28 Jun break / fracture / crush
Fleur Murphy interviews Alison Currie
Photographed by Jessie McKinlay
Alison Currie is a director and choreographer who creates contemporary works that bridge the gap between visual arts and dance. Her latest show, Concrete Impermanence, premiered at the Adelaide Festival Centre in May and will be travelling to Melbourne in August this year.
Featuring three dancers and 10 sculptural objects, the work holds a mirror up to the universal human experience of grief and loss, and prompts the audience to reflect on how world events impact their own experience of trauma.
Fleur Murphy: Where did the idea for Concrete Impermanence come from?
Alison Currie: The starting point for the show was the Christchurch earthquakes in 2010. Watching it all unfold on TV I found it fascinating that words that were used to describe this natural disaster – break, fracture, crush – are the exact same words we apply to our own personal traumas.
As we started to work on the choreography I noticed that the physical expression of those words in dance made them instantly personal. In order to physicalise them, you have to think about what they feel like, and relate that to your own experiences in the world.
I decided I wanted to explore that relationship between global and personal trauma.
FM: Do you think things like social media amplify that sense of global trauma?
AC: Yes, I think so, and TV has a big impact too. The 24-hour news cycle means you can’t escape all the horror in the world, even while you’re dealing with your own personal traumas. You have to actively choose to escape and switch off, which can be impossible. And when you’re reminded or your experiences by world events, the news in a sense becomes your own personal story, and there is a raw connection with your own very real grief.
FM: Are you speaking from experience?
AC: Of course, everyone has a personal story of loss or grief. If you’ve had a friend suicide, experienced a major injury or been in a life threatening situation you know what it feels like. One of the things I love about dance is that it is an abstract art form, and I like the interpretations of my work to remain open. My personal experience impacts on the emotions conveyed in the work, but those characters do not necessarily represent my story.
FM: What do you think I would be feeling, as a member of the audience?
AC: There are moments that startle you, literal crashes of sound and flashes of light. There are moments when the dancers are rushing and out of breath. And then there are other, more gentle moments. It builds up, then simmers down and builds up again.
I always hope people can have their own experience of my work without being told what to think or feel. A few people have commented that it stayed with them and they kept thinking about it after they left. It’s always wonderful to hear that your work has an impact on people.
FM: Your work features 10 sculptural objects, and at times they almost feel like dancers or characters themselves. What inspired that?
AC: Looking at the emergency housing and buildings in Christchurch, so many of them used cardboard as a material. It was a practical response to the need to make things quickly which could be easily dismantled later.
So I did a bit of Pinteresting and discovered the “molo” objects and I knew they were perfect for the show. Their concertina folds and malleable nature mean they expand and contract in a way that is similar the movement of the earth’s crust in an earthquake.
The objects are so much more than just props, and have become central to the whole show. It’s a play on the whole notion of instability. If you watch the footage of the earthquake you see objects that we think of as permanent, materials like concrete or steel, turning into something almost liquid.
There is a fluid section within the work where the dancers are moving inside a wall, and that’s when the object really becomes the performer.
FM: Your work often features objects of one kind or another. Why do you think you’re drawn to that?
AC: We live in a world where human beings are often treated as second to objects, or treated as objects. People have become a commodity, being bought and sold. I feel like that’s one of the main problems we have in this world, which makes it interesting to explore in art.
FM: Do you see people being objectified in the dance world?
AC: Absolutely, one thing that really bothers me is that in a lot of contemporary dance I see a version of a heterosexual relationship with an undertone of domestic violence. It perpetuates the view that women should be submissive, that if you’re alone you should be longing for a male figure to help you find your place in the world.
A love duet shouldn’t look like violence, it’s totally fucked up. Unless I’m going to make a work specifically about that, I don’t want it to be in the background just because that’s what dance “looks” like. If I choose to comment on that kind of theme in my work it’s going to be a conscious decision.
FM: I’ve noticed that too! It seems to be even worse when dance hits the mainstream, on reality TV and things like that.
AC: Yeah it’s everywhere. I think in the performing arts there is a certain scope for abuse of power that isn’t really openly recognised. When you’re studying dance you’ll do anything to get work in the industry, and you believe you have to say “yes” to anything a director asks you to do.
When I look back on my early 20s I certainly felt that way. It’s not that I was uncomfortable at the time, but I don’t think I would put myself in those kinds of situations today. I remember seeing a work featuring three young girls which had strong sexual undertones, and I’m not sure if those women would look back now, 10 years later, and think, “That wasn’t really OK.”
FM: Did you ever receive any really bad advice when you were starting out?
AC: I have had so much unsolicited advice around my body shape. Even people I really respect, mentors of mine, told me outright, “You will never get a job in a company.” I was always told that in order to succeed I needed to change my body and lose weight.
This happened when I was at the height of having an eating disorder, and it’s not just a terrible thing for a young dancer to hear, it’s so limiting. I actually prefer to see diverse bodies and I believe that every type of body should be on stage. But it’s scary how quickly you can tip into that kind of thinking.
FM: Are there any stereotypes in your industry that you think are harmful?
AC: There are a lot of women in the industry. The majority of people who study dance are women, so if you happen to me a man you have an advantage straight away. A lot of the time you need male dancers to make a work look balanced, so if you are a man you’re much more likely to be employed.
Throughout the history of dance this hasn’t necessarily been the case, but all the major companies in Australia and a lot of major companies worldwide currently have male directors and choreographers. There are plenty of award-winning female choreographers but they aren’t getting employed outside of small to medium companies.
FM: That must be so frustrating, is it like that in Adelaide too?
AC: It is, but it’s really exciting how many female makers there are. There are lots of independent female voices. They might not be leading the major dance companies, but sometimes the more interesting work gets made outside of those companies because you’re not restricted by a program and answering to a board.
I don’t know if we are at any kind of tipping point in that sense, I would like to say I feel hopeful about that but I’m not sure if I do. But I’m going to just keep making my work and doing what I do.
FM: If you could give your 20-year-old self any advice, what would it be?
AC: See a lot and do a lot. Experience as much as you can, discover what you like. You’ll have to work really hard, there’s no escaping that, it doesn’t matter what your natural abilities are. But don’t listen to the naysayers! There are many different ways of having a career in dance.
FM: How are you feeling about taking the show to Melbourne?
AC: I feel excited, I haven’t shown a full length work there since 2010. The Substation is an amazing venue, and the director there has a unique vision when it comes to programming. My sound designer has an exhibition of robotic instruments on at the same time as we are showing Concrete Impermanence so it’s a really nice tie-in.
Concrete Impermanence is showing from 15-18 August at The Substation in Melbourne. For tickets visit www.thesubstation.org.au.