I’ve been away from Australia a lot lately, travelling to new and familiar places. I’ve been talking with artist friends and colleagues for a book I’m working on. It’s about dance and dancing and the questions that swarm around dance and dancing. Perhaps dancing itself staves off questions and as we get older and we dance less, the questions surround us, engulf us. Maybe the experience, the act of dancing is constantly capturing and releasing questions, constantly changing, re-phrasing, re-asking questions; questions that don’t need answering until the dancing is receding and there’s a big empty space where that ‘doing of dancing’ once was.
Maybe the intangibility, the ‘untranslatibility’ of the doing of dancing, plays host to our illiteracy, our inability to be articulate about it. It’s a paradox, a challenge – how can a linear, black and white, permanent thing illuminate an animated, ephemeral, corporeal thing?
So, I’m slowly working on a word project that investigates this meeting of things, of ways, of cultures, of countries. Writing is like visiting another country for me and dancing is like home. When you’re away, home seems so clear, so simple, so revealed.
I’m realizing that my intellectual, physical and social habits are utterly formed and informed and re-formed by my dancing life. I’m dependent on external structures with hard deadlines to generate anything; my ethical desire to not dictate but to instead let things emerge (which works very well in my big group performance work with teenagers) makes a word project unwieldy, unfocused; I’m deeply and incontrovertibly socially constructed and need an exchange or experience with another human being in order to generate any kind of idea at all.
Mainly I’ve learned this: that the text I’m generating needs to be somehow about what actually happens along the way from idea to product. Too often writings about dance are descriptions of the dance product or investigations of the concept or discussions about the collaborative relationships with other art forms. Instead, I want to try to illuminate the way we do it and somewhere in there is information about why we need it.
Dance shimmers and slips between many things; representation, abstraction, narrative, metaphor, realness, pretending and never completely lands or stays any one place for long. Inherently optimistic, dance forms new communities every time a practice weaves through a process and produces a performance. Our very tangible activities lead to often intangible experiences; the obscureness, ephemerality, ‘unviableness’ (as Tere O’Connor would put it) of dance make the doing of it political; an act of resistance, a necessary and hopeful act in an increasingly divided and materialistic world.
Occupy Dancing. And try to write about it.
Identity is a key aspect of being an artist. Whichever way an artist introduces him/herself, context is quickly clarified: where he is based, in what way he/she works, and where he/ she studied or trained. This sense of history and influence (or rebellion) helps shape the artist’s present identity. When an artist chooses to travel, that artist has to make introductions more often than at home and must evaluate the “who I was” to express the “who I am.” Unfamiliar geography, languages, new people, culture, etiquette, anonymity etc. are identity challenges the traveller must face. With these challenges come new insights and prompt the traveller to consider a future state of identity, the “who can I become?”
I travel to escape stagnation. Perhaps it’s a natural instinct, or perhaps a product of circumstance, but I travel often. The value in travelling is a shiny newness of geography, and the thrill of the less familiar, unfamiliar, or the undiscovered. I enjoy a balance of travelling to multicultural hubs for insight into global climates, as well as authentic, isolated, cultural experiences, where one can really explore uniqueness. Travelling carries the hope of you encountering another, but underneath it all, it is an encounter with yourself in a new context that you are faced with.
My ambitions as an artist involve pushing myself into unfamiliar territory, so travelling is essential to my creative practice. By seeing as many performances as possible while overseas, I aim to identify what was successful or unsuccessful about those performances and apply that to my understanding of stagecraft, though this is sometimes very hard to do. I think the translation of travel and new insight filters into the creative process subconsciously, but retention of those insights needs to be nurtured (writing down experiences or analysing them in conversation). During the embodying process, a delicate area between imitation and investigation arises and should be dealt with wisely. Challenging yourself can be hard, but becoming inspired by a person, company, community, or entire continent can help stoke the fires of motivation and encourage more art creation in general.
