Australian Dance Artists

AUSTRALIAN DANCE ARTISTS

By Jade Starling 

With careers that span from Sydney Dance Company to London Contemporary Dance Theatre, the Australian Dance Artists are 5 mature choreographers and performers currently showcasing works from a custom-built studio in Alexandria, Sydney. Made up of founder and project manager Norman Hall, Susan Barling, Ross Philip, Anca Frankenhaeuser and Patrick Harding-Irmer, Ausdance NSW intern Jade Starling questioned the group on their connections to dance and their ongoing collaborations with sculptural artist Ken Unsworth. 

           Left to Right: Patrick Harding-Irmer, Ross Philip, Anca Frankenhaeuser, Susan Barling, and Composer Jonathan Cooper. Seven Impossible Pieces 2016

Do you remember the first time you danced or watched someone dance? What was that experience like?

Norman: First time I danced onstage was at school in a review concert, the usual “Dance through the Ages”. I was one of the few who could learn the Charleston…! I was then heavily into athletics as my physical expression. But I liked the review so much, I then started “coming out” at school parties, letting myself go with Disco.

Ross: My mother was a creative spirit, my father a social/part time Ballroom dancer...Playing make believe and dress ups was a natural part of my childhood...In fact The Visual arts were in tangent with dance.... (I most likely danced in the kitchen for the first time and at the local Village hall)

Anca: I always danced around at home and I loved the village Christmas parties where we did something that would translate as Ring Games (or Circle Dances). A bit like Barn Dances but you would be invited to dance by someone inside a big handholding human ring that moved around. Then it was your turn to invite someone.

I think my first actual performance was a Hungarian Dance that my Grandmother choreographed for some event at the village hall. I would have been 8 or 9 years old and felt quite at home doing that.

Patrick: My first exposure to dance other than disco was witnessing Keith Bain teaching a "primitive" class in the gym at Sydney University in 1969.

It was a totally life altering experience for me at the age of 24.

Susan: As a child, my mother took me to watch the Australian Ballet in Sydney.

It was magical, it took my breath away…I was floating on a cloud of pleasure. I loved that feeling, the differing dynamics of the dance & the physical language of the dancers. Pure energy and emotions, coupled with the sounds of the beautiful orchestral music made it a an inspirational experience.

     Left to Right: Anca Frankenhaeuser and Ross Philip. Departures 2015. Photo: Eamonn Mcloughlin 

What inspired you to dance and how is that still with you today?

Norman: After attending arts school for 4 years, and discovering it was full of arty pretention, I again came across student productions at teachers College, where I was literally a spear carrier…!  But there was a small dance number which I enjoyed.

I had always been interested in theatre, even performing, but had a very bad stutter at that point. When a full dance drama production came along, I thought This is it….! I can perform without having to (try to) speak.

Ross: Escaping from Working in my father's butcher shop was motivation/inspiring...! (To go to dance classes) ...

I feel it was the "social media" of the day.

And the annual School Musical (High School) ...girls a plenty in both dance class and musicals...the Creative process and physicality are the driving forces from the beginning and today...

Anca: It was just something I did naturally, so when a ballet school opened in the nearest town when I was 12 or 13, my mother asked if I wanted to go. Through our yearly performances I soon realized that I was more drawn to the non-classical pieces. Eventually a Modern Dance School opened in Helsinki and my first class was a complete and utter revelation. I knew my calling! There was no questioning it.

So I suppose that Riitta Vainio, who brought American modern dance to Finland, and my Grandmother were my inspirations.

This is still with me today as the beginning to everything that came after, including my present practice.

Patrick: I was always good at sport and particularly surfboard riding and actually surfed in the world championships in 1964, five years before I came to dance.

I was also a really good disco dancer!

Structured dance offered the physicality combined with a potential emotional and theatrical connection and that interested me.

Susan: I knew from those early experiences that I wanted to be a dancer…

A delight in and an appreciation of the beauty of classical ballet. Finding the right teacher who then introduced me to many other styles of dance, and helped shape the artist I am today. It was a way to express myself, as well as the desire to challenge myself physically... My passion for dance has remained constant & ADA inspires me to continue creating and embracing the physical challenges that unfold as a mature artist.

Norman Hall. Photo: Susan Barling

What tools or research is inspiring your choreography?

Ross: Choreography can morph from the ether and many other incarnations...

emotional or technical and other variants...The environment /sculptured structures /sets/objects/ props/costume/last but not least…music and sound can have an influence on the choreography...

Patrick: The inspiration for much choreography at the moment is the imagination of Ken Unsworth and the resultant creations that we four dancers collaborate on in an attempt to realise Ken's vision.

