2015 marked Kinetic Energy's 40th anniversary. For the last 30 years the company's work has essentially been the product of one of the most enduring creative partnerships in Australia: Graham Jones and Jepke Goudsmit. Since teaming up in 1984, they have run an ongoing program of training, research, creation and performance. The merging of their individual dance and theatre backgrounds resulted in a radical synthesis of disciplines, their unique style being characterized by a seamless integration of the dramatic, the kinetic and the acoustic. Their work is hybrid, cross-cultural, and explores contemporary performance in form, content and social engagement. Their many initiatives include collaborations with guest artists, educational work, apprenticeship schemes and exchange programs, as well as providing space and opportunities to colleagues in the field.
Graham originally studied to be a scientist and gained a Master of Agricultural Science degree at the University of Sydney. His extra-curricular interests included jazz ballet and modern dance, theatre, jazz music, and lead him to study trumpet and English literature. Eventually he succumbed to his passion for the arts and left both his science career and Australia in 1971, to pursue a path in professional dance and theatre overseas. His movement and choreographic skills were honed when he became a member of London 's renowned Ballet Rambert, and later in the vibrant dance scene of New York. He returned to Australia at the beginning of 1975 and formed Kinetic Energy Dance Company in May that year. It was the only contemporary dance company in Eastern Australia at the time, and made its debut in October 1975 at the Seymour Centre for the Arts in Sydney. Mary Emery commented in The Australian, ”The Kinetic Energy Dance Company are likely to be a force to reckon with in modern dance... Certainly on the basis of this programme Graham Jones, their artistic director, reveals an important talent as a choreographer/dancer.”
In the next ten years Graham and his company wrote some colorful pages in the history of dance in Australia. Graham established the first warehouse space in Sydney 's CBD as a permanent home for his company, just behind the Anthony Hordern department store at Liverpool Street, setting the fashion for artist cooperatives to occupy warehouses in downtown Sydney. This was a lively section of the city with a healthy mix of rag trade businesses, restaurants and off beat niche shops like Jazz Garter. For a while the area was affordable to live and work in, friendly to a vibrant cross section of the community, with a Left Bank atmosphere, which Premier Bob Carr later promised to regenerate, but failed to deliver.
Graham saw education and audience development as the keys to sustaining the company's work in the area of new dance. Within five years the company was touring annually for eleven weeks, teaching and performing at schools and universities, and giving public performances on a circuit that linked Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. The company's Liverpool Street warehouse space had become a lively centre for dance study, apprenticeships and informal performances in Sydney. Desley Gardiner, writing in the December issue of Dance Australia, caught up with the company in September 1980 at the Cement Box Theatre in Brisbane, “Kinetic Energy are to be congratulated for the high standard of their work. Companies of this calibre are a must if modern dance in Australia is to develop and grow.”
In 1984, after seeing the company at the Open Stage in Melbourne, American dancer Lenny Choice wrote in the September issue of Dance Australia, “The work of the Kinetic Energy Dance Company is humanistic, intelligent and thoughtful. I enjoyed this company because of its strong individual identity, its quality of work and its fortitude in carrying on despite harsh financial difficulties.”
Graham had now been joined to share in the company's artistic direction by the Dutch actress and director Jepke Goudsmit. Jepke had studied at the Theatre Academy in Amsterdam and at the Mecca for modern actors at the time: Grotowski's Theatre Laboratory in Poland. For eight years (from 1975 until 1983) she had been a core member of the International Theatre Research Group KISS, led by Jean-Pierre Voos. KISS was renowned for its original interpretations of classics such as the Greek Oresteia and Dante's Divine Comedy, and for its innovation in physical theatre. As well as performing many leading roles (notably Electra, Salome and Virgil), Jepke also taught, directed & choreographed for KISS, and toured extensively with the group in Europe, USA and Australia. On one such tour she met Graham Jones. Jepke and Graham married, and soon the first of their two daughters was exploring the studio floor. By that time, warehouse space in the inner city was at a premium and developers had their eyes on the Liverpool Street premises.