Last year, I spent four months travelling through Europe and to New York City on a professional development tour. It was the trip of a lifetime for me, as I was able to see many shows, attend numerous classes and workshops, and participate in a residency where I aimed to implement new ideas in a solo. I constantly considered whether I could live in each city I travelled to, and the answer was usually yes. The reason I return to Melbourne to create work is because of my established networks and efficiency in the creative process. People define my roots, not places, and I would like to spend time working with the right people in new places. My mother once said to me that pot plants have roots, yet they can be moved at any time.
The hills really are alive in Salzburg, but let’s talk about cultural landscapes. I was very inspired by the independent artistic communities in Berlin and New York City. In Berlin, I got a very strong sense that people made work because it’s part of their practice and because they have something to share with the world. They seemed far less concerned with grant writing and grant waiting, and more concerned with regularly working on pieces of performance. The sooner you work on something, the sooner you have a chance to develop it, so my approach now is to apply for grants, but to keep working while you wait. In New York City I was very impressed with the versatility of the dancers. I met someone who had just come off a world tour of West Side Story, was working on a solo theatre project, and was just about to join Lucinda Childs Dance Company. This kind of versatility really opens doors for employment, and I would encourage independent artists to consider if allied industries might suit them as well.
The move from Sydney to Paris happened gradually between 2003 and 2005. The break was finally made in 2005 when I let go of the Omeo Dance studio in Sydney that I had set up in 1997. Omeo Dance studio was the fifth studio I had either run or had permanent access to. My dancing body was inextricably linked to its walls, floor and pillars! With this break, life on the road began. Luckily Carolyn Carlson invited me to become an associate of her Atelier de Paris, which has since been a sort of home for my dancing in Europe. What is in the foreground of my dance interests continues to shift. Time and an ongoing practice bring their rewards. Many artists seek to work with me, now, as I travel throughout France and the rest of Europe performing and teaching.
Learning the language and especially the cultural mores in France has taken years. One never becomes French. And anyway perhaps my ‘growing up in the bush’ roots are too deep to dig out. I need to return to the bush every year to fill up on the nature and the solitude that I grew up in and which is my dreaming space. On the other hand, my production values have soared since making work in France, as one producer once said to me, ‘you can’t just walk out on stage and start dancing. We, French, need a cadre, a framework, so we know where to situate you.’ It’s complex and challenging to be oneself in a foreign country. My partner and I are gypsies, and I think this keeps confronting me with the ephemeral reality, not just of performance, but of life.
Perhaps the most fundamental shift that I have noticed since establishing myself in Europe is the sense of being valued as an artist. This is, no doubt, also connected to growing older and becoming unconcerned with ‘trying to make it’ or gain recognition. But it is my experience that woven into the fabric of French culture is a gentle, fine acknowledgement, without question, of artistic endeavour. On returning to Australia I am always struck by the hollow space that most artists I know, carry inside them, a kind of bereft loss of value, deep down. It erodes the spirit. I only become aware of this now when I return to Australia. My own hollow space must have grown over…
Travel is always an encounter with both self and other. At its most extreme no one knows anything of you and you know nothing of others. There is no choice but to invent, explore and discover.
I would like to think that moving through unfamiliar spaces would consequently transform my body into some kind of bizarre receptive conductor between movement and space. Realistically though, most spaces have similar guidelines: left, right, up, down, stairs, concrete, doors, windows, buses, tubes, cars and people. We’ve been here before.
Flying however, does significantly affect my body. I usually fall into a trance of morbid silence, squeezing things with my hands (often my own hand), my breath is thick and feels like a leaking gas-bottle, my body jolts sporadically, I have piercing pain shoot through my eardrums, my face burns red, I am sweaty and strapped to a chair… It’s brilliant.
