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Making more than one of yourself

Erin Brannigan, dancer/choreographer Kate Champion

Kate Champion Kate Champion
photo Heidrun Löhr
When I spoke to Kate Champion she had just returned from a showing at The Development Site in Adelaide of a group work she has been directing. Working with dramaturg Victoria Spence, composer and sound designer Max Lyandvert, lighting and set designer Geoff Cobham, and performers Ros Hervey, Veronica Neaves, Kirstie McCracken, Nathan Page, Shaun Parker, Ben Winspear and Byron Perry, Same, same But Different is scheduled to premiere at The Sydney Festival 2001, co-production funding pending. She has just finished working with Neil Armfield on La Strada, part of a triple bill for the English National Opera in which she choreographed 30 children to the score by Fellini’s favorite composer, Nino Rota. In June, Champion will present a solo work, About Face, at The Studio, Sydney Opera House. When I last interviewed her, she had just returned from a position as rehearsal director for a tour of DV8’s Enter Achilles.

Working with DV8

So I’d done Face Value [a solo show] and directed Legs on the Wall’s Under the Influence and the ball was starting to roll regarding my own work. Then I got a call from Lloyd Newson offering me a 3 month gig as rehearsal director for a tour of Enter Achilles. I was very flattered because no one had ever taken his work on tour but him. Then he asked if I’d be interested in doing another month on a workshop. Consequently, what was a 3 month job offer turned into 2 and a half years of DV8 commitment, making and touring The Happiest Day of My Life and then assisting Lloyd on his Olympic Festival work, The Cost of Living. Working with Lloyd is rigorous and pushes you to all sorts of physical and emotional limits, and I found it hard living in London where I didn’t have any support from family or friends. We did 6 months of touring The Happiest Day…70 shows and I was onstage for 2 hours of the show…What’s hard is that we did all that, and often DV8 make a film of their work, but because he had to start the Olympic programme he didn’t have time, so it was never documented. So you feel that when you come back to Australia, no one knows about this experience that was so monumental in your history and career.

1999 was the hardest year of my life for lots of reasons, including my father dying. From a young age working overseas in Munich, my biggest fear was that I’d be away when an accident happened to a loved one. And that happened…I was barely coping. When I came back from my Dad’s funeral Lloyd decided to re-write the show completely—to swap the 2 male leads. It was just horrible. But I was pleased with what I did and it got better and stronger and that’s the thing, as much as the touring is gruelling: Prague, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Paris, Munich, most of the UK…

The Remo Years

I had always wanted to make a piece with Lloyd from scratch and I didn’t know if that opportunity would come up…I thought it may be when I’m 50, seeing as he uses a lot of older people. Then he asked me and I’d begun to establish myself here and you never know how quickly people are going to forget you or what’s going to happen here with funding and you’ll have to start from scratch. Because that’s what happened when I got back from working with DV8 the first time at the end of 1992. I worked in a shop for 2 and a half years and it took ages—like 5 years—to get to the point of having my work funded. So just the thought of going away…

1993 to 1995 was a wasteland—I was working at the Remo shop on Oxford St with Annette Evans and Katrina Sedgwick. Over the Remo period I did a creative development with my brother and Ros Hervey and others called Twist, but we didn’t get subsequent funding. Then Leisa Shelton started the first Steps programme at The Performance Space and Ros was involved and suggested I do some solo work. I ended up doing 2 pieces from the material I’d discovered during the development of Twist—Going Nowhere Fast and Slipping Up. The good thing about Steps was that Leisa took over producing it. If she hadn’t…I would have found it hard to get work up; even the confidence to think it was worthwhile. And then Leisa did Steps #2 and I did a longer piece, Of Sound, Body and Mind.

