photo Amber Haines
Kyle Page is Artistic Director of the highly regarded Townsville-based company Dancenorth to which he is bringing new vision and reach. In this interview he recounts the beginnings of his dance career, its extensive professional outcomes, his experiences in India and the Arctic, with partner and Dancenorth ensemble member and Rehearsal Director Amber Haines, and his desire to explore creativity and collaboration through cognitive science and neuroscience. These experiences and ideas fascinatingly cluster into a practice and far-reaching vision for Dancenorth that extends to the Torres Strait and extensive national and international touring.
I read you began your professional career at Dancenorth back in 2004, nearly 12 years ago.
When I was young, my first dancing experience was with Jangarra, an Indigenous dance group in Dubbo where I spent the first 11 years of my life. I was the first whitefella in the ensemble. I absolutely loved it and really connected with the movement and Indigenous culture as well. Then I started doing jazz, tap and ballet.
We moved to Brisbane when I was about 12 and I started dancing every night of the week really. I desperately wanted to do a full-time dance course at the Australian Dance Performance Institute but to do that I had to have completed Year 10 at school. I was in Year 8 at the time and we had a big meeting with the Principal and the Careers Guidance Counsellor and managed to convince them to allow me to skip Year 9. So I went from Year 8 to Year 10 in conventional school and then did Years 11 and 12 by Distance Education while studying dance full-time.
When I finished that—it was a very ballet-focused course—I was getting a bit older and I didn’t really feel such a connection to the lifestyle that a career in ballet would have demanded so I was a bit lost for six months. I did an audition for Jane Pirani, Artistic Director of Dancenorth, who was really interested in me but didn’t have any jobs available but said we could look at a long-term secondment. So I moved to Townsville, to work on the weekends to pay my way through a 12-month secondment. After about three or four weeks one of the ensemble members broke his ankle and I was thrown onstage and I’ve been working full-time ever since. Right place, right time. So I continued dancing there with Gavin Webber for four years and then moved to ADT in Adelaide.
You’ve had an extensive career working with ADT, Lucy Guerin, Gavin Webber, Antony Hamilton, Jo Stone, Paolo Castro and Larissa McGowan. How have these experiences shaped your vision do you think? Did you have the feeling that you were heading towards being a creator yourself?
Not until three or four years ago. I worked with lots of amazing choreographers with very different approaches to physicality and making work, which really excited me. That was probably where my passion for collaboration and for engaging with a range of different creative partners on a project was really born.
As I was wrapping up my six years with ADT, in the last two I was really fortunate—following a few chats with [artistic director] Garry Stewart—to be able to perform in all the mainstage touring with the company but also work on independent projects with Lucy Guerin and Stephanie Lake and a few others. I moved out of my apartment in Adelaide, my wife Amber [a fellow ADT dancer] and I bought a little caravan and parked it on a friend’s property up in Woodside in the Adelaide Hills. The longest period we spent in the caravan was probably about five weeks but we did that over a number of chapters as we were either re-mounting or rehearsing work with Garry. Then we’d tour internationally with ADT, then internationally with Lucy Guerin Inc. We had a five-week development in Japan for Spectra, our first full-length work. And all of these programs and projects fell into place in quite an amazing way.
At the end of that two-year period, we were planning to leave ADT and maybe move to Melbourne. There were quite a few options; we had a full-year of independent projects lined up including premiering our duet, Syncing Feeling, and then Spectra at the OzAsia Festival. We also had a three-month residency in Varanasi in India. So all of these things lined up back to back. The other amazing thing was participating in an Arctic Circle residency.
photo Ash McLellan
And then the job at Dancenorth came up. Amber and I had kind of entertained the idea of one day running a company well into the future, but I thought, what a great opportunity. I had a connection with Dancenorth and I was moving into this territory more and more. So I figured it would be a wonderful experience to apply—these jobs don’t come up very often—to throw my hat in the ring and go through that process. In the final interview I remember leaving and having a very clear sense that we were going to move to Townsville and take over Dancenorth.
