Dancers with and without disability share their beauty.
An interview with Philip Channells of Restless Dance Theatre.
By Grace Edwards.
Fresh from winning ‘Best Work’ at the Reeldance Australia and New Zealand Awards 2010, Restless Dance Theatre will present the world premiere of its latest work Beauty in July.
But Restless is no ordinary dance company. As Australia’s leading mixed-ability dance theatre, Restless works to inspire both disabled and able-bodied people within the community to embrace dance as an alternative mode of expression.
Beauty marks the touring company’s first production since the appointment of Artistic Director, Philip Channells, in 2009. Philip, now the first artistic director of an Australian dance company with a disability, trained at the Northern Rivers Conservatorium of Arts, the Centre for the Performing Arts (AC Arts) and at the Western Australian Academy of the Performing Arts (WAAPA).
He has toured to France with Link Dance Company performing works by Chrissie Parrot, Phillip Adams, Anna Smith, and Kim McCarthy, and also spent seven years working with Restless as a dancer, workshop leader and assistant director, before moving to the UK. But now he’s back.
Dance Informa’s Grace Edwards speaks to Philip about Beauty, Restless and what it takes to make it as a disabled dance artist.
Philip, you joined Restless Dance Theatre as director in 2009, relocating to Adelaide from London. What attracted you to the company?
I moved back from London in May last year, but actually, I joined Restless as a youth ensemble dancer back in 1999, when I first moved to Adelaide from Lismore. I first studied dance at the Conservatorium of Arts (The Con), which is where I met Kat Worth, who founded an integrated dance company called CHAOS.
Kat invited the founding Artistic Director of Restless, Sally Chance, to make a work with the company, and I was impressed by her approach to working with people with and without a disability, her skill at communicating her ideas and the quality of the work we created in such a short time frame. Sally showed a work created by Restless called The Flight to CHAOS, that she co-directed with London-based director Liam Steele (Stan Won’t Dance). There was something about that work that resonated within me. I think it was a major factor in turning my career. I moved to Adelaide and continued training at the Centre for the Performing Arts knowing where I wanted to go and what I needed to do to get there.
There’s something distinctive about Restless Dance Theatre; it’s about disabled and non-disabled people working together to make unexpectedly real dance theatre.
Restless’s upcoming work, Beauty, choreographed by the company’s former Artistic Director Ingrid Voorendt, investigates notions of beauty, particularly in response to representations of the female body, visual art, classical sculpture and baroque music.
Do you feel there is such a thing as beauty, or is it truly in the eye of the beholder? How do the art forms with which Beauty engages inform your own perspective?
I think beauty is really personal. Physical beauty is superficial, but I’m still attracted to beautiful things, beautiful sounds, beautiful surroundings, images and poetry. I love the theatricality of this new work, the way it borrows from a classical period where women used to walk around draped in wet cloth and talcum powder. I think vanity was the cause of many a death around that time.
Does being a disabled artist yourself affect the way you interpret the essence of Beauty as Artistic Director?
I don’t think so. My disability doesn’t factor into the equation at all and is not really something that affects this new work. Beauty was something I inherited from Ingrid’s program. I think the essence is about celebrating diversity and appreciating difference.
What is it like in the rehearsal studio at the moment?
The touring company resumes rehearsals from June 7th right through to the world premiere on July 2nd. It’s been an interesting time for us with creating a buzz about a work that is still very much in development, although there was a first stage development in August last year. So at the moment the youth ensemble, one of the three areas of activity at Restless, trains once a week. We’re working on developing ideas for a new production called Next of Kin, which is the second major work for the year. In a way, we’re working on developing two works side by side.
Beauty is presented by the professional touring arm of the company, but as you mentioned, RDT also runs an education programme and a youth ensemble for dancers aged 15-26. What are the aims of these programmes and how do they engage with the community?
The education work is the invisible side of the company. It gives people a sense of belonging to a place where they grow emotionally and feel strong within themselves. Our programs are about providing pathways for people to develop a sense of individuality in a safe and supportive environment. It’s also a place where young people find their voice. Even if they are non-verbal, dance is an opportunity for people to be expressive in a physical way.
What particular challenges does Restless face in accommodating its performers and, to an extent, its audience?
Restless works with disabled and non-disabled artists so we have to be respectful of each other’s needs, but essentially the dancers have a job to do and they get on with it just like any other performers.
When we create work, we try to think about how audiences can access our work, so we’re mindful of people with learning, sensory and mobility impairment. It makes the creative process more interesting when we’re challenged to find alternative ways to invite audiences with hearing or visual impairment to experience our work with, for example, Auslan interpretation or captioning. I think digital technology helps us to achieve this, and access is something that we try to build into the design of the space.
All dancers face massive hurdles in establishing a professional dance career, but as a disabled dancer, the challenges are surely even greater. How did you find your footing in the dance world, and what do you think the dance community could do to help support disabled dance artists?
I started dancing when I was 28, a year after I had a car accident in Thora valley, NSW. The accident was 10 days before my audition at The Con in Lismore, so I was disappointed, but I think that made me even more determined to work hard to get back on track. I had a tough time starting my training so late, but I had life experience to bring to my work that a lot of my younger colleagues found difficult to appreciate. Opportunities to access dance training in Australia are far less than what is offered to young and emerging disabled dancers in places like the UK.
I think we have a lot to gain from thinking hard about how we can make a national dance curriculum be inclusive for everyone and about what we put in place to make sure people with a disability can achieve a career in the arts. Most of my friends in the UK are disabled dancers – it just seems odd to me that there is such a divide across the Atlantic. I think it’s about changing attitudes really; guess what?…..disabled people do dance! I think we learn a lot about ourselves from dancing, and even if it’s only recreational, it is still valid. I think it’s essential. Dance allows people from all ages and backgrounds opportunities to find their own unique way of expression.
What have you learned over the duration of your career about what it takes to be a dancer?
Hard work, self-reflection, determination and a keen interest to go beyond your wildest dreams. I think I knew at an early stage that I wanted an international career. Personally, I needed to work in an area of dance that was less about satisfying my ego and more about having some integrity in what I did.
Tickets for Beauty start at $10 (for group bookings) through to $25 and can be purchased at the Adelaide Festival Centre via www.bass.net.au or by calling BASS on 131 246.