Monday, 18 September 2017

The Ballad of Dynamotion

This piece was written last year and has never been published.

When Lara Liew was growing up, she knew one thing: she was going to be a ballerina. The ballet shoes are gone, but Lara is still dancing -- although in a style and context her younger self would have never contemplated. 

Lara is the co-creator and choreographer behind Auckland dance company Dynamotion. Co-founded with her friend Tom Sainsbury, Dynamotion takes every cliche associated with professional dance companies and throws them out the window.

Lara Liew. Credit: Tim George

Instead of taking inspiration from classic literature, Dynamotion has created a series of musical comedies drawn from b-movies and Hollywood blockbusters. And where other dance companies pride technique, in Dynamotion, dance ability comes a distant second to enthusiasm.

While a few cast members have some dance training, most of Dynamotion’s cast have no professional experience beyond their work on previous Dynamotion shows for the last four years.

“Previous dance experience is certainly not a requirement when we are casting,” Lara says. 

The focus is on personality and performance ability. Instead of an audition process, the group stay vigilant for people with the “right amount of wackiness” and “big expressive faces”.

The key to Dynamotion is not dancing, but ‘dacting’. Lara explains the term this way: “That ability to express through the face as well as the body what the emotion is.”

While it started as a tongue in cheek term to describe their amalgamation of dance and acting, Lara and her collaborators take it very seriously. 

“The more shows I go to that are dance related, I go to Tom and say ‘That show needed more dacting!’”

This emphasis on the face is present in burlesque, but Liew feels it is undervalued in more traditional forms of dance.

Part of the inspiration for the show came from Lara’s background in burlesque dancing.

“I trained in classical ballet and what they call modern dance — similar to jazz I guess — and I did that for my whole childhood and through high school.”

At 15, Lara’s confidence had been shaken after she failed an important ballet exam three times. 

“Looking back I don’t even know why I was disappointed because I liked ballet but I like modern and street jazz much more.”

Despite her success with these disciplines, Lara was solely focused on ballet, and after she failed the exam for the third time, she thought her dancing career was over.

“I didn’t even really think that you could have a career in dance outside of being a ballerina, which is so ridiculous…”

Lara shifted focus to acting. While studying at Unitec, Lara’s fire was re-ignited when she saw people studying contemporary dance without learning ballet. After acting school, friends encouraged Lara to audition for a burlesque company. Lara began working regularly in burlesque and it was through burlesque that the seeds of Dynamotion were sown.

“I had sort of found most of my burlesque work was rooted in comedy,” Lara says. 

It was through burlesque that Lara met Thomas Sainsbury. A local playwright, Tom loved to dance and together, they started spitballing ideas.   

Tom Sainsbury. Credit: Tim George
The idea was based on making dance accessible and funny, with an underlying message that anyone can be able to dance. They talked about what kind of story would lend itself to being told through dance. Tom was going through a phase of watching b-grade horror movies from the Seventies, so they designed a story based in that style.

“We thought that b-grade, naff aesthetic would be something we could achieve with actors who were trying to dance,” Lara says.

Lara admits that the first show was not an easy experience, but unintentionally, it laid the template for all of Dynamotion’s future productions. 

Due to the small size of the cast, not only did Tom and Lara come up with the story and the choreography, they had to take the lead roles. 

Rehearsals took place in Tom’s tiny spare bedroom, a claustrophobic hotbox where the only window was stuck closed. Minor reprieve came from a crack in the glass. The carpet had been ripped away leaving bare floor decorated with old staples. And before they could get to work, they would have to move a heavy slate bed that folded into the wall.

“We just had to do tiny movements and we could barely move on the spot,” Tom Sainsbury says.

The show played three nights at the Maidment Theatre at the University of Auckland. Despite getting out of the spare bedroom and onto a real stage, the pair were never sure of how their pet project would turn out.

“We were backstage going ’we don’t know if this will work’ because we’d never really seen anything like it before,” Tom says.

Despite the inexperienced cast and poor attendance, the audience response encouraged Lara and Tom to continue. 