Natural landscapes are unavoidably inspiring. One of my most memorable encounters with nature was on a trip to some snowy mountains a few hours drive from Oslo in Norway. I went with a small group of artists and friends. This was my first attempt at snow boarding. It was the end of winter, so there was hardly anyone else there. We spent hours swooping through space. I loved the sound of the board carving, the surprise of the body falling through white. I have never felt freedom quite like that. I don’t have any photos.
As artists, we need to be in touch with the world. This does not mean we need to be neutral-journalists who report back exactly what happened. But I think it’s important to act as a witness across culture and experience, then to subvert or somehow change the focus of the report.
I have been lucky enough to combine travel with work and creativity. I have had travel scholarships through Ian Potter Cultural Trust, Victoria University and some European institutions. These opportunities have led to projects and continued education in Austria, France, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Belgium. As Australian artists, it is fundamental to have these opportunities in place and to increase mobility where possible. We have a unique perspective from underneath: we can feel isolated and alone, yet we have the space to create unique conditions. I feel it is important to continually refresh this perspective by looking both out and in.
To be travelling as an artist falls into three categories for me. Firstly, travelling in terms of touring means constructing a temporary blueprint of my art. As I re-act to the reactions of my audience abroad, another identity of my art emerges. On this blueprint, my art may look accidentally more French or less British – once I am back home, it’s hard to find any traces of that look. Secondly, travelling in terms of a creative residency means to interweave my home patterns with the patterns of the new place. Sometimes this results in the patterns getting awkwardly entangled, sometimes they form a sophisticated design. Chances are 50:50, I find. And lastly, travelling as an artist without wearing my „I am an artist“ – T-shirt is a main source of inspiration, as I can let go of my artistic concerns – thus being immensely artistic.
I remember teaching in Moscow in a small studio for over 50 students. There was no space to properly move, most students didn’t speak any English and I banged into a giant bust of Lenin every time I demonstrated a movement. In Costa Rica, we had to stop rehearsing when it started raining because the studio had no roof, as the school didn’t have any money for it. And in Beirut, we had to break because of missiles being fired. It still amazes me how dancers are persisting everywhere in the world to pursue their passion. It’s fucking awesome.
My roots are more perceptible to me when I am abroad. I never feel that German when I am in Germany. But abroad, I deeply feel my roots; it sounds pretty hippie but I can really feel them physically. I wouldn’t say that my roots tell me where I belong though. But they tell me where I come from. This information is not very nourishing for artistic growth somewhere else, I find. For that reason, I try not to think about my roots as much as I can when I am abroad. If I manage, I can actually grow.
I always travel to see, to discover. I never travel with the need for introspection. On the contrary, I go away with the intention to open myself to others, to other cultures, to other people, to other ways of thinking, of living one’s life, of feeling things…But almost each time, this natural and unplanned approach has an impact on myself. After a while, I become aware that this or that trip has changed something in me, as during that given time, I had to question my own approach on things, I had to approve or disapprove of my difference, I have surprised myself, I have realized that almost everything is subjective…
Apart from my trip to Japan which was a very strong experience and led me to create a new piece on the Japanese culture called ‘Deproduction’, my trips don’t impact directly on my work. They have an impact though on my way of thinking which ultimately translates into my work. I don’t think that travelling is a condition to being creative. It is just an extra food for thought, a source of inspiration or a mere holiday time necessary to the body and the mind. There are as many inspiration sources as there are artists. It can be a country, a culture but also the past, the present, books, a particular arts community, one’s native village, one’s family, one’s experience, one’s loves.
During trips the body is naturally the first receiver of these spatial and time changes, including jetlag or weather changes for instance. Besides these expected impacts there is the flavour of an unknown dish, unknown scents, unknown landscapes, unknown noises our body rejects or not – therefore, I would say each trip pushes our body to navigate towards a sort of loss. Loss of usual references. To me, the biggest shock is to travel to a country where I don’t understand the language at all. Our both body and mind are lost, and this is where the corporeal adventure starts.
