For two months in 2016, dancer and choreographer James Batchelor found himself bobbing and swaying aboard a research vessel with 60 scientists who were there to study remote islands in the sub-Antarctic.
The resulting artistic output was Deepspace, a multidisciplinary work drawing together choreography, sound, and visual art from fellow expedition artist-in-residence Annalise Rees.
“It was a very powerful moment for me to think about human impact on the environment, and this is very much what the work is dealing with,” he says. “Even though it’s not necessarily a work that is overtly telling people to think one thing or another, it definitely brings all of these things into question, and invites people to be curious about it.”
Now James is exploring new territory with an extended journey through the UK and Europe, performing Deepspace and working on a new project, Hyperspace, at a series of residencies, including two weeks at Dance4 in Nottingham. He is joined by several long-time collaborators. Morgan Hickinbotham is a composer and sound designer who has worked with James over the past six years. Bek Berger is the company’s creative producer, and dancer Chloe Chignall, who grew up with James in Canberra but now lives in Brussels, joins them for performances.
While James and his cohort have made plenty of trips to the region in the past, they have mostly been short sojourns to perform one show or complete a residency before coming straight home. This time it’s about cementing professional relationships and forming connections with communities.
“All of us have sublet our rooms [in Melbourne] and we’re kind of homeless for the rest of the year,” says James. “I think it’s important for artists in Australia to have the opportunity to go into international contexts and find what opportunities and outcomes can come from that commitment to a space. It’s not just about leaving the country and performing your thing and then coming back.”
The group have about a dozen performances of Deepspace booked, along with several short residencies to develop Hyperspace. Several of those opportunities came about after being selected to present at the Australian Performing Arts Market (APAM) in Brisbane earlier this year. APAM is a critical showcase opportunity for Australian performing artists wanting to expand their reach into national and international markets. After several years at the Brisbane Powerhouse, from 2020 APAM will be hosted in Victoria – an exciting development for the state.
The next big showcase event for James Batchelor and collaborators is Tanzmesse in Düsseldorf, Germany, at the end of August. Tanzmesse is the biggest international professional event in the contemporary dance world and provides incredible opportunities for dancers and choreographers to network with their international colleagues. James and the gang will be performing Deepspace at the event, supported by Creative Victoria.
This is James’ second time at Tanzmesse after attending as a self-supported artist in 2016. “It’s very intense because all the programmers are there, and lots of artists are there, and it’s a market environment which is quite difficult to navigate as an independent artist,” he says. “This time, having the opportunity to actually perform my work will be hugely valuable because it will be seen by so many programmers, and also artists. I think this will be a really good way for me to expand my networks, but also meet people who could become collaborators in the future.”
Speaking of the future, after his experience in sub-Antarctic waters James has been thinking about the next logical step in his explorations of unusual environments. He says he’d love to work with NASA – although he has no plans on going into space.
“I would be terrified of leaving Earth,” he says. But questions about how space affects the body – and how bodies affect space – continue to fascinate him. “How would you prepare for an environment that is so different to what we experience here? Which [is something that] I can relate to from being on the ship, because the movement of the ship is so extreme compared to our normal experience of being on land that it actually changed the muscles in my body, even in two months.
“When I came back to the land for the first time, I was still moving and swaying a lot in ways that my body didn’t need to, but it had learnt to have this dynamic [relationship] to stability. Which I feel has stuck with me ever since, in some ways.”
Whatever James chooses as his next frontier, it’s certain that the work that comes out of it will continue to be an important contribution to the world of dance.