Out of Earshot sees you working with a live musician and a profoundly deaf dancer. Can you tell me about how the work came about?
I remember seeing this performer, Myele Manzanza, at the Stonnington Jazz Festival and being incredibly blown away by his performance. It was more than just music: his playing was quite choreographic, and it made me think that music could absolutely be merged with dance on stage, rather than leaving the musicians in the pit or offstage. When I met Anna Seymour, a Melbourne-based dancer who is profoundly deaf, to speak through ideas, she mentioned that she’d always wanted to work with a drummer, as percussion is a fantastic way to access music, as body language is such a huge point of the performance. So it has been fantastic to create this work about sound and silence and non-verbal communication! The focus on how we communicate with one another was intended from the outset, and we’ve really been interested in exploring body talk, touch and intimacy – all the different languages we use to express ourselves. This piece looks at the connection between bodies, sound and music, and the different forms of communication we use. Music is such an important and powerful way to express and influence mood, though you won’t get 'songs' in this piece – you’ll get volume and rhythm and connection.
What does the rehearsal process look like for a work like Out of Earshot?
Every day there is a warm up for an hour, and after that, we begin piecing things together. The first few weeks in the development phase are all about experimentation: there is no right or wrong. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. When things feel good, everyone knows instinctively, and we ask a lot of questions of ourselves and each other. It’s constant trial and error. In those early days, there are no answers, so anything is possible. Risks can be high because there is no fear of failure. We might spend hours and hours on one scene and in the end, we just cut it, and it’s not a waste of time at all. It’s a matter of refining the material we have, and occasionally that’s quite severe. We’ve made so much more material than we can use! Initially, some people can find it hard to let go of something they’ve worked hard on, but it’s something I have really come to love.
This particular work, Out of Earshot, is all about communication – with the audience, with the performers, with the music. Can you tell me about the process of working on this piece in the rehearsal room?
There is an interpreter in the room during rehearsals, so the way we communicate with one another has had to be much clearer than we usually are. It’s been an incredibly positive experience, having to be thoughtful and respectful with one another, ensuring we’re not talking over each other. In each project we hand pick the cast for their personalities and the mix of people and skills, so the cast at the moment are really active in their contribution to the work. Each artist has their own choreographic identity, which elevates the whole process. It’s also been really fantastic having live music in the room! We can try things really quickly, and having Myele in the room has brought a completely different perspective, as he doesn’t have the same short hand as we do. It’s been incredibly interesting and has made us all shift a little bit in the way we think about our process - a lot of which we take for granted. We often demonstrate rather than speak in the rehearsal room, which has changed in this process. Myele’s thoughts have been great, and he has offered lots of suggestions and musical thoughts. Jazz musicians are listening and watching extremely carefully because of improvisation, so he has been great at reading cues from the dancers. He’s completely in tune with the them.
What was your journey from performer to director like? Have you always had a strong interest in artistic direction and choreography?
Absolutely. Even as a child I loved directing and worked on school shows and eisteddfods. I loved devising work and seeing it from an objective point of view. I did love performing, but I just liked the other stuff more. Gerard and I were both performing when we started KAGE, but then we began to change our roles and I started moving my focus to being outside of the works rather than in them. With a family, I found performing could be really challenging and self-focused, and I eventually lost interest in that. I wanted to have more of an impact, and I got that from being outside the work rather than in it. Performers have a very particular language, and as a director, your main role is to be really sensitive and understanding. Making an environment where every person in the room feels comfortable and confident is a huge part of my job now.
What do you wish young dancers knew – particularly those hoping to create their own works, whether contemporary of classical?
I have just recently been working with the third-year dancers at the VCA, and the school has a season where two of the dancers are selected to create their own works. They’re given the resources that are necessary to put on a new production, which is fantastic – I’d love to see more opportunities like that. Gerard and I just went for it – we didn’t wait for anyone else to offer us anything, we just found and made our own opportunities. I think it’s important to have a hunger for it and a real determination to make things happen. If you’re passionate – and this goes for all creative people - you’ve just got to do it. Success was really gradual, but we persisted and got some favours and eventually got some money. The biggest lesson was to ask questions. Ring up the funding bodies, knock on doors and don’t feel shy! If you see someone whose work you love, go say hello and introduce yourself. All artists have to be proactive and find other creatives they love and get mentored. Gerard and I asked so many questions, and people rarely said no. Artists want to help and mentor and guide people at the start of their journey, and having someone in your corner is really important, particularly at the beginning. Get out there and connect!
Being part of a broader festival must give you the opportunity to introduce new things to an audience who might not traditionally know a lot about what you do. What are you hoping the people who see Out of Earshot will experience?
I would like to think audience members will come with an open mind and a willingness to be surprised and experience something new. We’re trying to challenge perceptions of sound, beauty and intimacy, and we’re working with some stunning technology that allows sound to be seen. It’s a very much a multisensory piece. Music festivals are often completely inaccessible for deaf audiences, so we began thinking about how we could challenge that while also providing a really positive and beautiful environment for the audience to experience this performance. We’re not reacting negatively to the inaccessibility, it’s about broadening the experience of silence and dance and movement in a very inclusive way. We want to push against the way people experience entertainment: this piece is more than just sitting in a chair and taking for granted the fact you’ll get all your cues via aural means. It won’t be so far out of the blue for jazz audiences, but we do know it’ll be very different, and that’s a great thing! We want to attract a broad range of audiences and perhaps give them the opportunity to think and experience in a different way. That’s our genuine interest as a company: we want to pursue topics and ideas that are really important to us and that’s why we take our time in the development process. It means more in the end!
KAGE presents Out of Earshot as part of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival. For more information and tickets head here.