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Choreographer Lucy Guerin says ballet’s physical perfectionism may see off young girls from their passion for dance, leaving headstrong boys to take the reins in later life. “Women have really defined dance through the ages, especially in America, with a lot of female choreographers, and in Europe. Yet it feels like it’s going backwards a little bit.” By Steve Dow.

Choreographer Lucy Guerin

In a small red brick building with a vaulted timber ceiling previously used as an Anglican Sunday school in West Melbourne, seven performers stand in bare feet or socks, making shapes across a black linoleum floor. Dance music thrums with an industrial urgency, the bass vibrating through the room. The young dancers alternate as watchers and doers, making and exchanging notes on spikes of engagement – creative “hotspots” and “cherries” – within each other’s improvisations.

It is day seven of a two-week exploratory research period by Adelaide-born, Melbourne-based choreographer Lucy Guerin, who is trying a new approach that eschews her usual clear structure and minimalist aesthetic. Instead, she has turned towards the chaos of messy, blurry movement from which to pluck an as-yet-unnamed new work, for which her company will probably be able to afford to pay five dancers to take part. “I’m challenging my tendency to want to solve things quickly,” Guerin tells me as we watch from seats by the door.

Sharing written notes on each other’s largely ineffable gestures is tricky for the dancers. Dark-haired newcomer to the studio Tra Mi Dinh asks blond Alisdair Macindoe if he was channelling an airport runway controller with his arms. He tells her he had in mind a semaphore, like the four members of The Beatles signalling “help” on the cover of their 1965 album of the same name. This afternoon, they will dance with objects each has brought in, including rubber gloves, an umbrella and a dolphin bottle opener.

Twisting her body with an economic elegance is Lilian Steiner, with close-cropped hair, who had a childhood dream to be an astronaut so that she could dance in outer space. In 2017, Steiner won a Helpmann Award for best female dancer, performing nude with a clothed Melanie Lane in Guerin’s pas de deux Split, which will be restaged for the 2018 Adelaide Festival in March and then tour several European cities.

After a 15-minute break, the dancers sit on the black floor, forming a semicircle around a standing Guerin, who at 56 cuts a youthful, trim figure in grey, short-sleeve shirt, blue cotton pants and open-toed strap shoes. Guerin wants to know what it’s like for the dancers, their improvisations being watched and documented. Steiner, fetching her cup of tea, expresses her worry about the limits of written and spoken language, potentially proscribing how a movement was created. “You can’t remember what the original thing was,” muses Steiner, “now it becomes something else.”

Nonetheless, Guerin pairs off the dancers to re-create those noteworthy dance movements, setting a four-minute clock with the instruction that each dancer must begin to adopt or react to the other’s gestures around the three-minute mark, to “get infected”. She has a gentle, nurturing air. When her phone plays a rhythmic alarm at the four-minute deadline, she compliments each pair. “Thank you,” she says, “that was beautiful.”

At her desk in her office next door, Guerin speaks, innately expansive with her hands. She often cups them by gripping her curled fingers, elbows jutting out, alternating left and right hand on top like she’s stretching her palms and wrists.

I note that her company’s 2017 yearly performance season Pieces for Small Spaces, mounted at the end of the year in-house in this same studio, consists entirely of five female choreographers, a decision she attributes to this year’s resident director, Prue Lang, who wanted more women to have opportunities.

Guerin, who blazed a trail by relocating from Adelaide to New York City in 1989, where she hired a studio and began creating her own work, says there are still barriers for women making work in Australia almost 30 years later.

“I don’t think there are any women running major performing arts companies,” says Guerin. “I’d never thought about it, then someone mentioned it to me and I thought, ‘That’s appalling.’ I’ve always thought that dance was an art form where women were leaders. So many little girls do dance and hardly any [boys]. By the time it gets to the top of the ladder, there are no women. There is definitely something amiss there.”

Australian Bureau of Statistics data from 2012 shows almost one-third of girls aged five to eight take part in dance, compared with 4 per cent of boys at the same age. Yet for Australian children overall, dance (15 per cent) is second only to swimming and diving (17 per cent) as the physical activity with the highest participation rate.

“One theory is a lot of girls start out doing ballet, which is a discipline about making your body conform to a particular ideal,” says Guerin, noting a lack of female choreographers in Britain as well as Australia. “It’s very hard work, and you’re focused on attaining this perfection. So your relationship to dance is a little defined by that from a young age.

“Quite often, men who start in dance… it’s a pretty maverick thing to do, as a young man to go into a ballet class. You have to be fairly confident and fairly clear about your desire to do it, to go into that environment. Often, men start later, too, in their teens, rather than at age five or six. They retain a kind of independence of mind, I think. You get these few quite strong-minded males.

Although, Guerin stresses: “Women have really defined dance through the ages, especially in America, with a lot of female choreographers, and in Europe. Yet it feels like it’s going backwards a little bit.”

 

Lucy Guerin was born into a middle-class Adelaide family in 1961. She went to ballet class from seven years old, and had the “young girl’s generic fantasy” of becoming a ballet dancer. She remembers her father, Ron, who was a civil engineer and whom Guerin says “never really quite understood” the art form or how his daughter could make a living at it, nevertheless took her to see an Australian Ballet production of Stravinsky’s The Firebird when she was eight that is emblazoned upon her memory.

