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 choreographer.

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 theatre.

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.