In October, a crowd of experimental dance devotees gathered outside the imposing rusty steel facade of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) in the city of Melbourne, anticipating a performance with a rich legacy.
What they witnessed went beyond that, with an unconventional sequence of steps – at once playful, layered, Australian-made and performed under an early evening sky in the open-air forecourt. The lone dancer in jeans and T-shirt performed in a way that was unmistakably steeped in the DNA of legendary American choreographer Trisha Brown.
Called 60 Second Dances, it engaged the audience by whimsically challenging the body’s limits of its own movement in a way that Brown, the avant-garde pioneer of site-specific dance and co-founder of 1960s dance theatre Judson, had done for 50 years.
The work was the creation of Melbourne-based choreographer Lee Serle, who spent a year alongside Brown in New York, immersed in her gargantuan creative spirit, as protégé in 2010–2011 for the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.
A playful spirit
Serle admits the dance, which he performed for ACCA’s Framed Movements' exhibition [curated by Hannah Mathews] that day, was heavily influenced by Brown’s site-specific works that had helped define her reputation as an artistic genius. “I absolutely loved performing Trisha's early works such as Roof Piece, Walking on the Wall, Leaning Duets and many of the other site-specific works of the ‘60s and ‘70s,” Serle says. “The playful aspect of these works and the inclusiveness for the audience really appealed to me, and site-specific work is something I am still working with.”
In Roof Piece (1971), Brown's dancers send semaphore signals to each other across the rooftops of lower Manhattan; for Walking on the Wall (1971), performers don harnesses and manoeuvre along a wall; in Leaning Duets (1970) couples hold hands and move in perfect balance.
Serle performed 60 Second Dances as the sun was setting on a crisp, bright day inside a series of blue-taped shapes that he marked out on the concrete grounds of ACCA, its backdrop carrying all the gritty urban power of Melbourne’s freeways and skyscrapers. The work is a combination of spatial intervention, live performance, audio recording and visual documentation reflecting on the shifting boundaries of art forms.
When Brown retired in 2011, her company paid tribute with a mammoth international farewell tour, and the 2014 Melbourne Festival – an arts event that explores and pushes still further the ever-changing nature of contemporary performing arts – presented the Australian leg of this tour.
Serle's ACCA work was part of the festival's October line-up, as was the Trisha Brown Dance Company's performance of 17 of her revolutionary, post-modernist dances. The retrospective was rounded out with a programme of films and talks, as well as a workshop of Brown’s early works with students of the Victorian College of the Arts, making for a sweeping survey of one of the most significant artists of the 20th century.
An obvious choice
Earlier this year, when Melbourne Festival creative director Josephine Ridge sought a local conduit through which to interpret the tribute, Serle was an obvious choice.
“Initially I felt really chuffed [very pleased], then I felt a huge responsibility too,” he explains. “That made me nervous. But, of course, I enjoyed every aspect of my involvement.”
For Serle, the Melbourne Festival's presentation of Brown’s works was also notable because it showcased her tongue-in-cheek humour. “The most amusing to me, and for most of the audience, are Line Up and Leaning Duets,” he says. “These works are like games, and the dancers must rely on another dancer to execute them. They can easily go wrong, and I think it's fun for an audience to see performers fail occasionally.’’
During his mentoring year in New York, Serle created a dance work called P.O.V, abbreviated from “point of view” – another site-specific work, this time for Astor Hall, the grand foyer of the public library on New York’s Fifth Avenue where he performed it in 2011. His vision was for onlookers to experience something unique depending on perspective and where they were seated.
The work has since been adapted and presented to Melbourne audiences, and Serle is hoping to take it to Sydney and Paris, cities that have recently shown interest in staging the work. "But these things can take a long time. Fingers crossed," he muses.
Serle has recently been busy creating a new work for the Sydney Dance Company. Inspired by the work of Australian painter Stephen Bush, it is titled White Elephant and is part of a larger programme called New Breed involving five up-and-coming Australian choreographers. It opened in Sydney in early November.
In January 2015, he will be on tour in Paris with Australian dancer/choreographer Lucy Guerin. They will perform a piece titled Weather, at the iconic Théâtre de la Ville, that explores the connection of human beings, the natural world, and the elemental forces of weather.