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The space takes care of me

Rachel Fensham talks with Alice Cummins

In her occasional series on dance studio practices Rachel Fensham interviews Perth’s Alice Cummins

Alice Cummins, a Perth independent dancer, has a studio in the heart of Northbridge, Perth, from which she teaches and develops performance projects. Not only a teaching space, it nurtures a creative community of other artists and city people. Last year she began studying with Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen at the School for Body-Mind Centering in the U.S.

RF When did you first begin to work in this space?

AC Five years ago. I was doing a project which could support me financially and I had already given a series of workshops attended by about 80 women. The studio enabled me to continue my practice and the community classes so they run together, or in parallel. It is a privilege to have a studio and I always have to finance it with other teaching.

RF Describe the studio.

AC It is both light and airy, connected not only to the city and the railway line but to an older and mixed Perth skyline. And the old man opposite always has flowers on his window sill.

It’s near good public transport, and some people cycle from inner city areas. It is fantastic to have close access to PICA (Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts), for me personally, and increasingly, for my students. It is near the cafes and drinks on the hotel balcony after Friday night’s class is a time of rich sharing.

RF Because of the spillover into other networks the class doesn’t seem to end.

AC Another artist Tony Osborne, my partner, shares the studio, and we sometimes feel we are creating a community. Young students I have taught over the years in other places come here and then go on to do work for Artrage and PICA. They set up a lively dialogue with me and the diverse people they meet in the studio.

Now people are starting to work together independently of me, and my long absence this year encouraged one group to hire the space and meet on a weekly basis. I think of it as “naming oneself as an artist”. I am not a little proud that this space which I helped to discover has encouraged people.

RF What about your classes ?

AC I try to offer three a week. On Monday evening alignment and locomotion followed by a separate session of contact improvisation. And on Fridays improvisation and performance. I borrowed the structure of this class from Al Wunder and Lynden Nichols in Melbourne. Positive feedback allows people to discover their own movement by working from their strength. If they are confident with vocal work they can move into other things later.

One visual artist came who was terrified but she had the desire to move. Each student has a private session, in which we can focus on what I have been seeing or what they choose to work on. All I needed to say to her was “your desire equals your fear” and she has never looked back. She teaches painting at the TAFE and has also been a street performer and done performance pieces. She says her body was really missing in her work and I am sure movement will influence her painting.

RF What other activities happen in the studio?

AC I have been able to use the studio for projects, such as an Art in Working Life project and the Big Foot Dance Project with Ran Dan Club. In 1994 we brought Llewelyn Wishart from Melbourne to give Body-Mind Centering workshops. During Space Eaters Chris Ryan and I taught here and while I was overseas, Independent New Choreographers hired the space for six weeks. This not only helped me to keep the studio, but it can also be liberating for emerging choreographers to work in a non-institutional space which offers other ways of seeing.

Two years ago I taught a summer intensive which was very popular. People love to be able to use their bodies every day and they also enable me to develop as a teacher. I have also offered women-only classes and I would like to teach a ‘Dancing with Women over 40’ course like Deborah Hay in the States. It becomes a question of how many personal resources I have left after other projects.

I don’t want to teach from a place of exhaustion, I want to teach from a place of fullness. The rewards are much greater. If I drag my body through the teaching practice, then I teach ‘the exhausted body’, even if as a dancer I can camouflage it.

RF Most people probably never acknowledge they are teaching strain and effort.

AC Instead of playfulness, openness. Strangely, this recent performance work I did has an enormous amount of tension, but I could do it because my personal philosophy is to not teach from a stressed place. It allows more humour to come through. I can attribute that to lots of things, such as my family growing up or that I don’t teach here every day, just to make a living.

From the day I took this studio, it seems the different parts of my work have been inclusive of one another. My performance work informs my workshops and vice versa.

RF So has your art-making changed?

AC My life as an artist in Perth has sometimes been extremely lonely. But I know that other artists, different artists, make your life less lonely. The last five years for me have been filled with great professional friendships, with writers, visual artists, photographers, composers. I have worked with them, taught for them, we’ve set up a dialogue and we discuss our work, and it provides a richer dimension to my creative processes. It has also satisfied the intellectual curiosity I have about dancing, which I haven’t had from the dance world.

RF What about your own practice in the studio? The private part of your work?

AC I have done a lot of solo work or small works with just two people—either a writer or a visual artist. I have an ability to be very generous but I also need this very private, reflective or deep meditation. Once I am in the studio, the space itself takes care of me. On the rare occasions when the work is not easy or the practice is difficult or a huge fatigue comes which you hadn’t expected or it is an emotional time, I give over to those feelings or move through them. I have developed a strong discipline in the gentlest meaning of that word. And it gives me immense pleasure.

It is about me coming here for three hours every morning to focus and to have a deep and slow preparation for moving. I don’t speak to anyone, people ask if they can ring me but I would never have a phone. Rarely does anyone knock on the door. I might do my yoga or write. It continually and quietly gives me space to imagine or to restore my imagination. I know that if I go to the studio, the ideas will come.

It is as if my body holds all my ideas, if I can just be there and listen, then they will arise. I am learning to be very astute and it is almost as if you can feel an idea emerging and to not push it. Just have the pen and paper close. That has given me an amazing sense of assurance and trust. It is always the practice. And it won’t happen at home or in a coffee shop, it will happen in here. Here I am allowed to not think about my domestic life or the turmoil of anything else. Here is like a sacred space.

RealTime issue #11 Feb-March 1996 pg. 40

© Rachel Fensham; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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