Dancers Explore Matisse

Ulysses Dancers Townsville
Katie-Anne Grice performing a piece by Suzie Searight IMAGE: Eva Waqainabete

It will be a case of Art imitating Art when Townsville’s Ulysses Dancers explore the life and work of celebrated artist Henri Matisse in their 2019 production.

Ulysses’ Artistic Director and Choreographer Jane Pirani said she had chosen to reinterpret Matisse’s paintings, cut-outs and artistic struggles through dance because she was so fascinated by his work and his life.

“I’ve always loved Matisse,” said Jane. “I think it’s probably his ability to put the most amazingly different colours together. Really, if it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have 20th Century art as it is today. He paved the way because he came after the Impressionists; they tried to categorise him as a Fauvist, but he wasn’t really; and he was really treated like an outcast.”

While Jane was originally drawn to Matisse through his works, she said the more research she did, the more captivated she became with this boundary-pushing artist.

“I realised that Picasso was forward-thinking, and the Impressionists, but this guy was more so. He wouldn’t follow the traditions; he just did his own thing regardless of what was going on around him.”

Jane put the challenge to four emerging choreographers – Tegan Ollett, Cassie Steen, Dane Reid and Suzie Searight –  to join her in interpreting the theme of ‘Matisse’ in whichever way captured their interest and intrigue. The result was five very different translations of his life and work.

“I’ve gone for the artist’s perspective,” Jane said. “I’m looking at the artist and the hell that he went through because I’d never realised that [about him]. I thought his life was, not easy, but I thought ‘this step’ happened and then ‘that step’ happened and so on and so forth, but it didn’t. It was a constant struggle [for Matisse], so I’ve taken it from the perspective of looking at the works from his intense struggle.

“Cassie has taken the approach of looking at the painting; not the result of the painting but the painting itself – the dancers actually become the paint on the canvas.

“Tegan is taking her look at the works as if the works have come alive. We’ve no idea what’s behind a lot of those images; we can give it a title, but what was really in Matisse’s head when he was doing it? Tegan’s taken that step and said ‘This is what’s in my head when I look at that painting’. Dane has done the same thing.

“And Suzie has taken the years where he was using scissors to create large works because he could no longer stand up and use brushes. [In this period, Matisse was] sitting down, creating shapes and getting assistance to put them on the canvas for him.”

Jane said the different approaches all came about organically.

“We never sat down in a meeting of five and went ‘This what we could do’. I just said ‘This is Matisse. You go and see what speaks to you, see what makes you breathe and it’s all yours’.”

The finished works will be performed by 32 dancers from Ulysses, ranging from 13 years to 40.

“That’s a really unique experience that you don’t get when you’re doing eisteddfods and school concerts because they’re in the same age bracket,” said Jane.

“That’s a really nice community because you’re giving the younger dancers the chance to have the older ones on stage with them … we get the mentors and they pass on a lot to these young ones.”

Jane hopes that merging Dance and Art in this way will draw Art-lovers to Dance and Dance-lovers to Matisse.

“They might even go and have a look at some more of his work. There are some very famous pieces, but there’s an awful lot of his works that are tremendously beautiful but very, very unknown. Thirty-seven of his works went to Russia during his lifetime, and they didn’t come out of Russia until last year!” Jane said.

“Another 50 or so paintings went to America and where never seen again, because they went to a private home … That’s incredible in itself! We don’t know half of his paintings. Somebody’s catalogued the in a book somewhere, but it’s not quite the same as having access to seeing them.”


Ulysses Dancers will present Matisse on  20-22 June at Dancenorth. Tickets are available at TryBooking.

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