The Keir Choreographic Award has become synonymous with experimentation; where the boundaries aren’t just pushed, but altogether redrawn. This year’s edition was no different and confirmed that choreography remains one of the most surprising artforms.

Now in its fourth iteration, the biennial competition invites dance artists to pitch an idea for a 20-minute choreographic performance. Only eight artists are commissioned to present their work in Melbourne and Sydney, before an international jury made up of critics, curators and choreographers selects a winner. With a $50,000 prize up for grabs, it’s the country’s biggest (and only) cash award in the field.

Amrita Hepi. Photograph © Gregory Lorenzutti

But the KCA is no dance competition. The award – a public-private partnership between the Keir Foundation and the Australia Council – seeks to illuminate the most urgent and experimental choreographic practices occurring in Australia today. The focus is on the art of choreography – not dance – and the many different modes, aesthetics and perspectives it can embody.

Although past competitions have been Melbourne-centric, this year’s commissioned artists represent a healthy cross-section of the field. Alison Currie & David Cross (SA/Vic), The Farm (Qld), Angela Goh (NSW), Riana Head-Toussaint (NSW), Amrita Hepi (Vic), Jo Lloyd (Vic), Zachary Lopez (NSW) and Lewis Major (SA) were the commissioned artists for 2020.

The KCA is a peculiar beast. Eight radically different approaches to choreography pushed into an omnibus, high-stakes format is bound to produce some dissonance. Juxtaposed, the artists’ voices carry a certain potency; a public declaration of how they each understand choreography and its potential.

The political body was a common theme in this year’s program. Hepi, in an intimate danced monologue, tried reconciling her early exposure to Indigenous Australian and Māori dance with the Western canon. The latter’s reverence of the “neutral” body is problematic, and Hepi gave her take on the subject through mimicry and humorous impersonations of iconic choreographers.

Lopez’s fluid duo featuring elements of Filipino tinikling and Head-Toussaint’s use of three dancers with a visible disability also challenged perceptions of the body. In different ways, and to varying degrees of literality (Head-Toussaint’s voiceovers were direct but cumbersome), the two works revealed our unconscious biases that separate the haves from the have nots.

More abstract explorations of binaries inspired other artists in the program. The merging of real and imagined histories produced evocative images in Lloyd’s briskly paced dance featuring a massive net of rope, and Major’s brooding ensemble piece that tipped its hat to Bauschian dance-theatre.

For Gold Coast collective, The Farm, the starting point was a misunderstood Elton John lyric played to great comedic effect. This tension between “rightness” or “wrongness” framed a deeper, pop-cultural exploration of differences in opinion through club dancing and seamless partnering.

The Farm. Photograph © Gregory Lorenzutti

Other artists directly engaged with the fundamental elements of choreography: time, space and object. The works of both Currie & Cross and Goh used unorthodox modes of performance, relying heavily on the symbolism of material objects to comment on consumerism, labour and theatricality. The effect, however, was radically different: Goh’s performance totally compelling; Currie’s work unashamedly tedious.

As always, the KCA gives us an exciting snapshot of choreographic art in Australia. The thrill is in the multiplicity of ideas and the potential for this medium to provoke discussion.

Sydney audiences will enjoy a great selection of these ideas when the four finalists (Currie & Cross, The Farm, Hepi and Goh) take to the stage at Carriageworks for a chance at the major prize.

The Keir Choreographic Award Finals take place at Carriageworks, March 12-14


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