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Interview with Garry Stewart, artistic director and choreographer of The Beginning of Nature (Australian Dance Theatre

Interview with Garry Stewart, artistic director and choreographer of The Beginning of Nature (Australian Dance Theatre

Lori: How do you go about searching for dancers? Do you keep some dancers in mind while making a piece or do you select them after your creative process?

Garry Stewart: Well, we have a full ensemble of nine dancers and usually the dancers stay with the company for about four to five years. To find new dancers we hold auditions in Australia, and sometimes we audition overseas. We had an audition in Amsterdam early this year. We also have a secondment week once a year, where we host about thirty secondment students. Do you know what secondments are?

Octavie: It reminds me of interns?

Secondments are graduating students who come and spend time with the company to experience what it’s like to be a part of the company and to learn from our dancers. It’s kind of like an internship, but it only lasts a week.

Throughout the year we have a lot of students and graduates who spend one week or two weeks with us. Quite often we employ them, but it depends on the process. It’s usually a combination of factors. Obviously it’s the technical expertise of the dancers, but the general charisma and personality definitely are big factors as well. We hope to find the kind of dancers people would want to look at on stage. You know, when you go see a performance and there’s usually one or two people you just need to look at. If that makes sense? It’s not often you can find this kind of dancer. I remember once we auditioned in London, we saw several hundreds of people and there was maybe one person I would hire. It’s challenging.

Octavie: So you have a list with requirements: the dancers have to have a certain level of technique, look a certain way, have a certain charisma… But isn’t it like falling in love sometimes? When you see a dancer and there’s just that instant ‘Yes!’, even if they don’t tick all the boxes?

Yes, sure. There’ll be something about them, whether it’s their personality or their physical appearance. It’s a difficult thing to identify this from one person to the next. Also, what stands out about our company is the difference and diversity amongst the dancers. It’s about finding a balance between different types of dancers, between what qualities they bring to the work. This partly depends on gender. And I think there’s also a multicultural note to the work. There are dancers from several cultural heritages within the company.

Lori: It sounds interesting to work with different types of dancers. I wonder, do you adjust your pieces to the dancers, do you create them specifically for these dancers or are your pieces more of a collaboration between you and your dancers?

Well, when I first started choreographing, I wanted to choreograph everything. I wanted to be the author of all of the choreography and I had a particular vision which was very specific. But then at some point I became exposed – by colleagues – to the idea of space methodology. This means that the dancers are given tasks and respond to those tasks, after which we assemble the tasks. I shifted away from this methodology, but worked like that for quite some years. It’s very time consuming. And whilst it’s great having the dancers involved in the process, I shifted my practice back into a more conventional choreographic methodology. I’m much more invested in the authorship of the material and the work, I do a lot of research, a lot of reading in preparation for rehearsal period. I often share those readings and other source materials with the dancers so they have as much information as I do. This puts us all in a similar place, both directionally and conceptually. So I started choreographing more conventionally. I actually find it’s a faster process. It’s a different way of connecting with the dancers through your own physicality and through your own physical expression. I would say now, at this point, I probably make sixty or seventy percent of the choreography and the dancers contribute to the other thirty or forty percent. There’s still space for the dancers to contribute, but the pieces are more driven by myself again. Dancers respond to my choreography; they get a very strong sense of the choreographer’s voice.

Lori: What does the future of dance look like to you?

Garry Stewart: (Laughs) I think I can really only speak for myself, because it’s an enormous subject and it is subjective. It’s such a broad question, it’s like saying ‘What is the future of music?’. What kind of music, you know? Who knows? In what areas? What different genres? For me, I think there has been a big shift in dance in the last two decades, where we’ve become more prudent with conceptual vigour.

There has been a confrontation with conventional dance technique. The notion of choreography that is underpinned by kinetics and constancy of moving has been criticized. I’ve been aware of that critique, particularly here in Belgium, and France and the Netherlands.

Due to that critique, I think it’s been a very interesting time for dance. Now choreographers are more accountable for the work they’re making. It is more than just about the movement, it is about a manifestation of concepts, ideas, social and political points of views. I think that has been a huge underline shift.

Recently there has been a big focus on participation. Community participation, that is kind of the new thing, clearly. Also we saw the addressing of stillness on stage and the absence of moving as a way of critiquing movement and critiquing the stage. For me, I’ve learned some lessons. There are developments within dance. However, I also witnessed those developments in the nineteen seventies and early nineteen eighties. Particularly the work that was coming from the United States, and especially from New York. Later Europe picked up on that field in the late nineties. It’s really interesting seeing these developments come back again, when I have already seen them two decades prior.

In terms of technology, I think there will always be a place for technology in dance. We can see that even going back a century, in the nineteen hundreds, in the thirties, in the forties, there’s always been this interest in technology and in finding ways in which it can augment the space of the body. That’s something I certainly did a lot of work in. I’ve done a project with robotics, called Devolution, with a French-Canadian roboticist, with thirty robots on stage. That was a huge work. I’ve also worked with 3D stereoscopic graphics. So you watch the show with the 3D glasses on. I made another piece, Proximity, where the dancers were filming each other on stage. Then those images were projected on a big screen, mediated through a whole series of effects. It’s about the invisible ways we are connected with each other. And then there were philosophical references to Merleau-Ponty and also references to neuroscience. Another work of mine was called Held in 2004, where a photographer was live on stage. So that piece was an essay in dance and live photography, the framing of the body, and its relationship to light, and its relationship to stillness. So, yeah… I feel like I’ve done my part, when it comes to dance technology. It’s not my interest at the moment, but that doesn’t mean I’ll never work with dance technology again. At the moment I’m more interested in the rawness of the body, and exploring the body within a person’s ritual and a sense of communality of the body. I’m also working with design and especially with design that reshapes the body or refigures the stage. You won’t see much of this in The Beginning of Nature, but you will in later works.

Octavie: Do you think that’s a reaction against the fact you’ve been working with technology so often?

Garry Stewart: It’s definitely a pendulum that’s swung the opposite direction. And working with technology is very expensive, very time consuming and quite restrictive. I think it does narrow the field within which you’re operating, as you almost become submissive to what that technology can offer. I find that restricting and I prefer to use technology as one element of an entire work, rather than making the whole piece about that technology. I’m thinking about working with holographics in the future, to use this new material with which you can project a body in space, magically out of nowhere. But I would have this be one element within the piece, rather than making a whole piece around it.

Lori: This technology also looks very restrictive for the dancers. I saw some pictures and videos of Devolution, a work in which they wear prosthetics. It must be interesting for the dancers to work with these kinds of limitations.

Garry Stewart: In that piece I was colliding these two systems together. The system of the human body and the system of synthesized robotic machines. I wanted to create a unified ecosystem and a unified world. I think for dancers also it’s interesting to work with technology. It offers them new ways to think about their own bodies, and their relationship to dance and these objects. I think it’s restricting, but it in the creative process it’s quite free. A bit of both I would say

Lori: We’re looking forward to The Beginning of Nature tonight! Have you seen other dance performances here at the festival? Or are there things you want to go see later?

Garry Stewart: That’s great! Well, because it’s an Australian festival, I’ve seen most of the works. Last night I saw Lucy Guerin’s Split, she’s a good friend of mine and it was a great performance. I also saw James Batchelor’s work Deepspace which I thought was really interesting. The investigation of the idea of space. I made a work a couple of years ago called Multiverse, that also was conceptually derived from ideas about space, cosmology and physics. It was interesting to see someone else’s idea of that for sure.

Interview conducted by Lori Tuerlinckx and Octavie Ide

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