Lilian Steiner on living a life full of dance

Lilian Steiner in 'Memoir for Rivers and the Dictator'. Photo by Gregory Lorenzutti.
Lilian Steiner in 'Memoir for Rivers and the Dictator'. Photo by Gregory Lorenzutti.

Dance Informa had the opportunity to chat with freelance dancer/choreographer Lilian Steiner, fresh off the back of the Sydney leg of the current tour of Lucy Guerin Inc’s Split. Steiner is a stunning dancer with a beautiful sense of creativity. She is currently in the midst of her own choreographic exploration, with many projects and residencies up her sleeve in the process, and in the future. Already an accomplished and award-winning artist, Steiner is certainly one to watch out for any time she hits your local theatre.

Tell us a bit about your start as a dancer, where you trained and what inspired you to commence a career as not only a dancer but also as a choreographer.

Lilian Steiner.

Lilian Steiner.

“Across many years at Utassy Ballet School in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, I fell utterly in love with everything about dance. I loved working hard on steps over and over, learning how to make my body more articulate. I loved the excitement of the whole school in the lead up to performance times and how much everyone worked together to pull off what are essentially massive creative and logistical feats. 

During year 12, I was going to dance classes five to six days a week. I really enjoyed high school, and although I had interest in many subjects, it became clear to me that even in the busiest of times, I needed dance in my life, and so eventually I decided to apply for tertiary dance courses, and I ended up studying a Bachelor of Dance at the VCA from 2007-2009.

Ever since this time, my career as both a dancer and choreographer have come out of an honest desire to use my own body as a tool for researching the practice of dance and dance-making. I am lucky to have had the opportunity to work with some of Australia’s most interesting (and diverse) contemporary choreographers, namely Lucy Guerin (Lucy Guerin Inc.), Phillip Adams (Phillip Adams BalletLab), Shelley Lasica, Melanie Lane and Brooke Stamp. It is through working with these incredible artists that I have been able to question dance practice, and forge my own choreographic desires, and explore multiple avenues of investigation into dance.”

You are currently touring Lucy Guerin’s work, Split. What is the creative process like with her?

“I have been fortunate to work with Lucy Guerin since 2011, playing various roles in the creation and performance of SplitThe Dark Chorus, Weather, Structure and Sadness and Lucy’s new work that will premiere in early 2019.

Lucy is an artist whose body of work has a clear overarching aesthetic, logic and specific movement-based interest, yet each project takes a different process to arrive. In the past, Lucy has often begun a process with a clear base idea from which exploration begins. Sometimes, similar tasks are trialled across projects in the very initial stages of research; however, they are not a formulaic means to making work but rather a process by which she allows herself to purge ideas that might linger from previous processes, so that she can move on with a clearer mind into the deeper exploration of the new concept she wishes to tackle.

The creative process for Split felt somewhat different to many other projects I have done with Lucy for many reasons, but a crucial one is that creating a duet is a very different experience to working on a group work of say five or six dancers. There was a high level of intimacy inbuilt into the way that experimentation and discussion was carried out in the studio.

It is also tiring, as each day there are only two bodies to work with, so there is no moment of ‘sitting out’ to watch someone else explore an idea. The relentlessness ebbs and flows between intensity and a particular kind of gentleness, which comes from Lucy’s sensitivity to the needs of others. It is this spectrum that also resonates inside of Lucy’s movement interests and choreographic rhythm, and is very present within Split.”

And how have you found performing Split through the spread out performance seasons? Has it evolved much in your experience?

Split is a work that is divided into two alternating modes. The first is a highly choreographic exploration of movement, where the body is seen as a tool for investigating form, shifts in energy and use of time and space without the layering of any narrative meaning. The second is a contrasting mode where the body is seen as a communicative tool. While remaining abstract, movement is expressive of emotional and dramatic narrative.

It is interesting that when you get to know a work intimately through multiple performances, both the improvised and very set choreography begin to feel not so different. Each time you come back to the work, you have new information and maturity to add to it. This ability for work to grow with each iteration is one of the reasons why the immaterial nature of dance is so great.”

