Great artistic mentors

In This Article

It is a great pleasure and a great honour to be here this evening. But I feel a little overwhelmed to find myself only the fourth person to pay tribute to the memory of the great artist who was also a wonderful human being: Dame Peggy van Praagh, the Founding Artistic Director of The Australian Ballet.

Twelve months after her death in January 1990, the inaugural Dame Peggy van Praagh Memorial Address was given by Shirley McKechnie. In 1993, the honour fell to the late Peter Brinson, and in 1995 to Keith Bain. All three of these highly respected personalities from the world of dance were long time colleagues and friends of Dame Peggy, people whom she relied on for support and who shared her vision for the development of dance in our country.

It seems as though I am the first speaker from the generation of dancers born after World War II to be entrusted with the task of celebrating her memory. It is a task that I welcome, because to me Dame Peggy was the stuff of legend. I knew about her long before we met, long before I became involved in the professional world of dance and long before I dared to imagine that, one day, I might be chosen to dance in The Australian Ballet.

My mother, however, had known about Dame Peggy all along. She had found out that this lady who was such a magnificent artist was also a great teacher. You see, when I was still a very young dancing student—my family and I were living in Penang—my mother got hold of a little book written by Dame Peggy. It was entitled How I Became a Ballet Dancer and soon it became a kind of bible for my mother. In this book one learns about the disciplines young dancers have to accept, the hard choices to be made and, most importantly, the necessity of finding the best possible artistic mentors.

I leafed through its pages again quite recently, as I was thinking about this address. And I was reminded that I was certainly not the first person to find questionable some of the teaching methods used in the training of dancers. Peggy too had seen dancers forced to assume damaging positions. At the age of seven she had been made to stand on pointes in second position while the teacher forced her insteps out into the desired high arch. Peggy's feet were strong but not suited to this exercise and she never acquired this particular trait. Neither did her hips accommodate to the years of forced turnout.

Perhaps as a consequence of this, she developed a philosophy of artistic education and insisted in her book that young dancers altogether need informed and sensible teaching, an excellent general education, and above all, loving and supportive parents. I have to say that my mother absorbed this wisdom to make it her own and, of course, the last suggestion was the easiest one for her to follow. I had the best parents an artist could ever wish for.

Much later on, I became a student at the Australian Ballet School when Peggy was the Artistic Director of The Australian Ballet and I learned about the truth of her first suggestion. What I received from her, the gift of her teaching, changed the course of my life and set me on a path of learning that will only end with me. There cannot be a point in life when one ceases to learn from other people or from what life brings to us in terms of experience or feeling.

We can learn from every situation we find ourselves in. Not only because, as a philosopher is supposed to have said, "the one thing, we know, is that we know nothing", but also because there is no greater pleasure than the pleasure of discovering a new perspective, a different way of doing things or an aspect of our own self with which we had not yet become acquainted.

So this address will not only be a tribute to Peggy van Praagh, but also one to all those individuals who either have taught me something that I did not know I had in me, or who have enriched me with their own knowledge. Like everyone else I was taught things I did not really want to know. For instance, how to turn my childhood ballet classes into tests of endurance during which I realised both the reality of my will power and its limitations.

It was this early experience of physical hardship that successfully challenged my instinct of survival and inspired Two Feet and enabled me to perceive, and I hope, render the potency of the mix between dedication to one's art and hatred for it: Olga Spessivtseva was a victim of this very madness—I survived to make a dance about it.

I do not think it had ever occurred to me that I could actually choreograph a dance until Anne Woolliams suggested that I should try. It was 1977 and I had been with The Australian Ballet for two years, when Anne, then Artistic Director, decided to stage a program of short works by members of the company. It was to be called Dance Horizons—A Tribute to Peggy van Praagh. I was invited to contribute and I couldn't wait to begin on my first choreography. It was done in a few short rehearsals in between dancing in several other pieces.

