In rehearsal with Xanthe Geeves
Last week, our Emerging Female Classical Choreographer initiative recipient Xanthe Geeves, after much delay caused by Covid-19, was finally able to undertake the first half of her award – a choreographic development residency at the Sydney Opera House. Initially planned for 2020, the device is now taking place this year.
Xanthe Geeves 2021 EFFC recipient Xanthe Geeves (second from left) with (from left) Brittany Duwner, Nicole Corea, William John Banks and Josh Freedman. Photo: Gregor Thieler.
Xanthe was joined by four professional dancers – selected on call via Dance Australia – William John Banks, Brittany Duwner, Nicole Corea and Josh Freedman. The rehearsal was observed, by special arrangement, by six Tanya Pearson Academy internship students.
During the week of June 7-11, the dancers developed a piece that will be presented during the Australian Ballet’s Bodytorque season, slated for later this year.
Enjoy the account of Xanthe’s experience below.
I applied for the Australian Ballet Emerging Female Classical Choreographer Award well over a year ago, before “containment” became a familiar concept. My application was submitted without solid expectations, but I liked the initiative as a unique opportunity.
In the middle of the first lockdown, I received the uplifting news that I was the recipient of the EFCC Award and would choreograph for The Australian Ballet. The news was a positive experience in a time of general anxiety. With uncertainty lingering in 2020 regarding the performing arts, I was relieved to find that my residency had been rescheduled to take place in 2021.
The choreographic process
Initially, Nicolette Fraillon (Music Director and Conductor for The Australian Ballet), gave me the guideline to find music lasting eight to 10 minutes. The composer must have been dead for over 70 years (for copyright reasons), and we had to involve a smaller set of musicians. The venue for the show has not yet been confirmed and there may have been limited space for accommodation of the live musicians of the Victoria Orchestra.
My research then turned to finding music performed by up to five musicians. The music I chose was a string quintet composed in the 18e century, by Luigi Boccherini. The piece immediately elicited an emotional response in me which in turn encouraged me to consider particular qualities of movement and choreography in my mind. Music is always my initial stimulus. The music is in the Rococco style which is as ornate as the Baroque Style, but much more playful. Boccherini wrote the “party music” of his time!
In this spirit, the philosophy of life of “Pura vida”Felt an appropriate theme to inform the narrative quality of the play. For Costa Ricans, Pura vida is to live fully, despite difficult circumstances. At present, it is a particularly relevant way to find moments of happiness. Recognize and accept the loss of “connection”, but have the determination to be happy in the present moment: does the Pura vida way of life.
Each of the four dramatic sections and transitions clearly exhibited contrasting moods, movement characteristics, and allowed for a contrasting portrayal of the dancers’ personalities.
My intention has always been to merge classical and contemporary dance In tip to better showcase the strength and talents of Australian Ballet dancers.
Before my residency, I established the meanings and theme of each section, which informed the characteristics of the movement, and visualized the components, possible formations and configurations of the dancer.
My childhood piano and flute lessons gave me valuable insight into recognizing time signature, timbre and phrasing. I carefully mapped out the musical accents and melodic dialogue with dynamic changes, enlightened transitions and new sections.
On day 1, I arrived at SOH with a clear vision of sector results without specific pre-choreographed steps. I intentionally started with the cheerful section involving the entire cast in order to create a sense of unison throughout and to develop a spirit of collaboration with the dancers. Our initial exploration of movement involved choreographing the male dancers and then layering the complementary female role on the male voice.
It was during this process that I realized that the energy was organic and that there was a positive dynamic between the dancers and with me. Thanks to their invaluable contribution and their diverse professional experiences, we created a choreography that we could all be proud of and that we really enjoyed doing.
I was impressed with how the dancers from the TPA work experience – Olivia, Sienna, Phoebe, Ned, Liam and Levi – discovered helpful strategies and methods for pas de deux as we explored all newly designed elevators.
The rapid progression of the choreographic process took us all by surprise, and we had completed over eight minutes by the end of day 3. The only exception was a 15 second transition which required a sculptural constellation of dancers and took longer. ‘one hour to build. . It was well worth the process.
As the week progressed and choreography portions of each section were established, I then had to consider how the sections fit together and find out how transitions could be formulated. The formations, spacing and configurations of the dancers should be considered as part of the whole piece. At each break and at the end of each day, my brain was actively buzzing with new ideas and solutions. The music was looping in my head.
From day 2, we were all very aware of the muscle pain caused by so much pas de deux work and the physicality of exploring new materials of movement. Initially, there were concerns that the pas de deux work would be difficult to conceive and create, but it turned out to be a much more joyful and fluid process than expected.
After the third day and eight minutes of choreography, it became obvious to the dancers and to me that we could visualize the possibility of this piece being extended and translated into a larger ensemble piece.
It was sure Day 4 that we moved to the much larger main rehearsal space in the Green Room and completed the last 10 second intervals here and there as well as the last step two of section three. The ability to walk through the choreography in this generous space added a refreshing new energy to the piece, and the students from the work experience appreciated the opportunity to dance hard and have their own space to work on the choreography. behind the dancers. Access to this larger space allowed all of us to properly trace and space the room for the screening of the last day.
Day 5 we approached the new day relaxed, relieved and satisfied with a week of productive effort. I felt reassured that I now have a working choreography to bring to TAB for the Bodytorque season in Melbourne later this year.
The stamina required for this piece would normally take over four days to build, so it was important to ensure that the dancers rehearse the details of the dynamic qualities and musicianship in the morning session on the last day, rather than the physical effort, in preparation for our full final rehearsal session.
It was nice to see the students from the work experience perform a choreography snippet in the presence of TPA Artistic Director and former Australian Ballet Principal Artist Lucinda Dunn at the end of the screening. They presented a refreshing and individual take on my choreography, which highlighted for me its adaptability to a wide range of dancers.
At the end of my SOH residency, I was struck by the fact that so much had been accomplished in what was essentially a short period of time. The work was intense, but with all the creative processes there was great satisfaction to see the work come to life and be performed by these four very special dancers. I will forever cherish my memories of working at the Sydney Opera House and enjoying the creative co-working space and the Green Room with the dancers of the Bangarra Dance Theater and the staff of SOH. I will also cherish the unique collaboration I have had with these amazing artists and new friends.
I look forward to the staging process, costumes and rehearsals with the live orchestra. I also look forward to working with the artists of the Australian Ballet and seeing how the choreography evolves with their unique contribution and the performance of the finished work.
I am especially grateful to Karen van Ulzen from Dance Australia; Olivia Ansell – Former Head of Contemporary Performance at SOH; David McAllister – former artistic director of the Australian Ballet; The Australian Ballet and the Sydney Opera House for setting up this wonderful initiative for female choreographers.
The Emerging Female Classical Choreographer initiative is proudly sponsored by Dancesurance and Grishko.
All the photos above are by Gregor Thieler except number 7 which is by Jacquie Manning.
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Look for more images in the July / August / September print edition of Dance Australia.