That slang accolade from Down Under is borne out by the reputation for innovation and quality that is shared by all those listed in HOT, the festival of new dance and performance from Australia that gets under way tonight at Glasgow’s Tramway.
“We would have wanted to bring this work over, even if the Commonwealth Games and the whole Culture 2014 connection hadn’t been in place,” says Tim Nunn, whose role as Tramway’s programme manager is now a key factor in the venue getting its experimental mojo back and buzzing again.
“The whole visual arts strand has been going from strength to strength,” continues Nunn. “We’re hosting the Turner Prize next year, we’re absolutely on the UK and international map with visual arts. So now we’re bringing our vision for dance and performance to the fore, and in a way responding to the audience who have made our earlier dance programmes so successful.”
Time was, of course, that Nikki Milican’s New Territories season was a valuable asset that took some of programming onus off Tramway shoulders. Nunn nods. “I think a lot of the work that audiences associated with Tramway came in through Steve Slater’s programming and his connections with cutting-edge European companies. And through Nikki’s input – she introduced a lot of very fine Canadian work, and some Australian stuff as well. But now we’re trying to find ways of doing that for ourselves. And I promise you, this is really only the start.”
Nunn did, however, have what you might call a talent scout at the end of a phone line, and on the other side of the globe: Robert Walton. Currently associate head of theatre at Melbourne University, Walton had first-hand working knowledge of Tramway’s spaces, its programming history and its audiences – during his years as a theatre-maker and teacher (at the then RSAMD) in Glasgow, he’d been regularly involved both on and off-stage.
“Having Robert constantly on the lookout – e-mailing with ideas, throwing shows into the mix, sounding out some of the companies – was incredibly useful,” says Nunn. “In a way, it meant that we could look at bringing in touring work that hasn’t already done the UK rounds. Work that I think will surprise a lot of people, whether they’ve seen Australian dance before or not.”
He’s referring to the degree of intimacy and intensity that HOT has on its lists. “A lot of Australian work that comes to the UK is at the spectacular end of the spectrum. Heavy on the special effects, big on technology – and it’s fantastic work. But there’s something else. Something that I think is a new strength coming through, and I think we’ve been lucky in pulling some of it together in one place, for our Culture 2014 programme.”
Lucy Guerin, whose work features twice in the festival, is one of the wild cards who doesn’t just surprise her audiences in Australia, she wows them in New York and Europe too. But that’s probably because Guerin doesn’t just blur the boundaries between dance and performance, she ignores them. Guerin skips over any dividing line between professional and non-professional dancers, choosing to recruit a couple of guys with no training or experience to perform Untrained alongside two highly skilled male dancers.
On paper, this might have a whiff of the gladiatorial about it – two novices, having rings danced round them by the practised pros. But like Conversation Piece – which opens the HOT season at Tramway tonight – the journey that Guerin’s concept offers audiences is as much about being an audience as it is about setting challenges for the dancers, actors and ‘outsiders’ who participate in her works.
“Lucy is just one of those talents who can take something really profound and make it fun,” says Nunn, whose grin becomes a chuckle as he recalls episodes from the two shows he’s been able to bring in. “These shows are just so easy to watch and enjoy. You don’t have to bother about ‘is is dance? is it performance?’ because it’s primarily entertaining. It can be sad, sexy, silly – and often unexpectedly beautiful. But what I really do admire is how it’s underpinned with a tremendous intellectual curiosity about humankind, and how we interact.”
Alongside the live performances, Nunn has added in a couple of Screendance showcases.
“I think Australian cinematographers really understand how to put dance on film. Live dance – you’re watching exertion and physicality in the moment. On film, it has to be a different experience.
“It has to hold your attention in a different way, maybe through the sheer impact of shapes, colour… or even landscape. Landscape informs such a lot of Australian dance and performance, but it’s only on film that you can show an audience how a piece of movement looks in that kind of context.”
There is, however, one dot that Nunn couldn’t fit into HOT. “I couldn’t engineer a special section on sound artists,” he says. “But actually, Tamara Saulwick’s Pin Drop has an audio-sensory dimension that is very sophisticated – I don’t want to give too much away, but Tamara spent two years recording interviews with women about moments when they felt unsafe. Pin Drop is the outcome.”
Australia is, apparently, only the beginning as far as Tramway’s dance fans are concerned. There are more dots on the horizon – including a biennial international dance festival that would bring Scottish and overseas work together in the same programme, “hopefully not just here at Tramway, but in other Glasgow venues as well.
“We know there is a dance audience who are interested in seeing new work, experimental work, work from abroad. HOT is, absolutely, for them. But also for anyone who’s looking for something that’s different, exciting and genuinely innovative.”
HOT opens at Tramway tonight and runs until July 3. www.tramway.org