Jim White explains how his appreciation for dance inspired his upcoming Melbourne Festival performance, ‘More Up A Tree’

Jim White explains how his appreciation for dance inspired his upcoming Melbourne Festival performance, ‘More Up A Tree’

By Kate Streader

Taking music above and beyond the expected is what you might call Jim White’s forte. Whether he’s weaving hypnotic melodies with his instrumental trio Dirty Three or transcending the constraints of genre through his duo with Cretan lutenist Giorgio Xylouris in Xylouris White, he is constantly pushing the boundaries.

So it’s only fitting that White teamed up with visual artist Eve Sussman and dancer Claudia De Serpa Soares for More Up A Tree – a performance that not only explores the relationship between music and dance, but also that of performers and their audience.

More Up A Tree takes place inside a 7x4m box, the walls are mirrored Plexiglas and as De Serpa Soares responds to White’s music through her movements, the walls alternate between allowing the audience to see in and mirroring their own reflections back at them.

The seed for More Up A Tree was sown when White began to develop a fascination with dance and started looking for a way to incorporate it into his music. From there, the concept evolved as Sussman became involved.

“Many years ago [Dirty Three] were doing a show in San Francisco and the lighting person invited me to see what she did in her other job, which is the San Francisco Ballet and Orchestra,” says White. “I never had much knowledge of dance, or didn’t pay much attention to it, and I really loved it. It was an abstract piece and it reminded me of how music is so mysterious but we’re sort of used to it, I just questioned myself, like ‘What’s going on?’”

Upon returning to New York, White began digesting books on dance and watching more performances. He knew he wanted to work with a dancer but he was still unsure of how to approach it. It wasn’t until he mentioned his idea to Sussman – who was also looking to do a dance-oriented piece – that the show’s concept began to form.

“I wanted to see if I could make the drums, the melody-type feeling, transfer between the drumming and the dancer; see the feeling I got from watching her move, if I could make that relatable somehow,” says White. “The idea I wanted to be kind of formal and abstract, not a narrative, and then along the way this other idea came about, about the relationship between the performer and the audience, which is not something that I would have ever started out trying to intend but it’s actually pretty great what happens.

“It’s interesting because I’m trying to do a duet with the dancer, I’m trying to take that into the role of other people I play with. When I play with Dirty Three or Xylouris White or other things, a lot of the time you’re kind of half pretending that you’re not there, you’re sort of hyperaware and your relationship with the audience is pretty complex. So I guess in some ways it’s a similar aspect of that.”

Along with his More Up A Tree performance, White’s band The Double will also perform at Melbourne Festival alongside Lambchop at the Melbourne Recital Centre. “We happened to come across a new beat a few years ago, we invented a new rhythm and we’ll be presenting that,” he says of the band, proving once again that he isn’t content in just doing what’s already been done.

Although Dirty Three are currently on hiatus, Xylouris White are flourishing, taking their music across the world and having just received an ARIA nomination for their second album Black Peak in the Best World Music category. In terms of working in two highly acclaimed, yet vastly different projects, White simply believes it was a natural progression for him.

“I feel like it’s all a continuum. I feel like it makes sense. Xylouris White is more danceable, it’s more rhythmic, there’s only two of us, but I certainly learn a lot from the way George plays. It’s melodically driven music but also it’s ultra-rhythmic all the time. I feel like Dirty Three informs Xylouris White and vice versa.”