Bright spots shine in a dark year for dance

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They had meetings and company classes by Zoom and Teams. And they made their own work, presenting brief online seasons as well as classes for the public.

Interestingly, the digital impact of COVID-19 may be a long-lasting legacy if the larger dance companies can keep it going. They found they reached so many more people who live beyond the main cities and their technically sophisticated venues, which is significant in a population as scattered as Australia’s.

Sydney Dance Company joined with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, bringing together a season of solo works with single representatives of dance and music, symbolically “locked in” to restricted spaces.

The SDC also staged an on-screen virtual dance party, led by Charmene Yap, that people could join in at home – socially distanced, naturally – and this has become an event in the 2021 Sydney Festival.

The SDC staged an on-screen virtual dance party, led by Charmene Yap.Credit:Cass Mortimer Eipper

The Australian Ballet, based in Melbourne with the nation’s longest and strictest lockdown, was more ambitious from a production point of view. The short pieces it produced included an hilarious spoof of Spartacus that proved the dancers’ sense of humour was alive and well.

Queensland Ballet did something completely different, postponing its 60th anniversary events and opening up online to everyone in the company to make a brief piece for the screen, 60 Dancers: 60 Stories. These were mostly solos, in keeping with coronavirus regulations, but expanded to duets where personal partnerships were involved and a delightful football trio in a park by three of the boys who shared a place.


Similar ventures could be found away from the east coast, but Darwin and Perth are blessed with open-air venues that helped them back into public performances earlier, along with small contemporary groups in Brisbane.

Classical companies worldwide have filmed their major productions for many years, but the move to put new work online, ideally making dance pieces for the screen, is relatively rare. And it looks like taking off.

Independent choreographer and dance film maker Sue Healey’s Circumstance with its clever combination of dance and drones, added a fresh dimension, and a new dance film festival appeared in 2020. Inspired Dance Film Fest Australia (IDFFA) attracted more than 90 entries from 16 countries, and its founders plan to be back in 2021.

Sydney missed a lot in 2020: from mid-March to late November there was no on-stage Sydney Dance Company, no Australian Ballet in David McAllister’s farewell year as artistic director, none of the smaller groups. The indomitable Lingalayam Dance Company sparkled in a live-stream performance from Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres, however.

So it was a particular thrill when the SDC’s New Breed made it back to live performance, with the dancers up to their usual impressive form and a small audience carefully seated apart. When the SDC followed up with its Pre-Performance Year Revealed, it was intriguing to see extracts from Rafael Bonachela’s 2010 work 6 Breaths with its partnering removed to follow coronavirus rules and “re-imagined” within the ensemble.

Back in January, the 2020 Sydney Festival provided dancegoers with a couple of memorable events. Stephanie Lake’s Colossus, with 40 dancers – mostly students – was a fascinating blend of large ensembles and individual breakouts. And Two Crews was a great entree to the prospect of breakdancing going into the Olympics.

Adelaide Festival highlights were the brilliant Cold Blood, a dance work without dancers, just dancing hands and film (again!) in live action, and the chilling power of Australian-born Lloyd Newson’s Enter Achilles.

Graeme Murphy’s latest full-length work, The Happy Prince, just scraped in to make its debut for the Australian Ballet in Brisbane in February, rich in vintage Murphy elements and vivid designs by Kim Carpenter.

Sydney and Melbourne missed out – but surely we will get it in the future, as well as some of the dance that has already been rescheduled for 2021. Plus, if we are lucky, an energised dance-on-film development to extend the pleasure of again seeing dancers performing live with an audience present.

There is nothing quite like it.

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