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CHAMPIONS, from Form Dance Projects for Sydney Festival. World Premiere, in Bay 17, Carriageworks, Redfern, 17 – 22 January.

Martin del Amo, is responsible for Concept and Direction, also, Choreography and Text (along with the Dancers) for CHAMPIONS. He says in the program notes:

A commonly held belief is that sport and the arts do not go together. The argument goes that artists often think of athletes as competition-obsessed ‘boofheads’, while in turn, athletes deride artists as self-indulgent ‘wankers’. … CHAMPIONS is a dance piece presented as if it is a sporting event. …

The largest of the performing spaces at Carriageworks, Bay 17, has a striking Set Design by Clare Britton, with a large astro-turf green floor boarded by an azure-blue surround, glowing in the Lighting Design of Karen Norris – looking like a practice field at night. At height, above the space, across the width of the performing area, at the back, are six video screens which present us with pre-recorded image of commentary room and banter with other Video Design that ranges from the literal report of interviews to written text and more abstracted flights of distracting fancy, from Samuel James.

We first meet, as we wait for the performance to begin, the Chicken Mascot (Julie-Anne Long) parading about the space to keep us semi-prepared for the main event/action (she also re-appears in a half-time interlude/break with a solo dance). On come the 11 dancers, in sporty warm-up clothes: Sara Black, Kristina Chan, Cloe Fournier, Carlee Mellow, Sophia Ndaba, Rhiannon Newton, Katrina Olsen, Marnie Palomares, Melanie Palomares, Kathryn Puie, and Miranda Wheen, who lay out their yoga mats and begin the warm-up stretches of the ‘team’. From the Video screen we are regaled by the Commentator, Mel McLaughlin, with an extremely ‘cheesy’ guide to the particular skills of each of the performers with clumsy and banal clangs of proposed humour. This is the height of the comedy interludes, sad to say.

The pulsing score for the dance, by Gail Priest, cues the dancers into movement. What these dances give us is an extended endurance performance of synchronised walking, running, posing , gesturing etc. that demands, undoubtedly, immense concentration and skill but a lot of repetitive action. This heralds the form of the production and whether in slow motion or at speed it becomes an interest-dwindling and soporific hour to engage with. There is no doubt about the well-drilled skill and commitment to the ‘quite-counting’ concentration to the timing of it all, it is just that it is devoid of personality or any arresting excitement. The performers excel in their earnest dedication but there is nothing to appreciate but the sheer stamina and impeccable endurance of these dancer/athletes, and their extreme and admirable state of physical fitness.

There is, brief, but irritating naivety in the bald, didactic, politicising, verbal quotations about the status and financial disparity in women’s sports compared to the men’s, and a late and almost gratuitous introduction to the plight of the ‘aging’ dancer. The clumsiness of the introduction of these elements was such that rather than sympathy one was dismissive in hearing (it occurred to me, hearing Ms Chan’s slightly apologetic lament, that the Sydney Festival ought to curate the wonderful work of the Australian Dance Artists – a group of spirited and aging dancers – who have been collaborating with different artists, principally, Ken Unsworth, over the past few years in his studio in Alexandria – e.g. DEPARTURES, SEVEN IMPOSSIBLE PIECES, that deserve recognition for their contribution to the Sydney Dance (and visual ingenuity) scene. A company that Ms Chan may wish to help with her gifts in her future. Sydney audiences should see this company’s work that perforce of its usual space has limited audience capacity.)

CHAMPIONS, then, seems to tick some boxes of worthy contribution to justify the scale of the presentation in Bay 17 in Carriageworks, but fails to take off as a dance work of much excitement or invention.