Natalie Weir is perhaps one of Australia’s most lauded choreographers. In demand with companies both domestically and internationally, this Queenslander has created works of great intricacy and complexity that entrance the audience and enrich the artistry of the dancers she works with.
Weir has remained consistent throughout a 30-year career which, unlike other choreographers, did not naturally follow on from a long first career as a professional dancer, but one that has entirely been focused on creating new work from the tender age of 18, including an 10-year stint as Artistic Director of Expressions Dance Company (now Australasian Dance Collective).
We spoke to her during a short window in her current hectic schedule to find out how she was recognised from an early age and how her work continues to drive her.
You’ve had an incredibly prolific career. Tell us about your choice to become a choreographer — how did you start and what drew you to it?
“I studied ballet from the age of five at the Ann Roberts School of Dance in Townsville. Ballet was my greatest passion, and Ann Roberts taught me that dancing was about expressing what was in your soul. I left Townsville to study dance at Kelvin Grove University of Technology, now QUT. During my Associate Diploma, choreography was part of my course. It was during that time that I started to feel an interest in choreography, and that I had a spark for it. It was noticed by the lecturers, and a short work I created was taken into a main QUT season. I began to feel that dancing might not be the right path for me. I had very short achilles tendons, and dancing on pointe became harder over time. Maggi Sietsma founded Expressions Dance Company (now Australasian Dance Collective) the year I graduated; she was also my teacher and mentor. I was offered my first choreographic commission for Expressions Dance Company at age 18. I realised that there were other paths than being a dancer. I loved dance with a passion, but the physical aspect of dancing did not love me, I think. I made the decision to stop dancing and focus on choreography at the age of 20. This seemed a natural and exciting progression for me.”
When did you start to become known for your work?
“I went on to create many works for Expressions (EDC), as well as being commissioned by Professor Susan Street, who was very supportive of my choreographic talent, for QUT. I also was commissioned by Cheryl Stock to create a work for Dance North, it seemed amazing to go back to Townsville and create a work for a professional company at such a young age.
Once I got some pieces under my belt — sending videos of them to lots of companies to try and get more opportunities — things began to really take off. My early work was mainly with contemporary companies. Being noticed, nurtured, given opportunities, finding my own voice — I could not have done it without the people that put their trust in me.
I came to attention of Harold Collins, Queensland Ballet’s Artistic Director. I was offered a work for an emerging choreographer season. That was successful, and my relationship with QB developed, continuing to be offered work by Francois Klaus and Li Cunxin over time.
I saw an advertisement that West Australian Ballet was looking for choreographers for an emerging choreographer season. I applied and was successful, with Barry Moreland offering me a place to create a new work for the program. I became Resident Choreographer for QB for a time; l later became resident choreographer for The Australian Ballet.
I continued to work for numerous companies, as well as with young dancers — The Royal Ballet School, New Zealand School of Dance, ABT Studio Company, Hong Kong Academy of Dance, Houston Ballet, Hong Kong Ballet, Singapore Dance Theatre (now Singapore Ballet), American Ballet Theatre, Ballet West in Salt Lake City, whilst continuing to create with QB, WA, AB, Expressions, Dance North, Australian Dance Theatre and so on.
Most recently, I have loved working with the West Australian Ballet dancers on Goldberg Variations and Queensland Ballet dancers on Four Last Songs. The dancers were so creative, sensitive and open to the choreographic process; they really fired my imagination.”
You were Artistic Director of Expressions Dance Company for 10 years. How did this impact your work?
“Being appointed Artistic Director for EDC was a great turning point for me, taking me back to contemporary dance and my dream of leading a company and working with the same dancers over time. My time with EDC and my way of working was really shaped by this experience, and I will never forget my time there and the incredible artists and people I had the honour to work with over the 10-year period.
With choreography, it is important to find your own signature or voice. There is no right or wrong way to create, and it has taken many years to find the way that works best for me. It is about having something to say with your work, and for me, the emotional connection with the audience is something I hold in value highly, as dance is emotion for me. It is something you learn over time through creating, and I believe a person needs a natural talent or spark to follow this path also.
Since leaving EDC, I have been freelancing, as well as taking some time out to recharge and reflect. I recently worked with WA Ballet and Singapore Ballet, and I was appointed Resident Choreographer for Queensland Ballet by Li Cunxin until the end of his tenure with the company at the end of last year, creating with the Young Artists, Queensland Ballet Academy and the main QB company.”
What are your starting points when commissioned by a company?
