WHEN it comes to bringing contrasting cultures into close proximity, no one does it better than Canberra Dance Artist and 2017 “CityNews” Artist Of The Year, Liz Lea.
On April 29, International Dance Day, Lea will premiere “The Point”, a new one-hour dance work with a unique Canberra connection, which has been in the pipeline for seven years.
With an unusual training in both classical Indian dance and contemporary western dance, she approaches the new work with absolutely no tokenism.
On the contrary, she deliberately sought out local experts in the classical dance forms Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi and Kathak – Nandana Chellappah, Vanaja Dasika and Ira Patkar – and assembled a crack team of contemporary dancers to create a perfect cultural interface.
Lea is no stranger to innovation, having founded the DANscienCE Festival at CSIRO Discovery, directed Canberra Dance Theatre, set up the GOLD (Growing Old Disgracefully) over-55s dance company, devised kids’ dance/science shows such as “Flying Facts” and “Star Struck” and confounded sceptics by establishing a national dance summit, “Bold”, which has seen two iterations so far.
As well, using the resources of Questacon, the National Library, Mount Stromlo Observatory, the National Film and Sound Archive, the NGA, the NMA, the Canberra Theatre and QL2 Dance, she has researched the nature of flight in birds and humans, then put it into dance in “120 Birds” and “InFlight”.
Now, armed with her own cross-artform training, her love of Canberra and her relatively recent discovery that Marion and Walter Burley Griffin spent his last year in India – indeed, Walter was buried in Lucknow – she has turned her attention to the intersection of light and architecture with the human body in a work which seems consistent with her commitment to developing their expectations about what dance is.
Not just that. It occurred to her that the Australian architect Louise Lightfoot, who had trained with the Griffins, turned to dance after seeing Anna Pavlova perform in 1926, then went on to found the First Australian Ballet with Russian Mischa Burlakov in the 1930s – she also went to India to train in classical dance.
“So many layers,” Lea tells me when we meet at Gorman Arts Centre.
“I’ve been dreaming of it for seven years; I was inspired by dancers from the Maya Dance Theatre in Singapore during a dance visit.”
While mostly performing that most rigorous of classical Indian art forms, Bharatanatyam, the young dancers in Maya notably come from very different backgrounds – Malay, Chinese, Indian and even Australian – and, like Lea, they often mix a bit of fun into their shows.
“Here in Australia, there are not many dancers who are cross-trained,” she says.
Her original plan had been to involve some of the young Singaporean artists but then the international borders were closed.
“Heartbreaking”, she says. But since she had already secured artsACT funding for the project, she decided, “let’s do it”.
Reaching out to new dancers, she found Billy Keohavong, Eliza Sanders, Jareen Wee, Nicholas Jachno and David Huggins, four of whom had trained in New Zealand.
She formulated the production in her brain while communicating online with the artistic team.
Her five contemporary dancers were not trained in Indian dance so, after breaking down pre-recorded Indian-style music into beats, Lea had to give them the core training.
They will be joined by Indian dance experts Ira Patkar, Reshika Sivakumaran, Soumya Sudarshan, Divya Vignesa, Shweta Venkataraman, Vanaja Dasika and Suhasini Sumithra.
“In the end I thought, if we dive into technique, we will find the ‘Bindu’, the Hindu point of creation – the story of my career is finding the connection,” she says.
Lea is adamant that she’s not trying to blend dance forms but rather to respect traditions and to move between the different styles. The structure, she says, is overlapping, but will be pulled together by the powerful work of lighting designer Karen Norris, who in turn will bear in mind the designs of the Griffins and the notion of “Bindu”.
Lea describes the production as “very abstract”, much like the costumes, which will retain some of the brilliance of Indian traditional style, but be abstracted from them.
There will be no words – “there’s enough going on”, she says, it will not be linear, nor will it be a comedy work like some she’s done in recent years.
And it certainly won’t be a tour to Lucknow – sorry about that, Burley Griffin fans – but it will serve to mark 150 years since Marion Mahony Griffin was born and 60 since she died. And that’s something to celebrate.
“The Point”, Belconnen Arts Centre Theatre, 7.30pm, April 29 and 30 and 2pm and 7.30pm, May 1, book here.