Inviting Uncertainty – Dancing with the Contemporary


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I am a choreographer, dancer and filmmaker based in Canberra and Melbourne. I make installations and performances using contemporary dance and other visual mediums as my primary tools. In January 2016, I began making a new work aboard the Australian Marine National Facility’s Investigator, a state-of-the-art research vessel designed for interdisciplinary marine research. This is a reflection on the role I am playing as a choreographer on the expedition.

To begin with, we must put aside all surface associations with the word dance. We are not here dealing with dance as a mode of entertainment or recreation. I am talking specifically about dance as a form of research.

Contemporary dance is a vast realm of physical and emotional possibility, a dance of the now, an awareness of the present and moving body. Of a specific time and space, it is an encounter between thinking bodies.

For many contemporary dance makers, our work involves significant time and research. Every new performance requires a new process. Working with the contemporary, this is inherently an ever changing and evolving practice. It demands both a remarkable level of skill and patience.

My aim as a choreographer is to create experiences that inspire reflection on how the body senses, navigates and interacts with the world. I’m interested in where movement comes from and what it provokes. Long before movement is formed, I spend a lot of time with the source. I begin in a hyper-state of attentiveness; observing, sensing and experiencing. Over time particular curiosities emerge, leading to questions: What am I looking at? What is the physical process? How does it work? Where and when does it take place? What do I think I know about it and what are my assumptions? What else could it be?

I then establish a physical process, developing movement and images that will respond to this specific line of questioning. The performance does not aim to answer the questions; it is merely a facilitator, inspiring others to ask them too. For the audience, it is a world through fresh eyes, inviting curiosity into what might have been previously assumed or taken for granted. In performance, something that felt certain can become uncertain again.

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Heard Island

When the Executive Director of the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies invited me to be a part of a 58-day expedition aboard the Investigator, my immediate reaction was a mixture of excitement and uncertainty. I had never been at sea before, let alone for two months. Yet here was a rare opportunity to intensively study one of the most remote places in the world, as part of an interdisciplinary team of leading scientists and artists. The Investigator was built for exactly this purpose.

How does contemporary dance, a medium within the arts, contribute to the important research taking place on the Investigator? The role of art in this expedition is crucial. We are dealing with an environment that is remote to humans, yet central to life on Earth. How can we learn more about places that our bodies cannot physically access? With technology we can collect samples, take measurements and gather information. In determining what these abstract readings actually mean, it has to be brought back to the body, translated and visualised in a way that can be understood. In order to be communicated, it needs to move fluidly between the conceptual and the physical.

This is exactly the realm of contemporary art and especially dance. It has the powerful ability to exchange ideas in ways that challenge, stimulate and inspire. In dance, remoteness is brought to the body, felt viscerally and deeply. It invites uncertainty, which is vastly more powerful than certainty, and is key to developing a stronger understanding of our place in this world. The opportunity to combine dialogue between science and arts research on the Investigator is therefore immensely valuable and important. The role of a choreographer in this environment, although perhaps not a conventional one, holds enormous potential.

While at sea, I have had to completely redefine the time and space my work inhabits, to be flexible and respond to the continuously changing conditions. It is an intense environment, with operations taking place around the clock and very little capacity to disengage. The dynamic nature of the ship, with its exaggerated and unpredictable motion creates a fascinating set of physical parameters to work within. These are just some of the many factors specific to this environment that have necessitated an entirely different process. It is an extremely productive and inspiring space, in which I have been experimenting and researching ideas for a new body of work. In the coming years, I will continue developing this research across various residencies both in Australia and around the world, involving other artists, collaborators and partners.

The true value of this work cannot be quantified financially; it operates on the generosity not of money but time. Ultimately the success and value of this opportunity will be measured by the quality of its encounters with people. This being a particular strength of dance, I believe will define its relevance and its importance among the research disciplines represented on this voyage.

 

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An Aurora as witnessed on board the Investigator

 

Top 3 Photographs: Charles Tambiah.

Middle Photograph: James Batchelor

Bottom Photograph: Pete Harmsen

James Batchelor

James Batchelor

James Batchelor is an award-winning young choreographer from Canberra with a performance practice in dance and visual arts. His projects examine the interactions between humans and the environment taking him to some of the most remote and inaccessible places in the world. His best known works include ISLAND (winner of the Canberra Critics Circle Award for Dance 2014 and Green Room Award for Concept and Realisation) and METASYSTEMS, which has toured extensively in Australia, Europe and Asia. In 2016 James was an artist in residence aboard the Investigator, a 58-day expedition mapping remote underwater regions of the Southern Ocean. He is currently developing new works for the Canberra Theatre Centre and Keir Choreographic Award.

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