So there I was in the corps de ballet and Anne had thought I was enough of an artist to choreograph a piece. I could not believe that it was happening, yet I trusted her. It is often the case that other people know more about our abilities than we do ourselves. They see something which has not yet appeared clearly to us, a possibility that has not been yet realised by us.

Some of you will remember that Anne Woolliams resigned from the artistic directorship of the company very shortly after this and that Peggy came back to direct the company throughout 1978. Once more, I was blessed with an Artistic Director who knew me better than I did myself.

The Australian Ballet Society had awarded me $1000 to help me study overseas and Peggy suggested that I should go to the Jacques Lecoq School in Paris to study mime. It is as if she had divined what I was about to begin; like a guardian angel, she arranged all the useful contacts and seemed to guide me through my European journey till its conclusion in Wuppertal.

After Paris I went to visit Joanne Endicott in Wuppertal. Joanne had danced with The Australian Ballet and was then a very successful dancer in Pina Bausch's Company. It was she who encouraged me to audition and before I knew what was going on, there I was doing impromptu improvisations, learning sequences from a new repertoire and finally a ballet class under the cold scrutiny of a new teacher.

As we worked Pina Bausch sat on the floor and read a newspaper. It was difficult to know what she thought. And I was really taken aback when she offered me a contract with the Wuppertal Dance Theatre at the end of the three-hour audition at 11.30 that night. Of course I could not then realise that I was being offered an experience that would totally change my attitude to dance and that it would, in fact, open doors onto a world I had never even dreamed about.

At the time, I was still under contract to The Australian Ballet and once again Dame Peggy came to the rescue, ensuring my release from this obligation and allowing me to pursue my journey. As soon as I began working with Pina Bausch, I realised that it was going to be a very different ball game. The work was incredibly intense but it offered the challenge I wanted, a possibility of going beyond what I knew and what I was.

When I look back, it seems to me that with Pina Bausch, the work was the dancers, and that the dancers were the work. Pina never told us what she might have wanted to hear; she never ever suggested answers to the endless questions she asked us.

Like the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke she encouraged us..."to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language". She told us "not to search for answers that could not be given to us then because we would not have been able to live them". And the point she thought was "to live everything (...) to live the questions now". 1

If there were answers, they had to come from the works in the studio. This is why the performances were so intense. They contained so much of the people in them that in the end it was hard to see where the line was between us and the work.

But even though many people in the company felt that, it was still Pina's work. It was she who had the vision, she who asked the questions, she who took all the important artistic decisions and who finally shaped the work to be performed on stage. Quite often I would find myself so completely engrossed with my own contribution that I would lose sight of the whole. And it was only later, when I was able to sit out and watch the work unfold that I could at last comprehend what was happening. Then I would bring my own judgment to bear, and think how my own decisions might have been different from Pina's. And this is when I really began to understand what was so powerful about performance, and how each decision made could change the work as it developed without destroying its integrity.

Still from Wim Wenders film Pina

It was this opportunity, or should I say this freedom to perform as a subject rather than as a mere tool in the hands of a stage director, that enabled me to learn so much from the experience of working with Pina. Hour after hour I watched the individual members of the company improvise their response to the questions she asked and I could see why certain things worked and others did not.

Sometimes I found myself in disagreement with the decisions Pina made, but I was also able to observe how she saw it and feel the necessity that guided her. Thus I came to understand that each one of us might see the same thing but in a different way.

Dame Peggy had often remarked that though she had learned a lot from Marie Rambert and Ninette de Valois during her formative years as a dancer in England, in the end she had had to do what was right for her and right for The Australian Ballet.

I think this is how it must be for every creative artist. And after six years with Pina Bausch, I began to wonder where the work was taking me. I had been Pina's obliging instrument and she had taught me so much, but as all young people are prone to do, I was beginning to ask my own questions. Moreover, the work had drained me and I was becoming burdened with an idea about myself, or the persona that had been created during the performance.