On top of that Anca and I do a bit of choreography for ourselves as we continue to perform together.

We start with a movement idea and it just seems to flow on from there making various choices as to what to do next.

We try to create imagery that has relevance to the human condition.

Susan: For the recent production of Seven Impossible Pieces, my solo was inspired by a local legend Elizabeth Jessie Hickman, aka The Lady Bushranger. Her escapades took place in & around the NSW Central West town of Rylstone.

The Australian Dance Artists have been collaborating with sculptural artist Ken Unsworthfor some time now. Why do you think this collaboration emerged?

Norman: I had a small independent dance group in the late 70s early 80s, BusyBodies: A Theatre of Dance, based at the Seymour Centre, where I was into exploring cross-art forms, i.e.  making new art different to “traditional”. I liked Ken’s sculptures, especially The Hanging Rocks series, and contacted him about the possibility of doing something together. We met, he took me to his studio, and showed me 100s of sketches he had which could be converted into “theatre”.

Years later, when Australian Dance Artists was formed out of a production called “4 Generations”, I received a Fellowship from the Choreographic Centre in Canberra, and invited him to be involved.

Patrick: Ken challenges us with his imaginative installations and lets us create what feels right for us. He also commissions new music for us to perform to.

We keep doing it because as mature artists we are privileged to be able to all work together and show the results to a discerning audience.

Left to Right: Patrick Harding-Irmer, Ross Philip. Soirée Sforza 2013. Photo: Eamonn Mcloughlin

Initially many of ADA’s performances were site specific. What initiated the shift to perform in Ken’s custom-built studio?

Norman: Ken had been doing things on Cockatoo Island and transport was costly and time-consuming. Working in situ in the studio became the logical thing to do.

Ross: Coming to Kens studio (which he has done a brilliant job in reconstructing it into a Larger Rehearsal and performance space). This allows us/Ken to have Control over when / where and for how long...and yes it is wonderful to have such a Magical space.

Anca: After we had done As I Crossed the Bridge of Dreams (2011) on Cockatoo Island, Ken simply decided that we should do our productions in his studio to an invited audience only, partly because the suggested rerun of The House of Blue Leaves (AGNSW 2010) at Carriageworks never came to fruition, and partly because he wanted to be totally independent and able to manage things his own way since there was no funding available anyway.​​​​​​​

Do you find there is a thematic link between your works?

Ross: Thematic? That's a tough one.....It's a psychological journey... where the audience / viewer see themselves through our expression/work etc. These are not definitive personas/ descriptions and characters, but between the four of us there could be a lover / joker / ego / death.We do not analyse or discuss this aspect. It is an organic natural process (this is all hypothetical)... Can the aesthetic be thematic?

Patrick: Not really. Ken always wants to do something new and that is absolutely fine with us.

Susan: The inquiry into the human condition/landscape is always there without it being a focal point or theme. Relationships to Ken’s objects, stories that evolve from them and scenarios that unfold are often connected to our inner landscape.

Left to Right: Anca Frankenhaeuser, Patrick Harding-Irmer, Susan Barling. Departures 2015. Photo: Regis Lansac

What are you currently working on or hope to work on in the future?

Norman: Next production [is] in October. Under wraps at the moment.

Ross: Personally, I have Just completed a very very Short Dance / performance piece in the landscape filmed entirely by a drone....as for our next production… let it be many days in paradise...

Anca: Ken had an idea for a short film, a solo that I have been choreographing to music specifically written for it by Jonathan Cooper and we are very lucky to have Sue Healey on board to make the film next week.

We will also soon start on a new production working with Ken’s installations and music specially commissioned from Australian composer Kate Moore.

Patrick & I have a whole program of solos and duets which we performed in Finland last year. We have now just come back from performing some of those at BOLD Festival in Canberra. So, who knows where we might go next [beyond]the immediate future, I can’t see any reason for not continuing with everything I am doing at the moment. Staying interested, alert and physical is the key!

Susan: Cementa 17 is a Contemporary Arts Festival in Kandos NSW, 6 – 9th April. I will be participating in “Whispers in the Grass”, an outdoor dance performance inspired by local people & their stories.

Patrick: Ken has told us his concept for the next work and there are some significant constructions to be built. Until we have that we can't really start to choreograph. There will be a number of distinct sections and we wait to see which construction will be completed first. We all look forward to getting on with it and as Ross always says, "have some more time in paradise"!

Patrick Harding-Imer, Susan Barling, Ross Philip, Ken Unsworth and Anca Frankenhaeuser. Photo: Susan Barling