Lilian Steiner in 'Memoir for Rivers and the Dictator. Footage by James Wright.

Lilian Steiner in ‘Memoir for Rivers and the Dictator. Footage by James Wright.

You are also an established choreographer yourself, having been nominated for and won many awards for your work, both as a dancer and choreographer. Your work is incredibly innovative and distinct! What’s your process like, and how do you think your work has evolved?

“I began making my own work in 2012, and with each project, I learn more and more about what is important to me within dance as an art form. My creative process has of course been informed by my experiences as a dancer working for other artists; however, it is of its own conceptual, aesthetic and movement-based logic.It has become apparent that the abstraction intelligence of the body in movement and its ability to communicate that which cannot be articulated through any other means is central to my work.

My process is driven by movement-based thought in conjunction with conceptual thought. I do not think of things as images but more as an energetic trajectory that takes place over time. I have always been interested in how energy is created and dispersed, how tangible and almost illustrative it can become, and how this allows dance to invite a dialogue between performers and audience.

Across multiple projects, I have also developed a particular interest in sound and light as active performing entities – almost the idea that they are extra bodies in the space, participating in the dance of the choreography. I create work with a certain type of aesthetic façade, as do all artists, and that this will become something associated with my work no matter what form the work takes. My biggest desire as I build on my body of work over the many years to come is that I never make the same work twice.”

What has been the most interesting creative process you have been involved in, either as the dancer/collaborator or as the choreographer?

“I can’t really say that any particular project has been the most interesting. Each process has its mind-blowing moments but also has its more known and tedious ones. I am so lucky to work with a collection of artists with such diverse approaches the conceptualising and materialisation of choreography.

What makes process the most interesting for me is when each person in the room (choreographer and collaborators) has complete clarity yet is utterly confused, but somehow everyone is on the same page. This can only happen when each person is completely dedicated, open and trustful of the process and those involved.”

What is next in the works for you as a dancer?

“I am currently on tour with Lucy Guerin performing Split in Europe. The tour continues onto Japan, America and then another burst in Europe later this year. 2019 is still finding its shape, so I can’t say too much yet, but Dance Massive in March is looking full of exciting projects. If you can make it to some shows, I highly recommend!”

What are you exploring or hoping to explore in your choreographic works?

Lilian Steiner (left) in 'Noise Quartet Meditation'. Footage by James Wright.

Lilian Steiner (left) in ‘Noise Quartet Meditation’. Footage by James Wright.

“In March 2018, I presented a new 20-minute work, Memoir for Rivers and The Dictator, as part of the Keir Choreographic Award. Memoir for Rivers and The Dictator is a work that explores how experiences become stored in the body as a physical form of memory. It is a duet for myself and trumpet player, Reuben Lewis. I am very excited to be presenting this work at two different festivals in France this September, and plan to develop this project into a full-length work in 2019. Later this year, I will also begin development on a new work for myself and visual/performance artist Emile Zile through the CultureLab residency program at Arts House in Melbourne.”

What advice could you give to younger artists hoping to pursue a career in the contemporary dance industry?

“A career in dance is not an easy one by any means. There is very little to rely on in terms of job stability and income. It is really a career that you have to drive with your own artistic and administrative rigour and trust that you’ll have fortunate moments when your hard work will meet up with the opportunities others are able to offer you.

But as I’m sure any passionate artist would say, if dance is something you simply can’t imagine living without, then don’t!  Find a way to make it work for you. In my experience, it is all about being honest with yourself about what is important to you and constantly digging away to find the way to move closer to those possibilities. Things are also always in a state of breaking down and reforming, and often opportunities arise in new and unexpected shapes, so be open-minded and let your genuine interests guide you.”

In Split, you dance unclothed; however, this was not the first time! As an audience member, first it is a little confronting, but by the end it makes perfect sense as a ‘costume’ for your role in the work. How have you dealt with that challenge of dancing unclothed, and how has this experience informed your practice? 

“In 2011, I went to Europe for the first time, and amongst other things took part in many workshops at Impulstanz Festival in Vienna. I signed up for a workshop with Austrian choreographer Doris Uhlich, whose workshop was titled ‘More Than Naked’. She was in the process of making a solo work where she herself was to perform naked. The workshop was intimate, with only nine attendees, including myself.

