How often does a new dance company open in Australia? Rarely, and then with great trepidation, and and not often with government funding up front. In the middle of a coronavirus pandemic, how could that possibly work? Project Animo, a collaborative platform for diverse artists to create new works and seasons across the nation, has managed to do just that against all odds, and with good supports and state government funding too. It may not have a home or its own studios, but its small, enthusiastic audience welcomed its inaugural show by a cast of illustrious dancers from the ballet and contemporary dance worlds.

Alice Topp

Alice Topp (left) with dancers at rehearsals for And Now We Move On. Photo © Kate Longley

Project Animo is the brainchild of prize-winning choreographer Alice Topp and lighting design wizard Jon Buswell, (both resident at The Australian Ballet) who watched their professions and their colleagues heading towards a creative vacuum after COVID-19 arrived here in March 2020. (Read our interview with Alice Topp). With only a quibble or two, And Now We Move On is an indication of what is possible in a flexible, well-managed collaborative milieu, so we viewers should be very excited. The line-up of dancers alone, like the list of artists who create, embellish and frame their work, is impressive; and the dancers’ appearances in Project Animo’s first iteration are both exciting and compelling.

The program opened with Cass Mortimer Eipper’s Kinetic Gestalt coupled to Marco Cher-Gibard’s score exploring “non-traditional guitar technique” to neatly suit Mortimer Eipper’s choreography, derived from algorithmic sequences of body parts. From these are created, as he notes in the theatre program, “patterns of motion [which] transcend and transmute those generated by the algorithm” thereby freeing the dancers to “generate their own world of movement”. Intriguing the eye repeatedly with multiple walks, lifts and vertiginous poses out of deep pliés, Kinetic Gestalt was calm but also oddly tense when a new event is cautiously observed by a still chorus.

Deborah Brown, one of Australia’s most prized Indigenous dancers, took a more direct line for The Wave, reflecting on Katsushika Hokusai’s print, The Great Wave off Kanogawa, of a great wave hanging over people in a boat. It became a dramatic metaphor for her experience of the pandemic, alone, and was fluidly danced by retired, leading Australian Ballet principal Madeleine Eastoe against a vast blue cloth that threatens her. Pianist-composer George Bokaris has compiled an aptly edgy score of diverse sounds here, as he likens “the sudden breakdown, an outburst of rage, the suicide attempt” to waves.

In his note, Izzac Carroll, dancer-choreographer and author of the third work Egotist, asks, “Why am I an egotist? Maybe I have to be when I wear a skirt in public.” He explores the anxiety of image-making as a queer person through a line-up of people thrashing around piles of clothes and cheeky, posturing dancers who respond cleverly to Louis Frére-Harvey’s music, playful sampling and constantly changing vibes and tonalities. Rudy Hawkes, Andrew Killian, Jill Ogai, Josie Weise and Carroll lightened the tone admirably before another serious solo.

In Real Life, by prolific and challenging choreographer Kristina Chan, is powerful, disturbing and crafted for an equally experimental artist, Chimene Steele-Prior. Chan’s poetic note is stark, listing life as “an illusion”, “murky, visceral and grotesque” and “a game of truth”. Her composer, James Brown, writes how getting lost in a rain forest led him to be intrigued by the sounds he heard in the dark. Here he has created a score from recordings made at Pearl Beach (NSW) and its arboretum, home to many different animals, and draws on what he calls “a symphony for birds” by day, and “a strange and vivid sonic landscape of insects, frogs, and owls, seductive in its complexity”. The resulting score makes In Real Life the high point of the first half, perfect for the long, slow evolution of the figure petite Steele-Prior reveals beneath a huge cloth, like a fungus or coral reef as designer-maker Aleisa Jelbart suggests. Her transformation into a fully-fledged woman finds her lying at the very edge of the stage.

Alice Topp’s new 40-minute ballet Patina fills the second half. Writing about it, she says, “From exploring themes of growth, loss, grief empowerment and peace, Patina is about ageing unapologetically, and has been a journey.” Danced in the familiar style of ballet meshed to contemporary motion and abstract drama, Patina is played against a changing wall of blocks and atmospheric lighting that echoes the moods of each scene. It is also wonderfully supported by vocal and instrumental music by the insightful Bryony Marks.

Dancing to a recording of The Impossible Orchestra conducted by Brett Kelly, the dancers were astonishingly good, shining through the darkness of loss and confusion, misunderstanding and love, fear and escape. Duets that flow through Patina brought out the intrinsic instinct to enter the score like a garment, especially by recently retired dancers: think of the voluptuous motion of Rudy Hawks (TAB), the deep presence and investment of David Mack (West Australian Ballet, Sydney Dance Company), the painful passion of Queensland Ballet star Laura Hidalgo, the line and speed of Madeleine Eastoe and Andrew Killian (TAB). The rest of the ensemble were equally beautiful to watch in this exceptional work, beautifully prepared, boosted by their plasticity and their high level of musicality. It’s a keeper. Lighting here by Jon Buswell and Tom Willis, like costumes by Kat Chan and Aleisa Jelbart were sympathetic, as they were to the whole evening.

How audiences view a program like this one is a complex matter, as each artist aims to express their unique creativity. Project Animo aspires to a freer approach but in programming different styles, curation is essential. This season features four pieces without a break or curtain calls, which is unfair to dancers and audiences too, and mars our memories. Only truly individual works remain in the mind, so curation, careful laying out of programs, is imperative if any new work is to be seen well.

Project Animo’s And Now We Move On runs at The Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne until 16 January.