Reflections on Recent Works of John Utans
By Blazenka Brysha
More than 20 years ago, in a casual discussion about
dance, the question was put: "When you dance, do
you point your foot because it looks good or because
it feels good?"
"Both!" answered several voices, led by that
belonging to John Utans, who was at the time a fledgling
In the heady days following the spread of post-modern
dance throughout the west, this had been something of
a trick question and talk paused briefly in silent rumination
of the plain fact that you needn't point your feet at
all when you dance. But foot pointing, like any stretching
does feel good and does have a kinesthetic legitimacy
even if it can be dismissed as aesthetically subjectivist.
Genuine freethinking has always characterised John Utans'
approach as a dance artist, allowing him to absorb even
contradictory influences that he then uses in his constant
search for greater expressiveness.
Very likely, this is also why he has developed a personal
choreographic style that adapts equally well both to
practitioners of contemporary or classical dance techniques.
Works as disparate as reading light/ illuminating texts,
the order of things, a love of subtle deceit, towards/traverse/terrain
and a fine line are indicative of a range that is broader
than many of today's choreographers can span.
towards/traverse/terrain, which took first prize
at 'Genesis' International Choreography Competition,
in Milwaukee, Wisconsin USA, 2002, is as much an exercise
in spatial dynamics as a study of the relationship between
the choreography and the musical score, commissioned
from Brisbane-based composer Susan Hawkins. The highly
modulated percussive score often rises as the dominant
partner while the undercurrent of movement makes its
own journey. Spinally-loose, limbs flung freely, the
dance defies the tension in the music.
a love of subtle deceit (as reworked for Leigh
Warren and Dancers, Adelaide 2002), another hardcore-contemporary
work, makes some morally and physically challenging
propositions as a recording by Gavin Bryars expounds
on how to improve your chances at gambling by dealing
yourself an extra card. The accompanying movement phrases
are taken apart and rearranged by groups, duos and solos.
Most fascinatingly, while such an exercise makes for
gibberish in verbal language, in the language of dance,
it is an encounter with a stimulating aesthetic.
Utans moves comfortably from such intellectual abstraction
to a softer, more emotionally reflective mode in a
fine line, created for The West Australian Ballet
Company, February 2003. It considers some of the dangers
of romance and expresses them in dance terms. This gem
of a ballet, set to music by Beethoven and Andrew Shultz,
finds a beguiling voice in the hyperarticualtion that
the strong classical technique of the dancers here facilitates.
The pointework is noteworthy and an area where Utans,
who is an Australian Ballet School alumnus, could bring
much-needed new life. Utans brings a sharp, inquiring
intelligence to all his work and that combined with
a broad, sentient approach to aesthetics, potentially
makes for the kind of ballets that the classical stream
so desperately needs.
The Seduction of Liberty (QUT Creative Industries,
Dance, 2001) and reading light/illuminating texts
(1999) show a strongly theatrical leaning with their
effusive use of light. Both works are a collaboration
with lighting designer David Whitworth and, in part,
represent a very personal response to the inspiration
Utans has had from the work of Merce Cunningham and
John Cage. Although these works differ markedly from
each other (thematically, in the use of music, in structure
- both compositionally and in use of dancers), they
share a sensually textural quality that makes for excellent
John Utans' excursions into multimedia/installation
art represent another aspect of his work as a dance
artist. Immersed (exhibited in full in Brisbane,
Hobart and Sydney and also in part at the Sydney Opera
House for the 2002 Australian Dance Awards), a video
installation featuring performance by Wendy McPhee,
sound by Poonkhin Khut and still photography by Nils
Crompton, uses dance as pictorial art. The video footage
consists of 60 one-minute real-time shots, strung in
a loop, which gives it an eerie, fractured quality.
The effect is one of a picture that looks different
every time you look at it. Although various contemporary,
non-mainstream dance artists have been experimenting
with electronic technology for many years, this is an
area that remains largely untapped and lacking in exposure.
Immersed represents a welcome bridge that, as a dance
critic, I would love to see crossed much more frequently.
The recent work by John Utans that holds special appeal
for me is the order of things (QUT Creative Industries,
Dance, 2002). Using a large ensemble of dancers, two
actors, music by Bjork and lighting by Jason Organ,
it gently takes you through some thought-provoking observations
about humans and animals and relations between the two,
using the spoken text as the "score", but
not the narrative, for the dancing. The result is wryly
amusing and poignant. The elegiac conclusion featuring
Bjork's music is a moment of perfect theatre: the dancers
having departed, the male and female actors discard
their paper reams of text and begin a slow, almost pedestrian,
waltz through the sea of scattered and billowing paper
as the lights turn a deep, melancholy blue. Striking
a balance between intellect and emotion is probably
one of the hardest things for human (or animal!) to
do. This work strides boldly in that direction.
*Blazenka Brysha, Melbourne-based freelance arts journalist
and dance critic, has been documenting dance since 1980.
She is a former Associate Editor Dance Australia magazine
and a frequent contributor to the mainstream media,
both press and radio. She wrote the entry on Ballet
in Melbourne for the Melbourne Encyclopedia edited by
Dr Andrew Brown-May (Monash University). She is ballet
critic for Melbourne daily HeraldSun and publishes on
her website bbdance.com.au.