DANCING INSIDE THE BOX

18 Jan

Company Clare Dyson and ‘The Voyeur’ at DiverseWorks

By NEIL ELLIS ORTS

Do you like to watch? Choreographer Clare Dyson of Company Clare Dyson thinks you do, that we all do, and not necessarily only what we’re shown. 

Houston’s DiverseWorks is presenting Dyson’s The Voyeur this coming weekend, which explores what we watch and how. Company Clare Dyson is a contemporary dance company from Australia and this is a North American premiere. They’ve been lauded in Australia for their unique performance language, which may express itself in dance, theater, or installations. With their Houston performances, we’ll get a chance to see something that’s “all of the above.” 

The Voyeur will have five performances, January 21-23. One performance on Thursday at 8 pm, and two performances each on Friday and Saturday, at 8 and 10 pm. Learn more about Company Clare Dyson at: http://www.dysonindustries.com.au/ Reserve tickets for The Voyeur at: http://diverseworks.org/ 

NEIL ELLIS ORTS: Is this your first time in the States? 

CLARE DYSON: I came to the States a long time ago for the American Dance Festival. They used to have a program called the international choreographers workshop and so I came representing Australia. But this is the first time in a long time that I’ve come here. I’ve never toured any work here, so that’s new and we’re pretty excited about it. 

NEO: Are you taking The Voyeur any other places after Houston? 

CD: No, this time we’re just bringing it here and producers are going to come and have a look. We’ve had this relationship with DiverseWorks for a couple of years. We really wanted to bring it anyway, and so to add on top of that, Sixto (Wagan, Co-Executive Director of DiverseWorks)  has invited some people to have a look and see what they think. 

NEO: What has been the relationship with DiverseWorks? 

CD: Mark (Dyson, Clare’s brother and collaborator) and I met Sixto at one of the APAMs (Australian Performing Arts Market), I think it was 2007. We were actually talking about another work we had, called Medeleven, which has swings on stage. Sixto really liked it and wanted to work with us somehow, developing a work that would suit the venue. Then we applied for a National Dance Project grant, from the New England Foundation for the Arts. They have about 30 or 35 grants they give a year for the development of work to be toured to the U.S. and then they have touring money on top of that, which is really lovely. 

We applied for a development grant and you have to do it in partnership with a venue. So we received this NDP grant, but half the reason we got it is because of our relationship with DiverseWorks. It’s such an interesting venue in terms of the national scene, that we were pretty excited about forming a relationship [with DiverseWorks] and then the NDP said, yeah, it’s a great relationship you’ve got and it’s a great venue. 

NEO: I know next to nothing of the Australian contemporary dance world. Can you give us a whirlwind history of contemporary dance in Australia? 

CD: We are one of the very lucky countries in the world, where our arts are highly subsidized by the government. In 1975 the Australia Council for the Arts was set up. Before that, it was more similar to the scene you have here, a lot of private donations trying to support dance. Australia is a very big ballet country, so we’ve got a long history of quite a lot of ballet taught in schools and all that. But in the ’50s and ’60s, when there was this explosion throughout the world, we had a lot of imports from the U.S. and from Europe as well, mostly from England. Which sort of changed the scene. Suddenly there was modern dance. There was a lot of [Martha] Graham work. And then postmodern dance from the U.S. came. But up until that time [1975], because there was no subsidized full time arts companies, a lot of artists went overseas and because Australia is a long way away, once they left, they tended to stay away. 

So it was real interesting, once the Australia Council got set up and there was money poured into the arts, we started to actually have full time dance companies. I wrote a very brief history of documented Australian dance in the early ’90s and at that stage, we had 27 full time dance companies, which for a country of twenty-million people is quite a lot of subsidized dance companies. We have a lot of influences from sort of iconic American choreographers like Graham and [Merce] Cunningham. And that whole postmodern era, there were a lot of young dancers who ended up in Trisha Brown’s company and all that. There’s also a massive amount of European influences so it’s kind of a mix. The stuff that we make is very influenced by installation and conceptual art, but that’s because Mark and I are quite passionate about visual art and installation work. There have been a lot of international influences. 

It’s interesting because you’re either of the European lineage or there’s the American thing. I think a lot of my influences are—I spent a lot of time working in Europe. I’ve had a lot of residencies in France and Germany. In terms of that style of dance and how that influences you, I would probably have to say that Pina Bausch line is probably more where I am. One of her dancers who was with the [Bausch] company for around 20 years was a mentor of mine, Meryl Tankard. But really my influences are still from visual art a lot. 

NEO: So maybe more performance art? 