“It changes each time, depending on what the company is looking for and the vision of the Artistic Director. Sometimes the Artistic Director may have an idea, or a piece of music or a theme for a program, which would be the springboard to a new work. At other times, I might have an idea or piece of music I wish to create, which I would talk to the AD about.
When I was Artistic Director of EDC, the pieces I created were ideas I had of my own that aligned with the overall vision for the company — where I always used live music and worked collaboratively with a stage designer and composer on a concept. There is no right or wrong way, as long as there is something that ignites my imagination.”
You are known for working very collaboratively with dancers on your choreography. How much work have you already done in your own mind and on your own body before you enter the studio with the dancers?
“In my earlier years, I did prepare some movement on my own body, but now all of the pre-work is about making a storyboard, envisioning images, ideas, creating the story of the piece and working ahead of time with a designer to create the visual identity of the work. I put in a lot of work before I walk into the studio — filling my mind with what the work might look like and immersing myself in the world and music of the work. I definitely don’t create on myself at all any more. I actually sit in a chair when I create now; I don’t demonstrate except with my words and my hands. The dancers’ input for me is highly regarded; they bring their own ideas, emotions and movement qualities to the studio. I share my vision for the work with them, sometimes show them paintings or images, direct the scenes — but all of the movement come from them. This requires great trust between the dancers and me. I believe the movement is there to be revealed from within the artist — it is like a conversation back and forth, where we bounce off each other. But it requires a lot of work thinking and planning before I enter the studio. I have great respect for the dancers I work with. Without the dancers, there is nothing!”
How much can/does your vision for the work change as you are working with dancers over time?
“Dancers offer ideas that I may not have thought of. It is about harnessing the creativity in the room. I am very open to these new ideas or ways of expressing something. The collective creativity the dancers have can take me on far better pathways than I might not have thought of on my own. During my time at EDC, I worked with the same dancers over a long period of time. This for me results in the best work being made. The dancers over time could almost read my mind, and were very brave in offering themselves to the creative process. I find that being flexible and open-minded is vital as a choreographer; however, I do lead the process and drive the concept forward.”
How do you handle creative differences in the studio when working so closely and collaboratively with the dancers through your process?
“I feel that if a vision is shared, and the dancers are invested in that vision, they also own that vision; they are part of it and the movement belongs to them as it has come from them. Discussion about how certain scenes might play out, how characters are developed and portrayed is part of the process — being open to the dancers as equal collaborators for me is highly valued. So, through this process, it is unusual to have any real creative differences, as everything is developed alongside each other. As the choreographer, I have to make the final decision on what finally makes it to the stage, but because of the process, this is understood, with all of our objectives being to make the best work possible.”
Do you have a passion project/dream subject that you’ve never had the chance to realise?
“There are quite a few things I have rolling around in my head — stories, themes, music. I know as time goes on, these will eventuate in some form or another. Sometimes, it just takes the smallest of things to become something major; it just needs a spark of the imagination.”
If you had the choice, which company would you most like to choreograph for?
“I couldn’t really say. I have worked for so many companies, and respect all of these companies greatly. But of course, I am always open to new opportunities. I do prefer working with dancers that I know — that shared history and relationship is my favourite way of working. But really, I can work with anyone who is open to the creative discussion. I also enjoy working with younger dancers; this can be very inspiring. They are so open and full of dreams and ideas, and can be fearless! I relish every opportunity, even when I don’t know any of the dancers, if I am working with a new company. It is about sharing the vision and taking the dancers on that journey. I am just so very inspired by the dancer, their dedication and the beauty of what they do. Also working with mature artists is of great interest to me — they have so much knowledge, experience and an artistry that can only be developed over time. Their presence and gravitas on the stage is something that is under represented, I believe.
I have several projects I am in early stage development on, both here and internationally. I also have a new work for Singapore Ballet later this year. I am also working on developing some ideas for a project of my own, and another international work in the pipeline. I have created so many ballets, and I am constantly thinking what is next — what is the next stage of my career and development, and how can I continue to contribute to the dance world. What is it that will challenge and excite me, and audiences, and of course the artists I work with? Choreography continues to be my passion. It always will be.”
If you’d like to hear more from Natalie Weir, she will be having more ‘Conversations in Choreography’ during her appearance at the Vitality Dance Teacher Conference at Energetiks VDF24 on Friday 12 April. As well as being ‘in conversation with VDF’, Weir will give an incredibly intimate insight into her process by delivering a practical workshop and demonstration for dance educators, working live at the event with a dancer.
Get your Vitality Dance Teacher Conference tickets at vdf.com.au/teacherconference.
By Nichola Hall of Dance Informa.