Portrait

A walk through the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art with choreographer and dancer Jo Lloyd. By Romy Ash.

Dancer Jo Lloyd

Jo Lloyd, choreographer and dancer, walks me through the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne. I follow her as she strides purposefully through the gallery, surveying. She’s tall, posture straight as a pencil.

“This is the space it will occupy,” she says. She has been choreographing, in collaboration with Irish artist Eva Rothschild, a one-off performance that will occur around Rothschild’s sculptures. Ten dancers, of which she is one. Lloyd usually dances in the pieces she choreographs. She says she prefers it that way. She likes to break down the hierarchy of dancer and choreographer. She’s been rehearsing in her studio, separate to the gallery space. She’s been imagining dancing to its dimensions, but seeing it now she looks relieved. “It feels bigger,” she says. “It’s been quite a good thing to embrace this imagined landscape, or scenery. For this performance: it’s an hour, it’s in a gallery, there are certain parameters to do with her [Rothschild’s] work. It becomes my job to arrange the time … a lot of my work is based on the attempt. Attempting certain things, so the attempt becomes the choreography.”

We move outside to sit in the sunshine. A spring wind throws grit at us and makes flyaways of Lloyd’s red hair. I want to know how she came to be a dancer, a choreographer. “I wasn’t the little girl running around in a tutu. That wasn’t my way in,” she says, but she goes on to say that she did study ballet.

“I was eight. Some of them start at three or four, really young, my sister did that, and she’s three years older. She did modern dance, and I did ballet and then it was the classic tale of Mum would pick us up when she [her sister] finished class, so I’d have to sit and wait, and I’d watch the modern dance class. It was taught– now I realise, he was a really amazing teacher ... by this modern dancer of the time, Arthur Turnbull. He was quite remarkable, and at the end of the year they made this piece, and they were tying fabric and they were rolling this woman, and they were doing moves on the floor and they had bare feet – and it was one of those real classic moments of what have we got here? And he, the teacher, one night said, you can get up and join in. I remember taking off the tights and the ballet shoes and the feeling of the floor, and not rotating the feet, and going to parallel,” she demonstrates this with her hands, and in fact, her hands are never still. “It was a distinct moment. I hate to be corny, but it was.”

She studied at the Victorian College of the Arts and, she says, it was the discipline of dance that appealed to her. “I really like the discipline, and the combination of fantasy and imagination and the discipline of the body. The imagery that my teacher would use when she taught us, I’ve taken a long time to realise that I teach in a similar way because that’s what I gained from her. She’d talk about holding your hand in a certain way. You’ve got droplets of water on your fingers, or you dip your hand in a bucket of water and the water drips off – and that’s how you hold your hand – imagery.”

She shows me, dipping her hand into the imaginary bucket and holding it out into the wind. It’s such an elegant move and I can see those imagined drops there at the ends of her fingertips falling to the dust.

“I’m teaching a complete beginner series at the moment,” she says. She teaches at Chunky Move. “I love teaching. I give them action-based things, or ideas that are everyday for them. So that they enter into it through the imagination or the visualisation. So that their elbow is scribbling, and before you know it, if you start to layer all these concepts, to do with the imagination, the real and the imagined…” She starts scribbling with her elbow and it’s a jagged sort of movement. “Before they know it I say: ‘You’re dancing now.’ And they’re like, ‘Oooh, okay.’

“So I think of dance as: we are watching them thinking. When we’re watching someone dance, we’re watching them thinking. So, I’m interested in where the concentration is, where the energy is, and steering that and warming up – it is about getting back in the body. Not so long ago I was looking up reincarnation and just one explanation of it is to re-enter the flesh, and I really loved that. When we come into our bodies, we re-enter the flesh, we re-enter the studio, we enter that space and we re-enter the thinking body – this amalgamation – this is thinking.”

“I go on a bit, sorry,” she says, and laughs but follows with an absolutely serious, “I’m totally consumed by it.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 29, 2018 as "Think first and dance afterwards". Subscribe here.

Romy Ash
is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.