James Batchelor evokes Antarctic journey in DEEPSPACE
Writing by Kerrie O’Brien
Article published 17/03/17
The Sydney Morning Herald
During his two months at sea, the dancer and choreographer discovered a whole new body language.
Imagine spending months at sea, in perpetual motion, unable to be still.
Dancer and choreographer James Batchelor recently did just that, spending two months on a ship with a team of scientists and a visual artist, travelling to the islands just north of Antarctica. It’s a part of the world that has always fascinated the 26-year-old.
“I’ve always been curious, I’m a bit of an explorer myself. It was the furthest, most remote place I could imagine,” he says. “It’s also a place that doesn’t make sense. I was really fascinated by the idea of a whiteout, with no visual markers at all. What would that do to your body and your mind?”
The trip came about after scientist Mike Coffin saw Batchelor’s work called Island. They later met up to discuss their ideas and approaches and realised there were many synergies between their work. Batchelor was subsequently invited to join an expedition by the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies as an artist in residence, along with visual artist Annalise Rees.
“The weird thing is I’ve always dreamed of going to Antarctica, then I made this work that was inspired by certain ideas that I’d researched,” Batchelor says. “And then after that, it just so happened that they were doing an expedition to the islands north of it, Heard Island and McDonald islands.”
Working on the marine research vessel Investigator posed several challenges. “I’d never been to sea before so at first it was getting used to the fact the ship was always on the water. The fact that you can’t ever be still and that residual motion in the body was something I really could work with.”
Photo Credit: Charles Tambiah
The long journey allowed only minimal contact with anyone from home. Batchelor found some days he was quite judgmental about the work he was producing. “It’s very isolating. I’m used to talking through ideas, working with other dancers and you can see it on someone’s body. I was alone the whole time, recording myself on film. So it was quite lonely at times.
“You really question stuff all the time, you’re in a very vulnerable place.”
Other times, he was completely inspired. “Active volcanoes in the middle of nowhere, covered in ice and wildlife – penguins and whales and seals, which completely blew me away. I’ll never forget what I saw there.”
Not least of the challenges was managing the confined space on board. There was a gym on board but passengers had to get creative when it came to exercise. “I noticed my body found a new way to find stillness or stability,” Batchelor says. “When I stepped back on land my body was still swaying and over-compensating. Even though it didn’t need to, it had found a whole new system to navigate weight.”
He came away with “much more sensitivity to the idea of balance and stability because of being in that environment where the rules had changed completely”. As well as the ship, his body was also responding to the environment around it. “That became really fascinating and the people working on the ship and how everyone managed their bodies in that really extreme environment,” he says.
“It was very confined and there are a lot of safety protocols. They’ve never had a choreographer as part of their expedition. People had to get used to the fact that I might be in a room on the floor, or I might be swinging off something that maybe I shouldn’t be swinging off – pushing the physical boundaries a little bit and rewriting the rules because there were no rules.”
The synergies between the work of the scientists and the work of the artists became clear during the journey – all were involved in research. “Essentially we were all there to inquire, to be curious about this environment,” says Batchelor.
The resulting performance piece, Deepspace, which is part of the two-week Dance Massive program, includes drawings and sculptures by Rees.
“It’s like stepping into a gallery where a performance is taking place,” Batchelor says. The show’s sound is based on recordings from the ship.
The artists also contributed to the expedition in practical ways. Rees taught drawing while Batchelor conducted movement, strengthening and stretching classes.
Photo credit: Gregory Lorenzutti
In the show, Batchelor aims to communicate an unknown environment: “For me, I was looking at the body and how I can use movement to illustrate these kinds of experiences,” he says.
“One of the major things I take away is the idea that science can be accessible – it’s not just something that is being done by scientists. It’s curiosity about the environment … if people walked away from my performance with that kind of openness, that it awakens a more conscientious movement through the city, on the way home, or maybe a week later…
“The body is so intelligent and it adapts to things, it responds to things so quickly. I think that awareness is something that can be lost. It’s not a spoken thing, it’s not a verbal thing.”
Batchelor made a film about his experience, which will be released to coincide with Dance Massive. He has also been commissioned by Chunky Move to make a longer dance piece about the trip later in the year, as part of their Next Move program. “It’s been so inspiring, [I] just want to build on what can come out of it,” he says.
“The fact that this place is so remote and so untouched is very inspiring. Even though the environment was so amazing, it was the physical experience of being on the boat that really inspired.”
DEEPSPACE will be presented by Chisenhale Dance at Hackney Showroom, at 5pm on Sunday 1st July – Book Tickets.