FACTBOX: Timeline
October 2012 
Terror Island 
May 2013
Terror Planet
February, 2014 
Purple Rainbow 
July-August, 2014
Terror Highway 
August, 2016
Mia Blonde in ‘Ice Dagger’

In terms of production, every Dynamotion show takes four months. For Mia Blonde, they started working on it in May and it came out in August. Rehearsals were three nights a week for two months. Since the people work full-time, these rehearsals had to be organised in the evenings.

When they choreograph the numbers, Lara and Tom make sure that the more proficient dancers are given more technically difficult choreography.

“If I can do something and Tom can’t do something then we probably know that it’s in the ‘too hard’ basket,” Lara says.

Thanks to their fast turnaround, the Dynamotion company has become more adept and ambitious in the types of dance numbers they create. 

Lara says: “We are capable, as a cast, of harder choreography than we were four years ago.” 

Most of the shows did not use dialogue, so focus had to be paid to movement and song choice to convey the story. They make one long playlist to measure out the runtime.

As Lara says. “So if something goes wrong… there is no leeway.”

Following their first show, Dynamotion has produced a show almost every year, with each production targeting a specific movie genre: Terror Planet parodied Terminator 2; Purple Rainbow took aim at the zombie genre; and their latest offering, Mia Blonde in ‘Ice Dagger’ was  a gender-swapping homage of the James Bond franchise.   

“It’s such perfect Dynamotion fodder that it was a real natural fit,” Lara says.

Because the group’s (assumed) informality, people are eager to join the group. Lara claims their audience have occasionally acted as a standby talent pool. 

“Occasionally spots come up when someone can’t do a show and we go ‘Ah, you know who’s been on the waiting list for a long time?’ 

On person who has never missed a show is Roberto Nascimento. He is one of only two dactors (the other being Kate Simmonds) who have been involved with every Dynamotion show since the beginning. 

Roberto got involved through his friendship with Tom.

“We had just done a different play together and he goes ‘Oh, do you want to be in this show that we’re doing? It’s like a dance comedy thing and there’s no dialogue, we just dance.’ And I said ‘Yeah’.”

Despite having no idea what he was getting involved with, Roberto jumped in -- and he’s stuck around. Out of the 12 members of Dynamotion, he is the longest serving behind Lara and Tom.

“I was just lucky that they thought of me at the time,” Roberto says.

Roberto loves the lack of pressure that Dynamotion offers — it is just a chance to have fun and dance.

“It’s important to remember you’re out there to have fun and also if I make a mistake, I’m the only one who knows.”

Raewyn Whyte is the dance editor for Theatreview, New Zealand’s most popular theatre review website. Whyte has seen every Dynamotion show, and not just as a critic.

“I saw it at the Fringe and I thought ‘this is cool!’ These guys are having a go and they have some really clever ideas, and there’s a good formula,” Raewyn says.

Raewyn believes Dynamotion have carved out a unique place in Auckland’s theatre-dance scene where the emphasis is on sheer entertainment.

"Comedy conveyed primarily through movement is very hard to pull off, and dance comedy is even harder. Most performers lean heavily on some kind of text, or the lyrics of the music. Dynamotion do use those devices but they have also mastered the knack of embodying their wacky characters wordlessly, which makes them so very entertaining,” Raewyn says.

Roberto is extremely thankful for getting to be a part of such a unique group. 

“Hats off to Lara and Tom for carrying it through and making it happen, because it’s tough to make things happen in this country sometimes.”

Strangely, it is Dynamotion’s creator who has gained the most confidence from being a part of the dance troupe. 

Lara claims her failed dream to be a ballerina hampered her dancing career. Even though she worked as a burlesque dancer for several years, Lara always thought of it as “the other dancers and me”.

“It’s really only been in the last couple of years that I’ve had to challenge my perception of myself around dance and go ‘Wow, what a really narrow view to have of yourself as a failed ballerina’.”

Because of her childhood disappointment, Lara never saw herself as a real dancer. Working with Dynamotion has freed her from this mindset.

“I’m in a situation a lot of the time where I’m working with non-dancers and people who aren’t necessarily trained and I’m saying to them ‘Yes, you can be a performer. Yes, you can dance. Who cares if you’re too fat for ballet or too tall for ballet or too un-co-ordinated. Who cares if you’ve never done it before.’ And so part of it has been walking the walk, picking up what I sort of preach to other people.”

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