Art Dance

In the darkened theatre of Sydney’s Carriageworks, a pair of dancers is clustered to the right of a stark white sheet, spotlighted.

They eclipse each other, arms outspread like Leonardo’s The Vitruvian Man. Opposite, in the foreground of the stage, a lone male figure is curled over a desk, the implement in hand gently illuminated. A static electro soundscape crackles, heightening the tension as the audience waits.

With the first act of the 2013 performance Sketch, the creators have internalised the act of life drawing, portraying the studio drama of the artist and model or the choreographer and dancer relationship; a magic double- entendre celebrating the durational act of observation, skill and improvisation.

Framed against the whiteness and their bold silhouettes, the figures begin to unfurl from the shadows at the periphery of the stage. In the foreground, the lone figure is alert towards the dancers and the illuminated hand begins to twitch under the lamplight.

A shadowy implement emerges on the scene, casting a monolithic shadow the length of the dancers. Godlike, it begins to gesture as projections travel across the length of the dancers’ movements, tracing them onto the page. Through shadow and light, a tangle of kinetic marks and sketchy gestures unfolds; a picture in motion.

It is these very qualities that mark the creative practice of flatline, a Sydney-based cross-artform collective founded by visual artist Todd Fuller and choreographer Carl Sciberras. Flatline look toward presenting innovative, challenging and inspiring works, pioneering dialectics between visual art and dance.

Todd Fuller is a graduate of Sydney’s National Art School. An arresting draftsman, his multidisciplinary practice integrates animation, ceramics, curating, painting and sculpture to construct nuanced figurations and layered narratives.

Carl Sciberras is an independent dance artist and choreographer from Western Sydney. Moving away from ballet and towards more natural gestures, his structured style is marked by earthy choreography and embraces the subjectivity of the dancers.

For Carl and Todd, flatline began online and their dialogue was established when Carl was studying at University of Technology, Sydney and the creative bond sustained even while Carl moved for a period to WA to study at Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts.

“We would send each other works online and discuss our respective works and practice. We often discussed the possibilities of collaborating and then one of Carl’s assignments offered us the first opportunity to do so. We met in person several years after actually meeting, with the intention of creating a work together, which was a duet.”

Their title speaks of the desire to forge links, to probe the spaces between two disparate traditions. “We came up with the name flatline because we were looking for words that we both share in our respective mediums; we flatten and draw lines in dance and art, and there was something interesting about the word flatline to us – the space in the word, between life and death. It’s these ‘spaces between’ that fascinate us and where we find inspiration.”

Flatline performances are spaces of creative exchange wherein the dancer may function as a pen or brush for the artist’s hand, and at other times the artist’s hand is led by the figure. “The dancer and the drawer lead and follow one another; it’s a conversation with lots of listening,” says Sciberras.

Western art and dance have a longstanding conversation, one that visibly commenced long ago during the 20th century. Georges Braque, Giorgio de Chirico, André Derain, Natalia Goncharova, André Masson, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso famously designed costumes for the Ballet Russes. Like their 19th century predecessor, the prata modern dancer Loïe Fuller, these European visual artists played an active role in generating an avant-garde aesthetic for dance performances.

Later, a tendency towards expanded creative practices heralded the onset of postmodernism. Since the 1960s, we have seen the rise of conceptual art, performance art and installation breaking down the barriers between different mediums and their genres, resulting in hybrid artforms. Flatline’s experimental practice can be located within the postmodern framework and understood as a form of expanded drawing and sculpture.

“One of the great things about the drawing medium is that it is diversifying and we are encountering an expanding field which is open to an interrogation of what is drawing. I feel flatline are a great example of an organisation who are using an outside medium to critique and evaluate an accepted convention when it comes to what is drawing”, says Fuller.

“Similarly, Sculpture has expanded significantly since the appearance of the installation. Sculpture in the 21st century is about place making, interactivity and experiential results- all of which flatline considers and deals with.”

Leaping into the 21st century, Australian creatives such as Sue Healey, Fuller & Sciberras have begun to traverse the two mediums and to actively seek transitive links between art and dance. There are natural links between the two:

“In a lot of ways I found that the gap between our philosophies and values actually isn’t that big, after all drawing is actually a physical and performative act. Essentially we both construct and respond to the same elements: rhythm, tone, form, still, texture, space, volume. The moment when I realised we were all working with the same toolbox was a very powerful discovery,” comments Fuller.

To paint a bigger picture, there are overarching factors fuelling interdisciplinary practices nationally.

In some cases, the imperatives may boil down to funding. In 2013, federal Arts Minister Simon Crean introduced a new cultural policy, Creative Australia, and billed legislative reform to the Australia Council for the Arts. The Australia Council Act 2013 dissolved the art form boards that governed specific disciplines including visual arts and dance and, currently, an Inter-Arts Office is in place at the Australia Council, our peak national funding body for the arts, to vet funding applications for hybrid and interdisciplinary projects.

