It is strange enough to be back in a theatre watching a live dance piece, let alone seeing a lone man wander the set wearing headphones and a backpack, then pick up video-game controls from the middle of the stage.

He begins to play with them and the stage erupts in a burst of movement and sound. The man is of course part of the show, the sole performer of In the Zone, a dance piece by respected choreographer Shaun Parker. It’s the first major live dance work to come to NSW stages since Covid-19 shut down all live performance in March.

In the Zone combines the cutting-edge technology of Airsticks – locally designed gaming controls that create live music via movement – with the impressive skills of former street dancer Libby Montilla, who, over the course of an hour, takes audiences on a journey using only his body and the sound generated by the sticks.

Parker, the founder of Sydney-based contemporary dance outfit Shaun Parker & Company (which celebrates its 10th anniversary at the end of this year), discovered then-16-year-old Montilla during auditions in Parramatta 10 years ago. He instantly knew he’d stumbled upon someone special.

“I knew he’d be fantastic, but it took him a month to warm to the project,” Parker tells Broadsheet. “With the street hip-hop culture there’s the suspicion of ‘Who’s this white boy who will probably just come in and do ballet,’ because I’m a contemporary dancer and don’t do hip-hop. But then something clicked in Libby’s mind and from then on there’s been no stopping him.” Montilla is now a permanent member of the company.

In the Zone premiered in Camden last year, and came about after the co-creator of Airsticks, composer, sound designer and instrument designer Alon Ilsar, contacted Parker to discuss working together. “People had said he should use a dancer to see what sounds could be created with Airsticks using a dancer’s body. So Libby, Alon and I got together and loved what we came up with. With Libby’s ability – locking, popping, body waving, ticking and krumping – all that body animation stuff suits the sonic world and made us think we should make a work out of it.”

Aimed at teens and young adults, In the Zone uses gaming and escapism as a point of inspiration, celebrating the spectacular worlds available to be explored through technology, while also broaching the potential loss of control. Like all Parker works, it’s a reminder of the importance of humanity and, in this case, a note of caution on how we treat our environment.

“Kids and teens will always game, and in some ways it’s incredible the micro-skills they learn, but [often] we can’t get them off [the games] because computers are [everywhere]. So let’s make it creative,” says Parker.

In workshops accompanying last year’s premiere of In the Zone, school children experimented with the Airsticks, creating their own music through dance.

Parker is hopeful he’ll be able to hold similar workshops again in future. Until a few weeks ago, it looked as though In the Zone would be live-streamed only, due to Covid restrictions. The company was recently given the go-ahead to host two live shows at The Seymour Centre, where it is a resident company, although it’s restricted to selling only 25 per cent of tickets.

“Financially it’s a real pity, because we need to try to make our money back, but we felt it was worth it. We hoped we’d pick up ticket sales for the livestream to counter it so we don’t go broke,” says Parker.

In fact, an In the Zone livestream and accompanying dance tutorials on September 18 have been booked by 100 schools around Australia, leading to a new direction for Shaun Parker & Company. “It’s really exciting because it sets us up for the future,” Parker says. “We’ve never livestreamed [anti-bullying 2011 work] The Yard before, and that’s something we’ll do next year for the anti-bullying week. People keep booking it, because unfortunately bullying is always a problem.”

Parker is gratified to be celebrating the company’s 10th anniversary in what has been an exceedingly challenging environment. He’s justifiably proud of the company’s body of work and the audiences it has reached, particularly those in regional and remote areas.

“Our works all have a connection with the human condition,” he says. “We always do big shows at the Sydney Opera House and internationally ... but it’s when I get emails and messages on Facebook and Instagram, knowing we’ve been able to shift people’s perception, that makes me feel inspired to keep fighting the good fight.”

In the Zone will be performed at Sydney’s Seymour Centre on September 18 and 19, and live-streamed on the morning of September 18. Buy tickets for both performances here.