Common Grounds: How DirtyFeet helped blur borders

By Leigh Schanfein

Last year at this time, I was offered a pretty sweet deal: go to Sydney, where housing and various other expenses would be covered, work with a colleague whose unique movement style I found truly intriguing, create and perform a new work with a group of pre-selected enthusiastic and experienced dancers, and serve as rehearsal director for the work in subsequent settings.  Oh yeah, and I would go halfway around the world to do it.  Giving purpose to my meager savings, I bought a flight and flew from New York City to Sydney to work with emerging choreographer Ian RT Colless, his company Untitled|Collective, and the DirtyFeet dance organization. 

If you haven’t already heard of it, you should.  DirtyFeet is a non-profit contemporary dance organization founded in 2005, with the intent to provide opportunities and workspace for emerging independent dancers and choreographers in Sydney.  As part of this effort, DirtyFeet offers choreographic labs for emerging choreographers, performance series for independent dancers, and dance workshops for the community at large.  The beautiful thing about this organization is that it functions much like a collective, bringing independent dancers together with the common objectives of creating dance and developing as dancers. DirtyFeet members pay a small annual fee for the privilege of taking part in residencies, performances, and classes organized by DirtyFeet’s co-directors Anthea Doropoulos and Sarah Fiddaman. 

As a freelance dancer in New York City, I face the challenges that come with jumping from choreographer to choreographer and from project to project, without always feeling as though there is time or room for my own development as an artist within each role I undertake.  There is immense pressure for choreographers and directors to prove something with every expense, and the very fact that the choreographer is putting together a performance, along with the efforts required to put the project together, is often what negates his or her efforts as an artist.  Choreographers do not have the luxury of cultivating their dancers.  This is the primary reason why I am impressed with DirtyFeet. The collective experience can give both choreographers and dancers the freedom so necessary to artistic development.

Dancers perform "Meeting Place". Photo by Krista Bonura

This brings me to the choreographer who invited me “Downunder”, Ian RT Colless.  If you haven’t already heard of him, you will.  Ian, who hails from the Blue Mountains, New South Wales, holds degrees in dance from Queensland University of Technology and Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts.  He has won accolades and awards for his choreography for musical, opera, and dance performance, and is now based in NYC, where he held an internship with Battery Dance Company.  The internship was funded by the Australia Council for the Arts – Skills & Arts Development Grant from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board.  Indeed, Ian is a descendent of the Gundungurra Nation of Aboriginals from the Blue Mountains. 

Upon first meeting, one would never guess Ian’s full heritage.  The tall, lanky, and fair-skinned man could be any dancer at any studio, until you see him move.  How can I describe Ian’s style?  Quirky doesn’t quite cut it.  With the angles of a stork blended with the fluidity of a snake, he mostly does things that you can’t imagine anyone else being able to do.  However, what any dancer will come to realize through working with Ian is that the way all of us with our different training, flexibility, strength, technique, and heritage can all move as one, is by cultivating a shared intent.  If a hundred different bodies perform a movement with the same engagement and purpose, then they will look as one because the audience feels the commonality. 

When we began work in the DirtyFeet choreographic lab, we quickly realized we were not trying to emulate Ian’s movement, or even to dance in a way that fits within the parameters of his influence.  Instead, we were to perform as individuals in a communal context.  Ian never said, “Do this move in your interpretation of an Aboriginal way”.  That would have been absurd considering the lack of exposure someone like me has had to Aboriginal dance; it probably would have ended up an accidental mockery of something to be honoured.  Instead, Ian informed our movement by exposing us to his land, his family, his community (Gundungurra Nation), and his understanding of traditional dance and philosophies so that we could use it as motivation while dancing explicitly as ourselves.  We were given information with which to shape our intent.

I believe one of the reasons we, as a group of dancers from a surprisingly diverse background, were able to accomplish what we did within a three week choreographic lab was because Ian shaped the project to double as a cultural residency.  We learned about Ian’s Aboriginal heritage and how it influences his work.  We were subsequently asked to use our own backgrounds as a driving force.  We drew upon our memories, externalized them, reinterpreted them into movement, and re-internalized them through the absorptive power of dance.  By doing so, we ended up with a way to realize other people’s memories in our own bodies, creating a very powerful device by which we understood each other. 

It seems to me that DirtyFeet provides the perfect format for choreographers and dancers who work with the understanding that that which makes a dancer unique is what should be enhanced through performance and not subdued to fit a mould.  If you ever have the opportunity to work in this way, I’d certainly recommend giving it a try.  You may even make it to a new part of the world in the process, and you’ll certainly make it to a new level of understanding about your own dancing.  If you haven’t already had the opportunity to explore yourself through the exploration of others’ culture and experiences, you definitely should.

Since the residency, I’ve served as rehearsal director for performances of this work, Ripple, in Manhattan and Queens, NYC, and performed with Untitled|Collective in Boundaries.3, Ripple, and the newest work Meeting Place, at various Manhattan venues.  I never imagined at this early point in my career that I would be able to hop on over to Australia for a choreographic residency, and then find such unspoken self and shared cultivation amongst a group of dancers.  I certainly got a sweet deal.

Learn more about Ian RT Colless and Untitled|Collective at www.untitled-collective.com.
Learn more about DirtyFeet at www.dirtyfeet.com.au.

Top photo: By Hayley Rose Photography

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