Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Is a women-only program sexist?

By Deborah StoneartsHub | Thursday, August 23, 2012

Choreographer Stephanie Lake admits to feeling a little ambivalent about Contemporary Women, the new Sydney Dance Company program that will premiere her latest work.
On the one hand she was thrilled with the opportunity to create a new work with the company’s dancers and delighted to be included with three other choreographers in a program of world premieres.
On the other hand she feels uncomfortable about a program that labels her as a woman. She’d much rather be described just as a choreographer. “I’m really happy to be a part of this program but in a way I wish this program didn’t exist. It’s frustrating because there are plenty of programs of mixed bills of work that are all male choreographers and nobody says that’s about nurturing male choreographers. The Australian Ballet’s 50th anniversary program was all male choreographers and that was not pitched as a celebration of male choreography. I don’t think audiences were going to see what male choreographers could do.”
The program for Contemporary Women is extraordinarily diverse. Lake has created a highly abstract work for seven dancers,Dream Lucid, using form, colour and magnetism to explore the flux between chaos and control. Adelaide’s Larissa McGowan has created Fanatic, a humorous media-inspired work responding to Alien and Predator movie fans venting on YouTube. Desire, by Brisbane-based Lisa Wilson, explores a range of responses from emotional connection to aggressive sparks and yield, by Sydney Dance Company’s Emily Amisano, considers how we come to know people through their actions, responses and boundaries.
There’s nothing particularly feminine –or indeed female – about any of them. “They are not about periods or anything. It’s not like I thought I will do a piece about menopause,” laughs Lake.
So why has STC Artistic Director Rafael Bonachela chosen to gather the works together as a program of women. Why not just Contemporary Choreographers?
Bonachela says there was more pragmatism than ideology around the title. He says while diverse programs are wonderful opportunities for an audience it is always difficult to find a theme to gather works together. When he decided to commission four choreographers for the Spring Dance season, choosing four women was an opportunity to create a theme.
“We are not focusing on the fact that they are women. They just happen to be women. They are four different pieces from four different choreographs all making great work. I wanted to bring them together because of their style and their talent and create new work and have a great evening of dance.”
Bonachela thought of making a Contemporary Women program after Wilson was awarded a Hephzibah fellowship, which gave her two weeks with SDC to create a new work. The result was so beautiful Bonachela wanted an opportunity to stage it, although that is not a criterion for the fellowship.
“I remember I was reading an article in The Guardian about how male dominated choreography was and that got me thinking. I realised that in Australia that’s not true. We have incredibly talented choreographers like Lucy Guerin and Meryl Tankard.”
In The Guardian article Judith Mackrell explores suggestions that men are more inclined to make aggressive, physical and showy works while women choreographers miss out on big commissions because they are focused on more intimate, emotional work.

If anything, the result of the Contemporary Women commissions shows such generalisations do not apply to this generation of Australian female choreographers. From Lake’s fluid abstract work to McGowan’s crazed physicality there is as much range as any director could want from a mixed bill.
Nor are women more likely to create work using women’s bodies. The works have the usual range of ensemble sizes. Lake uses seven because she asked for as many dancers as the company could provide and that was the upper limit. Wilson’s desire is a series of three duets exploring different aspects of desire: absence, physicality and memory. Amisano knows her dancers well as fellow company members and works with four dancers, playing on their personalities.
Perhaps because her own training was not through a traditional ballet path but through contemporary dance, Lake does not even think in terms of conventional dancing roles for men’s and women’s bodies. She does like working with men because she finds it easier to create a sense of weight in male bodies.
Bonachela did not want to pigeonhole the choreographers as women so there were not thematic restraints on their work. But the practical restraints were considerable, with work created in just two weeks and in most cases the dancers previously unknown to the choreographers.
The result, he says, is fresh, diverse and just great work that needs no tokenism or special nurturing to earn its place on the Spring Dance stage.


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