A step ahead

By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / March 27, 2009
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A few days ago, Australian choreographer Gideon Obarzanek and his dance troupe, Chunky Move, landed in Burlington, Vt. The occasion was "I Want to Dance Better at Parties," a 2004 piece that reconstitutes Obarzanek's interviews with five Australian men (some love to dance; one finds it mortifying) as an exuberant consideration of the art of performance. Obarzanek calls the show "expressionistic documentary on stage," and, starting this evening, he's bringing it to the Institute of Contemporary Art, presented by World Music/CRASHarts, for the weekend. Before a rehearsal for the Burlington performance, he talked about dance - our relationship to it, and his.

Q. Several of your projects are sociological in nature. "I Want to Dance Better at Parties" uses dance as a way to think about gender, namely men's discomfort with dancing. What's wrong with us?

A. I think men tend to be controlling of their image in front of other people, and dancing often requires you to lose control and let the music take over. Because the audio footage is in English, we haven't taken the show to Africa or Greece or Spain, where men do have a different response to dance. But it does work really well with regional audiences who don't have a lot of exposure to dance. They respond to it quite enthusiastically.

Q. There's now so little choreography in music videos, and in movie musicals, it's the camera that does all the dancing. There is a kind of narrative to your work. Have you thought about bringing dance back to full-length filmmaking?

A. It's not an area I've given much thought to. It's interesting because as a choreographer you're already working with visual composition over time, and I personally am interested in worlds that are not electronically or televisually mediated. For me, dance performances are better experienced live. There's something about being in the same space as the dance. Particularly in the case of "I Want to Dance Better at Parties," which is about average people, being in the same space creates a strong identification with the dance.

Q. What about reality television, where millions of people experience dance vicariously?

A. Reality television is a perfect format for dance. "Dancing With the Stars" or "So You Think You Can Dance" are popular because you have to express yourself. You have to challenge yourself. "Dancing With the Stars" is even more accessible because you're watching celebrities do it, and it looks great in the production space. But great dance isn't something that happens overnight. It takes a long time to master.

Q. When you go out as a civilian, where do you like to dance?

A. I prefer to go to a club where people don't know me at all.

Q. Why's that?

A. Maybe because I'm a choreographer, and I feel like I should be dancing really well - that it's what people expect of me. Like if I go out with my girlfriend or my friends, I don't want anyone to be like "What's that Gideon Obarzanek going to do?"

Q. I never thought about the pressure. But it makes sense.

A. You know that thing where you're outside yourself and watching yourself? That's what it's like for me sometimes. I hate it.

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