Gideon Obarzanek is not one to get locked into patterns and avoid change. Just the contrary—the Australian choreographer, whose Melbourne-based company Chunky Move has been a frequent visitor to New York’s major dance stages over the past decade, is in the midst of an eventful year marked by change.
At the end of June, he is handing over the reins of the 17-year-old troupe to Dutch choreographer Anouk van Dijk and has plans for a collaboration with Sydney Theater Company. In February, he created his first work for the venerable Australian Ballet, in essence coming full circle, since he received his early training at that company’s school.
And now, in his mid-40s, Obarzanek is appearing on a New York stage for the first time in a Chunky Move production. The company has brought six of his works to the city since 2001, but he has always been behind the scenes. In fact, he hadn’t danced on a stage for over a decade when he conceived and prepared Faker, the unusual, witty, somewhat self-exposing solo he has brought to Joyce SoHo for two weeks.
“I felt that over the years, I had become very distant from what initially interested me in dance,” Obarzanek said last week in the Joyce SoHo conference area. He had arrived in town following Chunky Move’s month-long U.S. tour of his work Connected, seen at The Joyce Theater last November.
“I was doing very little dancing and I was doing more administrating. I’d lost touch with what my dancers go through being on stage. I wanted to try to find something to do; I didn’t realize it was going to be a big, revealing solo!” he said.
A few years ago, a young professional dancer who admired Obarzanek’s work requested that he create a solo for her. After several delays—“I was busy; she had to apply for funding”—he found time to work with her during a sabbatical he took in 2009.
“I felt burnt out and took six months off. I was at a residency in France, and I was dancing every morning, just to warm up. I really enjoyed it,” he said. “So I had two weeks to work with her.
“It was an odd experience for me, in hindsight, because I’m always the one who comes up with some fragments or ideas and then I pursue people and things to develop that into a work. This project wasn’t initiated in that way. She commissioned me; I came and was clueless. I tried all these things and I felt like a total sham. I was going home and saying, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’
“It was kind of interesting, but we really came up with nothing. I couldn’t find a good idea, a good reason to do it. I tried, but felt I was going through the motions,” he said.
The requested solo may not have materialized, but his frustrating experience in the studio led to the creation of Faker, which had its premiere in September 2010. “After a while, I decided I would make a work about this experience; about trust and about expectations from both sides, a choreographer and a dancer—what we hope for and what we expect. And certainly about disappointment.”
He opens Faker sitting in front of a laptop, reading what may (or may not) be actual emails he received from the dancer who had requested the solo. Rising from the table, he explores movements in a series of sometimes awkward and ungainly solos—one as he listens to a randomly selected pop song on his iPod, singing and strutting along; another, much more contained, and introspective, to a Gesualdo madrigal.
Handsome in that rugged Australian way, and clearly in prime physical shape, Obarzanek had plenty of performing experiences in his memory bank, having danced with Queensland Ballet and Sydney Dance Company before he started creating his own works. But he now bears the responsibilities of directing a busy, thriving troupe, which since 1997 has received a substantial annual subsidy from the State of Victoria.
Yet his return to the stage caught him unprepared on some levels. “I’m not sure if I’m really comfortable with it. Every time I finish up a run of this piece, I think, oh, I’m not sure about this—then I’m invited to do it and my ego gets the better of me!”
He’s pleased that Joyce SoHo is smaller than the spaces where he performed Faker in Sydney and Melbourne. “It’s designed for a very intimate space. The audience is very much exposed, aware of themselves and of me. It’s one of those works that only comes to life with an audience. I’ve set this series of challenges for myself based on tasks that I did in the studio with that dancer. What’s scary about this solo is that it’s very hard to be in control of it.”
Apr. 26-29 & May 2-6, Joyce SoHo, 155 Mercer St. (betw. Houston & Prince Sts.), www.joyce.org; times vary, $22.
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