soon added to her mantelshelf of awards – Best Female Dancer in the 2003 Green Rooms, a Helpmann in 2004 and an Australian Dance Award. Her choreographic skills developed alongside this performance success – her Zero-sum for ADT premiered at 2009’s WOMADelaide, she was guest choreographer a couple of times on TV’s So You Think You Can Dance, choreographed the dance for the 2012 Adelaide Festival’s production of the Leonard Bernstein’s Mass and worked on movement in plays for several theatre companies. She is already creating a new work, two duets for former ADT colleague Kia-Lea Nadine Williams, herself and two others, with music by Adelaide composer DJ Trip. It will be very different from Fanatic, she says. But it would be a safe bet to say that, as it’s by Larissa McGowan, it will be well worth watching. De Novo Thursday, August 6 to Saturday August 8 Her Majesty’s Theatre sydneydancecompany.com   Photography credits: Peter Greig, Jessica Bialek, Wendell Teodoro