Flatline came to prominence in the public eye in 2013 with the work Sketch. The Australia Council Jump Mentoring program that facilitated a formal partnership between Sue Healey and the flatline collaborators culminated in this landmark multi-act piece.

Sue Healey is one of Australia’s luminaries of contemporary dance, a masterful choreographer and filmmaker. In recent years, Healey has emerged as a high-calibre new media artist and she has exhibited widely in galleries across the country. In 2014, Healey staged a solo exhibition at Manly Art Gallery and Museum, ‘On View’, which ventured into the tradition of portraiture, elegantly scrutinising performed identities.

Healey was a founding member of a small but influential company called DanceWorks Melbourne that came directly from the New York postmodern scene of the 1970s. When Healey emerged, dance and visual arts began to challenge each other’s boundaries and deconstruct traditions – particularly in the USA. It was a vital time of shaking dance free from historical strictures of ballet and modern dance.

“During my career I have noticed the relationship between performance and visual arts as existing in a respectful parallel – with artists from each discipline looking across the divide with interest, but not wishing to fully enter the other’s territory. They are very different disciplines, with different concerns, ideologies and histories,” says Healey.

Healey was drawn into filmmaking early in her career via documentation of performances; film offered a means of overcoming the transience of dance. For her, the editing process is akin to choreography and in her hands it has become a generative tool.

At first Healey kept her filmmaking and performance practices discrete from each other but in time her dual practice has conflated. She has arrived at a visual language centred on figuration, and pursues a line of investigation into new ways to deal with movement and image.

The creative potential of visual arts practice is something that Healey successfully inhabits and mines, but she is wary of abandoning her association with her native genre.

“I wouldn’t say I have moved from dance into visual art. My work still comes very much from an attention to movement. Perhaps exactly what moves has altered for me as I extend my focus into the visual art world. I have expanded my interest in all things that move, even daring to let go of the body for brief moments?”

Todd Fuller has similarly looked to new- media moving-image technologies as a way of engaging his studio practice with dance.

I wouldn’t say I have moved from dance into visual art. My work still comes very much from an attention to movement.

Employing a live free-hand device called the Epidioscope, he works with projections to incorporate live drawing into flatline performances. The resultant mark making is redolent of a sketchbook, projecting notational marks onto the dancers as they move through space. There is a second tool that Fuller applies during flatline performances. Using an animation application, he is able to insert neon lines into the work, utilising light to imbue performances with a bold spectacular effect and to elicit sensorial reactions.

Interdisciplinary collaborations have a corollary impact on individual practices. Carl Sciberras now visualises his compositions in art terms: “I imagine the space around me like a canvas. What I draw with – the surface(s) of my body – on the space becomes very important in my choreographic choices.” Likewise, Fuller’s practice is pervaded by a new awareness of his physicality. “Even without the audience when drawing in solitude, there are grand gestures and large movements driving my marks. Mark making is now an act of the whole body,” he says. Fuller speaks of live audiences and his private studio practice in one breath.

In recent times, the nexus between different forms of creative practice has been stimulated by the proliferation of creative arts centres across regional Australia, combining art galleries with theatres as sites for joint display and consumption. Campbelltown Arts Centre in NSW, the Arts Centre Gold Coast and the Glasshouse in Port Macquarie are prime examples. But what does this mean for audiences and those who curate for them?

In a recent interview, Michael Dagostino, Director of Campbelltown Arts Centre admitted: “It’s been a really steep learning curve. It still is. I get out and experience as much as I possibly can across all disciplines and meet as many people as possible. The biggest culture shock was the very different histories and languages that operate.” He told Keith Gallasch: “My biggest challenge is linking people from, say, the dance world to the visual arts world, seeing where the differences are – because there are so many similarities – and trying to break them down. But we’re never about creating one homogenous art genre, one big, grey mass of art.”

Working within a performance structure, flatline are mindful of their audience. Sciberras observes: “It’s easier in many ways for audiences to be dismissive of art in spaces where they can just leave at their own will, but in live performance they have time to grow and ponder.”

Sue Healey likewise sees the benefit of the gallery format to audiences and practitioners. “I think generally a visual arts audience are able to read a dance language with great sophistication and I love showing my work in this context. A dance audience can have its limitations and prejudices, as any audience can, so I like to experience a different subset of viewers and feel the lens shift.”

Although synergy is not always easy to achieve, for Healey and for flatline it is the fractious nature of exchange, spaces between things, that lend immediacy and excitement to the potentialities of interdisciplinary art and dance practice. Presenting moments of risk and memorable images, Sue Healey and flatline show that combined dance and visual art produces beautiful work that amounts to more than the sum of its entwined parts.

“It is challenging finding the nexus, but it’s the challenge that’s fun, and it makes us both better artists because we see things through each other’s eyes from time to time; we see twice as much as we can by ourselves.” Flatline.

Flatline’s Sketch has been supported by the Australia Council through its Jump Mentorship program, and is sponsored by Parramatta Artist Studios and FORM Dance

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