Heightening the human experience through collaboration
Photo by Peter Bennetts.
Phillip Adams BalletLab is a company defined by collaboration, not because its collaborators make the work, but because the collaboration is the work. It is a site for expression and experimentation, for the unheard and the unspeakable. The company’s practice enacts a dialogue between artists, ideas, research, sound, movement, fashion and architecture. A constant process which has no beginning and no end.
Fittingly no single voice, phrase, or text would be adequate for discussing Phillip Adams BalletLab. To be part of the process one needs to join the conversation. Seeking out perspectives from artistic director Phillip Adams, composer Garth Paine, designer Susan Dimasi and architect Beth Weinstein, each offered an insight into their collaborative utopia; a working space that spans from the Arizona desert to the dance studio.
Whenever words are unable to express our innermost feelings, the body takes over. For me, dance is sustainable because it accesses the sensuous and corporeal. This is an approach to the world that I think is neglected in day-to-day life, which is filled with images and language rather than touch and movement. Moreover, dance can be regarded as a successful model for global action. Dance is created through international networking, mobile protagonists and flexible production methods. Collective movements possess a political potential, a force that can shape society. My practice is often categorised as ‘other’, an assumption that I’m quite comfortable with, as it allows the utopian potential of dance to be put up for discussion.
I choreograph and present dancers in extreme states, standing on the fringe. I experiment with ideas of hysteria, alienation, and empathy. The luxury of this experiment is the notion of collaboration. Dance is inherently interdisciplinary and transcultural. It’s an art form that allows an artistic mode of research, one where the disciplines of dance, music, and science work together to pursue a social and artistic phenomenon. In my choreography, ritual is merged with synchronized fictional accidents and folkloric encounters. This is the utopian ideal, one of the uncanny and the experimental. With Phillip Adams BalletLab, I seek new kinds of participation, to create a space where alternative aesthetic strategies can be tested and fucked with. At the core of this pursuit is always my definition of choreography: choreography is a preoccupation with exploring the organisation of the body in space, and how its architecture is shared with others. From this definition I suggest a narrative striptease, one that tantalises audiences with a promise of access.
The luxury of this experiment is the notion of collaboration. Dance is inherently interdisciplinary and transcultural. It’s an art form that allows an artistic mode of research, one where the disciplines of dance, music, and science work together to pursue a social and artistic phenomenon.
Most often I struggle to conform. I have my own set of rules and they are continually being broken and this is a luxury unto itself. Phillip Adams BalletLab constantly reworks recipes for art that mix the old with the new and experiment to deliver an experience rather than a common offering. Most of the time my work is trying to articulate the inexpressible, and this unknown language is experienced as an elegant eruption of avant-garde expression. Where this creative trigger point finds release is in the studio. I consider the studio to be a holy place for choreographic practice. I, along with the dancers and collaborators, discover things about each other as well as about our creative expression. Working together we are a library full of spines (excuse the pun), with titles that provide our audience with visions of the everyday and tomorrow. We offer our understanding of dance up for debate to our audience, as much as we do to our dancers in the studio.
The final piece of the jigsaw in my collaboration with Phillip Adams BalletLab was to travel to a structure in the desert in Arizona. This structure is called the Integratron and was built by a man who claimed to have been abducted by aliens. According to him, aliens taught him how to build a machine to rejuvenate living human tissue and sent him back to earth to build it. The Integratron is this machine. He died before he finished it so unfortunately there’s no eternal life yet, but this theory and history is why we went there together.
We put loud speakers all the way around the building and then played white noise through them, effectively creating an even white noise field inside the building. Then Phillip danced and moved through that field and I put a special microphone in the centre that records a 360 degree sphere of sound. The idea is that what I recorded and then played back into the loud speakers is a shadow in the noise field of where his body was. When I recreate that back into the loudspeaker during the performance work, what the audience should perceive right at the end is that there’s still movement going on around them but the dancers have all vanished.
It’s absolutely critical to have an organic element in my compositions, otherwise electronic sound feels very abstract and detached from human experience. What we are making together is about heightening and accentuating human experience. Giving us an anchor to reflect upon things, about the way we construct our lives and the relationship to our environment.
The reason I work in a studio with the dancers, is that in the past I approached composing music for dance by going to the studio seeing runs, and then going away, composing and bringing what I’ve created back. But it doesn’t matter how much effort you put into it, doing it this way is always just bringing two separate elements together. The outcome is really tightly bound and hopefully you can perceive this when you see it. One couldn’t exist without the other, they are in conversation all the time.