I’ve been working as a dance artist for 12 years. There has only been one year in that time, when I didn’t leave Melbourne for work. That was probably the weirdest, most disorientating year ever, and I promised myself never to let that happen again. Working and being creative has a sense of movement for me. It’s not necessarily about needing to go somewhere else, it’s more about generating energy and a constant refocusing of perspective. Not stagnating or freezing over. Sometimes it feels like the act of travelling is about going outwards, but then, when I’m away, I am sometimes more isolated than when I am at home, so it becomes about going inwards. And vice-versa, when I return. In a constant in-out experience that you are either self-directing or it’s happening to you.
More and more I realise that I’m attracted to the unknown. The rawness of directing my body forward into spaces and experiences that are unchartered for myself. Actually I think I’m in danger of becoming addicted to it: to discovering, inviting and embodying how and who I am in each new moment; to saying yes to almost everything; to the rush of it; to the spacious expansiveness of it; to its simplicity and purity and messiness and the accumulation. I imagine my body as a modern day explorer. My senses are heightened, my synapses are on fire and I’m noticing more. Noticing the newness of my environment, of the other bodies in it and how I am with these bodies. I am dancing in a studio with bodies from this new place. My body and my mind are convening with them through dancing, thinking and seeing. Without trying to make anything happen, my body/mind is experiencing and learning something new.
Regarding landscapes, one extreme is where the arts are a necessary part of life. Audiences are strong and money flows into it from many directions. The feelings, ideas and dialogues that come from creating, participating in and experiencing art is as valuable as any experience or way of seeing or being in the world and an essential part of life and our evolving culture. Where in the production of work, it starts with the artist – supporting that both through specific production of their ideas or the ongoing sustained evolution of their practice and development. Where the art work is at the centre of curatorial and funding decisions, not deals/partnerships/ social/political/trade agendas. Where an artist can take as long as the work needs to take to be created. Where artists can have confidence, pride and a sense of value in what they do. Where the individual artist is as valuable as the company or organisation.
The other extreme is where this is almost the opposite. Where the practice and pursuit of the artist is considered a past time, where only the fine artists of extraordinary talent and training are worthy of focusing their time on a career in their art form. Where contemporary artists have multiple jobs to live and they fund their own work. Where they exist through intensely supportive networks of other artists, audiences and venues. Where they put on a show and make 50 bucks. Where their name on an arts email listing means they’ve made it somewhere worth putting on their bio. Where dancers keep going and don’t retire after a golden-peak-age of 35 and open a school or become choreographers. Where people are making art because they must.
I’m not going to be specific, but out of the places I’ve spent time, it could be the difference between many different places in the world. And it’s always changing. Of course, the first option is the more ideal. But then some of the best work I’ve experienced has come out of struggle. Kill the romantic in me!
There is some local and international financial investment there for Australian artists to travel. I’ve been very lucky that my travel has either been paid for by the company I’m working with or through a local travel grant or (in many cases) through the frequent flyer miles I’d accumulated. But then, I’ve also noticed that the countries I’ve been travelling to for work are the ones that Australia also happens to have political and trade interests with, and that makes me feel like a bit of a PLAYAAA. And that feels kinda dirty. Australians travel. Even if they can see the world on google earth and man vs wild, they have to see it for themselves and put their bodies in that tangible, sensorial situation. The mother-country celebrates us flying away, but we must come back – hopefully more experienced, ready to start a family and build our economy and be as successful in life as we can be. So… in a way everything points in the direction of “GO! But please come back, and bring some of it back with you and make our country even better”. It’s still a symptom of the lucky country era, that our country also wants to be a playaaa. I’m not sure about wearing those kind of expectations, but I am completely nourished by accessing the wider world. Regardless of the outcomes of my international activity; by getting out into the world, putting myself into new experiences, meeting people, meeting artists and witnessing their lives and work in action, I’m challenging what I think I know and I’m being inspired to continue to be an artist and make some more work.