Amrita Hepi has a distinct memory of sitting in the audience at Carriageworks watching the inaugural Keir choreographic award performances.
It was early 2014 and the then-university dance student was feeling lost about her future as an independent performer and dance-maker. That one night changed everything.
“It was so liberating to watch,” she recalls. “I remembering thinking, ‘Oh yes, there can be a place for me, I can make what I want to make. I think a lot of my fellow students didn’t get it but I loved it, the expansiveness of everyone’s practice. It was refreshing, very exciting.”
Five years later and Hepi has a ringside seat, selected as a finalist in the 2018 competition, which carries a $30,000 award and a $10,000 audience choice award.
Now in its third iteration, the biennial Keir Choreographic Award is unique.
A national competition, it is dedicated to the commissioning, presentation, promotion and dissemination of new Australian choreography, the only award of its kind in this country. It is a partnership between four distinct bodies: the Keir Foundation which supports innovation and excellence in the arts, particularly emerging practitioners; the Australia Council for the Arts, Carriageworks in Sydney and Dancehouse in Melbourne.
This year a panel of eight international jurists honed a record 83 entries down to eight finalists. Each of the 20-minute works will be presented in the semi-finals at Dancehouse and the final four will produce their works at Carriageworks, with the winner and people’s choice award announced at the season’s end.
The judging panel is a mix of artists, including local dance maker Lucy Guerin, American Ishmael Houston-Jones, Brussels-based American dancer-choreographer Meg Stuart and Hungarian dancer-choreographer Eszter Salamon; and curators Anna Cy Chan from Hong Kong and artistic director of the Brussels Kunstenfestivaldesarts Christophe Slagmuylder. “They’re creative thinkers, international superstars, and that speaks of how this award has grown in profile and reputation,” says Dancehouse artistic director Angela Conquet.
The finalists represent a wide range of ages, genders and cultural backgrounds.
Hepi’s heritage is Bundjulung and Ngapuhi. Javanese-Australian choreographer and performer Melanie Lane, interdisciplinary artist and performer Bhenji Ra, experimental performance artist Nana Bilus Abaffy, collaborative experimental choreographer Luke George, dancer and choreographer Lilian Steiner, independent choreographer and former dancer Prue Lang and collaborative collective Branch Nebula make up the group.
Despite the multiplicity of their practices, similarities emerge in the themes they are tackling – identity and Australia’s history as a patriarchal white society, for example – and many of them work collaboratively in a cross-discipline practice that is proudly very much outside the mainstream.
Titled The Caltex Spectrum, Hepi’s work questions the possibility of transcending class through movement, exploring whether society’s inscriptions remain imprinted on the body. “It’s about the oily spectrums of colonialism … the civil versus the savage, loneliness, joy, survival and the fantasia that surrounds colour and the body,” Hepi says.
Ra, the curator of Mardi Gras’ recent Sissy Ball, will be performing solo but collaborating with her onstage sound designer Angel-Ho.
“The Wetness explores the notion of water or fluidity as a metaphor for the systems that queer people, especially people of colour, use to resist being categorised,” says Ra, a trans woman of colour, adding that in her community the term ‘fish’ refers to a trans woman who “passes in society and goes in and out of the dominant narrative, the white patriarchal society.”
Conquet notes that while movement is important, more telling is the messages the works convey.
“I think it’s not so interesting to talk about the quality of works but what they are saying now, in this present moment,” she says. “Maybe it’s no longer about the beautiful movement … if you have six out of eight choreographers working with a hazer, props and videos I think that says something about current society. Dance has always been the artform that filters and hears society.”
In 2018, the Keir Award is now the most important generator of new works in choreography in Australia.
“The environment for new choreography in the independent sector is even more precarious than [in mainstream dance],” Conquet says. Ra agrees, adding there is a constant need for opportunities to experiment with ideas that aren’t bound by a performance outcome. “Things don’t always work out, so just to allow growth in the community [is crucial].”
For Hepi and Ra the competition is welcome because of the exposure it gives them. In addition to the international jury, a number of international presenters will attend the semi-finals; while a public program will see the eight competitors participate in talks, workshops and presentations with the jurors themselves, a chance for both the practitioners and general public to expand their understanding of choreography today. “I was born in Townsville and never thought Meg Stuart would be watching my work, at my age, so that’s really nice,” enthuses Hepi.
Ra is bravely honest about the impact a win could make to her life. “For artists, especially queer artists of colour, money is really important. I have to be really real about that. Someone like me doesn’t have the opportunity to come across that kind of money. I don’t have a nine to five job. So it’s really big.”
The finals will be held at Carriageworks, March 15-17