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Dance Artist Atlanta Eke uses 18th-century tennis to explore 21st-century politics and power

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From a young age, Atlanta Eke’s life has been consumed by tennis. The artist, dancer and choreographer’s father Victor played tennis professionally, and her parents ran a tennis coaching business, Melbourne Total Tennis, for 38 years.

Eke consequently grew up playing, coaching and competing in tennis, including Real Tennis, historically known as the ‘sport of kings’ and the precursor to the modern game. These experiences influenced the concept for The Tennis Piece, a two-part series that features Dance Massive performances and an installation at Gertrude Contemporary.

The Tennis Piece has been a work in progress for Eke since 2015, taking her into an entangled web that links themes found in 18th century politics, religion and power right through to the climate in the 21st century. It mixes four dancers, 400 tennis balls, and a robotic lute across a dance performance and multimedia installation.

“[The Tennis Piece] began with an interest in the Tennis Court Oath of 1789, which took place on a Real Tennis Court,” says Eke.

On June 20, 1789, members of the French lower classes congregated at the Real Tennis Court in Versailles, when they discovered their usual meeting place was guarded by King Louis XVI’s soldiers.

The assembly members then took the Tennis Court Oath, vowing “not to separate and to reassemble wherever circumstances required, until the constitution of the Kingdom was established”.

Their solidarity against Louis XVI forced the King to make concessions and inspired a range of revolutionary activity, including the collaboration between the clergy (the First Estate) and the nobility (the Second Estate) with the Third Estate in the National Assembly. This forced Louis to formally request that voting occur based on head, not power.

The oath was both a revolutionary act and an assertion that political authority derived from the people and their representatives, rather than from an absolute monarchy; an ideology we now refer to as democracy.

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For Eke, the Tennis Court Oath represents a cycle in history that continues to repeat itself today.

“I have been working on the idea that this moment on a Real Tennis court was the passing over of a threshold – one that has looped back onto itself revealing democracy’s deep religious heritage, and I needed to make this idea operative through dance,” she says.

“When I went to university and studied under Dr Sally Gardner, I discovered dance is a form I can think through rather than a purely aesthetic platform…it is political and transformative…so I chose to use this time in history that not only links to my Real Tennis roots, but that also tells a political tale that has found repetition in today’s age.”

Eke compares the way democracy is regarded as the dominant model of a stable and functioning society by the Western world – and how that is pushed onto other nations – with the way Catholicism once was.

“During the time of the Tennis Court Oath, Catholics believed in one God for all, but during colonisation they realised that there wasn’t one God for all but that across the globe various beliefs were practiced,” says Eke.

“This, to me, is not dissimilar to the ideology of democracy – the idea has predominantly been spread by the West – imposing their God and politics onto other nations that do not necessarily wish for this ‘help’.”

For the Tennis Piece installation at Gertrude Contemporary, Eke collaborated with her partner, Architect Tim Birnie, to design and build a Real Tennis Court for visitors to play on.

“Tim designed and built the court himself, a re-birth of design and craftsmanship, exhibiting not art, but a functioning tennis court and a stage for a dance,” says Eke.

“The performances that we are showcasing on the court imagine the Real Tennis Court as a time machine to reveal the repetition of the West over centuries…assum[ing] universalities that are actually local and culturally specific.”

By allowing visitors to play the sport and access the Real Tennis Court at Gertrude Contemporary, Eke is broadening the access to a space that has a history of being the exclusive domain of white men

“Unfortunately, even in today’s age, the Manhattan Real Tennis Court still bans women from playing,” says Eke. “I wanted to democratise a space that is quite exclusive and has been for centuries”.

“The performances that we are showcasing on the court imagine the Real Tennis Court as a time machine to reveal the repetition of the West over centuries…assum[ing] universalities that are actually local and culturally specific.”

A key component of The Tennis Piece was allowing the Real Tennis court to be re-functionalised, allowing a once exclusive space to become open to the public while also playing into Eke’s theme of looping the past back into the present.

Eke turns once more to the French Revolution for her reasoning for this, a time when a large number of these courts were defunctionalised and turned into sites of art.

She refers to a quote by Boris Groys: 

“The French revolutionaries took a different course: instead of destroying the sacred and profane objects belonging to the Old Regime, they defunctionalized, or, in other words, aestheticized them. The French Revolution turned the design of the Old Regime into what we today call art, i.e., objects not of use but of pure contemplation. This violent, revolutionary act of aestheticizing the Old Regime created art as we know it today. Before the French Revolution, there was no art—only design. After the French Revolution, art emerged—as the death of design.” – in On Art Activism

An example is the Real Tennis Court at Versailles, the site of the Tennis Court Oath, which has been defunctionalised and repurposed as a site of pure aesthetic contemplation of the space.

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The collapsing of imposition and control — from the time of the French Revolution and the abolishment of feudalism, to today’s revolutions that include movements for independence and women’s rights — has enabled space for ideas of the individual and free thought.

“Prior to the revolution, God was making ‘decisions’ for the people, whom at the time had undeniable faith and trust that everything happened by God’s will,” says Eke. “But when the revolution happened, it proved that individuals could make decisions for themselves and take charge in their lives.

“I wanted to use this idea of power moving from the past (power of God), to the current (the power of the individual), to the not so distant future (the power of artificial intelligence).”

Eke has built a reputation as one of Australia’s most provocative choreographers; she has taken what Dr Gardner taught her and tackled dance with a radical approach that addresses complex themes relating to a growing technological world.

With her Dance Massive performance, Eke argues that modernity has led to the machine making the individual obsolete.

“We perform on a Lawn tennis court [for the Dance Massive component of The Tennis Piece], installed at Collingwood Town Hall, and continue the deconstruction of renaissance dance alongside an intensifying flow of 400 tennis balls from 4 self-feeding tennis ball machines and a robotic lute,” she explains.

The mixture of multimedia, technology and physical dance in The Tennis Piece aims to reimagine the tennis court as a time machine, where Eke and her dancers travel back to June 20, 1789, and proceed to deconstruct cultural norms of the time.

Eke has built a reputation as one of Australia’s most provocative choreographers.

“We use the choreography as a study of the progression of tennis from a Real Tennis Court to a Lawn Court,” a representation of time and the ways in which things have remained the same.

“We collapse the organised social court dances while unleashing an explosive new process [the tennis ball machines] that go[es] beyond human agency,” says Eke.

By integrating two vastly different eras through her performance, Eke is contemplating the confines of ‘supreme cosmic intelligence’ (or AI), through choreography that reorganises the ‘known’ with the deeply ‘unrecognisable’.

The Gertrude Contemporary showcase takes audiences 500 years into the past, and 500 years into the future; while the Dance Massive performances look to the more recent past, and a daunting nearer future.

The Tennis Piece represents not just a choreography of tennis’ progression, but the political, social and power dynamics that have changed, remained the same, and could still occur,” says Eke.

The Tennis Piece full performances will take place from March 19 -21 at Dancehouse, Collingwood Town Hall, as part of Dance Massive 2019.

Catch the final performance at Gertrude Contemporary, 21-23 High Street, Preston on March 23.

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