In the dusk light, beneath the ageing hawthorn spreading its limbs across the courtyard of Gorman Arts Centre, dancer Matt Shilcock punctuates the space with turns, flicks and jabs in the air. A participant in the recent Strange Attractor, a choreographic platform (now in its fourth year in Canberra), he mimics and echoes moments from the work of his seven artist colleagues.
He is the centre of a seven-pointed star. We, as audience, pass around him, taking in this quiet commentary. His actions help us understand and process what we have seen – a momentary focal point in the system of "strange attractors", thrown together in this workshop experiment at this point in time.
In this group of eight choreographers, drawn from around Australia, the answer to the question, "Why dance?" can be matched by the question, "What do we value in it?" Artists' intentions vary from a need to reveal untold histories, to a need to use the body and its sensory knowing to help gauge the ethics of our interactions. Dance can be an almost scientific practice: we gather and process information, interpret and re-present it, sometimes after years of research. And the primary tool, the body, is something we all share.
What most people don't realise, when they watch able bodies dancing, is that there is such a strong correlation between vulnerability and resilience for most dancers.
Shilcock, from South Australia, is a case in point. Born with osteogenesis imperfecta, his brittle bones broke several times during his childhood, but in his 20s he found greater health in beginning to dance. The systemic support a dancer calls on to move and replenish after injury is an object lesson in systems cooperation. Choreographers relish engaging in social and research contexts outside of their usual spheres; guest speaker CSIRO ecologist Brian Walker talks about the difference between brittle, overstretched systems that fail, and resilient, communicative and supported systems that can transform.
Liz Lea – until very recently the artistic director of Canberra Dance Theatre, who has empowered so many young and mature-aged dancers in the region – examines how much she wants to reveal in further development of her work Red, which momentarily lands in the territory of sickness, and examines the relationship between life on and offstage.Life is research for many artists. Performing is an act that demands empathy but which is also transformative.
Shona Erskine, from Western Australia, focuses on tales of "scarlet women" in the early 19th century, hanged or reprieved according to their social standing at the time. Her choreography is an electrified representation of their fears, but also a very grounded social commentary on privilege and disadvantage. Daisy Sanders, a dancer living with chronic fatigue, places herself as an "installation" in the Canberra Contemporary Arts Space, measuring her relation to both activity and rest. Her work, on the eve and day of a federal election, plays with paper, balloting, voting, inscriptions on the walls, and boundaries between public and private life and emotions.
The other artists – Alison Plevey from the ACT, Loren Kronemyer from Western Australia, Alice Dixon and William McBride, both of Victoria, each dissect human relations to social and environmental ecologies. They do this by means of the body-in-motion: an ethical machine.
The craft and practice of our artists is so often misunderstood. Facilitator David Pledger values artists as the "canaries in the mineshaft", necessary to the operations of any social organisation – otherwise who would be aware of the health or toxicity of any system?
Strange Attractor is an annual choreographic platform supported by Arts ACT, Ainslie and Gorman Arts Centres, QL2 Dance and Canberra Contemporary Art Space. Zsuzsi Soboslay is this year's writer-in-residence.
Strange Attractor: Make-Think-Speak. Gorman Arts Centre, Canberra. June 19-July 3, 2016.