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Things have been emotional at Chunky Move of late. Contemporary dancers might appear to be icons of restraint and self-discipline, but artistic director Antony Hamilton’s latest creation has been pushing his dancers to limits they’ve never faced before.
Choreographer Antony Hamilton with Chunky Move dancers.Credit: Jason South
“I’m asking these amazing dancers to develop and perform probably the most difficult work they have ever performed. That’s a big call, but most of them have said it’s the hardest work they’ve ever had to do,” the choreographer says.
Hamilton’s work can be split into two broad camps. On one hand, there are the gigantic exercises in world-building that take audiences on narrative journeys through strange, imagined worlds. Then there are the more precise, intricately detailed explorations of the technical possibilities of dance – rigorous works that ask their performers to exceed their own abilities.
“The aim always for me is to enable anyone I work with to feel like they’re going above and beyond what they thought they could. I want to be able to create that space for them, so that at the end of it they feel like they’ve transcended something of themselves. That’s really the only way to work. It’s got to be big and meaningful for everyone, not just for the audience but for the artists involved.”
His newest work, 4/4, is one of these latter works, and Hamilton says that the level of expectation he has towards his dancers has been extremely high. “The level of concentration is pretty intense. They had some very hard times in the last development and it was not easy. It wasn’t all fun, they’ll tell you. The hard times are really emotional.”
But throughout 4/4’s creation he’s come to see his role in this instance as akin to the coach of a sporting team. “They’re going to have good games and bad games and your job is to carry them through the trials of that, and ensure that when a critical moment comes they’re in the best possible place they can be. It really does feel like that desire for an elite realisation of this highly technical work.”
Hamilton describes 4/4 as a duet between two quartets.Credit: Jason South
Given the huge ask Hamilton is making of his dancers, it’s surprising to see 4/4 described as “minimalist”. But minimal can mean very different things in differing aesthetic contexts. It can suggest repetition, lack of structure or just not much for an audience to latch onto. That’s not 4/4, which is instead a work of diamond-like density.
Hamilton says it’s best to think of the new work as “squeezing a huge amount of material through a very narrow pipe.” He’s restricted the visual palette of the work – it’s the polar opposite of recent Chunky outings such as Yung Lung – but within the framework he has set for himself “we leave no stone unturned in terms of all the different things we can do.”
The title comes from the standard time signature used in Western musical composition, and many of the demands 4/4 makes of its dancers comes from the mathematical complexity that drives it. In 2015 Hamilton created a duet with dancer Alisdair Macindoe (returning as sound designer this time around) that revolved around increasingly challenging counting patterns.
Chunky Move’s now dance work is performed with a restricted visual palette.Credit: Jason South
“The piece had this very linear progression of complexity, so it starts quite simply and goes through more and more complicated steps, constantly challenging us further and further with each passing moment, which the audience really gets a sense of.”
He wanted to revisit that method of creating a work, but to “also expand the choreographic complexity from what’s possible with two dancers to eight.”
Hamilton describes 4/4 as a duet between two quartets. The dancers are split into two groups, each unit performing as a separate entity composed of four parts. The interplay between the quartets itself a duet, then: something bigger than the sum of its parts.
Thankfully, you don’t need to dig out your old high-school maths books to make sense of the piece. Chunky Move has always positioned itself as Melbourne’s most accessible point of entry to the world of contemporary dance – in its early years you were as likely to catch the company performing in a nightclub, shopfront or warehouse.
But while Chunky Move always emphasised a generosity towards audiences, for many years it was also a bit of a fortress for dancers themselves.
“It was a much more closed community that had a bit of a more elite, closed-door energy about it,” says Hamilton, who himself danced regularly with the company long before he became one of its leaders.
Today, Chunky Move is a part of a flourishing ecosystem of dance in Melbourne that sees many more opportunities for cross-pollination. “Dance in this city has never been so robust in terms of who it’s reaching, who it’s drawing together. I was thinking about my experience as a dancer 15, 20 years ago, and there was nothing like this. The community was nowhere near this big and this diverse.”
And Chunky Move still retains its focus on dance that any audience member can find their way into – it’s “gettable”.
“I’ve always been one to make work for everyone. I think there’s an in for everyone on some level. And we try to make it fun, not too difficult. This one’s difficult to do but easy to get into.”
4/4 is at Malthouse Theatre from August 8. malthousetheatre.com.au
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