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Dance Meets Sign Language

Dance Australia Magazine  16 Jul 2015

photo: Kate Disher-Quiill

photo: Kate Disher-Quiill

Andy Dexterity has been announced as the choreographer for a new production of the musical Rent, which will open at the Hayes Theatre in Melbourne this October.

Dexterity is known for his unique movement style which fuses dance with sign language. He has named it “signdance”. A musical theatre performer, he discovered sign language as a result of a sea-change which saw him leave the stage in 2009. “I was performing back-to-back shows, in role after role, just because the work was there and I didn’t feel like I knew how to do anything else,” he says. “I moved out of Sydney, up the coast and found myself sailing a yacht, and to my surprise, I discovered that I was still dancing, only now, a pas de trois with the wind and the sea,” he recalls. “The time and space that was created away from the bright lights of the arts, allowed new hobbies to show their faces… knitting and sign language. I took a strong liking to them both, as there were no critics or egos to deal with…. just my hands and maybe some string. They both kept my hands moving and they both kept my hands warm – perfect for a cold winter on the water.”

It was “love at first sign,” says Dexterity of his first brush with sign language. “I was hypnotised by its ability to display such raw, honest human emotion during an information exchange,” he says. “I soon followed my fingers… and enrolled in a certificate course and began absorbing the traditional signs of Auslan (Australian Sign Language). Having an upbringing in dance made it easy to see a sign once and be able to execute it.”

Listening to Dexterity talk it is easy to understand why he is attracted to sign language. “It is one thing to put ideas on paper, but in magical “Handland”, you get to move thoughts straight from your brain to your body and hands,” he exclaims. “So much wisdom came to me though embodying my communication, and to watch others do the same in front of me is such an honour. I love playing with this lens of meaningful movement… each gesture, having the potential to communicate on some level, literally and poetically.

“More than anything, I still get excited to think that the outcome is always something that is accessible for deaf and hearing impaired audiences and also simultaneously introduces sign language to an unawakened sign crowd in an non-invasive, non-preachy way. Sign language is celebrated for what it is – a physical, visual language, utilised in a creative way.”

Thanks to sign language, Dexterity has returned to the stage. “I am performing again, only now my efforts are benefitting others beyond entertainment,” he says. “Whenever I spoke about sign language, it always led to a performance of some kind, which, over time, led to the birth of a few sign-language skits, which then led to some YouTube videos, which then led to the choreographing of some music videos and live events.”

Since then, Dexterity has landed some fabulous gigs. “In the last 12 months, I have worked on some pretty incredible projects that are all so different from one another,” he says. “I created signdance choreography for Kimbra, for her ‘90’s Music’ music video. My first large-scale signdance choreographic work premiered in the opening ceremony of the world netball championships and most recently, I have been conducting the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for the Wiggles’s latest film.”

With a performance background in musical theatre, Dexterity is looking forward to working on Rent. “When Rent first came out, I was a geeky, shy, young boy,” he recalls. “Every Saturday would be spent doing back to back performing arts classes and at the school, the senior performance group did a jazz and tap routine to “Seasons of Love” [a song from Rent]. That’s when I fell in love with it. Not with the fusion of tap and jazz, but with the lyrics ‘five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes…’ I never understood much of the show back then and most of the references went over my head, but its nice to have those early memories and be able to ground all these years of imaginings and experiences into a few hours of theatre.”

– Nina Levy

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Cast Announced for Haye’s Theatre’s RENT

Daily Review July 20 2015

Jonathan Larson’s hit rock opera is set in New York’s East Village during the AIDS crisis in the early 1990s, when a small, embattled bohemian community pulls together to fight against the gentrification of their village.

Stephen Madsen (who is currently appearing at the Hayes in Heathers The Musical) will play the documentary filmmaker Mark, and Linden Furnell will make his Australian musical theatre debut as the rock musician Roger. Loren Hunter (Strictly Ballroom, King Kong) plays Mimi, Matthew Pearce plays Benjamin, Nana Matapule plays Collins and Chris Scalzo (Dr Zhivago, Wicked) plays Angel.

Laura Bunting, who appeared on the first season of The Voice and understudied the leading role of Elphaba in Wicked, plays performance artist Maureen. Maureen is the girlfriend of Joanne, who will be played by Casey Donovan, the winner of the second season of Australian Idol in 2004. Since then, Donovan has appeared on stage in critically-lauded productions including The Sapphires and Flower Children.

The ensemble includes Denise Devlin, Josh Gardiner, Jack O’Riley, Monique Salle, Kirsty Sturgess and Chloe Wilson.

Producer Toby Francis told Daily Review: “We wanted an eclectic mix of people who were fresh and people who had done more shows because that’s what Rent was about — that’s what the East Village was about: a huge variety of people.”

Francis also said he was looking for actors who could step away from the template laid down by the performers in the original production, most of whom went on to star in the 2005 film based on the musical.

“We went back to the text,” Francis said. “Not that we’re going to go completely off the wall, but we wanted to get back to what it was really like in the early ’90s and who these people actually were.”

Rent is one of just eight musicals to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and quickly moved from cult hit to international blockbuster when it premiered Off Broadway in 1996. This new production aims to take Rent back to its humble roots in the intimate space of the Hayes Theatre.

“We wanted to go back to that spirit when it was Off Broadway,” Francis said. “I think what people forget about Rent is that even though there’s this broad, sweeping motif, it’s also an angry piece. It came about at a time when the gentrification of New York City was really pushing a lot of people away, and when people were having to petition the FDA to have treatments approved for HIV and save lives. I think that anger can sometimes be lost in productions nowadays.”

The new Sydney production will be directed by Shaun Rennie with choreography by Andy Dexterity and musical direction by Andrew Worboys, and is produced by Highway Run Productions in association with Hayes Theatre Co.

– Ben Neutze

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