DANCE IN AUGUST.
Oh yes. Limber up, folks, because the Art Olympics is stepping into the spandex and pulling on the leg warmers for August, as we get set to DANCE our hearts out!
This month, you might want to sign up for a dance course and learn to strut your stuff like Fosse, but if that's all a bit much, we highly recommend setting aside four minutes every day to play a song you love and just dance like an idiot wherever you feel like doing it - in your bedroom, in the kitchen while waiting for the kettle to boil, your balcony, your backyard, on the train, while walking your dog - wherever it feels good! Try playing music you wouldn't usually dance to and see what happens! Taking a little dance break gives your brain and body a jump start, gets some oxygen in your lungs and generally improves your life. Get involved!
For some lump-in-the-throat inspiration this month, check out Wim Wenders' gorgeous documentary Pina, paying tribute to incredible choreographer Pina Bausch. We challenge you to get through it without tearing up and wanting to run off and become a professional dancer.
Melbourne folk, if you're ready to learn some sweet new moves, Chunky Move offer public dance classes, The Space in Prahran has a dizzying array of classes in genres from flamenco to hip hop, and Bey Dance is exactly what it sounds like: classes dedicated to teaching you every single move to Beyonce songs. Yes, you can learn 'Single Ladies.' Yes, you need this in your life right now.
Now, stretch out and settle in for our interview with dancer, choreographer and contortionist Amy Macpherson, as she chats hypermobility, lost ballets, mentors and music.
THE ART OLYMPICS jumps on Skype to natter with dancer, choreographer and contortionist AMY MACPHERSON.
8:16 am. Two laptops, one in New York, one in Melbourne.
Art Olympics: So if you’d like to start by giving an intro into who you are and the work that you do, that would be great.
Amy Macpherson: So my name is Amy Macpherson. I’m a contemporary dancer as well as choreographer and teacher. I also have a circus practice that is maybe termed as ‘contortion’, but I like to call it ‘dance contortion’, which is my own take on the circus background of contortion and my dance practice. I studied at the Victorian College of the Arts. I graduated from there in 2007, and since then, I’ve worked for mainly physical theatre companies – KAGE in Melbourne, Legs on the Wall in Sydney, I’ve done a gig with Opera Australia, I’ve worked for a company in Perth called Buzz Dance Theatre that’s now been named as Co3, and I’ve worked with Katie McCarthy, who’s an independent based in Newcastle. And various other independents as well. I guess I started to become interested in the circus side of things when I began teaching at NICA, which is the National Institute of Circus Arts. It’s the only institution that offers a degree in circus arts in Australia, and there I was teaching dance – ballet and contemporary – to the circus performers, which was lots of fun. So I started that and I’ve been doing that on and off since 2009. Choreographically, I made my own solo show last year, and I’ve collaborated a lot with a very good friend of mine, James Welsby, under the name Phantom Limbs, and we’ve made several full-length shows together, as well as some shorter works.
AO: So did you only start doing the contortionism stuff when you were teaching at NICA, or did you have a background in that as well?
AM: No, I didn’t actually. I’ve always been quite hypermobile – I’ve got hyperextension in my joints, and because of the dance stuff, I’ve always been doing a lot of stretching and things, but I started pretty late. I started when I was 23. So that’s considered quite old, to start something like contortion. But, as I don’t dream to be in Cirque du Soleil – actually, no, that would be really cool –
AM: As I don’t dream to be in Cirque du Soleil as a contortionist, the skills I can perform are still considered extreme enough to fit within that realm. However, the older I get, the less able I become.
AM: But at the height of my contortion training, I was able to do triple folds, which is sort of a base contortion skill. But I’ve always used it in conjunction with dance, as an extension of my dance vocabulary. I’m never going to be in a circus company, but I can still use those skills for some corporate work and dance, physical theatre work.
AO: Is the corporate work doing things like going to events and being the entertainment for the evening?
AM: Yeah, pretty much. I did a bowls club lunch once, and everyone was over 70 years old.
AM: There’s also more large-scale events, with 1000 people there, and they’ll hire a lot of different performers in different disciplines. There’ll be a stilt walker, other acts as well, and you’ll be roving through the audience, or you can be performing an act, depending on what they prefer.
AO: Is the contortion stuff, the way it’s structured for that kind of work, is it kind of ‘Here’s a trick! Here’s another trick! Here’s another trick!’, or are you able to bring in a bit more of a sense of arc to it, in the way that you would with dance?
