Felicity Bott took the challenge of the pandemic’s great interruption to all arts organisations to establish Great Southern Dance, a new independent regional dance company. Bott’s vision was to provide pathways for emerging artistic talent and also to highlight the unique landscape and places of her beloved Tasmania.
Dance Informa spoke to Bott about the challenge of establishing a new independent company, building a supportive community, the challenge of creating new works that are relevant and engaging to modern audiences, and how the unique Tasmanian landscape shapes her and Great Southern Dance’s artistic vision.
Firstly, how have the last two years been for you and the Tasmanian regional arts scene?
“Until we reopened, we couldn’t start rehearsing and performing live, but we have a commitment to working on making films so that we can provide access to audiences in isolation. Whether viewing dance on screen or mobile handsets, we had to cater to the many ways the audience engages with dance these days.
We made a lot of films, and a handful of these will feature and be part of the design of the live performance, but many more are stand-alone artworks. Now, in our third year, we are exploring site-specific dance performance and dance films through partnering with owners and custodians of heritage sites. Our intention is for integrating choreography, with architecture and landscape, to invigorate shared meaningfulness of these sites. It allows us to share our creative responses using film and live performance.”
What was the impetus to create a new contemporary dance company?
“There were several things driving my decision. First, I just love the creative process, especially in the broader sense of not just as a dancer or a choreographer but also as a company artistic director. Working with others on a company scale allows me to have a broader cultural and creative impact.
Second, I wanted to share the cultural knowledge that I’ve accumulated with younger dancers, choreographers and other artists. I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of being mentored and influenced by amazing artists who have nurtured this fundamental passion I have, and I’d really like to share and maintain that passion with other artists.
I also feel Tasmania could offer so much more in terms of contemporary dance. Certainly with COVID, we’ve been a bit starved of live performance, and I feel that Tasmania has so many unique spaces and artistic talents that Great Southern Dance (GSD) can provide a creative space for all this.”
In establishing GSD, have you had much artistic financial and community support?
“Yes, we have had a lot of support mainly because of the thriving art scene here in Tasmania. I moved to Hobart at the end of 2018, and since then, I have performed quite a lot, especially the amazing annual Dark Mofo winter festival which engaged many regional artist groups. So, whether it’s performing or producing with other partners, there’s a really vibrant culture here.
I also teach. For the past three years, I have taught weekly sell-out classes for mature artists. I’ve been very connected to Kelly Drummond-Cawthon, who is another director here in town with Second Echo Ensemble. I have had three-and-a-half solid years of working inside the dance sector here and building connections, as well as building as many personal relationships, and have become part of this community. It really helps that I love living in Tasmania and the great lifestyle it offers.”
You speak a lot about the importance of place. What is the link for you between dance and the uniqueness of place?
“Every space we enter engages with our nervous system and affects us in the most fundamental physiological way. While we are aware of these new spaces when we scan them, I’m more interested in how they affect us below the brainstem and manifest in our gut reactions and feelings. And this is what places offer us, as we go into these sites and we explore them, and we just perceive how we’re responding to them and we just let that inform the creative movement.
I think dancers are just so in tune with their bodies, and I think that dance is a form that can interpret and share these gut level visceral responses to the wider community. That has sort of been the creative process we took ourselves into beautiful places, when we took ourselves into punitive places and we took ourselves into places of industry. We then tried to convey all those unfamiliar sensations, feelings and memories of these places and bring those visceral moments onto the stage.”
Will Great Southern Dance have a unique company identity or is it envisioned as a project specific company?
“At the moment, it is rolled out project by project, but there is an overarching artistic vision of what the company anchors its identity. It is a professional dance company that engages other art forms (film, theatre, music, architecture, etc.) that is deployed only to the natural and man-made environments in Tasmania. We see a sort of symbiotic relationship between people and place in our art.”
What type of role do you see regional arts organisations, such as Great Southern Dance, playing in regional areas?
“I think regional arts organisations like ours play an important role in helping the region cultivate, form and express the endless facets of their identity. As we live here, we try to engage artists here or those with deep longstanding ties to the region. Also, as Dark Mofo and WOMADelaide have shown, arts festivals have a wider economic and social impact in terms of tourism and hospitality.
But really for us, it’s just about creating our work in the region and presenting it to local audiences so they reimagine, envision and just experience their own bodies and landscapes in a new way. Whether it’s a live show or one of our films, it’s about a deeper understanding of our bodies, our nervous systems and the places we inhabit.”
Tell us a bit about your first major production, Human Balala.
“The origins of this work is related to our location and film work at the Port Arthur Historical sites, the City of Hobart and the Theatre Royal at Hobart. As we visited these sites, our creative process was to engage our nervous system and what feelings, reactions or movements we felt as we moved through these spaces. Our findings are that the human condition seems to verge between several states of cooperative creativity; states of competitive fight or flight mode: and states where people are numb and traumatised with their world.
Human Balala is an exploration of these three states…a roller coaster of these very human ways of being…seeking a state of flow, intimacy and connection. That explains the human in the title while Balala is a kind of contemporary take on the word ballet and its romantic historical baggage. Balala is a kind of unfinished throw away approach many people adopt to human dance and movement. They are often vaguely aware of their bodies dancing through the world and space. We want this work to sort of awaken our embodied spatial awareness.
Human Balala premieres 1-9 April Studio Theatre at Theatre Royal, Hobart. For more information on Great Southern Dance, visit greatsoutherndance.com.au.
By Elizabeth Ashley of Dance Informa.