by Urszula Dawkins

Samuel James, Vivaria

These days, at the words ‘Mobile States’, my ears prick up. Both a touring program and a consortium of venue presenters Australia-wide, it’s thanks to the fluid-sounding Mobile States that I’ve had the chance to see work like Paschal Daantos Berry’s The Folding Wife, Fleur Elise Noble’s 2 Dimensional Life of Her, Paul Dwyer and version 1.0’s The Bougainville Photoplay Project, and Rosie Dennis’s Fraudulent Behaviour, to name a few.

This month Arts House hosts more Melbourne contemporary-performance premieres thanks to Mobile States: Sydney performance trio post’s new dose of art-meets-mayhem, Who’s the Best?, the superb dance/hybrid solo I left my shoes on warm concrete and stood in the rain by Gabrielle Nankivell, and Samuel James’s mesmerising installation, Vivaria.

Samuel James

Surrounded by screens on all sides, Vivaria is a lush journey through landscapes and cityscapes in which five dancers inhabit the screen like tiny avatars in surreal imaginary environments. I asked Vivaria’s creator Samuel James for some thoughts about the work. Here’s some of what he had to say:

“Vivaria means ‘place of life’ and usually refers to an enclosed area for animals or plants, with a simulated ecosystem that is specific for a particular species, recreated on a smaller scale. This installation is a Kafkaesque co-joining of macro and micro urban environments, articulated by some of Sydney and Melbourne’s most unique independent dancers, each invoking their own psychological space.

“The environments are drawn from a variety of countries, shot with compact MPEG cameras allowing spontaneous capturing of imaginary space from the street. Space and performer are situated in paradox to each other, and rotating cube transitions create a randomising factor. A cube structure suggests that all possible tableaus are interchangeable, like shuffling a deck of cards.

“I usually choose to work with ‘Body Weather’ dancers because of their attention to environment and the elements [by which] the body can be seen as poised between life and death. Body Weather, to me, is aware of the stimulus of all elements around the body; and although I am not an expert on Body Weather it seems to treat the body also as ‘mind’. As Vivaria bends the relationship of body and psychology into the perception of space and is simultaneously interwoven into the sensory space, these dancers are well informed to react to senses and spirit of place.

“The figures, like all human beings have far more uncommon traits than common: I think of every dancer or person as an individual immaculate and idiosyncratic, therefore to use dancers in this way is to uniquely articulate space through the detailed responsiveness of their movements – seeing space through their body.

“Vivaria is also about peripheral vision, essentially showing panoramas, but not necessarily a continuous panorama. It is also thinking of space that exists as much behind us, unseen, as in front of us, and that exists also beyond our vision.”

Samuel James
Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall
Wednesday 3 to Saturday 6 August

Gabrielle Nankivell

Talking to Gabrielle Nankivell, I had the sense of a work that aims for the ‘highest common denominator’, looking for ways to create an experience on stage that resonates magically with the unique experience of each individual watcher. Created during a 14-week Dancehouse residency that was both exhilarating and exhausting, Nankivell says that the right time to make a solo work is not something you choose, “it chooses you”:

“I’d have days where I’d go in and spend eight hours jumping around like a maniac being highly physical, and of course the next day you’re exhausted…so I’d end up sitting on the computer writing all day, or staring out the window, just imagining things. Somehow the flow of the process was really dynamic and up and down like that, simply because you’re all the time dealing with the strange things that solitude does to you. Also because I’m not the kind of person who goes into a studio for only two or three hours a day over that period of time – I can end up being there for eight, ten, 12 hours…”

The intensity of Nankivell’s work shows – on stage she throws herself around with a breathtaking mix of precision, beauty and surprise, creating an atmosphere that takes us with her:

“The interest of the maker is to create something that an audience can go into so that they go, ‘Oh, I know that’ or ‘I understand that’ – they actually skip past the analytical phase and just feel like the whole thing is their journey. So as a performer I can really connect with them on a kinaesthetic level, because the kind of movement that I’m exploring on stage has a hint of things that I think lots of different kinds of audiences can connect to – they’ll recognise it as a movement or as a thought which they may have had … In terms of what you see, the images and the movement, the text and the soundtrack are all geared towards it being an immersive experience. You are surrounded by the sound and you’re surrounded by the light and you’re connected to what’s actually happening on stage.”