AM: I like to work with integrating the dance with the skills, but if you’re performing a corporate job, it’s more skill-based, definitely, because they want the wow-factor. But what I find is beautiful about contortion is the movement of it, and I guess the dancer in me would prefer to craft it to use those skills in a more dance-like way, rather than a skill-based, more technical way.
AO: I’ve always been quite interested in the vocabulary of dance, particularly when you’re creating new work with a collaborator, and you need to express words for movements. If you’re talking about ‘So, in this section, we’re going to be doing these movements’, how much of it is using existing vocabulary for the movements you’re making, and how much of it is ‘Now it’s the weird crocodile thing that we do’?
AM: A mix, definitely. Most of the words in contemporary you make up, and it is handy to have words, it is handy to say ‘And catwalk for three, and then expand’, or to create words that trigger the movement, so you can remember it and recall it really easily. But I still often use the ballet vocabulary if I’m teaching, even if it’s contemporary. I’ll still say ‘And plie’ to bend. If a leg’s going in a circle, you can call that a ronde, because that’s what it is in ballet. So that can help. There used to be a very old-school way of notating dance, called Benesh Notation. You actually would notate all the movements – this was before video. And companies would have people that would just do this notation, to record all of the choreography. Obviously that’s completely died out now. But there was a lecturer are VCA who’d done that for the Rambert Company overseas.
AO: So now if you’re developing something new, there tends to be a lot of filming? So you get an idea of what you’ve done?
AM: Definitely. And if you’re in between developments – you do one development and then you’ve got a series of weeks or months in between the next one, you always film it at the end, everything, so you can remember it. If I’m working by myself in the studio, I’ll just film almost everything I do. I’ll play for a while with one certain task, or idea, or concept, and then I’ll film it. Because you can see a lot from the filming. Often you’ll catch something right at the end, and you won’t like most of what you’ve done, but this one movement at the end is great, and then you work from that. So it’s a very handy tool to have. It’s hard to learn shows off video though. Earlier this year, I worked with a company in Perth, and I had never done this show before, so none of the movement was in my body. We were an all-new cast apart from one – there were six cast members, and it was so hard, learning the whole thing off a video. Some of it was taken in rehearsals, some in performance, so there were bits where you’d miss someone, because they’d go behind the set, or the camera would be facing the wrong way, or too zoomed in, so you’d just make something up in those bits.
AM: And you have to reverse everything, because you’re looking at it backwards. You have to put it in a mirror, and learn it looking in the mirror, or just do the reverse of what you’re seeing. It’s very slow. A very slow process.
AO: Gosh. There’s something that I find kind of interesting about the fact that you can dance the original choreography for, say, Swan Lake, because it’s all notated and written down. Is there ever a concern in terms of archiving work, that in the event of data collapse, there’s nothing there to physically be testament to the work that’s been made?
AM: Yeah, I think definitely that’s a concern. I’ve never been in that situation – when you work for companies, they’ll often make multiple copies, to try to prevent that as much as possible. But definitely, if something went wrong with a file, that would just be lost, that whole work would be lost. It definitely has happened in the case of ballets. There are whole ballets that just don’t exist any more. You see it in the chronology of that choreographer, but there just isn’t anything – there might be a picture, or an old poster, but there’s just nothing. It just doesn’t exist any more. It’s a bit sad. I think in this day and age, though, that happens less and less. I think the real shame about filming is that it’s a great tool for archive purposes, but you can just never really get the same thing from watching the video of dance as you can from being in the theatre. Essentially, an element of it is lost anyway as soon as the show finishes its season.
AO: I was at a talk at Dance House this year for Dance Massive, where people were talking about documenting dance, and one of the speakers was really against it. She was like, ‘Look, I do it because I have to, I do it because I have to get funding’, but she was talking about the loss of control that happens when you’ve created something and then you lose the ability to mediate it, because someone else is mediating it for you. We were talking particularly about photography, and it was interesting, and something that I had never really thought about, I guess because in theatre, because you’re capturing events that tend to be more static, there’s less of a sense of misrepresenting the work by capturing a movement at its wrong peak, or the stage in a way that the performer doesn’t want you do. It was a really interesting insight for me into how dancers perceive the work they’ve made. I sort of forgot that when I shoot something, that’s just my experience of the show, and it’s not necessarily what the performer wants the audience to experience it as.
AM: And so she’s against documentation, because it’s essentially a misrepresentation because it’s not in the performance form?