For a long time I’ve been wanting to do my own work. I’ve only really been a dancer because I wanted to create work, and I was always surprised that people kept offering me performing work because I never really felt I had strong enough technique. During Steps #2 my friend Meredith Kitchen sent my CV to Philippe Genty for a show they were casting here, and I’d gotten through all the stages of this complex audition process. I got the call and I said, “I can’t, it’s the tech week for my 15 minute piece at The Performance Space that I’m losing money on”…I hung up the phone and fell on the floor and thought ‘what have I done.’ I just realised that if I didn’t take myself seriously about creating my own work, how could I expect anyone else to…It was a real fork in the road.

About face

So I came back from London last year, and after all the years of complaining about not getting funding and heading down the ‘bitter path’, the Sydney Opera House approached me and asked for a work for 2001. But I had pledged my group show to premiere at the Sydney Festival and Brett Sheehy has been unwavering about helping me get a show up. So I thought about doing Face Value at the Opera House Studio, but decided I couldn’t do it for a third time. And here they were offering me the theatre for nothing, the lights, the ushers, they were covering box office and putting in thousands of dollars. So my lips started moving and I found myself saying, ‘well I could do another solo show I suppose.’ I felt so flattered that someone was coming to me and offering, rather than having to go begging and door knocking…

There is something incredibly challenging about doing solo work—it’s not the same as directing. And it’s that 2-way responsibility of being the performer and the creator which I find very useful when I go in to direct other people…I can be on both sides and I feel empowered. I was quite scared before doing Face Value because it was something I’d never done before, and I ended up very pleased with how it dealt with the idea of facade. But that very theme meant that I didn’t delve into a lot of the issues—the piece did remain very much in front of that facade, that set. So going in through the windows and turning the set around to look at what’s internal excites me. And I’m quite interested—I’ll have to see how my body goes—to tour it overseas and do the 2 shows by rotating the set or getting the audience to walk around.

I’m working with Chris Ryan again [ex-Sydney Front, former Artistic Director PACT Youth Theatre]—he just comes in and talks about a book I might want to read, or something I said that I’ve forgotten; we just chat. So he’s good on that level and at that stage of bumping in. He came up with the ‘outside eye’ title. He’s a sounding board, a hand-holder, someone to have coffee with. He doesn’t bring a lot of ego into it. Brigid Kitchin, who I’ve made films with, she’ll be working on the video material for projection. Because the thing with a solo show is, how can you make more than one of yourself? Robert Lepage did it in his Sydney Festival show this year—he brings a lot of people into the piece who aren’t actually there through phone conversations. Another thing I’m interested in for About Face is how many selves live within the one person, and that lends itself strongly to the use of projections.

Kate Champion Kate Champion
photo Heidrun Löhr
I find it interesting that people are criticised when their various works have similarities. There are so many great artists like Woody Allen or Pina Bausch that I’m happy to see keep delving. How many more things can you see when you dig further? It’s like Lepage said: “I like to think of my shows as needing a teaspoon of the old yoghurt in order to make new yoghurt.” So I’ve suddenly become unashamed about self-referencing and borrowing from myself rather than thinking, ‘God, I can’t make anything that looks like my previous show.’ And I’ve decided to really tread that line between what’s autobiography and what is not. That’s why I’ve chosen the vehicle of a woman who’s forgotten who she is, because if you can’t remember who you are, then it can go into fiction. But you are yourself, you are your body…like when I watch Wendy Houstoun’s work, it’s still Wendy [UK dancer/director].

Same, same But Different

So I’ve been presenting my work Same, same But Different at The Development Site in Adelaide which was set up so that shows weren’t just being seen at one festival. Most of the work is only at its very first development stage; you begin with the interest of one festival—in my case Sydney Festival—that gives you the initial support for development. All the Australian festival directors are there and there was someone from Shanghai and someone from Singapore. If more than one festival is interested in something they can co-produce it. What excites me is getting off the Australia Council teat, where your work is being recognised enough so that you don’t have to keep going back…even though they have been fantastic for me. It’s just that feeling of liberation.