The breadth and randomness of ordinary human thought and life fascinate Nankivell:

“Humans are great little animals for experiencing everything… On a daily basis [we] do the full gamut of emotions at varying levels of extremity, and, and I guess this performance is something that really embraces that. I’m really into what it’s like to be someone who walks down the street and experiences the world, day in day out, and I think most other people are as well. That’s why we get off so much on being human and doing lots of things and experiencing lots of things… So I think being human is the really basic thing that keeps coming up, it’s what’s important to me in what I make and what I communicate, it’s the way that I relate to people in the world.”

Gabrielle Nankivell
I left my shoes on warm concrete and stood in the rain
Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall
Thursday 11 to Saturday 13 August
Warning: Strobe lighting, strong coarse language, complete blackout


How do post manage to be both funny and profound, intelligent, ridiculous and utterly unique? Here’s a few thoughts from the talented young Sydney performance trio responsible for Who’s the Best?

“The idea for Who’s the Best? sprang from the concept of performance as a competition itself. We asked: ‘What if there was a show where, at the end, the audience had to vote for who had been the best…?’. This began the thinking: How would you choose? How do we increase our chances of BEING the best? Can we? Or is it out of our hands? How do we approach competition and how do we cope with the outcome? We are particularly interested in the processes that might lead to improvement: imitation, repetition, transformation and experimentation. How much control do we have over how we are perceived? What can we do to BE the best?

“Exploring drag, affectation, charisma, skill and tactics, Who’s the Best? is about moving slowly, pulling time, cutting space, laughing hard, wetting pants, victorious lap dances and wet eyes. Women act as men acting as women. Roles are swapped and existences are justified – desperately. This show is about what happens when you deflate…when an older man puts his hand on your thigh and tells you that he loves his wife. Because to BE the best isn’t the same as DOING the best. Because when you’re winning, you know it, and so does everyone else.”

Who’s the Best?

Arts House, Meat Market
Wednesday 3 to Saturday 6 August
Warning: Occasional coarse language


I asked Mobile States Producer Harley Stumm to tell me what differentiates Mobile States from other touring producers. Managed by Performing Lines, the program does do some ‘single-show’ tours, he says – My Darling Patricia’s Africa is a recent example – but unlike other producers, it creates a touring space for work that might not fit the “conventional night at the theatre”.

“There’s a lot of works that artists are now making that don’t fit into that conventional idea,” he says, citing shorter works that can be double-billed, or small-audience works that wouldn’t usually be viable for touring (Thrashing Without Looking, opening at Arts House next week, is one of these, touring with Mobile States next year). Samuel James’s 4-channel video installation Vivaria is another kind of work that can be toured as part of a mini-festival or event cluster, he says, gaining an audience that would otherwise be limited to gallery spaces.

The core partners of Mobile States are Arts House, Adelaide Festival Centre, Brisbane Powerhouse, Sydney’s Performance Space, Perth’s PICA, and the Salamanca Arts Centre in Hobart.

“Artists are working in these spaces to make these shows,” says Stumm, “and Mobile States is like a network for exchange between them. Mobile States is specifically about touring and there’s a grant from the Australia Council to help the touring of these shows, but it’s also more than that, it’s a creative network.”

In the traditional model of touring, Stumm says that by the time a tour came around the work could be two or three years old.

“Particularly for the younger generation of artists, that’s a really long time in the development of their practice. Sometimes by the time the partners and the money come in to tour a work, the artists have moved beyond that, and feel ‘well, that’s where I was three years ago, I’ve moved on’.”

But with communication between the core partners, as well as some co-producing of new work, the lead times are coming down. “Like post, for example: when we programmed Who’s the Best? they’d just done a first-stage development.” Thrashing Without Looking is a similar case, premiering at Arts House after a development stage at Performance Space in Sydney.


About Arts House

Arts House presents contemporary arts in programs encompassing performance, exhibitions, live art, residencies and other activities that nurture, support and stimulate cultural engagement. For more information, please visit
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