Review: Landscapes – Velocity Dance at Empire Theatre Studio

Images: Empire Theatre

It’s been a week of theatre as dance and dance as theatre for me – Tender Napalm at La Boite in Brisbane and, in its first public showing by the group, Landscapes, which is billed as a program of developmental dance in Toowoomba.

Under the direction of Alison Vallette (Velocity Studio’s Director and Creative Producer) Landscapes is a delightful confection of individually choreographed pieces: Vacancies of the Heart (Jen Murray), Common Ground (Gabriel Comerford in collaboration with Caitlin MacKenzie) and Unity (Frank Monsembula) all of which are performed by Toowoomba dancers.  This is part of the ongoing, year-long Homegrown season from the Empire Theatre, and one of the more exciting innovations to have emerged from Australia’s largest and arguably best regional theatre. This season has attracted new audiences to small-scale theatre, music and now dance productions at the Empire’s great studio/rehearsal space located backstage of the auditorium.

Landscapes may be developmental in its newness or in that it has provided the opportunity for young dancers to work with more experienced colleagues, but its innovative blending of various dance genres to explore local issues – being an outsider, or fitting in, or the floods that unsettled and continue to affect those who live here – is a real step up for dance in the city.

The choreographers are all Toowoomba residents past and present and their pieces are rooted deeply in the ground of the landscape here.

Originally from the prairies of Canada, Jen Murray in her program note speaks of finding solace in the familiarity of the stretches of open land and expansive skies around Gowrie Junction. Her modern dance piece Vacancies of the Heart investigates and interprets the body’s response to the landscape. In particular, it’s the first distilled artistic expression of the floods that devastated the city and the region that I’ve seen. Bodies strain and stretch and move in a fluid response to invisible swirling currents – it’s beautiful and, because of what it represents, familiar and terrifying. The waters have receded but the emotional currents remain for most of us.

Gabriel Comerford and Caitlin Mackenzie choreographed and dance Common Ground a piece set against visuals of an old, inner-city backstreet landscape and familiar parklands. It spoke to me of sexuality, passion and violence but perhaps that was a lingering effect of Tender Napalm earlier in the week. Both dancers are particularly accomplished – Gabe is a developing dance artist and co-founder of Brisbane-based MakeShift Dance Collective. He and Caitlin work together in a beautiful, sinuous and seamless progression of a relationship’s give and take.

Frank Monsembula begins and opens Landscapes. His is a solitary figure hunched, seated on the floor as others arrive milling and buffeting him about – a confused, obvious outsider. A challenge by another male dancer is picked up and played out in what becomes a marvellous hip-hop display. The work ends with the figure standing alone once more looking out at the audience challenging us: I’m here – we’re all here together. It’s a high-powered display of a street style in absolute perfect sync for the issues it raises: diversity, unpredictability, the drive and energy of contemporary life.

Franck, originally from the Congo is a self-trained freelance hip-hop dancer. His hat-tip to Michael Jackson is evident in some of the fantastic moves of his piece – even I recognised those famous tippy-toed spins in high tops. I have to admit that I have never seen any funk or hip hop danced live or as up close as this was. Sure, I’ve seen plenty on television and movies – who hasn’t – but this street style never entered my consciousness as a contender for ‘serious dance’ consideration. I’ve changed my mind since last night.

In the spirit of what must always be a moving forward and boundary breaking attitude in the arts, Franck’s contribution and that of Unity is absolutely front and centre in its expressive potential.  His moves are sensational and the mood is electric. If you want to know more start here with Wikipedia’s History of hip-hop dance. More importantly try to see more of it.

With a dynamic AV design by Matthew Dalamarus Landscapes is a 55 minute, high-energy riff, a gorgeous mashup of artistry and athleticism and story. By the way, I enjoyed the integration of still and moving images, sound and voice over so much that I’d really like to see more AV blended in with the live action in future productions. I’d say go along but the season is over for now.  What was a terrific couple of nights in the studio – I’d say ‘sold out’ from the few seats around me – just a taster for what I hope is more to come from Velocity.

 Landscapes – the Dancers

Lauren Dalamaras, Ailish Manthey, Sarah Pascoe, Charlotte Ryman, Jessica Trinder, Caroline Vandersee, Jacob Watton, Gabriel Comerford, Caitlin MacKenzie, Guy Freeman, Chelsea Graving, Rebecca Holmes, Franck Monsembula, Kyra Radke, and Rhiannon Thompson

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