By Grace Edwards.
Adelaide-born contemporary dance choreographer Lucy Guerin has much to be proud of. Since her company, Lucy Guerin Inc. was established in 2002, Guerin has become one of the nation’s most highly recognised and influential dance figures, whose works have been toured across the globe. Dance Informa’s Grace Edwards caught up with Lucy to discuss her work and life as a choreographer.
You started out as a dancer, but now work as a choreographer. Did you always see a career as a choreographer ahead of you?
“No! I don’t think I was really that aware of choreography when I started actually, or the scope of it. When you study very known vocabularies, like ballet, which has a set number of steps strung together in different ways, there’s still choreography involved, but I think when I started studying contemporary dance and there was an infinite number of possibilities for creating movement, that’s when I started to become more interested in choreography as perhaps a future career. But I definitely wanted to dance initially and didn’t begin choreographing until my thirties.”
What, to your mind, makes for a good work, choreographically speaking?
“For me personally, I like to see either dance vocabulary or combinations of movement that are unusual or unfamiliar to me. Something that makes me see the subject of the work in a new way or understand myself in a new way.
I’m quite demanding of works in that I’m not just interested in seeing fantastic dancing and flashy choreography. I really do want to have an unusual experience, and that’s what I try to do with audiences in my own work. I know that’s a big ask and it’s not going to happen every time to every person, but that’s what I’m aiming for.”
How do you sense when your own works have reached completion?
“I think there’s a certain point when I’m making works when it moves out of just being sections that you have to put together. You can’t work on a whole piece at once, so you tend to work on sections, but then when you start putting them together, that’s when things change, or you think to yourself that something has to go.
Once that process is done, once the work has a trajectory and has a sense as a whole, as a structure, that’s when I hope that it’s finished. You could go on forever of course, but I try to have all the details and these individual moments come together to make something bigger.”
On the flip side, how do your works take form in the beginning?
“Generally, I have an idea about the subject matter, what aspect of the world I want to connect with dance, it’s quite broad. Then I bring it into the studio and I work on a process for that subject matter.
The processes that I’ve used in my last few works I’ve made slightly different for each work, and so really the first step in the studio is to do a number of experiments to figure out the process for generating new material. For instance in my last work, Corridor, that was to develop a lot of lists of instructions and deliver those instructions quickly to the dancers and create the movement that way.
In my most recent work (Human Interest Story), I’m interested in current events and in the way news is brought and how we respond to that, because sometimes I feel that dance often only speaks about certain things and can be quite an interior, personal art form. I’m interested in this latest work to see if the movement can be pushed outwards to connect with more day-to-day, real-life events.”
How has your way of working evolved since you started out as a choreographer?
“In early works I used to create all of the movement myself and the dancers would learn the phrases that I made, but in more recent works I’ve generated the material differently, mostly through the dancers.
When I made my very first piece with other people, I can remember being terribly nervous about having to stand in front of other people and tell them what to do, because they were all my peers at that point. I worked out the entire dance in the studio by myself first.
Now it’s evolved over the years such that, although I have some ideas for the content, subject and the process, I don’t work out anything ahead of time. I think now I trust much more my situation, my art form, the environment in which I make it and the dancers, and that all those things will come together on the day to produce different material. It’s a dance between coming in and being very prepared knowing that you’re going to try this and this, but then also trusting your instincts.”
You re-staged your work, Structure and Sadness, last year in Melbourne. How did the experience differ this time around?
“Well, the cast was a little bit different. Otherwise, I don’t tend to change my works a lot once they’re premiered, because once you’ve seen a work over and over you start to recognise flaws and sometimes if you try to fix them another part of the work becomes a problem, and the whole thing becomes too unwieldy.
You know, I actually really like re-staging works because I feel quite separate from them. I feel like they belong to the dancers and to the audience and I like to see how they respond to them.
And now I don’t get quite so nervous! I’ve always been very, very nervous in that work just because, you know, there are the normal nerves that go with presenting a new work, but also everything, in this work in particular, could just go so horribly wrong. We do have a back-up plan, but it really is a real-life situation happening up there for the dancers.”
You are taking your work Untrained to Adelaide in February, which features two trained and two untrained performers. What has it been like working with such a mix?
“It’s really fun for one thing! It’s just wonderful to watch untrained dancers dancing. And not just social dancing, but doing abstract movements alongside trained dancers. I mean, they can’t really do them, but they do these approximations of them which are quite beautiful in a different way.
It’s beautiful to watch how training changes people’s bodies, but it’s also interesting to witness how much more you can read in untrained dancers. Their ‘personalities’ can be read through their movements because they don’t share that common intonation that all dancers have.
There are an infinite number of things that interest me about that project. It was never meant to be a performed work, it was really just a week of research for me, but by the end I thought we’d gotten so far along that I should make it into a piece. Now the untrained are actually improving though, so I’ll have to change them soon because they’re starting to pick up a few tips!”
What do you find most rewarding and challenging about working as a choreographer in Australia? |
“I think there are amazing dancers here. I love Australian dancers. I did work for quite a long time in New York, but I think there’s just something about having to grapple with your own culture and strengths and weaknesses in relation to art. I’ve been very fortunate here in that I’ve been well supported, I have a studio and a small functioning structure to support my work so I’m not struggling in the way I would be in some other countries, or in the way that some of the younger choreographers are.
One thing that’s a little hard in Australia is that we don’t really discuss ideas and possibilities for our art form as much as we could. But I think that the people in the dance community we have here in Melbourne are very supportive of each other, and choreographers work together to try and allow dancers to get as much work as possible. We’re always in constant conversation with other dance companies to work out clashes in touring seasons, because we share dancers. I know that’s something that would not happen in a lot of other countries.
I think it would be hard on the dancers though, because there aren’t a lot of full-time companies. My company is not full-time, and many others are project-based, so I think that’s why it’s really important to work together and try to create an environment that’s stimulating and inspirational.”
Lucy Guerin Inc. will perform Untrained at the Adelaide Festival between February 24-27th at 7pm and on February 28th at 5pm, at the Adelaide Centre for the Arts. To book tickets phone 121 246 or visit www.adelaidefestival.com.
For more information, see Lucy Guerin Inc.’s official website at www.lucyguerin.com.
Top photo: Lucy Guerin Inc. Structure and Sadness. Photo: Jeff Busby