I was the one who could be funny on stage. She loved my Australian voice and my humour, she encouraged me to switch rapidly between the comic and the dramatic. But I was no longer inclined to perform as she wanted. I realised that I was less challenged by the work and I had to be on my own. I am sure it is like that for most of us, we all have to keep moving, keep changing, find new doors to open.

I often try to tell my dancers that there are so many things to learn, so much to discover. Every time we perform a work it changes and this is just how it must be! As it is performed, a work grows, it evolves and unfolds to become what it needs to be. Perhaps I am obsessive about this.

I remember that when I was dancing with The Australian Ballet—doing eight shows per week—I was desperate to make little changes with every performance. I was in the back row of the corps, remember, and surely it would not make any difference either to the work or to the audience.

But there I was, plotting against the selfsameness of the performance, trying to make it more perfect and trying also not to be too conspicuous about it. Sometimes I would try to improve on my make-up and I could spend hours experimenting, to see if I could make a difference to the character. The next performance I would be thinking, "tonight, I am going to be a really old sick Wili," and that would be my goal for the evening. It became a kind of secret discipline: each night I would try to make it memorable, at least for me, not to be seen, but to exist in that space there beyond, the space where it really matters....

When I finally made up my mind to leave the Wuppertal Dance Theatre after six years I was very sad. Pina had given me so much and I had no idea where my journey would take me next. The only thing I knew was that I needed independence and the next challenge which, somewhat ironically turned out be Lindsay Kemp's version of Midsummer Night's Dream.

Lindsay Kemp after Pina Bausch: the contrast could not have been more extreme. There was no rehearsal, no preparation at all; someone had been arrested at the airport in Torrino, for wearing a pink suit, I think. I barely knew what the work was about. But before I could even begin to worry about it, I was on stage. I had to walk across the stage, naked, and fall in love with Hermia—or was it Helena?—and I was wondering "what am I doing here?"

I'd never been naked on stage before. Pina Bausch was all about not exhibiting, it was about all those things we hide—our fears, our hopes and our vulnerability. We were absolutely not supposed to take our clothes off; like Christo's famous installations, we were revealing what we were clothing!

But of course Lindsay Kemp was different, Lindsay was a painter, an extrovert who believed in the virtue of showing it all, who believed that radical visibility was the essence of his art. Sometimes we would come in for the performance and all the costumes would be wet and dyed in an entirely different colour. Lindsay would have painted everything blue.I was living in a drama that kept changing every day, but in the extremes of experience between Pina Bausch and Lindsay Kemp, I tried to define a space for myself.

Lindsay Kemp's Flowers—a full-length work based on Jean Genet's Our Lady of the Flowers

I could relate to the wild child in Lindsay, who loved to dress up, who loved to create and be over the top. But Pina had revealed something deeper and a much darker side of life to me. She had asked me to put dirt in my hair, to wear no make up and forget the ballerina's desire for pristine perfection or the desire to shine.

In Lindsay Kemp's company everyone was a star! There was plenty of magic and make believe which the public loved. But its response could not have been more different than the response to the expressionist drama of the Wuppertal Dance Theatre. Audiences came in huge numbers to see Pina Bausch's work, but hardly anyone came near the stage door. Perhaps it was too confronting, too difficult. Perhaps we had showed people an aspect of themselves they did not wish to acknowledge. I know that audiences will always feel more comfortable with fairies or princesses. But I am not convinced that the only task of a creative artist is to make the audience feel comfortable.

At the end of my time with Pina, I had to tell her that I had nothing left to give, and she replied: "You do not realise how fortunate you are to be allowed to give so much". When I came back to Australia I realised that she might have been right and also that it was going to be difficult for me. I had learned so much and had so much to give, but no one seemed to want it. I could not find an agent to represent me because I did not fit any of the standard categories: "Was I an actor?" they asked, "or a choreographer?, or a dancer?"

