Dancing on the Pier

I was asked recently to write about the home of Sydney Dance Company and its history on Pier 4 at Walsh Bay for the Dictionary of Sydney.

This extract from that article recalls some special memories for me of that remarkable space that was once a working wharf.

The history of the site and the company is written in the studio walls, the ironbark pillars, the solid floors, the windows overlooking the shimmering harbour and in all the spaces in and around the studios where choreographers, teachers and dancers – so many dancers – have sweated and puffed, danced a routine one more time, and another and another, until sweat trickled down their brows and backs and the tinkle of the piano kept them moving on.

They prepare for class, with their hands on the barre, a place where there is only the moment, and where the only sounds that matter are the music and the teacher’s voice.

The place where the dancers stand now was once the site for a different kind of physical effort.

Pier 4, (and the adjacent Pier 5, home to the Sydney Theatre Company), were working wharves, servicing cargo vessels from 1922. The daily shipping news in The Sydney Morning Herald documented the arrivals and departures well into the mid 20th century.

But with containerisation, the finger wharves at Walsh Bay fell quiet.

In the 1980s, Elizabeth Butcher, general manager of the National Institute of Dramatic Arts, suggested that the cavernous empty buildings might become a new creative hub.

The NSW government agreed and commissioned the architect, Vivian Fraser, in association with the government architect, J W Thomson, to recreate Piers 4 and 5 into homes for the Sydney Dance Company and Sydney Theatre Company

Their approach earned them accolades and awards with one jury praising the architects’ new work as “clearly distinguishable as a layer – albeit a transparent one – which allows us to see through to something older underneath”.

The site has always been one of contrasts.

In the early 20th century, the timber wharves were built from sturdy, Australian hardwood turpentine trees, yet the working wharves appeared both delicate and elegant as they extended far from the shoreline, resting row upon row of timber piles.

Barry McGregor, an architect who worked with Fraser on the design recalls how “we developed an approach to build a building inside a building…you don’t try to match [the old with new], you contrast”.

In Sydney Dance Company’s mezzanine level timber beams contrast with black painted steel beams which in turn contrast with the original federation structure.

The administrative headquarters of the Sydney Dance Company and Sydney Theatre Company “might be a little hot or a little cramped”, said McGregor, “but they are a marvellous place to work”.

As the studios are for the dancers, whether in class or in rehearsal.

Each dancer looks at his or her individual reflection in the big mirrors but collectively, they are part of a community, moving within a building whose history resembles a kaleidoscope of memories.

A few I recall from the past decades:

Kristian Fredrikson, the designer, and Graeme Murphy, working on their production of Swan Lake, one of the last that Fredrikson designed before his death.

Young boys and girls auditioning for the children’s roles in Murphy’s Nutcracker. Hours and hours went by as the numbers were whittled away with anxious parents waiting outside in the café area outside.

Darcey Bussell, standing at the barre, getting back into performance for for her appearance at the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.

Guest choreographer Azure Barton, on her first day in the Sydney Dance Company studios, asking the weary dancers a question.

“For every year you’ve been in the company”, she said, “can you remember a significant moment? Now, break it down into one moment representing each year”.

For Bradley Chatfield, then 37, it was an exercise in remembering. He joined the company in 1991. That meant recalling 17 different moments.

From all the gestures and moves he made, Barton chose one to incorporate in her work – the way he held his hand over his open mouth.

That might have represented all the dramas and tragedies of the company’s life for the past two decades or simply a snippet from one of Chatfield’s many roles, from the Beast, in Beauty And The Beast, King Herod in Salome, or Eros in Mythologia, in which he wore feathered wings, a codpiece and pointe shoes.

And my final memory is Graeme Murphy’s story of why he created Tivoli, his work for the Australian Ballet and the Sydney Dance Company in 2001.

The Tivoli circuit, he said, “brought me to dance.”

“When I was nine or 10, I saw a show called Oriental Cavalcade [a Tivoli show touring to Tasmania]. My parents took me to Launceston from the bush to see it. I was blown away because it was the most theatrical thing I’ve seen apart from my parents’ school concerts. I suspect that was the real germ of a career in dance”.

As Vivian Fraser once said of Piers 4 and 5: “It’s the most magic site”.

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