Damien Welch - a passion for both dance and music
Hear from The Australian Ballet Principal Dancer
By Grace Edwards
Already one of the nation’s best loved dancers, Principal Artist Damien Welch of the Australian Ballet has showcased his versatility in the company’s acclaimed choreographic season - Bodytorque 2.2 – performed in May. A self-described music lover, Welch’s piece entitled Chemical Trigger features not only his own choreography, but also his own music. Dance Informa’s Grace Edwards caught up with Damien to talk about his new piece and his passion for music.
How exciting for you Damien! Tell us a little about your piece, Chemical Trigger
Chemical Trigger is an abstract piece about a man and his relationship with different women. There are three short musical pieces within the work and the music starts off very rhythmically. By the third piece an overlying sense of distance has taken over. This man is very distant from the women who he supposedly loves – or I should say, the three women that represent three different relationships at three different points of his life - this piece is about that lack of intimacy within himself, which borders almost on violence simply because he can’ t understand his own lack of connection.
Tell us about the process of choreographing and creating your own music.
Well I always knew that I was going to do this piece. I always knew that I wanted to create my own music for it too, but in my own usual way it was all very last minute! I had originally created some music which was not ‘dance music’, but music that had a steady beat to it. But then I just woke up one day and decided I hated it, so I started again and my whole idea of what this dance piece was changed too. Ultimately I just went with the flow.
My first piece ended up being a collage of African rhythms and strange guitar sound-effects. For my second piece I just recorded layers of guitars, but you can’t tell one from another. It really sounds more like synthesisers, like waves sort of coming and going, but it’s quite a powerful sound. The third piece is a piano recorded from a distance with the same guitar sound-effects as in the first piece. The guitar effects actually ended up creating this mood, almost like ghosts haunting someone in the distance. That mood inspired me to come up with my theme about a man.
Photo: James Braund
Damien Welch and Kirsty Martin perform in
Graeme Murphy's Swan Lake.
Photo: Jim McFarlane
Why was it important to you to create your own music?
It’s always been a hobby of mine to make music - pop songs more so than instrumental pieces. But when I lived for a couple years in Holland - my wife [Principal Artist Kirsty Martin] and I were in Netherlands Dans Theatre I – there was a massive choreographic workshop every year that was a little like Bodytorque. Anyone in the three companies involved could join and there would be about twenty choreographers doing 4-8 minute pieces. I just put my hand up and asked if anyone wanted some music.
I ended up getting a couple of responses and that was the first time I ever tried to create music for dance. I gave the choreographers some little samples of things I had been doing and got requests for some of them, so I had the chance to elaborate on those samples. Basically, I just had an incredible amount of fun! One man wanted a Spanish-sounding theme which was so far beyond my capabilities [laughs] and this other guy wanted a piece that would just sound really weird, so we just tried different instruments and sound effects and eventually he went away happy.
Ever since then I’ve wanted to get my foot back in the door– there’s not much opportunity to just try something random when you’re employed in a full-time dance company. I mean, I haven’t exactly been going out and searching for stuff to do, but then at the Australian Ballet we work pretty hard. That being said, I had lots of backup plans for this piece in case I wasn’t happy with anything that I started!
Which choreographers have inspired you with their use of musical language?
Well first of all, I should probably mention that everyone hears music their own way. But as far as hearing music the way I hear it – and it may sound a bit like nepotism but it's not – my brother Stanton Welch. His choreography is probably the most literal interpretation of the music I have ever seen – you see different layers of the choreography when different people are dancing, which is very inspiring as a dancer because the choreography can become a lot easier if the music helps to lift you. A crescendo, even if it’s exhausting, keeps you going and yeah, he’s a really good one for that.
In the wider dance world of course, there’s Jiri Kylián. I think his interpretation of music is very soulful and beautiful - he gives the music a lot of space. There are so many! It’s interesting trying to be musical because there are different ways to approach it. First, there’s the approach of trying to interpret the feeling of the music, and then there’s the more literal approach. Although I felt at the beginning that I would be more the latter I’ve found that I’ve been more the former, just feeling the music inspire me. Though obviously, the rhythm has to be there.
What qualities are inherent in a musical dancer?
I think it’s as obvious as it sounds - it's just timing. I’ve seen and been involved in arguments where people are saying ‘Be on the one’ and I’m going, ‘I am on the one!’ Then suddenly you’ve got the whole room divided, one side saying ‘He is on the one!’ and the other ‘You’re late!’ [laughs].
