Sydney Dance Company’s Fiona Jopp, Kristina Chan leap into choreography – The Australian

December 5, 2015

By Sharon Verghis


It’s early morning in Furth, Germany, when Fiona Jopp takes a call from Review. She’s just wolfed down a breakfast omelet while waiting patiently for this interview, an hour later than scheduled following a case of amnesia on Review’s part. She sounds chirpy despite her recent long flight from Sydney. On the eve of her international choreographic debut, the 29-year-old Sydney Dance Company performer is running on nerves.

Jopp is in the northern Bavarian city for the Festspiele Ludwigshafen, where she will debut her first professional dance work. For the rank choreographic novice, it’s a pinch-me moment. “Here I am in Germany, of all places, and I’m like, my god. When they said I was going, I was like, are you kidding me? Germany? It’s so nerve-racking.”

For the dancer, a full-time member of the SDC since 2013, there’s comfort to be drawn from numbers. Joining her in their own festival debuts this week will be her company peer Bernhard Knauer as well as independent artists Daniel Riley and Kristina Chan ahead of an Australian debut season next week at Redfern’s Carriageworks.

For all four, this Cinderella journey comes courtesy of New Breed, a talent-seeding three-year partnership between SDC and Carriageworks, supported by the Balnaves Foundation. Launched last year, it offers four handpicked aspiring Australian choreographers (two from the SDC, two from the independent sector) the opportunity to create new works made on the company’s dancers. They are then professionally produced and staged.

Rafael Bonachela, the SDC’s artistic director, can already see the fruits of the program, with Gabrielle Nankervis’s smash hit Wildebeest, created for New Breed’s inaugural season, to be part of the SDC’s 2016 season. He’s eager to see what the new crop of dancemakers will come up with this year.

“For an up-and-coming choreographer to be awarded a commission is a rare and fantastic opportunity,” Bonachela says. “With the New Breed program, not only are the choreographers commissioned, they are also supported every step of the way in carrying out their creative vision … As far as I know, this is a unique opportunity in Australia.

“The only reason that I am here now, working in this position, is because when I was a dancer, full time for 12 years, I also had the curiosity and the desire to choreograph, and within the structure of the company I was working for I was given the opportunity to create work and to practise.”

Jopp says she was “hugely chuffed” when Bonachela picked her work, so much, doesn’t matter, after a workshop at the company early in the year. A 15-minute piece for six company dancers with original music from her opera-singer husband Tobias Merz and his musician sister Alicia, it has a curious aural motif — Greensleeves, that maddening earworm known to generations of ice-cream-craving children.

First appearing in the 16th century, this traditional English folk lament became wildly popular so quickly, Jopp says, that it was mocked as a symbol of all things “trashy and populist”. For her, the song says something about today’s rapacious culture of acquisition and consumption. “I thought it was interesting that even back then this song raised ideas of popularity versus merit, as well as [critiquing] materialism.”

Also resonant for Jopp were the nostalgic images of childhood and innocence conjured by the song, so familiar from all those Mr Whippy vans. “For me, those memories are quite strong, those Sunday afternoons in the garden and hearing that song, and thinking, oh great, let’s go get ice creams.”

Switching hats from dancer to dance-maker has been “quite a roller-coaster of emotion”. She initially found it difficult, Jopp says, to take on the role of “having to boss them around and tell them what to do and set rules”, but her peers’ collegial support has put her at ease.

Bonachela hails Jopp’s creative flair. “She is a very bright and imaginative woman and performer,” he says. “She is taking a theatrical approach to her work, taking a popular historical song as a starting point and exploring it in a philosophical way. I can’t wait to see what such a talented artist comes up with.”

Joining Jopp in this debut season will be award-winning dancer Chan, also launching her first big professional work after several smaller pieces such as Crestfallen andAdrift. Chan’s piece, Conform, is for eight male dancers. It comes out of a long-held fascination with the way male dancers move, and touches, Chan says, on various aspects of contemporary masculinity, from rigid gender roles to homophobia and male inarticulacy.

These powerfully topical issues, dominating public debate on seemingly soaring domestic violence rates in Australia, sparked in Chan a curiosity about what kind of pressures men are under. “Maybe this was because of things happening in my life, to different men in my life, and hearing their struggles with stuff and not being able to express it. It’s about what it is to be a man, what is acceptable male behaviour, getting bullied in school for being a sissy. I think it really takes a toll in how they express themselves in the world — in extreme cases, they become very angry people.”

It’s not easy material, but Chan has never walked that road. Bonachela says: “I have always believed in movement as an intelligent action and Kristina’s work is an example of that. A powerful moving work of pure movement that speaks volumes.”

