Shaun Parker: The personal is the real

Shaun Parker & Company in 'AM I'. Photo by Branco Gaica.

It is probably safe to assume that there will never be a black box big enough to contain Shaun Parker. The science graduate-turned-dancer/choreographer has always outlined a vision that went beyond the parameters of dance; a vision that places his art practise very firmly into a mesh of socio-economic, ethnic and ethical relationship. As he likes to insist, for him the work is “real”.

Shaun Parker & Company in 'The Yard'

Shaun Parker & Company in ‘The Yard’. Photo courtesy of Shaun Parker & Company.

Back in 2014, when I first spoke with him, Parker declared that his ongoing youth dance project, The Yard, was the most rewarding of his frequently glittering career. That a raw, street dance creation starring refugee teens from the wilds of Western Sydney should outshine gala openings at the Opera House and packed galleries at Sadler’s Wells says a lot about the spirit that guides both the man and the company that bears his name.

“I’m driven by making work and connecting with the community on a very real level,” he confirms. “We’ve just started a school’s pilot programme where five kids from The Yard tour with me to perform for thousands of other kids in their schools. You know, when you’re performing to 3,000 kids every week, it’s real, it’s raw, and they love it.” 

The Yard, however, is but one string to the bow. Last month, shortly after Dance Informa caught up with him, Parker took off for Europe with 20 of his dancers for a three-nation tour of his much-acclaimed Adelaide and Melbourne Festival hit, Am I. For a relatively new and still quite small company, it was a pivotal career moment. 

Shaun Parker

Shaun Parker. Photo courtesy of Parker.

Aside from embellishing the CV, the company’s trek through Germany, Sweden and Luxembourg clearly unscored Parker’s passion for the real. As he said before leaving, “The dancers not only get to dance, but they get to see and experience, and they’ll never forget that.”

Indeed, the philosophical and psychological nuances of all this “reality” talk are teased out in Am I.

“It looks at the idea of the individual within this massive global, digital tribe,” Parker explains. “So, it’s looking at the fact that, despite our supposed sophistication, we’re still very tribal. You know, the notion of Facebook is very tribal. It’s like getting together for question time, or groups of tribes getting together around a campfire and sharing their stories and explaining their lives. It’s a real collision of our tribal essence and our intellect and technology. And that’s kind of the guts of the show; you know, how that affects us.”

Throw this notion against the backdrop of what many have called “the atomisation of society”, (Western liberal individualism creating a society underpinned by increasing personal isolation), and Parker’s point becomes more powerful.

Shaun Parker & Company's 'AM I'. Photo by Michele Aboud

Shaun Parker & Company’s ‘AM I’. Photo by Michele Aboud.

“People nowadays, particularly the younger ones, are very good at communicating on email, but if you see them face-to-face they freak out,” he contends. “They’re, like, ooh, there’s an actual person that I have to really communicate with and open up to.”

In this fractured and heavily mediated climate, the undeniable physical immediacy of dance acts as some kind of antidote. Parker cites the proliferation of things like parkour and suburban yoga classes, alongside the recent public passion for dance, as evidence of a deeper yearning for the concrete.

As he argues, “Despite the fact that we’re being forced into offices and onto laptops and iPhones, the more that happens, the more people want to go on that beach walk or do that yoga class.”

Of dance itself, he says, “We just need to remind ourselves that we’re in a body, and dance does that.” 

Like live theatre and music, the presence of dance in a physical space, with all its effort and sweat and feet sounding on boards, reminds us of the tribal essence that Parker regards as crucial.

Shaun Parker & Company in 'AM I'.

Shaun Parker & Company in ‘AM I’. Photo by Branco Gaica.

“I feel that contemporary dance and dance as a form can be powerfully social,” he says. “It can be pure enjoyment and interaction, and of course it can be a form of expression. You know, a lot of the kids I work with in Western Sydney are literally creating new forms. So for me, contemporary dance is of the now and comes from the people of now.” 

Perhaps here, if we’re looking for it, we might find the core of Parker’s approach. Yes, it’s real, concrete, etcetera – but it centres on people. It explains the compassionate social vision of works like The Yard and Am I but also their focus on the personal.

“For me,” he concludes, “it’s always about the study of human behaviour. Without realising it, that seems to have filtered across all my works. I tend to look at how complex and wonderful we are but also how demented we are.”

Demented enough, he doubtless hopes to log off and be in a room with others while his dancers do their thing.

By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.

Photo (top): Shaun Parker & Company in ‘AM I’. Photo by Branco Gaica.

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