Also, acting out what you feel about the music that comes from inside yourself is important. I think that’s the most important thing apart from timing because it really can ruin a piece to see people dancing slightly off the music because it never has the synchronicity that it needs. When you have a large group of dancers and they’re all dancing onstage and can’t see each other for cues they often try to all interpret the music the same way, which is nearly impossible!
Yeah, actually I’ve been saying timing but no, I think it’s feeling the spirit of the music that’s most important for a musical dancer. It’s like charisma, as corny as that sounds. It’s not something that you can really change, as it comes from deep within the person.
Who comes closest to your ideal of a musical dancer?
Wow, let me think about this for a moment – oh yes, my wife Kirsty Martin!
One wonderful thing about female dancers is that when they have a musicality to them their arms can be interpreting one part of the music whilst their body is interpreting another. For example, their legs can be moving very fast but their arms can still have a lovely soft quality about them. That’s a wonderful element about them I think.
Also, Steven Heathcote, who’s just recently retired. He interpreted music in a different way to me, but he was always on top of the music. Of course, we have dancers in the company who could tell you what count we are up to, what bar we're up to, half way through Swan Lake, but that doesn’t necessarily make them a musical dancer.
I like to think that I’m a musical dancer, because I spend all my time rehearsing trying to know the steps so well that I can just forget about them and dance to the music when I’m onstage. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I am, but I think that’s a good goal for any dancer. But yeah, I’m not going to name any more people because I’m going to have to work with most of them at some point!
How do you feel that your knowledge of music has enhanced your dance career?
I might have a bit of musical knowledge but I have an incredible passion for music and I think that’s what has helped me most. How lucky am I that I get to go to work and listen to people playing music all day? We have pianists at the AB who are just incredible and we have class everyday with them. Half of what they’re playing is just coming to them off the top of their head! It’s wonderful to go to work and get to listen to the piano version of Swan Lake and then go home, have some dinner, have a shower, get ready for the show and have the Sydney Symphony Orchestra or Melbourne Symphony, or whoever is performing that night, play for us.
I think that passion helps you to want to be a dancer. Though I don’t think it helps me in the sense that it makes me interpret music better than another dancer, I think that sort of ability comes to people naturally.
Do you think it’s important for dancers to study music or learn to play an instrument in a formal sense?
I don’t know how important it is, to be honest. I mean, I went to the Australian Ballet School and we studied music. It wasn’t greatly in depth or anything, but we learnt about the circle of fifths, how to tell a semi-quaver from a quaver and so on and we listened to various pieces of music whilst following the score, but I don’t know how much it helps you to be honest.
It seems obvious that it should help to study an instrument but I don’t know in what ways, because I’ve been banging on for the last twenty minutes about how you’re born with musicality [laughs]! So I think I’m going to stand by that - you can definitely enhance musicality by studying, but I think to be truly musical you have to be a natural. But a lot of things are like that aren’t they? Some of the best dancers can be completely untrained but have a great sense of movement. It’s a bit like golf I suppose - if you don’t have the swing naturally no amount of lessons are going to help, you’ll always just be a hack!
Do you feel that musicality is valued by dancers and teachers in Australia?
I can only speak for the dancers and the teachers that I work with, but yeah! Well sometimes not enough, but I think that no matter what you do it always comes back to that. You can be learning a difficult piece of choreography and learning for quite a while, but at the end if you’re off the music everyone’s going to know it and some one’s going to say it. I’ve even seen the pianists who are sitting at the piano watching people dance slightly off the music do it. So yes, I think that dancers and teachers are definitely aware of the importance of musicality.
The Australian Ballet are performing Nutcracker - The Story of Clara and Paris Match in Melbourne this June and July. For further information and tickets visit www.australianballet.com.au
Win 1 of 5 signed copies of Principal Dancer Lynette Wills’ new photography book Step Inside The Australian Ballet.
Over a period of 18 months, Principal Artist Lynette Wills kept her camera at the ready as the company rehearsed, toured and performed. Wills’ photographs offer a unique insider’s view on the life of a professional dancer with intimate portraits taken in rehearsal studios and theatre stages around Australia. The fruits of her labour have been collected in a beautiful coffee table book called “Step Inside The Australian Ballet”. Click here to go in the draw