Her father is “practical, good at craft and the making and doing of things”, says Guerin, pointing to a small, quite lovely wooden sculpture Ron made and gave his daughter as a consolation prize when she failed to win a dance competition in Paris in her 30s. Brother Ben became a computer programmer and sister Jenny a plant scientist.

Their mother, Anne, a retired librarian, had performed in amateur ballet at about 18 and had a pair of pink satin pointe shoes Guerin loved to teeter about in as a child. “I was very girly. I loved pink and tutus. It’s horrible to think back on.” Guerin gave up dancing for several years in her teens, taking it up again during a year off after finishing high school.

Ron and Anne, now both in their 90s and still living independently, will come to see Guerin’s work Split at the Adelaide Festival, whose co-artistic director, Neil Armfield, sees it as a meditation on time and space. “There’s this metaphor, obviously, that goes through it, of, as you get older, possibilities contract but also there’s a sense of the world contracting,” says Armfield, highlighting the work’s “intelligence and physical beauty”.

Guerin says that’s a truthful take on Split. Contraction is built structurally into the work, with the dancers required to perform in increasingly smaller, taped-off spaces. But do dancers aged twentysomething have the same idea of life possibilities contracting as Guerin and I, having both passed 50, might do? Perhaps, given the state of the world, one should not make assumptions about youthful anxieties.

“I think of it on a global scale as well – the planet and the environment and inhabitable space left to us,” says Guerin. “Split also has this sense of duality between the two dancers, and can be seen as two sides of one person, and a complementing and also a struggle between two perspectives, and trying to negotiate space or life or the world, with decreasing options.”

During the coffee break, we discuss the growth in gigantic apartment blocks in West Melbourne to accommodate a swelling population. I live in Sydney, but have been wandering the blocks around La Trobe Street for the first time in 20 years, around the now demolished building of The Age newspaper where I once worked, stricken by the vertiginous apartment towers that overpower the streetscape now. It emerges Guerin’s studio in Batman Street has a demolition clause built into the lease to potentially make way for more development, hence she’s looking for a new studio. It hasn’t been an easy search thus far.

Guerin lives in a nearby converted workers’ cottage, which she moved into in 2001 with partner and fellow choreographer and erstwhile dance collaborator Gideon Obarzanek and his son from a previous relationship. At the 2017 Helpmanns, the modest two-hander Split had to compete in the dance production and choreography categories with Attractor, an ensemble collaboration between Guerin, Obarzanek and Dancenorth and Indonesian music duo Senyawa. Attractor, perhaps inevitably given its scale, took both prizes. It will next be seen at the Perth Festival in February.

At the Melbourne Festival this year, Guerin choreographed Obarzanek and Brian Lipson in Two Jews Walk into a Theatre. Living with Obarzanek, she says, has overtones of the sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm. “Sometimes I feel our house is a Larry David episode,” she says. “Gideon loves that show, and sometimes I feel he feeds off Larry David and becomes like Larry David, which is a bit disturbing.” She laughs. Has she adopted Obarzanek’s sense of humour? “A little bit. I certainly understand it now.”

The couple met in 1998, when Obarzanek won the tender to take over Chunky Move dance company in Melbourne, and was seeking other choreographers he could commission. Guerin was recommended. “Initially I was quite wary because he seemed like a new kid on the block. He was from Sydney Dance Company, which is a very different world to my dance background. I responded to his confidence and energy. I thought he was really handsome – I’m not denying – but it was quite a while before we got together.”

In an artistic world that can be insular, Obarzanek’s honesty, openness and generosity with sharing dancers turned Guerin’s initial perception around. Their senses of aesthetics are well matched, and both are less interested in narrative dance, although Obarzanek has a stronger interest in audience involvement, while Guerin’s first thought is texture and the rhythm of dancers’ bodies. “He’s very possessive about the lighting of the work, understanding lighting very well.” The pair initially attempted to work on lighting Attractor together. “But having us both there didn’t really work, so I left the lighting to him.”

Meanwhile, the influence of filmmaker David Lynch, his ability to expand and contract time, influences Guerin greatly. She points to the scene in Lynch’s 1986 masterpiece Blue Velvet, where the camera homes into the lawn, the bugs, the dirt. The microscopic zoom. Getting to the bottom of things.

Her explorations in understanding how the human body in movement communicates, she acknowledges, is in opposition to the language channel. “Dance is an art form that is notoriously difficult, or people feel they’re not going to understand or connect with it, which is partly to do with the dominance of language in our culture as the main communicative tool.”

Given her love of film, and considering her incorporation of news media bulletins in her 2010 work Human Interest Story, does she fear adding spoken word to a performance too often makes it too literal, too didactic? “I wouldn’t ever use it as a way of explaining something in the work, literally. If it’s there, it’s usually as a way of showing how language and the sense of meaning conveyed by language – which is quite clear and pointy – is different to the communication that dance can offer.

“As a watcher, dance is layered and sensorial, much more visceral. If you allow yourself, you can get a lot of different levels of resonance. It really isn’t important to me that people know exactly what I intended when making the work.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 9, 2017 as "Interpreted dance". Subscribe here.

Steve Dow
is a Sydney-based arts writer and the author of Gay: The Tenth Anniversary Collection.

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