With my design process there is no hard start and finish and I think that’s really inherent to Phillip’s choreography. There’s no set choreography at any point. When I go to rehearsals I’m always looking for conceptual parallels between the ideas that Phillip, Brooke, Garth and Matthew are exploring and the ideas that I’m exploring; therein lies the space where I can create something that is an extension of what I do and not a response to what they do. We’re finding and negotiating these parallels all the time.
A very specific parallel with what I’m doing right now is that I’m experimenting, exploring, and proposing accumulative systems. An accumulative system is something that doesn’t have a specific finish point and that the audience, or the wearer in my case, is a part of the design process. That is, I think, a very specific parallel with And All Things Return to Nature Tomorrow, where the audiences will be taken on a journey and assimilated into the product. I essentially propose that my clients become a part of the journey, not just get an artefact of it.
Phillip came to me with a very specific briefing that he didn’t want costumes, he wanted fashion, which is really exciting because I don’t see myself as a costume designer. If I were to approach that brief really simplistically I would create a collection and say, “here’s five pieces, or here’s three pieces. Take your pick.” But in practice it’s a lot trickier. If one were to create costumes for a ballet or a more traditional dance performance, then one would think about movement in terms of the garment needing to stretch and not tear and of the costumes being able to withstand and enhance movement. But the approach that I’m taking to this is absolutely counter to that traditional point.
Because I run an artisan studio and I literally handle every piece, there are moments in the construction process where I see beautiful shapes and forms but they’re only a transitory moment before the garment’s finished. This is when a garment is being made for a woman to wear down the street, so there will be certain seams or spaces that I have to close for the constraints of practicality and modesty. Working with Phillip Adams BalletLab allows me to leave certain spaces open and to finish forms at different points. It’s not just appropriate to do this in a dance context, but highly suitable.
In my current project, Bleed, I have hand marked garments with texta, with the proposition that when the wearer wears this hand marked garment it will bleed through contact with body heat and through application of perfume and deodorant. That’s a slow and subtle process in terms of being in a private wardrobe but in a dance context that’s something I can really exaggerate through the fact that the dancer is going to get really hot and sweat in the garment. It’s an ability to observe it on a much faster cycle of cause and effect. In a traditional wearer sense, tearing would be considered a fault. I see it as an opportunity for the wearer to continue the design process. I’m really interested to see how garments will tear and stress in the more intense wearing environment of dance and then trying to take those propositions back into the studio.
I’m specifically interested in how movement will activate the clothing not the other way around. The clothing is not there to enhance, it’s not made out of Lycra and I’m not employing specific ballet costume techniques. Rather I’m interested in the ways that movement will tear the clothing to pieces and open up spaces that would otherwise be closed.
I’m thankful that my world has intersected with Phillip Adams. He is an extraordinarily creative and visionary choreographer, a man that pushes the envelope of dance through experiment and an interdisciplinary collaborative approach. Phillip invited me to design the performance environment of BalletLab’s 2011 project Aviary, specifically crafting two bower nests and backdrop for the third act ‘Paradis’. Throughout this project development there was a professional ‘click’ between the two of us, allowing for the possibility to ask and materialise the ‘what-if’ aspirations. This interaction has certainly supported the creative outcomes of our current collaboration Tomorrow and no doubt strengthening and broadening our creative and professional ambitions.
We are an uncanny pair of collaborators working and researching worldwide around the notions of experimentation in our practices. We research and utilise guerilla techniques in the most unlikely places from the Mojave Desert, Bunnings Hardware, to valleys and hillsides in Luxembourg. These experiences shaped the direction of Tomorrow, importantly discovering the success of utopian structures that collectively support the construction phase in the performative installation.
The collaborative nature that transforms our work from a top-down approach is a ‘community of ideas’, allowing us a team to iteratively develop projects into an ‘architectural performance’ outcome. As a group we spent hours nurturing a participatory way of constructing a utopian space interconnected with further ideas of vibrational energy, alien encounters and abduction. It’s the ultimate research experiment: we travelled and absorbed ideas beyond our expectations. We have collectively tested new experimental ideas of space, material and experience within a performative arena. Ultimately I believe we have developed a successful interdisciplinary framework to cultivate intriguing intersections of architectural space with performance. In our next outing, we will rethink the conceptual house of tomorrow; a performative-architecture structure that demonstrates the form, material and experience of a futuristic domestic environment based on the Monsanto House of the Future 1957 in Disneyland.
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