Doris’ workshop allowed me to feel completely comfortable as my unclothed self. I clearly remember that there was no preciousness around disrobing, and, in fact, on the very first day, we began warming up clothed, performing simple repetitive ‘follow the leader’ actions in a circle to generate some body heat (and I guess get into our less inhibited ‘dancing body’ and out of our societally restricted ‘pedestrian body’). After only about a minute of moving, Doris began taking off her clothes, and in the mode of follow the leader, so did we until we were a circle of bare bodies. Bare from clothing but also bare of any loaded meaning about being unclothed.

Since that workshop, I had performed nude on two other occasions, in a short 13-minute work I made in 2012, which focused more on the sculptural nature of the body in a particular relationship to light, and in Phillip Adams’ Amplification, where I played the role of an ‘alive’ dead body in one scene. Neither of these works were very physical in a traditional ‘dance’ sense, and definitely not revealing of a bare body in the way that Split is.

Split was not choreographed with any nudity in mind. It was not until very close to the premiere season that Lucy proposed the idea, as a response to seeing the choreography that was already in front of her and realising it needed this element. I think this is why it works so well. The first time we tried my full nudity in the rehearsal room, it was at first a little funny, and as you say, confronting, but surprisingly quickly any awkwardness and humour disappeared and all of us in the room (Lucy, Mel and I) felt that it gave a certain sincere complexity to the experience of the choreography, both from the lenses of the dancers and the audience. I quickly got used to being nude in rehearsals.

Lilian Steiner (left) in 'Noise Quartet Meditation'. Footage by James Wright.

Lilian Steiner (left) in ‘Noise Quartet Meditation’. Footage by James Wright.

The first time we performed the work with a full audience during Dance Massive in Melbourne, I was so nervous, but at the same time felt hugely empowered. I had confidence that the work raised questions but was not questionable, and that the presence of a nude body only added to the strength of the work.

The experience of entering each performance of this work feels slightly different. Having to be naked is in ways not too dissimilar to being given an outfit that you’re happy to wear on some days and doesn’t seem to feel quite right on others. Some days I feel more comfortable in my body, and some days I’d be happy to stay clothed. However, it is strange that no matter how I feel as I walk onto the stage and the lights come up, after the first few moments, I begin to feel comfortable in my bareness and begin to thoroughly enjoy the honesty it brings to my movement. There is nothing to hide behind, and so I really focus on the choreography and how I present that. It feels hugely important to not perform ‘nudity’ but to just be nude.”

What’s your favourite onstage moment in any performance?

“Performance gives so many amazing experiences that are so unlike normal life. In October 2017, I was performing a work in the Melbourne Festival by Phillip Adams’ Balletlab titled EVER. The first 20 minutes of this work sits alongside ‘Shaker Loops’ (1978), by American composer John Adams. The music has an energetic vibrancy that trembles and swoops, and alongside it, so did the choreography. It is hard to explain, but it is the most intense and demanding 20 minutes of dancing I have ever done, physically, mentally and emotionally. This 20-minute portion of the work ends with me performing a solo at the end of which I eventually grab hold of a white picket fence with my left hand and cry real tears. Although it is part of the choreography, the tears come in a genuine way every time as a result of the emotional whirlwind caused by the joy and sadness of the movement that builds up over the 20 minutes.

However, it is not the fence and the crying that is my favourite moment, but a moment that comes a few minutes earlier, where at the end of an immensely complex partnering quartet, I am whisked off the floor and leap toward the picket fence. Normally, as I elevate off the ground, my limbs are held by the three other dancers, and as I move forward toward the fence, they pull me back in a brief moment of suspension. One performance, our collective energy at the moment was a little wild, and I leapt with so much vigour that the other dancers didn’t quite have hold of me yet. In the split second before potentially impaling myself on the fence, I felt the support of six hands under me pulling me backward into the next part of the choreography. It was probably a moment that lasted for one-tenth of a second, but in that moment, I had this feeling of pure joy.

By Linda Badger of Dance Informa.

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