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helen herbertson: the place where things slip

philipa rothfield, delirium, rt36

Helen Herbertson Helen Herbertson
photo David B Simmonds
Helen Herbertson was Artistic Director of the Melbourne-based company Danceworks between 1989 and 1997. For the next 2 years, she received a Fellowship from the Australia Council (Dance Fund). This assisted the creation of her extraordinary new work, Delirium, which won a Green Room Award in 1999, and has recently been shown in Glasgow as part of the New Moves (new territories) dance festival.

Was your dance training here in Australia or did you go away?

All my training is Australian. Classical ballet as a little one. Then I met a couple of Sydney people, Brian Cobram and Jacqui Carroll. I got involved in the independent scene. There wasn’t a lot of funding around then and people just had ideas and did them. Eventually I moved to Adelaide where I started doing a lot more teaching in institutions. I did a lot of choreography for the Centre for the Performing Arts and that was when I really started to think about myself as a choreographer. I probably spent 10 years or so in that market making work, until Danceworks happened, where Beth Shelton and I began as co-directors. Beth left the company after a couple of years, and then I left at the end of ‘97. I made a lot of work there.

I think Danceworks was a great opportunity to deepen my work. I remember that first year where we had blocks of 10 week rehearsals, and I said, “What are we going to do, we’ll be finished in 2 or 3 weeks?” It didn’t take me long to really start to appreciate that amount of time and working with people continuously. It was fantastic.

How long did it take you to make your current work, Delirium, then?

Two years. I mean, to me, it feels like it’s part of Descansos (Danceworks, 1996). That was the beginning of this particular team of people: Trevor Patrick, Jenny Kemp, Ben Cobham and myself. Simon Barley was also there. Danceworks was about making relationships with other practitioners and finding ways to collaborate, whereas what it’s been in the last 4 years is about bringing myself as the performer back into the work. It’s a very complex thing though, directing it, choreographing it, performing it, collaborating in it.

Yes, looking at the credits for Delirium, you see all these names. It was like a sort of macrame or a plait.

Every component is integral. Often the way a work’s made is that you make the dance material and then you put the lighting on top and then you decide on the costumes and it’s made in a linear way. Whereas all through Danceworks I was moving towards another way of operating.

Could you briefly describe Delirium? When I saw it I felt I hadn’t seen anything like it. It had its own ‘little’ quality. I say little because it felt small, like looking down a telescope backwards.

Where to start, what to say? Well you’d see light and dark, you’d see 2 figures sliding between entrapment and freedom, you’d see a kind of lighting interplay that allows figures to appear and re-appear, in places you don’t quite expect because it’s so dark. Or sometimes, figures are floating as if they’re off the floor. There are elemental sounds in it, you wouldn’t say there’s any music there. The soundtrack uses things like the sound of fire or the tinkling of bells or things that are really evocative, quite pure sounds. The sound of water dripping or a landslide or birds. I imagine if you watch it, it might feel like you’re entering some kind of internal world inside these people, as if you’re travelling a time line or something with them. I was interested in the place where things slip. You slip into madness or you’re not quite awake or just asleep…sort of transformation places…it’s hard to describe but the word Delirium came well after the place that things formed.

Once Descansos had happened, the team had a meeting. One issue about that work was that we wanted to take it and show it to other places but it was so site specific, so the idea for the floor grew from that need to have the site as the rehearsal space.

So that constructed proscenium arch in the middle of the National Theatre—that was meant to be like that?

Absolutely. I chose that theatre with absolute care because of its prosceniumness. We’re not going to a space like that in Glasgow, so the void will have a whole other kind of framing. We’ve had to build the proscenium much smaller, so the whole thing has been framed down to a sort of chocolate box.

I see so much work that doesn’t adapt well. I think people just forget that the volume of space that something’s made inside of is as much a part of it as the work. That kind of history of a work, that negative space, the space around the bodies, it’s all part of it, yet it just doesn’t seem to be thought about. A lot of work doesn’t survive. You can see a work in its initial stage and it’s fantastic and then it moves on to another space and something’s not right. I’m a sucker for any space that I rehearse in—it becomes a component of the work. That’s why, in making this, we moved all over the place. What I really like about this work is that it never really lands. It just becomes visible for a little while.

In terms of the future, are you thinking of moving Delirium on or have you got ideas/energy for something else?

No, Delirium is going to keep on moving, I think. I have got some other things cooking, just on my own, for a little while, but nothing is formed as yet. Two years of time in the making is a long twist. This year feels like coming back down to reality. Last year was quite a weird year and I’m sure a lot of it had to do with the sort of states that had to be, to be inside Delirium to perform—unconsciously. That’s why I’m fascinated with Glasgow because I have to re-enter those things again but in a much more practical way. It’s going to be interesting.

RealTime issue #36 April-May 2000 pg. 41

© Philipa Rothfield; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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