Dancing in the park

Dancers performing "In Situ" at Parramatta Park. Photo: Ro Llauro.

Experience the beauty of nature – and the nature of dance – in this unique outdoor performance at Parramatta Park, as part of Sydney Festival.

Parramatta Park is a large recreational reserve close to the centre of Parramatta. It’s a very popular place to cycle, picnic, walk and explore, and the perfect place to set a dance performance during a pandemic. In Situ is a collection of ten short solo dances performed in various locations within the Parramatta Park for a mobile audience. Conceived and created by Dance Makers Collective and Future Makers, the work is informed by local history and Indigenous stories.

Dance Makers Collective is a cooperative group of dance artists, choreographers and performers who share skills, resources, spaces and talent in collaborative projects. It was formed nine years ago and has evolved from an informal collective to something that is now beginning to resemble a company. In 2019, they launched Future Makers, a youth dance company, to help mentor and provide opportunities for dancers aged 15 to 24.

In Situ is performed by ten aspiring dance artists from Future Makers, each of whom was paired with their own choreographer.

“It was a work created in response to the times we’re living in, but it was also quite perfect because it provided a really great mentoring opportunity for younger dancers,” says curator, Miranda Wheen.

Dancers from Future Makers in Parramatta Park. Photo: Ro Llauro.

The pairs all worked independently of each other but they referenced the same material: stories and histories that had been collected through research and interviews.

“What we wanted to do to begin the process was to feed some of those stories of that place and also the perspective from some of the Barramatta [AKA Burramatta] elders from Parramatta in the early phases,” says Wheen.

Before the choreographers and dancers starting creating their pieces, they had sessions with local elders Peter Strachan and Julie Webb, who took them on informative walks through Parramatta Park.

The resulting work is subtle and contemplative. There’s no real narrative as such, but rather a thoughtful response to the lore and culture of the surroundings. Audience members will observe a dancer in one location, then walk to the next.

“We sort of want the audience to have a feeling that they are just happening upon these things that are in the park. If you take a walk through Parramatta Park, there are people doing Tai Chi, people working out, people having picnics,” explains Wheen.

“I think this show is going to work best for people that just really enjoy a walk in the park … it’s like a value-added experience of walking in the park, so maybe not necessarily your hardened contemporary dance audience, although I’m sure there’s a lot in it for them as well.

“I really hope that audiences from the local area and people that enjoy being outside and moving your body come along.”

Ella Watson-Heath is one of the ten dancers from Future Makers who will perform in Parramatta Park. Being part of In Situ represents a rare opportunity to work one-on-one with a choreographer and perform a solo dance, but it also comes with inherent challenges.

Ella Watson-Heath on a causeway in Parramatta Park. Photo: Dance Makers Collective/Facebook.

“In terms of it being a promenade and being outdoors, it’s been a blessing and a curse in terms of rehearsing and creating because we’re so used to being in a studio and having a floor and a ceiling, and everything is curated for us to be dancing,” she explains.

“And so, to be creating a work that is designed for an outside space but [was created] inside a studio is very interesting.”

The work only took its true shape once the duo began rehearsing in Parramatta Park and getting a feel for the space, light, surrounds and unpredictable factors.

“We very quickly realised one day, when we went to rehearse, that we needed a Plan B for our performance … because we arrived at the park and the causeway where I’m performing was covered in water because there’d been massive storms … it was completely flooded,” says Watson-Heath.

But the performances will go ahead, rain or shine, she says.

“We’re all absolutely covered in sunscreen all day – hats, sun protection- and then the umbrellas come out in wet weather.”

They are performing six sessions per day over the weekend: beginning at 3pm and ending at 8pm. Being outside will intrinsically make every performance different.

“I’m so excited to see how the performances look as the sun is slowly setting throughout the afternoon. I think it’s going to be really special to catch those performances, even if people came to different shows at different times on different days, I think it would be just so magic to see how it changes.”

Music is an important element of the work – but it too will be experienced in a unique way. Audience members will be required to wear earphones and tune into a wi-fi channel to hear the music. Dancers can decide for themselves whether they want to wear earphones or perform in silence.

“The audience is taken on a sonic journey as well as this physical movement journey through the park,” explains Watson-Heath.

Western Sydney artist, musician and DJ Del Lumanta collaborated with the choreographers and dancers to compose ten custom-made tracks for each piece, as well as transition music for the walk between locations.

In Situ is a full sensory experience and not one to be missed.

In Situ runs from Thursday, 21 January to Sunday, 24 January inclusive at Parramatta Park, Pitt St & Macquarie St, Parramatta. The first session starts at 3pm, then runs every 20 minutes until the final session commencing at 6:10pm. For tickets ($29 + booking fee) and further info, visit www.sydneyfestival.org.au/events/in-situ.