Cave dance

Nick Cave and Sydney Dance Company share common language in Underland

Nick Cave’s music isn’t necessarily the first thing that leaps to mind when it comes to contemporary dance scores. The native Australian’s songs, from the jagged early compositions performed as front man for post-punk noise band the Birthday Party in the 1980s, to the brooding ballads that continue to define his work as creative force for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, seem too dark, too eccentric for a mainstream art form.

Moreover, contemporary dance works tend to take a non-narrative form, whereas Cave’s songs generally tell a story, often from an outsider’s point of view. Consider, for example, the song “The Mercy Seat,” which details the final thoughts of a convicted murderer awaiting execution by the electric chair; or “The Carny,” which traces the travails of a traveling freak show.

Hardly the stuff popular appeal is normally built upon, one reason why Cave has remained a respected but relatively underground artist.

Nevertheless, when the Sydney Dance Company approached Stephen Petronio about creating Underland for the troupe four years ago, the American choreographer had one main demand: The work had to be set to Cave’s music.

For Petronio, who has worked with musicians from Lou Reed to Yoko Ono to the Beastie Boys, it wasn’t much of a stretch. In fact, he had previously collaborated with Bad Seeds guitarist Blixa Bargeld. But for longtime Sydney Dance Company member Bradley Chatfield, Underland proved to be a demanding creative exercise.

“We ended up developing sore muscles we never knew we had!” Chatfield informs via telephone from Sydney, Australia.

In contemporary dance, individual dance steps form a “vocabulary” of movement. Every choreographer brings his or her own vocabulary to the creation of piece, which in turn is set on a dance company that has its own vocabulary as well. In the case of the Sydney Dance Company, that vocabulary was developed by artistic director Graeme Murphy. Petronio brought an entirely new vocabulary to Underland.

“It was a hell of a lot different, actually,” says Chatfield, who’s been nominated as Australia’s best male dancer five times. “I’d been in the company 12 years at that time, and most of my works have been Graeme Murphy works, with a few exceptions. Obviously, the whole vocabulary had to change, our whole way of movement had to change.”

Dance aficionados familiar with the work of Alvin Ailey will recognize the Australian company’s athletic, classically influenced movement. Petronio added an aggressive, streetwise-edge vocabulary to the mix. But while the female dancers in the piece set to “The Carny” appear to be marionettes with their strings cut, Chatfield says Petronio was no puppet master. Quite the opposite.

“It was a lot of cut and paste with Stephen. It wasn’t a lot of pulling strings,” he explains. “A lot of the time, we decided on the vocabulary that we’d dance during the piece. It was great that we did have a lot of input in what we wanted to do.”

Combining non-narrative dance movements with Cave’s narrative works added an extra layer of complexity to Underland’s creation.

“Often we don’t dance to a lot of songs, it’s orchestral pieces or musical pieces,” Chatfield says. “Sometimes you didn’t get a chance to listen to what he [Nick Cave] was saying. When we put the piece to the song, I was concentrating more on what I was doing with the steps. Then a week later I’d actually listen to what the lyrics were. Then I could develop the relationship between Stephen’s vocabulary and Nick’s vocabulary and gel them all together.”

Chatfield was familiar with Cave’s music before Underland, but developed a deeper appreciation for his fellow Australian’s lyricism during creation of the work.

“The words are very important, they’re especially important to Nick Cave’s fans.” he says. “When we first produced Underland in 2003, we had a very strong Nick Cave fan base that came to see the show that normally wouldn’t come to see a dance production. We had to please them in a way. If they saw us dancing to Nick Cave’s music without it meaning anything to us, I don’t think they’d be very impressed.”