Tuesday, May 2, 2023



Chloe Chignell and James Batchelor in "Shortcuts to Familiar Places".

Choreographed by James Batchelor

Performed by James Batchelor, Chloe Chignell and Morgan Hickinbotham.

Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse. 29th April 2023.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens 

Ruth Osborne - Chloe Chignall - James Batchelor in "Shortcuts to Familiar Places"

Canberra dancer and choreographer, James Batchelor, has been quietly honing an impressive career in Europe.  Between overseas commissions, Batchelor returns to his home town to create works for QL2 Dance as well as research and develop new projects. The seeds for “Shortcuts to Familiar Places” were sown in a paddock in Gungahlin on a wet Saturday afternoon in 2021.

The promise of seeing a work inspired by the teachings of modern dance pioneer, Gertrud Bodenwieser, as well as Batchelor’s own teacher and mentor, Ruth Osborne, was a powerful attractor to your intrepid dance critic seeking dance enlightenment.

However, as Batchelor bravely pranced around the paddock in the rain, these influences were not particularly obvious to your critic at that time.  

However, after two years of research, experimentation and development, that initial performance has flowered into a beautifully wrought dance work in which those influences are crystal clear as the starting point rather than the destination.

Presented in three distinct sections, separated by film of his mentors and research contributors, “Shortcuts to Familiar Places” opens with a film of Batchelor’s mentor, Artistic Director of QL2 Dance, Ruth Osborne, describing and demonstrating elements of the Bodenwieser technique.

The authenticity and accuracy of Osborne’s recollections created a lightbulb moment for this observer sparking a faint but indelible memory of a performance by the Bodenwieser Dance Company experienced when Bodenwieser herself still headed the company.

James Batchelor in "Shortcuts to Familiar Places"

As the film faded, Batchelor was revealed in silhouette, alone on the stage except for instrumentalist Morgan Hickinbotham, almost invisible to one side.  A long-time collaborator with Batchelor, Hickinbotham accompanied the entire performance creating a haunting soundscape on a guitar which he bowed at times or incorporated looping pedals to create techno patterns and syncopations.

 Very slowly Batchelor began to move. Just his hands at first, in movements similar, but not imitating those demonstrated by Osborne. Slow, repetitive, sensuous upper-body movements, superbly lit to reveal the musculature of his body as he repeated each small movement over and over before moving on to the next slight variation. The effect was mesmerising something akin to watching a sculpture slowly coming to life.

Another short film sequence followed this time featuring acclaimed centenarian dancer, Eileen Kramer, patiently teaching Batchelor and dance film-maker, Sue Healey, her favourite Bodenwieser choreography remembered from her days working with Bodenwieser’s company in the 1940’s.

Chloe Chignell and James Batchelor.

Batchelor again took the stage, this time accompanied by another long-time collaborator, dancer Chloe Chignell and together they performed a long exquisite sequence, parts of which conjured up visions of oriental deity sculptures.

The final filmed sequence featured Batchelor, Osborne and Head of Dance at Victoria College of the Arts, Carol Brown, recreating fragments of Bodenwieser choreography interspersed with archival film of Brown’s teacher and former Bodenwieser dancer, Shona Dunlop MacTavish. 

Batchelor and Chignell then performed their final mesmerising duet in which they gracefully mirrored each other’s movements. As Hickinbotham’s accompaniment became more urgent, they broke into joyous running and skipping, adding layers of the intricate, repetitious detail that marks Bachelor’s own trademark choreographic style, ultimately leaving both breathless and their appreciative audience delighted.

James Batchelor and Chloe Chignell in hthe closing moments of "Shortcuts to Familiar Places"

In a foyer-talk which followed the performance, dance doyen, Elizabeth Cameron Dalman, remarked on the importance of “looking back to move forward” when commenting on the value of examining dance heritage.

Batchelor’s latest brilliant creation, which takes as its starting point and inspiration the work of an Australian contemporary dance pioneer, is a superbly satisfying demonstration of just how exciting such an approach can be.  

                                                              Images by Lorna Sim

        This review first published in the digital edition of CITY NEWS  on 1st May 2023.