AO: Yeah, she was kind of like, ‘Look, I get that we have to do it,’ but there was clearly a tension there, for her at least, which was like ‘What comes out of those images is not necessarily what I want the show to be perceived as.’ I guess it’s always a struggle with live performance.
AM: Ooh, you’ve gone all pixelated! It’s beautiful. It’s like a Skype painting.
AM: I can totally see where she’s coming from. With my solo show last year, I have the whole thing online on a private setting, but I can share it with people. But a good friend of mine didn’t make it to the show, and she really wanted to see it, and she asked if I had it filmed, and I said yes, and she said she’d really like to see it, and I actually never sent her the link, because I’d just rather she didn’t see it in that form. I just pretended like I forgot, and it hasn’t been brought up again.
I suppose I feel similarly. It’s not the way I would choose for anyone to see anything I’ve ever performed in, definitely. You just need to be there, I think.
AO: So your most recent show, is that the first solo show that you’ve done?
AM: Yeah, that’s the first one that I’ve made. I’ve made some short solos before, and often performed little circus solo acts, but that was my first half an hour solo show, which was pretty daunting, but it was great. I did it as part of a JUMP mentorship, with the Australia Council, and I was mentored by Narelle Benjamin for that, and she is an amazing choreographer, but previously was a professional dancer, and also has a really strong yoga practice, so she works with extreme flexibility in movement, so she was really great to work with.
AO: Was she involved in helping you structure the show, or was it more in physical detailing? What was the nature of her contribution to the room?
AM: She helped with both, but I think mostly the detailing. The first time we were in a studio together, I had prepared some sections to show her, because I didn’t want to come in with nothing. I had this sort of contortion dance phrase, and she would really great at going through, and saying, ‘I can tell you’re going to do an elbow stand there. I can tell you’re going to do a chest stand. You need a better way into that.’ She’d just challenge me, she’d see that the skills were there, and basically make me justify it with the movement that I created into it. And when I couldn’t find a logical way into a skill, then she would ask, ‘Well, should it be there?’ That was really helpful, because it was bringing it back to that dance mentality, of saying ‘What is the best movement to express this?’ rather than ‘Well, I haven’t done an elbow stand yet, and I should probably do one.’
AM: I’m working at the moment at Circus Oz. I’m choreographing the Strong Women Project that they’re doing, which is great. It’s really interesting, because I’m working with seven women, and they’re all from different circus disciplines, and so I’m choreographing a dance piece on them, but also helping them with their solos. Which is interesting from having been in that process with Narelle, with her helping me, and then my input into what these women are doing with their solos – it parallels in a way.
AO: The thing you said about Narelle saying, ‘Oh, I can tell you’re going to do an elbow stand there’ – is that a bad thing, if people can pre-empt the movements that you’re going to make?
AM: I think so. I think in dance, you want to always be surprising yourself and your audience. And if people predict what’s coming, in my experience anyway, I feel like as an audience member of dance, and also a performer and maker, if you catch on to how it’s made, or the structure or how it’s happening, it can quite easily become boring. But if you’re always left guessing, or if you’re always in a space where you’re not quite sure what’s going to happen, I think it’s a better space to play in. So just being careful that patterns don’t become too recognisable within a work, and that the tone of the work can fluctuate as well.
AO: When you’re working with sound and music, like in your show, did you start working on movement and then find sound after that, or did the music come first and then the physicality came from there?
AM: A bit of both. With my solo show, I worked quite closely with a composer called James Brown, who’s based in Sydney. He likes to work in the studio – he likes to be part of the making process, and part of the conceptual process, and as an artist, he doesn’t like me just sending him videos. He wants to be part of what I’m making, and to influence that, and I really like that about him. That’s why I like working with him. So we had a weekend together in Sydney, and I’d already done a full development of the show, so I had a lot of stuff already there, and I’d been rehearsing to other tracks of music for certain things. There was one section where I was doing this repetitive walk thing at the end of the show, which went for about five minutes, and it had to be to a certain beat and timing, so I gave him that track and said, ‘Can you make something with this beat, but I prefer this kind of mood’, and we worked on it. So there were elements of that, where I was like, ‘It needs to be something to this timing’, or I had other ideas in terms of how it was structured. I wanted the contortion part to be quite quiet and soft sound, and other bits I wanted to be harder. So I had different ideas that I brought into the studio, and we worked through all the different sections that I had. He’d already made a few tracks pre-emptively, and I’d been using those as well, trying them out with certain different parts of the show, and we worked from that and what I’d made. It was really quick actually. We had almost the whole 25 minutes of sound at the end of the weekend. The ideas for all of the sound were there. And I think it’s good to work in different ways. Sometimes if you choose some music, the rhythm can inspire you, or the atmosphere of it can inspire you, but then also it’s nice to make things without music, because then you’re not adding another element to it. It is what it is, and it doesn’t have any influence from sound.