In 1985, they relocated to a new space at the southern end of King Street, Newtown, which had the potential to become a flexible open-space studio theatre. With the help of some government subsidy, major renovations and fire & safety work were undertaken. In 1989 a Theatre and Public Halls licence was granted. The new venue was baptised THE EDGE as a home base for the company and as a low budget haven for practitioners in the performing arts. Signifying the merge of their individual dancing and acting backgrounds, Graham and Jepke renamed their company KINETIC ENERGY Theatre Company.
Their vision was to build a team of skilled interdisciplinary performers, dedicated to ongoing training, research and creation. They launched an annual programme of performance seasons, and continued their collaboration with guest artists, educational work and apprenticeship schemes. They also initiated many exchanges within the wider arts community, most notably through their ONE WITH AT LEAST ANOTHER series.
But in 1990, all funding was cut and they could no longer support a performance ensemble. They concentrated on the duo format, while continuing creative work with visual artists and composers on their major projects. In December that year, Richard Glover, SMH columnist and radio announcer at the ABC, was moved to say this about their work, “Jones and Goudsmit are among the very few in Sydney who are still burning the flame of experimental theatre in this increasingly inclement climate. Theatre which works deeply to uncover truths. Which is experimental in the best sense of the word. It is joyful work with a texture, intelligence and great sense of energy and life. There is sincerity where one has often found snake oil, intellectual coherence where one has often found mere pretension. This is an emperor who does have clothes.”
So what is it that inspires such work, and what is it about? Paul McGillick, theatre critic for the Australian Financial Review, put it this way in 1992, “Three things make their work special: First, it tackles the things that really matter - life, death and the interval in between. Then it does so in a theatrical language which is just right rather than just fashionable, just accessible or just pretty to look at. Finally, it does what it does well.”
And in 1993, Brian Hoad, the theatre critic for The Bulletin, had this to say after attending the entire retrospective of the company's work in repertoire, “One of the most haunting theatrical experiences for quite a while - theatre for those who can bear a little more reality than most; for those who enjoy a brush with the timeless moment, a glimpse of eternity and a sense of the stillpoint of the turning world... The compassion, humanity, warmth and humour of the performances defy the bleakness of the subjects in as subtle a merger of dance, drama, poetry, music and visual design as has ever explored the jungle of the Jungian world of the collective unconscious. They even sing beautifully.”
Hoad's concluding lines read even better today, “All bureaucratic arty farties at the Australia Council should attend at least a couple of the current cycles at The Edge. They may learn something about life as well as art.”
Hoad's plea largely fell on deaf ears. But for another eight years Kinetic Energy kept the flame burning, doubling the size of their body of work and expanding their schools and education programmes. Two international tours - to Amsterdam in 1995 and to Indonesia in 1996 - were embarked upon. A bit of state government funding followed the Carr government’s election in NSW. And their ongoing events at The Edge in support of contemporary Australian performance were continued, most notably the DANCE ON THE EDGE and the JAZZ ON THE EDGE series. In March 2000, in an article on the company's retrospective season of seven works performed during that year, Jess Bell of Revolver Magazine said, “An independent theatre company still operating after 25 years is practically a miracle.”
And the Sydney Morning Herald's John Shand, after attending the same retrospective, wondered “If there is anything Jones and Goudsmit cannot do”.
But in October 2001, their work was cruelly brought to a halt when a virtual near-death-experience, occasioned by a particularly virulent form of reactive arthritis, hospitalised Graham and left him partly crippled. They were forced to stop all operations at The Edge and vacated it in April 2002. Fortunately Graham recovered sufficiently to begin a limited amount of performing and teaching again in the following year. And there was still unfinished business to deal with: the greatest lie in English literature!
Before Graham's illness, the pair had become intrigued by the controversy over the identity of William Shakespeare. They now picked up the thread and resumed work on their SHAKE-SPEARE project. The first two parts of this monumental undertaking premiered in 2004 at their new Sydney venue at the St Luke's complex, in Enmore. Both plays (SHAKE-SPEARE Part 1 & 2) were then shown at Newcastle University, before going on tour to Baltimore (USA ) and the UK at the end of that year.
