“Er … is everyone all right?”
A stage manager calls a halt to the dress rehearsal. Two performers have collided – hard.
Mishaps are a part of any rehearsal for a show but in SKATE, the new project developed by Big hART and staged in the concrete cavern that is The Cutaway in Barangaroo, a split-second misjudgment can hurt big time.
The performers pick themselves up. Everyone grins. The show goes on.
Pretty typical, says Aimee Massie, one of the team of skateboarders creating SKATE with Big hART’s artistic director Scott Rankin and a team of musicians and light and sound artists.
“Some of the stuff we’re doing is actually pretty scary,” smiles the former BMX rider turned pro-skateboarder who has her sights on representing Australia at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, where skateboarding will debut as an Olympic sport.
“When you’re right up in the air and there are all these lights being flashed on you, it makes everything crazy. It’s one of the trippiest things, but it’s so much fun. But that’s skaters, right? We like a challenge, and we love fear, we love being on that edge. That’s why we do what we do. For us, doing this is really exhilarating.”
Massie is one of eight skateboarders working on the project. None of them come from a traditional performance background.
“We’re learning theatre, music, rhythm, how to work with lights,” Massie says. “There’s a lot of rules in theatre and a lot of rules in skateboarding and when you put them together, it’s difficult sometimes but I think what we’ve come up with is really good. We’re learning how to work with theatre people and they’re learning how to work with us.”
There’s no narrative as such but each of the skaters has developed a performer personality.
“We’ve got one guy who’s the clown of the show. Then there’s another who’s the alpha male, and I guess I’m the alpha female,” Massie explains. “I get to do a big solo, and there are various duos and trios. We like to mix it up.”
From its early days, skateboarding has combined elements of sport and performance into a form of expression with its own style, music and lexicon. As a subculture and as a competitive sport, it has weathered shifts in fashion for decades but has retained its “punk” ethos.
As a result, skateboarding is still regarded by some as nothing more than a form of urban terrorism on wheels.
Which is why skateboarding and Big hART is a natural fit, says Scott Rankin, during a break in rehearsals.
“We always work with outsiders, people whose stories are important but are invisible or don’t get heard,” he says. “And skateboarders are right out on the edge among young people, and so they are dismissed. Or worse than that, they are treated as the enemy.
“But in fact, skateboarders are pioneers, they investigate the urban space, they actually make cities safer. They engage with architecture as kinetic artists.”
Rankin and his creative team have been working on the ideas underlying SKATE for the better part of a decade. Early workshops and showings took place in Tasmania and Melbourne, culminating in a 20-minute proof-of-concept performance in 2017.
The Sydney version of what is an evolving piece is something else again, Rankin says.
“We’re really pushing the interactivity and the technology. The skateboarders are literally painting with light and making music as they move through the space.”
The showings of SKATE at Barangaroo are a continuation of the creative process, Rankin explains.
“Inviting everybody into participate at a community level is really critical. What tends to happen in the Western model is that a commodity is made and you don’t let anyone into that process until opening night. Then we all stand around congratulating ourselves. Big hART doesn’t work that way. We like to invite the community and the audience into the creative process and make the whole thing participatory.”
Making music from skateboards
“We’re building a new genre here so all the roles are quite fluid,” says Mark Leahy, SKATE’s music director.
“I’m scoring the piece, but I’m also working on the sonic properties of the set and the space. At other times I’m quite involved in some of the choreography.”
Some elements of the sound design come directly from the skaters themselves, as they roll over ramps fitted with contact microphones. “We can make it sound like a big string section,” says Leahy. “Every movement the skater makes becomes part of the score, so they are performing like musicians in a way.”
There are even microphones in the skaters’ shoes, Leahy says. “We tried to have mikes on the boards but it was too risky. Every little bit of weight matters when you’re flying through the air. Skateboarders are like classical violin players. They’re very particular about their instrument.”
Collaborating with skateboarders has been a challenge, says Leahy, one that’s required a lot of give and take. The process has been very eye-opening, however.
“Skateboarders are seen as gangs of kids making poor choices in public spaces but everyone I’ve worked with has been an incredibly deep thinker about what they do and why, and that seriousness bleeds into the rest of their lives. They are genuinely interesting thinkers and incredibly dedicated to their craft. The sheer trial and error of it and the risks they take.
“For me, as a percussionist, there isn’t a lot of physical risk in what I do. But skateboarders face it all the time. “I’ve never known people better at bouncing back up after failing and they do it again and again. It’s incredible to be around, really inspiring.”
A skateboard revolution
Rankin has been impressed by the skateboarders’ work ethic, too. The first city to encourages skateboarders rather than try to ban them from its urban precincts will be better for it, he believes.
“Imagine if skateboarders were the first people to be brought into a new urban development instead of being the first people to be kicked out of it. Or if a university understood skateboarding as a pathway into tertiary education – into architecture or urban planning. A city that does that out will see a real benefit. That city will be seen to be smart.”
Rankin has big plans for SKATE. After its Cutaway residency, Big hART hopes to tour it to venues around the country, and take it to Tokyo in 2020, when the eyes of the world will be focused on skateboarding’s Olympic debut.
“We’re interested in forming a global network of skateboarders, says Rankin. “So that when we’re opening in Taiwan, you’ll have a skateboarder from Finland in the show. Or when it’s happening in Brazil, they’ll be Nixen Osborne, who’s from Karratha, WA. Ultimately we’d like to have 10 or more companies working worldwide with 250 skateboarders engaged.”
For Massie, SKATE is a chance to show off the creative side of what is her consuming passion. “When kids turn around to their parents after seeing this show and say, ‘can I skate?’ I’m hoping that their parents will turn around and tell them, yes.”
SKATE ‘Transitions’ showings are on Thursday 18, Friday 19 and Saturday 20 July, 6pm at the Cutaway, Barangaroo.
Online tickets are sold out, limited tix available at the door. First in best dressed.
For more info go to skate.bighart.org