By Tamara Searle of Dance Informa.
A live performance offers thrills that a recording can rarely capture. Being there with the performers as they make images and stories in front of you is ever so much more exciting when the choreography is new. What is often not evident in the performance of a new work is the time and thought that goes into making it. Dance Informa spoke with collaborators Nat Cursio, Simon Ellis, and Shannon Bott about the process of making new contemporary dance work Recovery.
You are a group of artists making new work in Australia and internationally, independently and in collaboration, as dancers and choreographers, theatre makers, and directors. What skills or roles does this piece Recovery ask you each to fulfill?
“Recovery is unique not only in how long its development has occurred (brief periods of rehearsal over six years) but also that the three of us are sharing the construction of the work. It foregrounds quite particular skills that have more to do with the fundamentals of collaboration: communication, shared decision-making (which is not the same as equal decision-making), respecting and challenging aesthetic differences, and understanding and valuing the work’s history. For me – as a physically absent director – this resembles an ‘all care no responsibility’ degree of space in which I can try and ask difficult questions of what is going on in the performance/rehearsal space, and also try to make performance suggestions that help Shannon and Nat handle the particularly intimate nature of the relationship between them and the audience. For Natalie and Shannon, they need to remain focused on the nuances of performing Recovery whilst keeping an ‘external’ eye on how the composition of the work can keep evolving as we get closer to its premiere.”
Some of the audience might be unused to fluidity between the roles of maker, director, choreographer and dancer. Can you comment on how you move between these roles?
“This is something that takes practise. It’s been my way of operating since graduating so I’m accustomed to being across all aspects of a project. But these days performing in my own work is something I don’t do very often so I have to be definitive in making time to be a dancer. Having a residency at The Substation has really assisted me to set dedicated time and space to be physical and not be distracted by all the organisation and administration that goes along with being an independent artist. And being a ‘collaborator’ is yet another role. Recovery hasn’t just one person in a directing role but three. A lot of time and care goes into understanding how to work together most effectively and realise a shared vision. I can’t always delineate between these tasks/roles as they are all so interrelated. I have a child who is obviously a huge part of my life. Having him has helped me look at my art making practice and life-living as being intertwined so whilst I am working at fulfilling a number of roles in work and life, sometimes it helps just to see them all as complementary aspects of a much larger picture.”
Making new work is a risk; it is untested and unfixed. Can you comment on the risks in Recovery?
“One of the elements of Recovery which may be considered a risk, would be the location of the audience in relationship to Nat and I and also in relation to the space. We take care of the audience throughout the work. The intimacy and location of the audience has been given much consideration and it is this intimacy that has the potential to impact the viewers’ experience of the performance. It is a risk but one that is central to the design and the reading of the work.”
This collaboration has occurred internationally and over a long period of time. What is it that kept the work going over such long distances and time frames?
“Recovery has been kept going over such long distances and time frames by tenacity, and a willingness to keep looking for a way (and appropriate scale) to make the work happen. We realised, as we talked seriously about abandoning the project – we even held a wake for it in 2013 – that these qualities of grit, resolve and tenacity are also at the thematic heart of the work. How and why do we keep going? What are the things that are worth persevering for? What stops us in our tracks? What or who do we hold onto when the sky is falling down?”
How do you know that the choreography and structure is right?
“There are different types of ‘knowing’ depending on where I am situated. If I am performing in the work I find the decision making process very challenging because the ‘knowing’ needs to be a more intuitive or ‘felt’. As a director/choreographer on the outside I am guided by the fact that I have a visual picture and I can see and experience the work from the audience’s point of view over and over in rehearsal so the decision-making feels more informed. This is simply what I’m more comfortable with as opposed to what I think is a ‘better’ method of creating dance. I envy those people who are super-adept at choreographing from the inside! Sometimes I feel lost. As Recovery has been made over various stages spanning several years, we have played with many structures and I think the gestation time has been valuable. The structure has been wrangled with through all sorts of iterations; as discreet cells of ideas; as a relentless, morphing, pulsing whole; as a series of materials governed by a set design (which we no longer have); and now it’s perhaps a more spatially responsive organization of the parts of the work that have repeatedly risen to the surface, or remained interesting, across all these iterations. Recovery explores the sameness and differences in Shannon and my experiences of grief. Both our ‘togetherness’ and our ‘alone-ness’ are considered in how we are choreographing this work. But Recovery also really needs an audience to be played out fully. It’s not a work that we would say is ‘participatory’ in the way the art world speaks of Live Art. It’s more that the gathering, situating and appreciation of the audience is key to its dramaturgy and sensibility. So in order to understand the work we need people to watch it. We’ve recently had Paea Leach, Bagryana Popov and Tamara Saulwick plus our collaborators Byron Scullin and Ben Cobham come along and be our audience as we test shape and structure, and we will have a full audience for our dress rehearsal too. Then we’ll know a lot more I suspect!”
How do you know the difference between procrastination and processing when you are making creative decisions in choreography/direction/devising?
“In answering this, I suppose I want to preface the question by stating that Nat and I are mothers to young children and Simon lives in the UK. Time is not a luxury for any of us these days and this ultimately dictates how much time we have for making creative decisions and when we make these decisions. Time to procrastinate is not possible anymore. I am sure in the past there were endless hours spent musing and testing ideas and taking weeks to arrive at decisions but maybe back then I didn’t think it was procrastinating. I might have interpreted it back then as being a kind of waiting for intuition to kick in but I am sure there was some procrastinating going on. In making Recovery, we have communicated and created through various mediums. It has involved studio time, skype sessions, solo research time, group think tanks, various studio creative developments across the years involving different art forms and much thinking and contemplating individually. I have found this process to be like no other. I have never actually considered a project for as many years as I have Recovery. The space between the thinking and doing has been very valuable.”
How does dance deal with this subject (grief) differently from other forms of art?
“I think art is about creating space for audiences to consider or reimagine the way they inhabit, perceive, question and understand their place in the world. Different forms have different histories in relation to the creation of such spaces, but they all share a kind of binary or paradox between directness (or perhaps accessibility?) and poetics. Dance, speaking very generally, tends towards more abstract poetic spaces that allow – or ask – audiences to knit together quite slippery images, relationships and even kinaesthetic experiences. In Recovery, we include quite direct – and plainly spoken – ways for audiences to start to consider the work, as well as movement that operates more towards the poetic side of the paradox. I don’t think this is that different from the ways in which live art, experimental film and visual arts practices work with and for audiences.
Recovery has had many different influences during its development: science, light, sound, installation, live art. We are less interested in the perceived differences between disciplines than we are in trying to make the best work we can. If that meant it would end up being some kind of installation of the various materials collected over the years then so be it. But, for now, we think that this performance at The Substation is the strongest way for people to enter Recovery’s world, its rhythm, its aesthetics and its ideas.”
Recovery premieres at The Substation, Newport Victoria, today Dec 2, running until Dec 9. For tickets visit www.thesubstation.org.au.
Photo (top): Nat Cursio and Shannon Bott in ‘Recovery’. Image by Kirsty Argyle.