The Choreographic Canvas

4 July 2012 | 6:58 am | Paul Ransom

Inspired by traditional painting, choreographer Vicki Van Hout brings an ancient artform to life in contemporary dance. As Paul Ransom discovers, her latest work, Briwyant, is alive with connect points.

Dance, like music, is universal – the language of the body in flow. From First Nation societies to the gilded ballrooms of imperial Europe, dance performs a ceremonial, artistic and recreational function. For Vicki Van Hout, a Wiradjuri woman from southern New South Wales and a contemporary choreographer working in the western milieu, the arc of dance connects ancient and modern, city and country, tribal and theatrical. When her much-lauded work Briwyant bursts onto the Merlyn stage at Malthouse early in July, supposedly opposite worlds will once again collide.

Like her more famous contemporary Stephen Page, Van Hout seeks to bring something of the indigenous dance vernacular into the geometric space of a modern theatre. “What I try to look for is the contemporary equivalent and it's not necessarily found within a black box,” she explains. “It's found at any sporting event, or at a rave. It's at places where everybody has the one focal point, where energy is focused.”

In this we are being taken beyond the merely passive role of audience and into something more gestalt-like. “It's the epitome of socialisation because there's a kind of communication without words,” Van Hout elaborates. “It's what I call community cultural dancing where you have this feeling that you're connected to the other people around you. It's not a religious experience but it's about being a part of something else.”

In Briwyant the first connect point comes from the bir'yun effect in Yolngu painting, where colours and shapes appear to move. Vicki Van Hout was interested in translating paint to performance. “I realised that there was a direct correlation between the painting and the dance,” she says. “By looking at the painting you could see how you should hold your body in the dance. People take this stuff for granted; y'know, the paintings, the stories and the dance are all interconnected, la-la-la, but until somebody says something really specific it's hearsay.”

Having initially been inspired to explore the connection while overseeing a class at Sydney University, Van Hout researched the symbolism of the shapes and lines in traditional indigenous painting. “And then it was about the 'everywhen', where time is not linear but the 'then' time and the 'now' time at the same time,” she recalls. “It then became this almost overwhelming thing, like I was going to dance the meaning of life or something.”

Briwyant, therefore, evolved away from the standard architectural prettiness of contemporary dance into something more deeply connected to country. “I suppose Briwyant refers to the significance of painting and the perpetuation of cultural practice,” Van Hout muses. “When they sing a painting, or dance it, they imbue it with more magic.” However, on the differing intentions of contemporary and tribal dance, she remains clear. “When I'm doing contemporary dance I'm performing for people. It's about the outside. When I do this, I look like that. This one is more life affirming, more about the inside.”

Vicki Van Hout is obviously used to dancing in a space occupied by two cultures, having studied at both NAISDA and the legendary Martha Graham School in New York. “I don't know the meaning of life,” she freely admits, “but what I like to do with the dance, even though it sounds so simplistic, is to say, 'Look, we're not so different'.”

Briwyant runs from Thursday 5 until Saturday 14 July at the Malthouse.