We managed to maintain a few of the projects we had lined up—like the Arctic Circle residency—while other projects we’d been funded for as independent artists we pulled under the banner of Dancenorth.
In 2014 we ran these two programs in parallel. Dancenorth had a program for their 30th anniversary inviting various guest choreographers to come and make work while Amber and I developed our work in parallel. It meant that for the first year at Dancenorth, one, I rarely had a weekend but, two, we were incredibly prolific and Dancenorth was seen on a number of stages around the country and in big festivals. It really felt like an an amazing catapult into this space.
THE VARANASI EXPERIENCE
What was the value of the Varanasi residency and how did it relate to your work?
India is extraordinary in so many ways. We decided after the first few weeks that we loved it, we hated it and in the end, we liked it—the contrast of old and new, rich and poor, death and life. The opportunity to spend that much time (three months) away from home, from friends, from phones, from internet—all those day-to-day routines that chew up life and easily form distractions or commitments—we had none of those things in Varanasi. We were free to explore creativity, choreography and to identify an artistic and conceptual base or trajectory. I don’t think I would have formed such global perspectives on creation had we not been afforded that experience. Asialink is an amazing program for providing such opportunities for artists and I think the three-month duration was really important. Being in the spiritual hub of the world was an intense time for personal development. It felt like I was really pushed and prodded and had to explore my values and belief systems.
Was there a spiritual dimension?
It became quite a spiritual experience but not because of chanting or yoga although we visited a few ashrams in Varanasi and felt a very tangible sense of something much greater. For me it was a very personal investigation of things I found challenging—walking along the streets and seeing death. In the West, death is practically taboo whereas in Varanasi not a day would go by when you didn’t see someone’s body burning on the funeral pyres down by the Ganges or someone’s body floating in the river or a group of people carrying the body of a loved one through the streets singing and chanting. It gave me a very different perspective on big things, like death.
CREATIVE THINKING IN THE ARCTIC CIRCLE
What did the Arctic Circle residency do for you and Amber?
The space! The space on the ship. You basically spend the entire time sailing on a barquentine, which is an old three-mast tall ship, around Svarlbard. Then you get off and spend time on landings. You’ve got three polar bear guards in a triangle around the group of artists. You have time and space to create. The whole trip we had no internet and no phone and, again, I loved feeling that detachment. The time for reflection, for thinking, brought so many ideas to the fore and really allowed us to carve out a vision, a creative trajectory for Dancenorth.
We took with us quite a few research papers relating to neuroscience, cognitive science and the cognitive processes of creativity and choreography. We had time to think through those ideas but also to be creative in a unique and very strange space—out in the snow, in beautiful, rocky mountain terrain or on the ship with its rocking buoyancy or swimming in water that was four degrees or sitting on massive icebergs. It was otherworldly, magnificent and beautiful—but humans don’t belong there. We watched monstrous chunks of ice falling off glaciers into the ocean and understood how that’s affecting sea levels and climate. We spent a day on the boat with five blue whales swimming around the ship for about two hours. These are solitary creatures and rarely spend time together. We came away with a real sense of reverence for the natural environment. In Townsville, I’m very connected to the natural world and frequently captivated by the magnificence of places like Magnetic Island and the ocean. But being in the Arctic where there are no people and it’s untamed highlighted all those things about the natural environment that I find so interesting and so engaging.
|Syncing Feeling, Kyle Page & Amber Haines|
photo Gregory Lorenzutti
THE BRAIN, BODY & DANCE
Let’s turn inward to the Mind/Body. You have a mentor, Scott deLahunta who has worked with Wayne MacGregor, William Forsythe and Garry Stewart among others. How did you come to his work and your interest in neuroscience?
