2016 is shaping up to be a busy year for Adelaide’s Australian Dance Theatre. Having just presented the world premiere of Habitus (26 February-5 March), the company is already in final rehearsals for its world premiere of The Beginning of Nature at WOMADelaide this month (12-14 March). Dance Informa’s Grace Gassin caught up with Artistic Director and choreographer Garry Stewart to discuss the inspiration behind Habitus, what to expect of his latest work and what’s in store for the company in the months ahead.
Thanks for speaking with us, Garry. I must ask, why the name Habitus?
“Habitus is a word that describes the way in which our bodies have learnt to behave and move, and from my point of view, they way we learn to move is often informed not only by those we come into contact with but also objects in the world, the things that we come into contact with. I’ve located this work in a domestic setting so the objects that the dancers come into contact with are domestic objects — tables, chairs, sofas, books, as well as clothing. Oh, and sofas. Did I mention sofas?
I don’t use a strictly text book reading of the word habitus. I’ve also incorporated the notion of habitat — the places where we live — as audiences will get to see.”
What are some of the other themes that you explore in Habitus?
“I’ve always been interested in corporeal expression, how we express ourselves through our bodies, how our identities are very much expressed through them and informed by our motions and sense of self. In fact, I made another work for the company in 2010 called Be Yourself, which was exactly about the fundamental relationship between our physical selves and our psychological and emotional sense of identity.
Beyond what I’ve already mentioned, another thing that comes up in Habitus is the connection to nature. Late in the work, we look at the idea of the objects of the world being reclaimed by the forces of nature, so the furniture actually becomes like an analogy for the topography of nature, mountains, valleys and the movement of geographical features of the planet. The dancers become like pre-literate creatures enacting ecosystem processes in a ritualistic context. As human beings, after all, we’re also the materials of nature. We are not separate from nature even though we name nature and separate ourselves from it.”
When did you begin to explore these ideas and realise you wanted to explore them further?
“In some ways, it all started off a number of years ago when we collaborated with the Adelaide College of the Arts. We worked with the third year students there and made a piece called Worldhood, and that referred to Martin Heidegger’s notion that our relationship with the world is through touch and holding people. So we made a piece that had an artist in the work, he was drawing, and some of the dancers actually were drawing as well. We used sofas in that work in exploring our tactile relationship with these objects, and now, of course, I’ve decided to make a whole work based on this idea of our relationship with domestic objects. That was in 2009, I think, yes, so that’s where it kind of started.”
In your opinion, what is the measure to you of a good contemporary dance work?
“I don’t think there’s any measure of it really because it’s so subjective, depends on the work, who you are as an audience member and can even come down to your mood in the moment. But certainly I think the best works for me are those which in some way shift my consciousness or alter me in some way. They are the ones that make me view the body or an idea in a way that I’ve never perceived before.”
You are soon to premiere your work, The Beginning of Nature at WOMADelaide. Can you tell us about that piece?
“The two works [Habitus and The Beginning of Nature] are very, very different from each other. Habitus is very theatrical, whereas I think The Beginning of Nature is much more compositional. It involves creating patterns with the body on stage, but the work itself mainly hinges on ideas about our relationship to rhythms in nature, whether it be flocking and herdings, swarming, the seasons, tidal patterns, day and night, and the rhythms within our own body such as our heartbeat or breathing. We do move in this complex world constituted of rhythms, so this work is very much located around the expression of these rhythmic forces in nature.
We’re collaborating with a string quartet called Zephyr, as well as two indigenous singers who are classically trained singing in Kaurna, which is the local indigenous language of the Adelaide Plains. It has only been revived in the last couple of decades really, so it’s a very exciting thing for us to be connected with the reclamation of that language. We’re working with Jack Buckskin, who is a local Kaurna expert, and Uncle Lewis O’Brien and Lee-Ann Buckskin are also involved as consultants on the project. It’s a very exciting project for us and really appropriate for WOMADelaide.”
How did you end up getting involved in WOMADelaide?
“The Beginning of Nature was definitely a piece that I already wanted to make, and we’d performed at WOMADelaide a couple of times in the past, so we just had a chat to them about this work. I thought it was a really good fit, and they absolutely agreed. It’s great for both them and us, as we’re grateful to be able to get the company in front of 6- or 7,000 people a night, or around 14,000 people over a couple of nights.”
Are there any future plans for the work?
“We’re going to be redeveloping it later on, and to do that we’ll be working with Lynette Wallworth, who’s a celebrated Australian video artist. Her work specialises in representations of nature, so we’re really very excited about the prospect of working with her. We’re presenting 55 minutes at WOMADelaide, and when we develop it later on we’ll be making a longer work out of it.”
While Habitus and The Beginning of Nature, as you’ve said, are quite different from each other, are there any connections between them that might give us an insight into where you’re at creatively and choreographically?
“I think the relationship to nature is certainly the connection between the two. I’m actually making a series of works, dance pieces and installation pieces over the next few years which I’m calling the ‘nature series’, and Habitus is really the first work in the nature series. So even though it’s mainly located around our relationship with domestic objects, it does segue into a commentary on our relationship to nature. The next work from there is, of course, The Beginning of Nature. And then I have a number of other works planned that also are a commentary on aspects of nature and human relationships to nature, so they’re definitely connected to each other in that way.”
By Grace Gassin of Dance Informa.
Photo (top): Australian Dance Theatre in Habitus. Photo by Chris Herzfeld – Camlight Productions.