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Dean Walsh, Fathom Dean Walsh, Fathom
photo Heidrun Löhr
LAST YEAR, INDEPENDENT CHOREOGRAPHER DEAN WALSH WAS AWARDED AN AUSTRALIA COUNCIL FELLOWSHIP. THE TIMING COULDN’T HAVE BEEN BETTER. THE AWARD PRACTICALLY COINCIDED WITH WALSH’S 20-YEAR ANNIVERSARY AS A PERFORMANCE MAKER. ACHIEVING PROFESSIONAL LONGEVITY IS NO SMALL FEAT FOR AN INDEPENDENT ARTIST. TO BE OFFICIALLY RECOGNISED FOR IT IS ALL THE SWEETER. AND AS THE FELLOWSHIP ALLOWS WALSH TO FURTHER RESEARCH AND DEVELOP HIS CHOREOGRAPHIC PRACTICE, IT ALSO PROVIDES A TIMELY OPPORTUNITY TO TAKE STOCK.

So, how did it all start? Walsh recalls: “I presented my first piece at Performance Space’s Open Season. That was in June 1991. It was a group piece with eleven dancers. I was performing as well.” Walsh is under no illusions about the quality of the work: “Transcendent Nights, it was called. It was very ‘dancey’. I was just out of dance school. Naïve, you know.” The work didn’t go unnoticed however. Walsh laughs: “Sarah Miller [then director of Performance Space] pulled me aside afterwards and said: Come back with a solo next year. I think you’ve got more to say.” And sure enough, Walsh followed her advice. He became, in fact, something of a regular at Performance Space’s short works nights over the next few years – first at Open Season, then, from 1995, at queer cabaret programs such as cLUB bENT and Taboo Parlour. It was here he excelled with highly physical dance performances, exemplifying the spirit of nineties queer politics. The works were often inspired by Walsh’s personal experiences of homophobia and domestic violence—artistic manifestations of standing up for himself.

Around that time, in addition to his pursuits as a solo artist, Walsh also became a sought after performer in works by leading directors and choreographers such as Nikki Heywood, Nigel Kellaway and Garry Stewart. In 2002 he was awarded a Robert Helpmann Scholarship and left Australia to work with Paul Selwyn Norton and Company in Amsterdam and DV8 Physical Theatre in London. Upon his return three years later, Walsh’s choreographic interest had shifted away from the solo format towards choreographing group works. His first ensemble piece, Back From Front, premiered at Performance Space in 2008. Since then Walsh’s work has undergone a continuous evolution both in content and form.

This brings us to Walsh’s Fellowship and the program of activities he has proposed to undertake in the next two years. Walsh: “One of the leading questions for me is: What is the body of the history of my practice and how can I distil it into a system that I feel has integrity in terms of where I want to take my practice now, which is into a whole new content base, I guess, reflecting on the notion of environment, habitat destruction, genetic memory, our social connection and disconnection to the idea of climate change and major social human change.”

The first major thematic shift in Walsh’s work occurred when transitioning from creating solos to making group pieces. Looking at the long-term impact of wartime experience on soldiers and their families, “Back From Front was kind of like the bigger version of everything my solos were,” says Walsh. It was me going away from my own family to listen to other families and other histories but it was still the older way of working. And it was still an earlier concern in terms of domestic violence and where it comes from.”

Dean Walsh, Fathom Dean Walsh, Fathom
photo Heidrun Löhr
Now with environmental change and extinction issues increasingly the target of his thematic exploration, Walsh’s focus is currently on research into marine habitats and their bio-diversity. He cites taking up scuba diving in 2008 as the event that kick-started his new found interest. It exposed him, he says, to a previously unknown world and ignited a passion that soon resulted in genuine concern for the future of marine habitats and the survival of marine species, to a point where he seriously considered giving up dance: “I could almost give up art to move into conservation,” he says. And then, after a pause: “But I don’t want to. I’m really interested in how to take my dance practice into this new fascination I have with the need to conserve our marine bio-diversity.”

In addition to the exploration of new thematic and conceptual content, a large section of Walsh’s fellowship is dedicated to the choreographic scoring system he has been developing over the last years. It is called Foreign Language, complete with a “grammar” of its own and rules that distinguish it from any other physio-linguistic systems. Walsh explains: “The system is made up of five primary scores that divide into various sub-scores which then further break down into a series of modulations.” Could we have an example? “One of the primary scores is animality,” he says. “The sub-scores are various vertebrate and invertebrate animals. The cephalopods [octopuses, squids], for example, are among them.” What about the modulations? “The modulations relate to the specific physical and textural qualities of a certain species. In the case of the cephalopods, it’s their alacrity. Apart from a soft cartilage skull and a beak, they practically consist entirely of muscle.”

And how is the system used to choreographic purposes, how does it operate in action? “The various scores, sub-scores and modulations can be fused with each other, creating near-infinite possibilities.” Further complexity is added by the fact that some of the animality scores are anatomically impossible to execute for humans. “Some interesting movement gets produced that way,” says Walsh. An example would be one of the cephalopod modules, which is inspired by the Pacific Red Octopus’ ability to fit through spaces a tenth of their size by executing two complex physiological manoeuvres simultaneously—reducing muscular density while extending forward.

Walsh’s Fellowship is primarily dedicated to choreographic and conceptual research, both experiential and practical as well as theoretical. Apart from engaging in studio-based activities, he also regularly attends seminars, lectures and conferences and consults with marine biologists and conservationists. In order to try out some of his ideas in front of an audience, Walsh further conducts work-in-progress showings and recently presented the first instalment, in a series of what he calls ‘touch-down performances’. Entitled Fathom, the event took place in Track 8 at CarriageWorks. Walsh found the experience invaluable: “It gave me the opportunity to interface with an audience and get their feedback. That definitely upped the ante and got me away from the loneliness in the studio. It also helped me to become clearer. I had to put it out there to understand what it is I’m doing. I’m a physical realiser.”

So far Dean Walsh has completed a quarter of the program he is scheduled to undertake as part of his Fellowship. His passion for the project is palpable and his eloquence in describing its various components impressive. And yet, there is a sense that the ambition and sheer scale of his undertaking has just started to dawn on him. Walsh readily admits that at times he finds it rather overwhelming. Tongue in cheek, he states: “I feel like I have a whole ecology of ideas that will last me 10 or more years. I just can’t scope it all yet and I do feel like, I’m not drowning by any means, it’s absolutely not that. In fact, I’m breathing under water but the water is just so immense, I can’t scope it all.”

RealTime issue #104 Aug-Sept 2011 pg. 6

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

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