Coincidentally, George W Bush and John Howard were re-elected. Undaunted, Graham and Jepke determined to resist the erosion of Australia’s cultural independence which the sheriff and his deputy would bring on with their free trade, ever more sport and jingoism. So the two co-directors focused on transforming the hall at St Luke’s church into a laboratory theatre space. Having surveyed the place with longtime friend and consultant on theatre electrics Alf de Breau, it was clear the task would be much easier and less costly than that involved with the formation of The Edge twenty years prior. Alf connected the three-phase power supply already in the church building to the hall. He lined up a rigger who installed a basic grid system into the hall ceiling. And a sponsorship by Herkes Electrical set up by longtime associate Wayne Kellet, provided a basic lighting rig and operating system for the theatre.
Seasons of WHO DIES? and UNDISCOVERED LAND – VOYAGE 2 were mounted to launch the new venue. On the national level, VOYAGE 2 was toured to Melbourne’s Monash University (2007) and La Mama’s Carlton Courthouse (2008).
Heartened by the news that German filmmaker Roland Emmerich was preparing to make a major feature length film about Edward de Vere as Shakespeare, Graham and Jepke rewrote their two SHAKE-SPEARE plays for a larger cast of eight actors. PART 1 was premiered at St Luke’s in May 2008 and PART 2 in April 2009. Emmerich’s film ANONYMOUS made it to the screen in 2011. Locally it received the same kind of heckling from people like John Bell and Phillip Adams that Graham and Jepke had endured for their efforts. Globally the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt about the Identity of William Shakespeare gathered momentum with Jeremy Irons a notable addition to the honour roll of doubters such as Derek Jacobi, John Gielgud and Orson Wells. Of course Graham and Jepke added their signatures and published their SHAKE-SPEARE plays.
There was still work to be done to develop the potential of the company’s new venue. The hall had one of the best acoustics for live music in Sydney. The church space adjacent, with an equally pure sound, was suited for larger ensembles and had a greater capacity. Both were underutilized. Venues for live music were fast disappearing, and there were ever fewer gigs for the kind of improvising and jazz playing musicians that Kinetic Energy loved to commission. The city’s major cultural event, the Sydney Festival, had evolved into a globalised, corporate affair with little or no serious representation for local artists on the main stage. Kinetic Energy had had three invitations to participate since 1977, the last one of which in 1984. So, resolved to create an alternative, and in league with longtime associate artist and jazz trumpet player Lee McIver, Kinetic Energy undertook to set up a major event at St Luke’s that would reclaim our right to be seen and heard to our best advantage in our own city. An affordable, low budget event featuring some of our best jazz musicians in a concert environment for listening audiences, with a theatre component involving collaboration with specially commissioned musicians. The result was the inaugural Kinetic Jazz Festival in January 2010. So successful was the event, that an ongoing concert series under the title Kinetic Jazz was initiated. Under this banner, many new projects have since been spawned, the 18-member Kinetic Jazz Orchestra to name but one of them. And actors, poets, musicians and composers have since come together regularly to make new work.
One wonders how much longer the pair can continue to do what they do before time commits them to the usual fate reserved for “true national treasures of the performing arts”: the graveyard of anonymity, along with the real Shake-speare. Until then, the Phoenix and her Turtle Dove (alias Jepke & Graham) will continue to support the arts, create new work, and mentor the next generation. Young actors in the parent company’s ensemble alternate between Kinetic Energy’s theatre-in-education project VILLAGE SPACE and the regular seasons at St Luke’s. Young musicians from the Sydney Conservatorium have taken up part-time apprenticeships with the company joining the actors in a twelve member strong ensemble. Between 2010 and 2013 this ensemble has performed in two new full-length plays, HOME and EMPIRE, written & directed by Graham and Jepke. Their two daughters, Jola and Saha, are intimately connected with the company’s history as well as its current output, and are dedicated to help archive it and preserve its legacy. Indeed, archiving of the unique life & work of Kinetic Energy has started in earnest, with the first collection of posters and programmes already stored at the National Library in Canberra.
And so Kinetic Energy Theatre Company, with Graham and Jepke at the helm, interconnected within a large core of associated creative artists and accomplices, keeps on evolving and continues to create a place for itself that is culturally and socially relevant for the challenges and dynamics of today.