I’ve wanted, for a long time, to direct a group show unattached to a company. It was good timing for me to do Under the Influence, but it was still Legs on the Wall and I didn’t get to cast people. It turned out very well but I didn’t initiate the project from scratch and it wasn’t under my name, and you have to consider a particular audience each time you work with a company. So this is why I did Face Value, to lead to this. I appreciate my association with DV8 a lot, and it has been traumatic and enriching and everything you could imagine, but I’m so relieved to be back in my own boots. If shit happens I can take responsibility for it. It was weird accepting the praise and the shit with DV8—being in that middle position.

I feel like I’ve arrived at a point that I’ve been waiting for a really long time. I think I always wanted to direct but until I did a stint on DV8’s Strange Fish as production assistant, I thought I could only serve my apprenticeship by performing. I learnt so much from being on the outside—it was the best thing. As a performer you can’t deny your egotistical point of view; you’re the centre of your universe in that piece and you take things very personally. I feel very comfortable directing, even though every time I start a project I feel like I know nothing. That used to freak me out, but now I find it a very true place to be because the information that sits within you isn’t tangible but is there from years of experience. It kicks in when you’re in a situation needing to make decisions. I never went to an institution, I never graduated from anywhere…some people leave institutions feeling that they have all the equipment. But for me…it’s an ongoing process and I’ve accepted that. I feel really well equipped to go on to this stage…a lot of people feel it should have happened to me sooner, but I’m glad it was a slow burn because hopefully it will be longer lasting.

Making Australia a base

It’s perfect for me to be here, making work with the people around. I don’t feel any need to be overseas. It’s quite easy to tour stuff now with things getting picked up from the Australia Council Arts Market. Fifteen years ago I felt I had to make a decision about whether I lived here or overseas, but now I feel that Sydney is a fine base…The Arts Market can be a hideous experience with this dot system where red dots are the buyers and green dots are the sellers and you see 2 green dots talking and suddenly they realise they can’t ‘mate’ and they move on…I’m very fortunate with my relationship with Performing Lines. I don’t have to represent myself. Artists actually need a Performing Lines in every state…I just happened to have this association with [General Manager] Wendy Blacklock from 20 years ago through Suspense, a show I was working on with my brother. So when I wanted my grant auspiced, instead of going to One Extra or Performance Space, I walked into Wendy’s office. And she knows a lot more people could use her help but she hasn’t got the manpower.

I don’t have a problem living in Australia with this beautiful climate because I feel I have enough darkness within me. I suppose some people find that Australian life can lead to a sort of apathy. I don’t. I’m really relieved that it’s out there and I can get to it, and when I don’t want it I just shut myself off in a dark room or the movies or with my inner voice.

This sounds daggy but my driving force to make dance is that, from a very young age, not a lot of things about being alive made sense to me. I had absolutely no religious upbringing, so going to theatre and seeing works of art were the only spiritual things in life that allowed me a connection to other people that I didn’t know personally. They spoke to me of my life and my dilemmas—you can feel terribly isolated when you’re going through things. Art offers a level of communication that exists alongside our everyday lives which is able to transform and enrich our existence. It’s that poetry of the artistic experience which is the only thing that makes sense to me about being alive, that and the love of a lover or of family. So I would find it incredibly soul destroying to exist in any other profession. And this is true of film or any art, but when live performance works—and it works so rarely—I find it more potent. And that’s what happened with me when I saw DV8. I was ready to give up when I saw them and that’s what my trip to London was all about. And as difficult as Lloyd can be, his rigour and the way he pushes buttons and his questioning nature I find very stimulating to be around.

Who am I going to be?

Same same But Different is basically about how many points of view there can be on the same event and I’ve been thinking about this idea of the different selves existing within the same person. So you go to an interview and it’s like—who am I going to be in this hour? I may have woken up a bit bleary eyed this morning and that gets written down and becomes a documentation of who you are. And of course you are yourself…but it’s interesting the little windows we have into understanding who someone is and the ramifications of that one experience... sometimes the accident of being non-articulate is interesting so I hope I never get that much control over my own voice…

About Face, choreographer/performer Kate Champion, The Studio, Sydney Opera House, June 5-16.

RealTime issue #42 April-May 2001 pg. 6-7

© Erin Brannigan; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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