Inspiration can strike in all kinds of unexpected places – this proved to be the case for choreographer Alex Harrison, when a chance visit to a historian friend inspired a bold and hugely expansive work on the future of dance. “I was doing some research on western Sydney, where I was living at the time,” Harrison explains, “and the local librarian put me in touch with Daphne Kingston, who’s an authority on the area.” Kingston has a 35-year long practice of documenting the area’s architecture in the form of paintings and drawings, as well as several publications to her name. “I went to visit her in her little house in the suburbs – it’s the sweetest little place full of plants and paintings, and she was there with her husband in her little red kitchen making tea.” That’s where the discussion took an unexpected political turn.
“Daphne had been a visual artist in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” Harrison explains, “but she told me she became very disillusioned with the commodification of art. That’s the language she used, and it was so striking, because here I was in her kitchen, with her feeding me home-made biscuits with the marks from the back of the fork in them. I asked her if this political language was something she’d expressed at the time, or if she’d only started to express in hindsight. She said to me ‘I knew it at the time – coming events cast their shadows.’” Harrison was struck by that phrase. “She was saying that the conditions of the present can tell us about the future. Forecasting becomes paying attention to the present – I became really fascinated with this idea of forecasting, and it became central to the work I ultimately produced.”
This conversation led Harrison to the creation of What's Coming which is set to open soon at Dancehouse, North Carlton. The show, though expansive and split into many different parts, centres around the theme of observing the patterns of past and present in order to predict the future. It’s not just about dance, Harrison says, but about movement. “It explores the future through the body,” she explains, “so the dance is a form through which it attempts to divine. It looks at movement forms, not necessarily just dance forms. It looks at the way we move through a city, the way we interact with animals, the way we repeat to discover meaning, the way we choreograph our lives. It’s looking at movement as the divining tool, I guess.” Coming events cast their shadows – What’s Coming attempts to divine just what these shadows look like, and what the future may hold.
The show itself is a mixture of various elements, from installations to films to lectures to dance performances. It may sound like an audacious prospect, but that’s exactly what Harrison set out to do. “The show has taken the form of a festival,” she explains. “When I got the application for Dancehouse’s residency program, I was looking through the criteria, and they requested works that were manifestly audacious.” Harrison pauses here, and gives a wry laugh. “I thought, there’s a fucking invitation! I thought that was really exciting. What I was trying to do with this work was fit everything into the one choreographic performance piece, all the work that I’d been doing over the last few years. I just thought, what if I can take these elements and turn them into the one work, make them into a festival?”
I ask Harrison to talk me through some of the individual elements of What’s Coming, and she obliges. “There’s a video installation upstairs called The Forest Of Gesture,” she explains, “and another installation called The Library Of Future Forecasts, which are submissions from 65 people who’ve collaborated with me on the project. I’ve been teaching a group of older adults dance and movement, so they’re doing a performance. There’s a lecture on mapping and choreography, there all these events along with the body of choreography. I guess I see the body of choreography as the central work, and all these others are satellite works. They’re in a dialogue with each other, and with the central theme of the choreography.”
The space was also an integral element in the planning and design of the show. Miraculously, Dancehouse agreed to give their entire venue over to Harrison for What’s Coming, so in return, she was determined to use the space to its fullest. “I’ve designed certain works for particular rooms,” she says. “There are two studios upstairs, there’s a gallery space, there are various staircases, and we’ve used everything – the audience does a spiral through the building and ends up in the main performance area. They travel through a whole lot of information and exhibitions and things like that in the lead-up to the performance. I was definitely thinking about the Dancehouse space itself when I created it.”
The question is, now Harrison has created a work this enormous, does she have a hunger to do something even bigger next time around? “I’m not in competition with myself,” she tells me with a laugh, “but it’s certainly opened up possibilities! I’m going to wait and see what happens with this show. If all of these events come off, I’ll be very happy, I’ll feel well equipped to go forward with any idea. Putting this work together has made me braver, that’s for sure!”
BY ALASDAIR DUNCAN
What’s Coming runs from Tuesday July 31 to Saturday August 4 at Dancehouse.