Under the guidance of specialised teachers, Queensland’s Merge Dance Theatre works with many industry professionals to bring contemporary dance to young aspiring performers. Merge incorporates dance, choreographic skills, improvisation skills, collaboration work, partner work and acting skills into rehearsal and performance. Dancers rehearse on Saturdays and perform in an end-of-season production. At the 2018 Australian Dance Awards, Merge was nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Youth Dance. Here, Dance Informa speaks with Merge Director Deanna Castellana about the evolution and mission behind the youth company.
Tell us how Merge came into being.
“So I was a contemporary trained dancer myself and went off to Uni, Queensland University of Technology to study Dance and Fine Arts, and it was there that I learned there was a lot more to contemporary dance than just technique, which was the main focus at Uni.
I realised that a lot of dancers studying contemporary dance weren’t really aware of what was required and how to tap into their more creative side and what is actually required to be part of a contemporary company these days. And when I started Merge Dance Theatre, the students whom I taught might have been good at contemporary technique, but they were lacking on the creative side.
A lot of the students I coached were asking me, ‘How do we take it to the next level?’ So I took it upon myself by using Merge to introduce them to skills that they wouldn’t usually find in the typical dance studio, and rather than sharing this with our students, I wanted them to also be able to collaborate with strangers as they would in a company. To be comfortable and familiar with things such as getting close to other bodies and contributing with their own ideas, thoughts and processes. That’s how Merge came to be.
It started off as an idea, recognising that something was lacking, and it has developed from there to what it is today. The students who started with me four years ago are now proficient with choreography, being creative and thinking for themselves. In terms of contemporary dance, they now have a voice that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. So this is our fourth year and it’s been a bit of a blur. I’m always thinking about next year, as well as teaching this year.
Contemporary dance is growing in the arts sector, and there are always new things happening, which keeps me motivated and coming up with new ideas, while new students who come along also spark ideas, so it just keeps going.”
Why would students choose Merge to go to the next level in their career?
“If students want to do contemporary dance professionally, I believe that no matter where they are, they will need to do something of this kind. So this being our fourth year, I’ve seen students coming through who started with me without the required competence to be recognised as a contemporary dancer. Merge has enabled them to find their creative feet.
The other reason students come to Merge is to discover whether they really do want to be a contemporary dancer. So it’s a pathway to show students what they really want to do, rather than what their friends are doing. We give them the tools that push them to the next level.”
What connections can you offer the students?
“For the last three performances, and now onto our fourth, we’ve had Alana Sargent as a collaborator, and she’s brilliant. Alana recently retired from dancing after having worked with Sydney Dance Company (SDC) and more recently as a dancer and choreographer for Expressions Dance Company. She is now quite involved with Merge, working with improvisation and the exploration in partnering work. It’s important that the students at Merge don’t only have me but an industry professional, someone who is still connected to the current industry and who has connections.
Alana’s there for students who ask, ‘Where do I go from here?’ She can put them in contact with people in the industry and give them advice on where to go to gain different skills – for example, workshops and working with different artists. Being an artist who still has a foot in the door professionally as well as a collaborator with Merge is great. Simply by being an industry professional with connections in the industry, she’s been able to assist these students. It allows students to be connected with the current industry because Alana is still in it. Alana can put them in contact with industry professionals and organise secondments with different companies.
The main struggle for the students is the frustration of having the technical ability without having been exposed to the other creative components such as improvisation, discussing a work and being creative. So they’ll do a secondment at SDC, for example, but they baulk when it comes to doing something on the creative side. The result is they often feel inferior or feel they don’t have anything to offer. With this scenario, despite having a week on secondment, they haven’t really been able to show what they can do, so it’s a bit of a waste.
The advantage of working with someone like Alana is that she’ll come into the studio and give them some choreography that she might have been working on that day with Expressions Dance Company. We’re so blessed to have someone like that who can come into the studio and show the students choreography that professionals have been working on. That’s the change that has occurred. It’s exciting to see these young dancers becoming more proficient and professional.
We had a student last year who had trained with us for three years before auditioning for the SDC’s Pre Professional Year (PPY), Telea Jensen. Linda Gamblin, the SDC PPY Course Director, saw Telea’s potential and offered her a full scholarship. The goal at the end of the day is to set them up as professionals and get them into a company.
Last year, we also collaborated with Topology, an orchestral ensemble in Queensland, who asked Merge if they could collaborate with us, again providing current industry professionals who can work with the students. Topology wanted to compose music for the show and be involved with the story line. The bonus is that Topology are happy to apply for grants on our behalf as well.”
Why a dramaturg?
“Timothy Hill is a dramaturg who is a freelance director of musical theatre, plays, cabaret, dance and film. He’s the outside eye who comes in to make sure he understands what we’re aiming to portray. He’s the theatre side behind Merge. When we’re making a production, he comes into the studio and builds the theatre side onto it.”
To finish the interview, we speak to 18-year-old Monique, who is one of the Merge’s long-standing students who has started helping Castellana in the studio.
Castellana explains, “Monique’s going to jump on board and help with the choreographic side of things. She’s developed an interest in choreography, so I’ve said to her, ‘I’m going to give you some responsibility now.’ She started here in 2016, and she’ll also be there for auditions.”
Monique, tell us how it feels when you go into the studio in the morning?
“It’s a pretty cool experience. Being with people in the studio is really cool because you get to meet these different people that Deanna brings in like Alana Sargent. You also get other people’s perspective on things so you get an insight into ways of creating. I’m 18, but I’m turning 19 this year. In the future, I would really like to do choreography. I found a passion for choreography this year. I didn’t see myself as someone who would be able to improvise and create, but I do it now.”
And what’s on your program today?
“Today I’m just doing a few classes, and afterward I’ll go to work. I have a job as well. I’ll be taking contemporary and then a jazz class with Hayley Winch.”
For more information on Merge Dance Theatre and details on how to audition for the youth company, head to mergedancetheatre.com.au.
By Elizabeth Ashley of Dance Informa.