To begin with, I did different things, like working as director with third year students at NIDA in Sydney. They had no dance vocabulary at all, so they approached movement from a completely different angle and we taught each other something.

In those first few years back in Australia things like that kept me going. Then I was fortunate to be in a television series, Dancing Daze with Jane Campion directing two episodes. Long before she directed The Piano, Jane knew how to let people be themselves in the space of her own vision. Once again I was taught the lesson I had been learning from all the artists who had influenced me in my formative years.

Ushio Amagatsu, founding director of the famous Sankai Juku company, was yet another of these extraordinary people. When his company came to Australia in 1988 I went see it every night. Here was an artistic sensibility entirely new to me. My ballet experience had emphasised technique, the story and the production of an aesthetic event. Pina Bausch's theatre was concerned with intensities and the expression of deep feelings. But Amagatsu's theatre was something more intangible, like the air we breathe, there was such delicacy in his work: a fragile presence about to evaporate or metamorphose into something even more unreal.

Amagatsu used light in the most poetic way, as if to show the invisible realm of his thoughts and dreams. I had not understood, till then, the transforming power of light, the infinite suggestiveness of light projected on a scene or an object, or a human being. I was much honoured when he invited me to perform Two Feet in Tokyo, for Amagatsu watched every performance and later told me "when you do the next piece, take time, take time—slower".

When I came back to Australia, I was offered the artistic directorship of the company originally founded by Don Asker in Canberra. And suddenly I found myself in this quiet empty place, with gum trees, rosellas, and the dryness of the outback only a short drive away. For the first time since I had come home, I felt connected to my country. Not only the natural beauty of Australia, but also its history. I visited the War Museum in Canberra and was profoundly moved by it.

Canberra brought me back to the rhythm of the seasons, the reasons for dancing and ultimately the memory of my father. With ideas of ritual, I made VX 18504 for him and used his war service number as a title for the composition. It was then, I think, that my real life as an Australian artist began in earnest.

And now quite a few years down the track, I know how difficult it is for dance artists in our country and that we must find ways to allow choreographers to follow Amagatsu's advice to go slow and take our time. It takes a lot of time to make art, that is to ponder, to experiment with half-baked ideas, to consider one solution against another, to decide which way a work should go and how to deal with a new thought that has emerged in the process.

Poets and painters do have that privilege, for it is only when they pronounce a work finished that it is offered for all to see. Dancers and choreographers must content themselves with what can be done in four weeks or sometimes less.

An aesthetic idea takes time to emerge, but when if finally finds its proper form, its beauty is clear to all. Alas, time is money, time is not on our side. Deadlines must be met and choreographers must hurry to workshop their ideas. It is relatively easy for a seasoned practitioner to craft a work, using material from familiar vocabulary. It is easy to make up steps and phrases and require the dancers to do it just so.

It is easy, but it is also meaningless. I know ... as long as the costumes are pretty and the music pleasing, most audiences will be satisfied. But is it what we artists are really supposed to be about? Are we simply entertainers? How about the conception of the artistic métier that my teachers and mentors have taught me to value?

In any case, unless we find a way to allow choreographers to take the necessary time for their ideas to be developed in the studio, we will be making dances, but they will be all the same dance. It is not just that they won't be properly finished, in fact they won't be at all commenced.

When I think of all the wonderful people who have shared their knowledge with me and who have given me the benefit of their friendship, I am reminded of this harsh obligation to combine artistic imperatives with practical necessities. I think of Dame Peggy, Anne Woolliams and Pina Bausch; I think of Ushio Amagatsu, Jane Campion and of all those who, like them, are engaged in the impossible business of art, impossible precisely because art is not a business and also because art is another form of thinking.

I know how fortunate I have been to work with such people. In fact it is as if I have been given a jewel, something infinitely precious and rare, something to be treasured. Every time I turn it to the light, it gleams differently, a new facet scintillates and I am reminded of how much there is yet to be learned.