Kate Champion’s supersize dancers challenge the forbidden F word of dance

Contemporary dance works are often burdened with meaningless titles. Either that or they’re dull or just a bit pompous.

It’s rare to come across a title that both intrigues and can be interpreted in different ways but Kate Champion and her collaborators found one.

Her new work, at Sydney’s Carriageworks, can be read in two ways: Despite the performers’ supersize bodies they really have nothing to lose by revealing them to the audience because they are not being shamed, but empowered.

And, as far as their weight is concerned, the narrative suggests that they need not try to eliminate their voluptuous rolls of fat as the dancers are strong and attractive just as they are.

Big, overweight, chubby, and “piling on the kilos” are all unwelcome words in the body conscious world of dance. The F word in dance is “fat”. Today, it’s seldom spoken out loud anywhere near the stage or studio yet it lingers in the minds or many dancers, leading to despair and sometimes illness.

In Nothing to Lose, Champion has turned the forbidden word around.

Decades ago, a teacher would tell a student that they were too “fat”, meaning a few pounds above their ideal weight for a dancer.

Even in the early 1990s, teachers were known to bring their scales to the studio and weigh their students once a week. Any increase and the teachers would warn: “You must lose X kilos or else you will have no chance of a career”.

In pre professional courses, the women would be told they were too hefty to take part in pas de deux classes.

Today, the fat word is expressed by the euphemism “not looking your best”.

“Am I really looking my best?” is the constant inner voice of all dancers who see themselves every day in the studio mirror.

In Nothing to Lose, Champion has turned the forbidden word around and while it’s not going to change anything in the sylph world of professional dance (not to mention the even harsher world of fashion) she has created something unique that takes dance and dancers far beyond the constraints of the prototype.

Her cast members are not a few kilos overweight. They are big, very big, big enough to lift the multiple rolls of fat on their stomachs, bums, thighs and breasts and manipulate the flesh like play dough.

Nothing to Lose begins in near darkness as the dancers crawl across the stage like sleepy sea lions, but as they stand and the lights depict their bodies clearly, the confrontation begins. The dancers look directly at the voyeurs – the audience – as if to say “so what, what are you staring at?”

The performers recite the derogatory words and phrases often used to abuse fat people, among them “repulsive, pig, fatso, Ten-ton Tessie and pork chop”, but they alternate the insults with kind and positive words that counteract the derision.

One of the two men, Julian Crotti, asks audience members to come on stage and touch the performers whom he describes as artistic “installations”.

The marginalisation of those who don’t fit into the norm links the new work by Champion and her artistic associate, Kelli Jean Drinkwater, with Lloyd Newson’s company, DV8 Physical Theatre, whose cast in The Cost of Living included a dancer with no legs (David Toole), a dancer in her 70s (Diana Payne-Myers) and an obese dancer (Lawrence Goldhuber).

Both The Cost of Living and Nothing to Lose rely on the way the audience begins to empathise with the performers and I think they both succeed in doing so.

Within Geoff Cobham’s simple, well lit, black box setting, the dancers in Nothing to Lose hold short, neon-like poles as they reveal themselves as objects, would-be models, women on the edge of madness who pound the floor, vamps, strippers, seducers and concept artists who use their fat, along with strips of fabric and stretch fabric to transform their bodies into bizarre artwork.

One of the most engaging sequences is an exhilarating and well-choreographed dance, set to classical music, in which all the performers shake, rattle and roll their various fat bits in unison.

Each of the leading dancers projects their own personality, vulnerabilities and strengths. I don’t know how, but Champion has put together a strong group of dancers for Nothing to Lose – Claire Burrows, Julian Crotti, Michael Cutrupi, Lala Gabor, Ally Garrett, Latai Taumeopeau and Anastasia Zaravinos.

It’s going to be interesting to see where Champion goes next as she hands over the artistic directorship of her company, Force Majeure, to Danielle Micich.

She has left the company she founded on a high note.

Nothing to Lose ended a brief season on 25 January.

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Nothing To Lose, Anastasia Zaravinos, photo © Toby Burrows

Nothing to Lose, photo © Prudence Upton

Nothing To Lose, Lala Gabor, photo © Toby Burrows

Nothing To Lose, Claire Burrows, photo © Heidrun Lohr

Nothing To Lose, Michael Cutrupi, photo © Toby Burrows

Nothing To Lose, Ally Garrett, photo © photo Toby Burrows

Nothing to Lose, choreography Kate Champion, photo © Prudence Upton