Philippa Hawker June 23, 2012
From left: Kaine Sultan-Babij, Yolande Brown, Travis De Vries and Luke Currie-Richardson. Photo: Greg Barrett
IN A Sydney rehearsal studio, Frances Rings has a minute to go, in a manner of speaking: she is fine-tuning the final section of a new work, Terrain, which has its world premiere in Melbourne next week.
It is her seventh piece and her first full-length work for Bangarra Dance Theatre, where she was first a dancer, then a choreographer; she is now one of five artists in residence. Terrain is inspired by Lake Eyre, a location she remembered from childhood that seemed the right starting point for a work ''that went deeper into the significance of land in indigenous people's lives'', but also explored ''how you embody that, how you bring it to the stage''.
After research, consultation, listening to elders' stories, visiting Lake Eyre at different times of the year, she assembled notes, photos and material, and wrote about what resonated for her. This helped her decide on structure and themes. The next stage was to ''get into the studio with those ideas, but keep it loose and fluid. Interaction and collaboration affects the outcome'': the 14 dancers in the company have their own relation to country, and ''they respond and react to your direction and the story you give them, they are going to take it and interpret and that's what you as a choreographer want. It's how they enrich and flesh it out.''
One of the seven sections, Salt, draws on her perception of ''the abstract landscape and its different, other-worldly energy, a precarious quality''; another, Scar, which is about the impact of human activity on the land, was informed in part by asking dancers to talk about their personal experiences and their country. This is also an important element of the process, she says. And, as a choreographer, ''you become responsible for what they have shared''. There is always the challenge she says, at Bangarra, ''of staying true to what we do'', yet staying within a Western theatre context and its different schedules and demands. For costume designer Jennifer Irwin, who has worked on all but two of Bangarra's productions over 20 years, her task combines both familiarity and invention.
Costumes must be robust, they must allow freedom of movement, they must be part of the whole work, so that they are able to be ''read from a distance, and to sit within the set''.
And with Bangarra, her costumes will always end up covered in ochre.
For Terrain, she has been drawn to elements of texture and sculpture, and she is ''always trying to evolve and reinvent fabric''. Blue polyester has been artfully pleated for dresses in the water section. Another water dress appears fluid yet contoured like a landscape; for the Salt section, she has created delicate collars that look like ruffs, but are made out of airconditioning duct material.
As always, the distinctive energy of Rings' work has its own demands. ''Fran's choreography is so hard. You've got to design for the worst, for destruction.''
To dancers Jasmin Sheppard and Waangenga Blanco, there is something exhilarating about being given the opportunity to be part of the creative process. ''When a choreographer puts movement on you, you've got to own it,'' Blanco says. Sheppard, who did jazz and ballet classes from the age of 14, deferred university to study at Melbourne's Dance Factory, then saw a Bangarra show, and knew that it was for her. She moved to Sydney and went to the NAISDA indigenous dance college. Blanco was studying there at the same time, although he had arrived by a different route. He danced when he was younger, then gave it away for several years. Living in a small place in far north Queensland, ''There was peer pressure, and dancing wasn't the cool thing to do,'' although, he adds, ''I got ultimate respect if I could pull out a Michael Jackson move.''
Both dancers are keen to choreograph one day.
Terrain opens at the Arts Centre on Friday.
Philippa Hawker went to Sydney as a guest of Bangarra.