Discovering Paradise in Fertile Ground

Michael Smith and Ashleigh Musk in a showing of their work-in-progress, 'Fertile Ground', at Dancenorth IMAGE: Amber Haines

What is paradise?

Is it a place? A state of mind? A future point in time? A carefully curated assembly of beach umbrellas, banana lounges, sun hats and swimwear?

Can it be bought? Can it be built? Can it be achieved or is it an ever-moving goal post pushed further out of reach with every step toward it?

Are we already there without even realising it? Have we left it in our dust? Must we turn a blind eye to reality to convince ourselves it exists?

While the notion of Paradise may seem so simple at first thought, the entire concept comes quickly unravelling with just a few questions.

It’s these questions – and so many others – that dance artists Michael Smith and Ashleigh Musk have been exploring as they develop their new contemporary dance work, Fertile Ground.

Michael Smith and audience members at a showing of Fertile Ground‘s development in July 2020 IMAGE: Amber Haines

Michael and Ashleigh recently spent two weeks in Townsville, immersing themselves in our local paradises – natural and man-made – as part of Dancenorth’s A.R.T program, supported by the Ian Potter Foundation.

Michael said Townsville and its largely untouched surrounds had been the perfect place to be during these stages of Fertile Ground’s development.

“We were interested in exploring paradise in architecture, paradise in literature, different philosophies, and this curiosity of ‘what is paradise, actually?’ and ‘what is paradise right now, when it’s always perceived as this destination we’re trying to arrive at?’,” Michael said.

“We have been unpacking it to more-so look at themes of human impact and this persistence to conquer and outlive in the face of crisis, and all of these kinds of things. So the timing of the residency also feels so relevant in terms of COVID-19 and in terms of the Black Lives Matter movement and this whole strive for paradise, or just to question our current reality and where we’re headed.”

While it may seem counter-intuitive – depending on your personal definition of Paradise – Fertile Ground utilises 27 besser block to create and constantly reimagine themes of Paradise throughout the work.

“There’s so much about cement and cement being such a contradiction because we build these Utopias out of cement – things that are beautiful structures that are actually quite harmful,” Michael said. “If you pull all the cement together in the world, it’s the third largest contributor to carbon emissions.”

Michael and Ashleigh’s time in Townsville culminated in a showing of their work-in-progress, which gave them a valuable chance to test the audience interaction they’d been imagining from the within the confines of the studio.

Viewers are called to participate in Fertile Ground‘s development during the 2020 A.R.T Program IMAGE: Amber Haines

“We’ve been refining the structure, really thinking about audience inside that structure and how to involve the audience in a way where the world and the bricks and what we’re doing is being constantly reimagined together,” said Michael.

“We’re trying to get audiences to sit on bricks, to move the bricks, to build it with us essentially; to have these themes of collective action.

“It’s this idea of really involving the audience so it doesn’t feel like you’ve just come to watch a show and you sit down and you’re removed. Instead, it’s very tactile and the audience feels as though we need them as much as they need us to get through the piece together.”

If you’ve seen recent dance performances at the School of Arts, such as Dancenorth’s Communal Table or GUTS’s The Perception Experiment, this element of human interaction may sound familiar. For Michael and Ashleigh, it represents an exciting reimagining of what their artform could be, and seems even more critical in a world of physical distancing.

“For me,  it’s about breaking down traditional structures of contemporary dance or how we have seen contemporary dance for so long,” Michael said.

“As dancers, we’re touching each other all the time. We experience so much through touch and through our bodies, that we look for ways to give the audience that same experience or to give them some experience of touch and embodiment through the work that goes beyond just passive watching. 

“It’s kind of funny because before this residency and before Covid-time, we felt touch needed to be a big part of this work and then there was that period of ‘don’t touch! no touching allowed!’ and we had to question how we would even do this residency if we wanted to involve touch. Really, it has reaffirmed that yes, we need touch, so much!”

Michael and Ashleigh will continue developing Fertile Ground with residencies in Melbourne and Brisbane. The work is expected to Premiere in 2021. 

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