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the power & magic of juxtaposition

martin del amo: interview, choreographer vicki van hout


Vicki van Hout working on the installation/set of Briwyant Vicki van Hout working on the installation/set of Briwyant
photo Marian Abboud
IT IS TWO DAYS AFTER THE OPENING NIGHT OF VICKI VAN HOUT’S NEW DANCE WORK BRIWYANT (FOR ‘BRILLIANT’). WE ARE IN BAY 20 AT CARRIAGEWORKS, THE SPACE WHERE THE PIECE IS PRESENTED. IF VAN HOUT FEELS AT ALL PLEASED WITH THE POSITIVE FEEDBACK HER LATEST WORK HAS RECEIVED FROM AUDIENCES, PEERS AND CRITICS ALIKE (P32), SHE CERTAINLY DOESN’T LET ON. “THE WORK ISN’T DONE YET,” SHE SAYS MATTER-OF-FACTLY.

And it’s easy to see what she means: The cavernous theatre space is split into two by an enormous river-like installation made up of several thousand playing cards. After every performance, each card needs to be reglued to the ground edgewise—a complicated procedure that takes up to seven hours. An activity expected from an installation artist maybe, but from a choreographer?

“You gotta give it a go,” Van Hout quips. “I’m a perennial student. I’m interested in other artforms. At first I thought this piece should be in an art gallery. Sometimes I feel dance is not enough anymore. I like integrating other forms of art into my work. In some ways it’s an excuse to find out about things I don’t know much about.” After a pause, she shrugs: “Who knows? Maybe at some stage there will be no dance at all anymore. My interest in the arts didn’t start with dance so maybe it won’t end there.” And as for those cards? “I’m lucky,” laughs Van Hout. “My 60-plus year old mum has taken time off work to help me and the stage manager.”

A Wiradjuri descendant growing up in Dapto in regional New South Wales, Van Hout didn’t start to train in dance until her late teens. All through high school she had taken drama lessons, wanting to become an actor. She recalls, “Around the time I was living in a squat, The Gunnery at Wooloomooloo, and this guy suggested I should go to NAISDA instead. I remember asking him: ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘A place where you learn about your own people.’ I liked that.”

After four years at NAISDA, the National Aboriginal Islander Dance College, Van Hout received an overseas study award from ATSIC (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission) to train at the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance in New York. Far away from the usual preconceptions and prejudices regarding her aboriginality, Van Hout relished the opportunity to immerse herself in a culture not her own. “As I’m quite fair-skinned, not a lot of people recognized I was indigenous and hardly anyone asked any questions. I hung out with a lot of musicians from the alternative music scene and punk culture. Our haunt was Manic Panic, the now legendary punk store. Their tagline was ‘Live Fast and Dye Your Hair’.” And yet, Van Hout took her dance training very seriously. After graduating from the Graham School, she stayed in New York to train and work with various modern and postmodern dance artists. “My concern was that I wouldn’t have anything to show for my time there,” Van Hout says. “I didn’t want to come back without skills.”

All up Van Hout spent almost seven years in New York, eventually returning to Australia in 1996 to perform with Bangarra Dance Theatre on an Asian tour of their seminal dance work Ochres. She later joined Marilyn Miller’s Fresh Dancers collective created to focus on the corporate and commercial market. After initially working mainly as a dancer, she soon helped to choreograph many of the works presented at indigenous events and functions. She then gradually moved into creating her own work. “It was actually [fellow indigenous choreographer] Jason Pitt who encouraged me to take that leap,” remembers Van Hout. “One day he looked at me and said, ‘What have you got to lose? Just go for it, sister.”

And go for it, she did. Working incessantly over the following years, Van Hout has steadily built a reputation as one of our most interesting and prolific independent dance artists. She has developed a growing following for her deftly imagined and thoughtfully crafted works examining urban indigenous realities, especially in NSW.

Briwyant is Van Hout’s third full-length work. Conceived as a cross-cultural, inter-disciplinary dance piece, it examines the ongoing nature of ‘traditional’ Aboriginal practices based on story telling through the act of painting. As in many of her works, van Hout aims to explore the commonality between traditional and urban cultural experiences and how indigenous cultural information is disseminated: “I’m interested in what was, what is and what is similar. I’m always trying to find what is contemporary and relevant.” The work started out as an idea for a solo and evolved into its current form featuring six performers including herself.

“My initial interest,” explains Van Hout, “was in the question: what is it to look white and identify as indigenous? I wanted to peel back layers and find out what’s underneath.” She is outspoken on the issue of claiming her indigenous heritage: “It’s a birthright but not only a birthright. It’s living an obligation defined by what you do. You are what you do.” It is not surprising then that Van Hout is a passionate teacher who has been working at NAISDA for over 10 years. She feels a strong responsibility, she says, to pass on the cultural information and knowledge she has acquired. “I have been taught [Aboriginal traditional] dances, it is my responsibility to pass them on. They are not the sum of me though. I’m also teaching the contemporary indigenous technique that I have been developing through my own work. I want to instil body discipline in students so that they can be adventurous and try something different.”

As important as the engagement with her Aboriginal heritage is to her, at the same time Van Hout is adamant that she doesn’t want to be “put in a box.” She wants to be taken seriously as a choreographer on the basis of her skills, not merely for the fact she is indigenous. Recently interviewed for a case study of artists affiliated with Performance Space, she said: “It’s important to me to participate in the broader dance and performance arena. I want to be critiqued on a par with everyone else .”

This might explain Van Hout’s extensive engagement with dance outside exclusively indigenous contexts. In the last few years she has created numerous works for both tertiary institutions and youth dance companies such as ATYP, youMove, fLING Physical Theatre and DirtyFeet, as well as WAAPA, to name but a few. She also frequently employs non-indigenous dancers for her works. The cast of Briwyant, for example, is decidedly mixed. “We’re an eclectic bunch, no one is the same,” laughs Van Hout. And there is no question that she likes it that way. It confirms her fascination with juxtaposition, a device she frequently employs in her works.

“I like things that sit side by side and can’t be rationalised. I want to give people a glimpse, not lay it out for them.” The seminal experience that triggered her thinking in this respect occurred many years ago: “I was in Maningrida [indigenous community, Northern Territory], it was about 22 years ago, and I observed a young woman washing her child’s hair on a piece of corrugated iron while watching Dallas on a portable TV on the veranda of the nearby house. It was the most bizarre vision. But it had such poignancy and absurdist poetry. That’s what I strive for in my work.”


See review of Vicki van Hout’s Briwyant

RealTime issue #103 June-July 2011 pg. 31

© Martin del Amo; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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