Chan began work with the company dancers in June. The starting point for the piece, featuring Sydney-based composer James Brown’s angular, electronic, percussive score, were compressed, intimate movements based on physical pressure.

“I was interested in looking at the sort of ambiguity between two men struggling, an alpha male dominating the other, almost as if in a headlock — or a headbutt, actually, like goats going head to head, but also that ambiguity of: are they fighting or are they holding each other up? Also, looking at the relationship between two men, not in a sexual way, just man to man.”

Her dancers, she says, are not gods, just everyday people, wearing sneakers and street clothes. “They’re really right on the edge, I was trying to push them to the point of not being able to do it, to capture that struggle. I’m interested in watching other human beings dancing, not watching some kind of unachievable ideal of pure beauty.” She laughs. “Maybe I’ve been dancing for too long.”

Chan, 36, was born in Hong Kong to a Chinese father and Australian mother, and arrived in Australia when she was one. At three she started ballet lessons: “I was a total stereotype of the girly girl, pink everything, which is so funny because I’m not like that now.”

At 14, she says, she was obsessed about getting into the Australian Ballet School. “So I did my end-of-school year by correspondence and did a full-time ballet course at a dance school, because that’s what people did: studied ballet full-time for a year, then audition, then get in and live happily ever after.”

Chan didn’t. “I was devastated,” she says. “I didn’t have the right body … and I know now they’re looking for a typical type of body they can mould into a ballerina. It’s really brutal.” A new world opened up when she discovered contemporary dance. “I thought, ‘Hmmm, this is interesting, I like this’.” That early setback in ballet was soon forgotten as she built a huge career in the independent sector, working with Australian Dance Theatre, Force Majeure, Chunky Move, Lucy Guerin Inc and Narelle Benjamin, among others.

In 2011, she won the Helpmann Award for best female dancer for her performance in Benjamin’s In Glass. Her affinity for the work of Tanja Liedtke led to two Australian Dance Awards; one of her most moving performances came at Liedtke’s funeral tribute after the SDC director-designate died in a tragic road accident in 2007.

Interestingly, Jopp’s backstory has many parallels with that of Chan, from their Eurasian ancestry to their early realisation that ballet was the wrong fit for them.

Born on Queensland’s Gold Coast as the only child of a Japanese father and Australian mother, Jopp started ballet lessons at age three. “But while I did absolutely fool myself that I could be a ballerina, I realised, like Christina — maybe not as early — that I wasn’t cut out for that stringent lifestyle.”

A passion for contemporary dance was fuelled at 12, “when I saw a video of NDT [the acclaimed dance group Nederlands Dans Theater]. As soon as I saw it, I was like, that was it.” At 15, she travelled to Germany to study at the Palucca dance school in Dresden. A brave move for a youngster? “I didn’t feel nervous, actually, but looking back, Germany was a bit much for a 15-year-old”.

A versatile performer, she worked in musical theatre, films and music videos. Her first job in contemporary dance was at the Michael Clark Company in London at 21; as a freelancer she also worked with Emanuel Gat and Javier de Frutos, among many others.

At 24, she performed in the original production of Bonachela’s The Land of Yes and No in Britain and Europe: “Oh my goodness, I was petrified,” she recalls. “I had danced with Michael Clark, which was a great accolade, but Michael makes all of his material. To be suddenly thrown into this small company with this amazing energy, and with this man who was so enthusiastic about everything, who was talking about improvisation and all these things I didn’t know … I was wide-eyed. It was like arriving in this land of unknown things. Raf gave me this big chance to find that creative side of myself.”

When Bonachela was offered the top job at SDC, he persuaded her to return home. In 2010, she performed in the tour of we unfold, and has since gone on to perform in key company productions such as 2 One Another, Project Rameau, Frame of Mindand Triptych.

For her and Chan, New Breed has sparked a new passion to choreograph. Life as an independent artist is a tough road of grant applications and piecemeal projects, Chan says: “but with this, it’s been amazing because I can really focus on the work. And also, working with such incredible dancers, and so many of them — no one can afford eight dancers in a work in independent-land!”

Jopp is also keen to pursue more choreographic opportunities. “Something clicked in me … I don’t know exactly when, but I had these ideas: wouldn’t it be good to do this or that, to have my own artistic voice in a stronger way? I’ve been dancing for 26 of my 29 years and it’s a pleasant thought to know you have this creative option when you can no longer physically do it.”

New Breed opens at Sydney’s Carriageworks on Tuesday.

Image: Fiona Jopp is debuting her first professional dance work in Furth, Germany. Picture: Peter Greig