AO: When you were making that show, what were you going into it wanting to explore?
AM: So with that show, it was called ‘Soma’, and I wanted to explore extreme flexibility in movement. So it was a physical exploration. It sort of tied in with a concept of transformation, because I started very pedestrian, very minimal movement, and then it developed. There were elements of the more flexible stuff in the beginning, but really it kind of climaxed, and the end of that craziness or chaos is where it really emerged from. I suppose, if you were looking at it conceptually, or maybe from more of a narrative point of view, it might be someone who’s been transformed into this other being or something, and then has to learn to cope with this other worldliness about them, or this other way of moving, or this other way of being in their body. Maybe. It’s still so weird to talk about it.
AO: And in terms of stuff coming up in the future that you’re making, either by yourself, or with James, or other people, what’s the next project that you’re feeding into that’s your own work?
AM: So the Strong Women project is working towards a showing. I’m also doing an artist’s residence with a company called Western Edge Youth Arts. I’m doing movement direction on a show about climate change with Year 9 students. That’s been actually really fun. There’s a few different artists involved – there’s a set and costume designer, an AV designer, a theatre director, myself and another dance teacher whose main focus is hip hop. It’s actually been really fun to work with the hip hop teacher, but also with the other artists. We’re going to make this crazy show that’s going to happen in October. All the kids get invited to choose whether they want to make animation, or they want to do sets and costume, or dance with us, or acting, so it’s pretty fun, actually! It’s been really different – I haven’t been part of a show like that before. It’s great fun. Other than that, that’s pretty much it at the moment. I’ll continue touring a little bit with KAGE, with ‘Forklift’, that’s a show that I work on with them where we take turns to drive and perform on a forklift.
AM: I have my forklift license.
AM: So we’ve got a little bit of touring for that next year, so I’ll keep doing that. I would like to make another show of my own, but it’s also nice to just be brought in as a choreographer for someone else’s show, that they’re responsible for.
AO: And so who is inspiring you at the moment? What’s exciting you?
AM: I’m really excited about Batsheva coming for the festival, because they’re one of my favourite companies. I’m really stoked that they’ll be coming for that. And Hofesh Shechter, who was with Batsheva but now has his own company based in London – they’re probably my favourite company in the world. They’re amazing. They’ve always been, for the last few years, since I saw Hofesh Shechter’s ‘Uprising’ in their rooms, which was in 2008, I think. They’ve been pretty inspiring. My friends are very inspiring. James has just moved to Berlin, and he has started to pursue a career in drag and vogueing. I love him. He put on a cabaret called ‘YUMMY’ a couple of weeks ago as part of the Midwinter festival before he left. He’s very inspiring to me. And the people who performed in that show are just gorgeous, lovely people. Antony Hamilton has always been one of my favourite Australian choreographers, and I just love everything that he makes. I think that he’s just incredible.
AO: I photographed Antony’s ‘Meeting’ for Dance Massive, and I was just so enthralled. I kept forgetting to take photos, because I was just like ‘Oh my god!’
AM: ‘I just want to watch the work!’
AO: It was great.
AM: I actually missed that show because I was working in Perth at the time. I missed all of Dance Massive. It was devastating.
AO: And did you have an idea for a challenge that people who are doing the Art Olympics could do, to use to kick off an interest in dance?
AM: Martin Del Amo talked about this at one point, so this is inspired by him. He would make people dances for their birthday. That would be his present to them. So maybe a task could be, if you can make a dance as a present for somebody. And make it as silly as you want – it doesn’t have to be serious. Use your favourite dance moves, whatever they are, make them into a little sequence and give it to somebody as a present.
AO: I love that. One of my friends, a while ago, made this ridiculous video for her friend’s birthday where she filmed herself dancing and edited it together. It was incredible.
AM: That sounds amazing. And people shouldn’t feel like it has to be really good – it can just be really daggy. Anyone can do it, and whatever you do is amazing.
AO: Brilliant. That sounds totally great. Thank you very much!
AM: Thanks for inviting me to do an interview!
Amy's website can be found here.
eader image photography by Ashley McLellan.