CD: That’s a tough one because I hate performance art, really hate it. [Laughs.] It’s more the idea that you can manipulate space and that you don’t have to be restricted by this tradition that we’ve inherited of performing in theaters. That’s really what I mean. As an artist you can choose where’s the best place for the audience to see and engage with your work. If that happens to be in a theater, that’s great, but at least make those choices consciously. 

NEO: Moving on to the work you’re bringing to us, The Voyeur, you have this box on stage that you and another dancer . . . 

CD: Jonathan Sinatra, who’s actually American. 

NEO: You will be performing inside and then we, the audience, walk around the box and peep in. Was there a single idea or confluence of ideas that brought you to this piece? 

CD: I was in Paris. The Australia Council has got a studio there and I was the choreographer working in that choreographic studio for six months in 2008. One of the weirdest things about the studio is the architecture of it. The front doors of the studio are just straight out onto a car park. I mean it’s a French car park so it’s good looking but it’s still a car park. And everyone walked past and everyone watched, looked into your studio. It became really apparent that—and I did it too—but it became apparent that we’re all so unbelievably curious about each other’s lives. There’s an assumption that another person’s life is different and potentially more interesting than your own. I suppose that’s why there’s such a cult of celebrity throughout the world. We’re completely fascinated about whether Brad and Angelina are going to be divorced or not. There’s this idea of not being able to help yourself. 

And then I started thinking that we expect so much from our performers, we expect them to be amazing technicians and to be emotionally stable and, you know, deep. But what would happen to an audience member if we gave everything, if we gave all the information, all the secrets, gave them binoculars, what would happen if we gave it all up, would they enjoy it more? How much would you take if you were given everything? So I drafted this, I put the audience in the car park in Paris and I got binoculars and headphones and we performed it there. It was bizarre how enamoring other people’s secrets became to this audience. They were a French audience so I wasn’t sure if it was going to be culturally specific. 

Then I took it home. I started developing it in Australia and decided to actually have a box so you could walk around. So this idea of audience movement would be really important—because what it does is it brings you as an audience member to the fore. You realize you have to make decisions and how you walk and how you move changes what you’re going to see. That’s where it started from and it’s just slowly developed with the other artists I’m working with, they’ve all brought certain things into this work. But it’s really about the act of watching something you’re not supposed to watch. 

NEO: In Australia, do you have this phenomenon of the reality TV shows? 

CD: Yeah. Crazy isn’t it? And what’s so interesting about it is it’s all so edited. And what we liked about this idea of live-ness is that there’s no editing at all. It runs 58 minutes and the only editing is really up to the audience. Some people have chosen to watch from tiny peepholes so they only get to see fragments of movement and others want to see it all. So this idea of editing reality has been something we’ve been talking about a lot. If you pull away the producers and editors, what happens then? 

NEO: It’s called The Voyeur, but what about the other side of it? Is there anything about exhibitionism in it? 

CD: I think one of the things we spent a lot of time working on is trying to be as normal as possible in the box. Obviously it’s a construct, we’re in a theater and there are four walls, but we spent a long time in terms of performance quality just trying to be as authentic and as natural as we possibly can in this creepy environment. Voyeurism and exhibitionism are really different. Dancing is so exhibitionist that you have to be that kind of person to want to do it, and so it’s really interesting trying to peel the layers away to work out who we are as people rather than who we are as dancers. These are really complex questions that we’ve had to grapple with. What’s more engaging to watch, an exhibitionist who acknowledges you’re there or someone who you stumble upon and you just get this rare opportunity to watch them doing normal things? 

NEO: Well, who hasn’t walked past a house and seen a lighted window and you just can’t help it. You feel kind of creepy and a little invasive, but you say, “Ah that’s what they do at their dinner table!” 

CD: And if you’ve got a pair of binoculars, you’d have a great time! [Laughter.] But that’s basically what we’re trying to remake. 

NEO: I’ve heard that in New York City, with all the high rise apartments and what not, that it’s something of a fact of life that people are watching you from across the way, that if you have your windows open, you’re being observed. 

CD: I did some research on voyeuristic trends in the West, and apparently New York is the highest seller, per capita, of binoculars in the world. [Laughter.] 

NEO: Anything else you want people to know about this show? 

CD: It’s one of those weird shows that you come out feeling like you’ve heard and seen things you shouldn’t have—or you can come out going “I had a great time.” We’ve had both responses from audiences. So this active choice kind of reveals who you are as a person. You’re the only person who’s going to know that stuff, but we’ve had a lot of feedback about that. We’ve had some criers. We’ve had people laughing all the way through it, too. [Laughter.] So it’s really kind of interesting.[More laughter.]

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