Despite having flown back from rehearsals in Sydney the day before we meet in a North Melbourne café, acclaimed dance artist and choreographer Gideon Obarzanek seems relaxed.
He’s been rehearsing, L’Chaim! (‘to life’ in Hebrew and Yiddish), part of a Sydney Dance Company triple bill, Interplay premiering later this month.
‘It’s basically a dance that’s trying to happen,’ Obaranek explains of L’Chaim!. There’s this disembodied voice observing and criticising the dancers on stage, trying to decode this dance into some kind of narrative meaning. The dance itself is trying to build into something, almost like an ecstatic dance, but the constantly interrupting voice is preventing it from evolving.
Like the traditional folk dances it draws from, the dance escalates until the voice ‘kind of gives up’ and joins in. Finally the actor who has played the voice ends up on stage letting the dance ‘carry them away’.
There seems a parallel between the journey of the character and Obarzanek’s own. ‘Working in contemporary dance…much of it is a constant enquiry,’ he explains. It’s a form that is fundamentally through the body and experienced physically but analyzed intellectually. It creates an odd tension, he says.
‘In a way I’m making a piece that very much reflects my kind of relationship to dance,’ he says. Maybe he muses, he is letting go a little bit, and just letting it happen. ‘‘I’ve analyzed it enough I think, after 20 years.’
Certainly he has created extraordinary and thought-provoking contemporary dance work throughout his career. Obarzanek took up dance in his late teens, attending the Australian Ballet School and dancing with the Queensland Ballet and Sydney Dance Company, before working independently as a choreographer and performer in Australia and overseas. He is probably best known, however, as the founder and former director of Chunky Move. Purely in terms of metrics, he laughs, of the 17 or so years he spent with the company, it formed the largest part of his adult life. Under his leadership, Chunky Move became synonymous with groundbreaking, genre-defying Australian contemporary dance works, performed for a diversity of spaces and audiences.
Over time though, he realized he’d become removed from the studio and what had drawn him to the form. ‘I felt like I really needed to regenerate myself creatively, and in order to do that I needed to stop running an organisation for a significant period of time.’
Since leaving Chunky Move in 2012, Obarzanek has worked with the Australian Ballet and immersed himself in theatre, spending a year as Associate Artist with the Sydney Theatre Company. There, he wrote and directed his first play, Dance Better At Parties, which premiered in April last year. He also co-wrote and directed a docu-drama version of the same story with Adelaide-based filmmaker, Matthew Bate, titled ‘I want to dance better at parties’, thanks largely to the Creative Australia Fellowship he received last year.
Without the Australia Council for the Arts Creative Australia Fellowship Obarzanek doubts ‘I want to dance better at parties’ would have been made; he just couldn’t have dedicated the time to the film. Nor could he have spent as much time collaborating with David Woods from Ridiculusmus on L’Chaim!.
The big thing the Fellowship has done, Obarzanek says, is give him time to work on ideas. ‘At my stage of my career you just don’t get time to do that.’
Of course, that’s largely the purpose of the Creative Australia Fellowships, to provide time and financial security so outstanding interdisciplinary artists can focus on their work, developing their arts practice through experimentation and research to drive innovation and create new work.
The Fellowship is also allowing Obarzanek to develop his next major project collaborating with actor Brian Lipson and again working with Matthew Bates to create stage and film versions of the same story. This time it will be a deliberate cross-pollination between film and theatrical methodologies, rather than the serendipitous process that occurred so effectively on Dance Better at Parties. It will involve Obarzanek performing again too, but as an actor, something he says, with a laugh, is terrifying, as he’s frightened of forgetting the words.
He’s even turned his hand to fictional writing, which he says somewhat coyly he ‘thinks is going somewhere’. Where it will lead he’s not sure, possibly toward some kind of screen outcome. But he says, ‘…there are now a number of small ideas percolating, which I’m confident will develop into a series of works over the next few years.’
For more information on Interplay visit the Sydney Dance Company.