Scott was doing a research project with ADT while I was a dancer there and we really hit it off. My interest came earlier than that. I’m really interested in neuroscience and reading books like The Neurotourist and The Brain That Changes Itself and about neuroplasticity and mirror neurons—these scientific and cognitive theories that support some Eastern philosophies and ways that people have often viewed the world [in terms of] inter-connection, empathy and innate human capacities for engaging with one another. Working with Scott has allowed me to unravel a few of the mysteries about what creativity is and how it works. I still don’t know the answer but I’m starting to be more aware of priming techniques and how they can alter the course of a creative development in the studio.
I’m also starting to be aware that not all of it can be cognitive or can be explained. There’s a sensation, a feeling of “rightness,” when you just know. What is that? There’s an intuition that you have to follow when you’re being creative and sometimes that is very clear or overwhelming and sometimes it doesn’t appear for days or weeks. So there’s curiosity for me [somewhere] between the very literal, well-studied aspects of creativity and the really ephemeral, very beautiful, intangible space that creativity offers up.
Have you applied this sense of “rightness” to the practice and training of your company?
We begin each day with a mindfulness practice and that can be various forms of meditation—breathing, movement, Tai Chi. All of us separate the space outside the studio from the creative realm to be solely focused on the task at hand for the day. It’s not only generated a great sense of rigorous investigation but also an amazing culture around the company. People who join us on secondments or whatever often comment on it.
We also work with themes that come out of this arena. Syncing Feeling, for instance, investigates mirror neurons and some of the developments in that field in terms of empathy and decoding another person’s facial expressions, or imitation learning. Amber and I are collaborators, dance partners and lovers, and we decided that was a really interesting space for us to investigate, to try and go as far down that rabbit-hole as possible, to pour ourselves, our bodies and our brains, into that point of absolute connection, absolute empathy and understanding and connectivity on stage.
We’ve just premiered Rainbow Vomit in Townsville, a work for young people that investigates the effects of technology on cognitive development in the young. What we found from some of our research is that children playing games on iPads or Facebook don’t engage in divergent or open thinking because they’re working on set trajectories and don't get to create or affect outcomes.
We also had Scott deLahunta working with the company for a couple of days on choreographic thinking processes and we’re currently working with him on “What happens in the studio,” which is a unique project in Australia. This year Dancenorth dancers are working with five different sets of choreographers on five new projects, so we thought it would be interesting to pose two series of questions: one set for the second week of development, the other in the final week. These highlight nuances and variation in approaches to creativity, how they work and which are more engaging for some dancers and not others, an opportunity to investigate various modes of creation.
How does this thinking connect with If_Was_ which comprises works by Stephanie Lake and Ross McCormack?
This is an idea that came to me when I was on that tall ship in the Arctic Circle. I was thinking about the Mental Simulation Theory. This is something that excites me about collaboration. If I say “vegetarian lasagne” you have an image and so do I. They might be very different images or quite similar, but they’re unique to each of us. That image is based on your history and all your past experiences of vegetarian lasagne.
[If_Was_ asks the choreographer to take an image or a concept and implicitly address what happens if it becomes something else, say, “if blood was green” or “if war was harmless.” Part of the pleasure of If_Was_ will be seeing what images and meanings are conjured within the same parameters by two very different minds. Mental simulation is very much about creativity, as much for scientists as for artists in that both frequently work from images rather than concepts or formulae. Ed. Read more about If_ Was_.]
[Page has set parameters for the choreographers, telling them] you’ve each got one hour of music by a composer [Robin Fox]. Choose half an hour of it, chop it however you want. There’s one costume designer with one design pattern to work with, two fabrics to choose from and one bonus fabric to throw in the mix. You can shorten an arm or a leg and work around the edges of the framework. You have the same amount of time, the same dancers to work with and a lighting designer who’ll create one grid to light both works.
So your investigations into the neuroscience and cognitive science realm provide a foundation for the vision that runs across the kinds of works and choices you make.
Yes. I really want Dancenorth to be recognisable and for audiences to relate to it not just as a commissioning body that employs a range of choreographers to create work on the company but as a company that has through-lines that ground the creative choices not only in terms of who’s making the work but also the kinds of works that are being crafted for various outcomes and touring opportunities.
