Two dancers stand beside a ballet barre, poised as if waiting to start rehearsal. They are soon joined by others who each take their place at a barre, patiently waiting. Black fabric wings fly out to reveal yet more bars and more dancers. It is almost as if we, the audience, are seeing something we ought not, the theatre in a state of intimate anticipation rather than performative readiness.
From the moment the curtain first raises through to its final close, the latest offering from youth dance company QL2 Dance Filling the Space deftly questions the relationship of bodies in space and their relation to the architectural frames that define the performance experience: the filling and emptying of space with bodies sometimes quiet, sometimes chaotic, the partitioning of space through both physical and transient means.
The traditional role of the theatre’s architecture is to disappear, to provide an invisible structure for the real work of performing bodies. However, the first piece to make up Filling the Space, Proscenium choreographed by acclaimed QL2 alumnus James Batchelor, turns this notion on its head by elevating that very architecture to the level of performer.
The proscenium described by dramaturg Dorita Hannah is the boundary between those who perform and those who bear witness, a borderline between audience reality and staged imagination. James blurs that line by taking the proscenium and altering it, using it as a both a frame and a window, a wall and a mirror.
As wings fly in and out, objects enter or metal bars descend to bisect the space, the dancers themselves navigate the shifting landscape, sometimes with softened curiosity, at others with direct purpose. Often imperfectly and individually embodied, the movement ranges from sensual and undulating to rigid and precise. It is the sensitivity and performance quality of the dancers, evidently so carefully nurtured, that unifies and elevates this work.
With the proscenium in the role of mirror, dancers drift along rows of chairs, the ghosts of both audience members and performers past, before giving way to Naturally Man-Made, a piece choreographed by QL2’s artistic director Ruth Osbourne. Ruth’s piece is classic QL2: energetic, rhythmic and tightly rehearsed, the dancers able to flex their technical muscle more overtly.
This in turn gives way to the third and final piece, The Shape of Empty Space choreographed by returning QL2 alumna Eliza Sanders. In her work Eliza made use of strategically placed columns of fabric and the placement of light to partition the physical space with dancers moving freely but not always in view. While the piece sought to explore the relationship between external physical spaces and interior lived experience, it was the commentary on the nature of performance as it relates to the audience gaze that was most interesting.
The strength of QL2 as an organisation and the quality of the work that it produces ultimately lies in the unwillingness to condescend to the young dancers who make up the performance ensemble. In Filling the Space, and in Proscenium in particular, we are treated to young people embodying work that would be at home on professional bodies on any national or international stage.
Among the media coverage of QL2 this year, the voice of a prominent Canberra publication was notably absent, sparking a discussion amongst the dance community about the way the arts and in particular youth arts, is covered in mainstram media. Many factors play a role in shifting our collective attitudes to the arts, including how they are covered but especially how they are funded.
Adequate government funding for not only professional artists but the programs that give those artists their start and nurture their growth is vital. If we want to reap the benefits of a thriving, intersectional arts culture that probes and questions our society, we must take an interest in and support the youth arts, for programs such as QL2 are the breeding ground of tomorrow’s great artists.
And that is something worth bearing witness to.
QL2 Filling the Space
The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre
Thursday 8 – Saturday 10 August at 7pm + 10 August at 2pm
Bookings: 02 6275 2700 canberratheatrecentre.com.au
Disclosure: Emma and James Batchelor are siblings. Emma as an alumna of QL2.
Images: Lorna Sim