When the January 2003 firestorm tore through parts of the ACT leaving destruction in its wake, the Mt Stromlo Observatory was one of the worst hit areas with five of its telescopes, its workshops and homes, and a heritage-listed administration building destroyed. Now the burnt-out shell of one of the telescope observatory domes is being used for an unusual purpose. Canberra's recently established contemporary dance company, Australian Dance Party, will present its latest evening-length show, Nervous, in the remains of the dome that once housed the Yale Columbia telescope.
Alison Plevey, leader of Australian Dance Party, has been working with neuroscientist Greg Stuart from the John Curtin School of Medical Research at the ANU on the new work. Nervous seeks, she says, to examine the functioning of the human brain and the way in which brain cells operate to create our thinking processes, with special emphasis on nervousness. What makes us feel nervous? How is nervousness triggered? In particular, she wonders what happens at a cellular level. Nervous sets out to embody the pathways and networks that are formed by the action of neurons as they create the feeling of being nervous.
Plevey has chosen to present the work at Mt Stromlo for a number of reasons. "Australian Dance Party is a Canberra company and I am interested in engaging with Canberra spaces," she says. "I am thrilled that the team at Mt Stromlo has been so supportive of the Observatory being used in this somewhat unconventional manner."
But, in addition to wondering about the connections that are made by the brain, that is connections at a micro level, Plevey says she is curious about whether such connections are echoed in the external environment. In parallel with querying the neurological functions of the brain, Nervous also examines the networks of our planet and the cosmos, which makes Mt Stromlo Observatory a perfect venue.
"I am interested in connecting with the vast abyss of the universe," Plevey explains, "and in reflecting on a long scale of existence. The Yale Columbia Dome, with its cylindrical structure and its cracked and fire-marked walls, becomes quite a special arena for the Party's undertaking. As well, it has no roof and so is open to the stars. It's almost post-apocalyptic."
Plevey says her interest in the concept of nervousness arose from her own reaction to the present state of the world. She is nervous herself, she says, about the state of the arts and on a broader level about present day social and political structures. Nervous reflects her personal feelings and her own emotional reactions, which she has recorded in words for use in the show. She has also recorded the thoughts of the dancers who will be performing with her in Nervous - Gabriel Comerford, Olivia Fyfe, and Janine Proost. Each dancer, Plevey explains, has had a different reaction to the question of what makes them nervous. They range from being nervous about the very process of creating Nervous, to the idea that nervousness is akin to excitement at the idea of a changing world. Nervous will be an immersive experience and the thoughts of the dancers and others in the team will be a significant part of the performance.
In addition to the use of the spoken word, an approach that reflects Plevey's connections with actor and theatre director Adam Deusien at the Bathurst-based physical theatre company, Lingua Franca, the use of light will feature strongly throughout Nervous. Laser lighting and projections have been designed by Robbie Gordon and Gordon's lighting design, along with an electronic score from Ben Colin, will create a work that Plevey has labelled "a sensory and visceral experience" and "a little bit sci-fi."
The choreographic process behind Nervous reflects Plevey's interest in improvisational techniques. She says she rarely creates movement before the rehearsal period begins. She sets her collaborating dancers specific tasks based on a particular scenario. She then selects movement from what emerges and uses those selections in her own way. But Plevey admits that It is not easy to look dispassionately at a work when both directing and performing in it. To bring the show together so that it is a coherent work, Plevey has been working with a dramaturg, Karla Conway, recently artistic director of Canberra Youth Theatre and now resident dramaturg for Warehouse Circus.
As Australian Dance Party, Canberra's newest dance voice, heads into its second major production for 2016, the future of dance in Canberra is looking rosier than ever. "Feeling nervous? Dance it out," says Plevey.
Nervous, by Australian Dance Party is on December 1-3, 7:45 pm at Mt Stromlo Observatory, Yale Columbia Dome. Tickets from Eventbrite: https://www.eventbrite.com.au/e/nervous-tickets-26983007903