How does that relate to Lee Serle’s The Three Dancers which is part of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville this year?
Well, that one is slightly different in that the company had commissioned Elena Katz-Chernin to create a new composition based on Picasso’s painting “The Three Dancers” in 2014. I inherited the work and the relationship with the Australian Festival of Chamber Music, which is very important to us. We chose Lee Serle based on his extraordinary physicality, his experiences with the Trisha Brown Dance Company and the fact that he has a very different aesthetic from the physicality that Amber and I explore in our works.
COMMUNITY: FROM TOWNSVILLE TO THE TORRES STRAIT
Dancenorth is a regional company and it’s become increasingly viable for such companies to become influential nationally and globally. You’re working in a number of directions. You have a national tour of If_Was_ soon and Spectra is to show in Japan, but you’re also working with Indigenous people on a 10-year program. Now, that’s very long-term.
[In funding application forms] you are asked, “Are you engaging with various communities?” I thought, what an amazing opportunity to have a cultural and community engagement and education program that sits equally alongside the creation and development of virtuosic mainstage work. We're engaging with Poruma Islanders. Poruma is a tiny island in the Torres Strait where 180 people live. It’s 1.4 kilometres long and 400 metres wide [and is under threat of submersion due to Climate Change. Eds]. The other issue with this communities ‘box-ticking’ thing is to ask, what’s the legacy? I would like to leave a powerful legacy, to generate a really sincere and genuine connection between the islanders, Dancenorth and Townsville. The only way I could foresee that happening in any meaningful way was to look long-term and 10 years seems to be fitting. If I’m not here in 10 years, I’d like to see the engagement continuing.
We’ve been to the island a couple of times. It’s a gorgeous part of the world and the culture of song and dance and storytelling is very alive. It was a beautiful experience for the dancers and me to spend time there. This year we’ve invited a number of the Urab Dancers, the local dance ensemble from Poruma, to come to Townsville to work with the company on a new project that will premiere next year in the Strand Ephemera outdoor sculpture festival in Townsville and then on to other locations around Australia. And we’re chatting about a few really large-scale, high visibility performance outcomes.
So do you feel this multi-faceted program is manageable?
I’m really confident with the team around me here at Dancenorth. We’ve got great support through the Tim Fairfax Family Foundation which has enabled us to employ a full-time Community and Cultural Engagement Facilitator (Susan Van den Ham) who has an assistant who helps her to deliver these projects. The Poruma Island one I’m overseeing because it’s a collaboration with the company. Susie is working with a number of disability organisations here in Townsville and developing a pro-active, reciprocal community action plan. Before we premiere a full-length evening work we have a soft performance for the three local disability organisations. Our projects are kind of big but also simple once they become an intrinsic part of the company, then they’re no more or less challenging or difficult.
And finally, how are you nurturing local talent?
We have a number of different engagement programs. Part of our school program involves engaging with refugee/asylum seekers and new arrivals. In April this year we performed with Townsville State High School kids. They spent two days at a full-time workshop with the Dancenorth ensemble finalising the creation of a work for Harmony Day. Then there’s our normal school program and working with dance schools to teach and host workshops throughout the year. The company hosts open classes generally taught by Dancenorth dancers. It’s a really excellent way for us to engage with the community of Townsville, which is our home and where our heart is. We’re very passionate about being a regionally based company and very proud advocates for this part of the world.
Well, it’s such a lovely total vision. Thanks for talking with me.
Such a pleasure. It’s an interesting opportunity to be able to chat through the progression, where we’ve come from and where we’re going. Thank you.
You can download the 2016 Dancenorth program here and see excerpts from Syncing Feeling and SPECTRA here.
Dancenorth, If _ Was _, Townsville, 9-11 June; Mackay Entertainment Centre, 15 June; Proserpine Entertainment Centre, 16 June; Judith Wright Centre, Brisbane, 23-25 June; The Substation, Melbourne, 29 June–2 July
RealTime issue #133 June-July 2016 pg.
© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to firstname.lastname@example.org