celebrating stalker at 21

keith gallasch: interview, rachael swain, david clarkson

Toy Cart, Stalker, 1991

Toy Cart, Stalker, 1991

STALKER IS ONE OF AUSTRALIA’S MOST IDIOSYNCRATIC PERFORMANCE COMPANIES, EVOLVING OVER TWO DECADES FROM STILT-WALKING SHOWS—WITH VERVE AND INTELLIGENCE—INTO INCREASINGLY SOPHISTICATED, RICHLY THEMED LARGE-SCALE WORKS, ALL PERFORMED OUTDOORS, AND THEN DIVERSIFYING INTO TWO COMPANIES, STALKER AND MARRUGEKU. BOTH HAVE RESHAPED NOTIONS OF PHYSICAL THEATRE, INCORPORATING OTHER ARTFORMS AND EMBRACING SOCIAL, POLITICAL AND METAPHYSICAL ISSUES AND THEMES WHILE ACHIEVING INTERNATIONAL RECOGNITION.

Sydney-based Stalker is co-directed by David Clarkson and Rachael Swain, each contributing discrete shows to the company repertoire, while Marrugeku is co-directed by Swain and Broome-based choreographer Dalisa Pigram. I spoke with Clarkson and Swain after Stalker celebrated its 21st year at the end of 2010. Such longevity for a continually innovative company is quite an achievement, not least in a country of short-lived artistic ventures.

starting out on stilts

Clarkson tells me that an early version of the company had played in New Zealand for three years, but reformed in Sydney where it was joined by Swain in 1989 and given “$10,000 cold cash by the Sydney Festival after I showed them some of our New Zealand work and they said, ‘It looks great!’” Swain and Clarkson point out that their starting out was timely—the Expo in Brisbane and the Bicentennial had programmed a substantial number of outdoor works, as did the Perth Festival and the Spoleto Festival in Melbourne directed by John Truscott. Clarkson recalls that “within a year we were touring Australia-wide and within 18 months we were in Europe.”

I asked how the pair would describe their early work. “It was street theatre. Very high energy,” says Swain. “When we first got to Europe we made quite a big splash. David and I both grew up in New Zealand and I think there was a sense of the rhythms and energy of the Pacific in the work. It was quite pumping.” Adds Clarkson, “Our work was stilt-based and we took stilts somewhere that no-one else had. Dive rolls, backbend get-ups, carrying each other, throwing each other to the ground, picking each other up. Very bruising. ‘Hell for leather,’ that’s what it was. Stilt acrobatics.”

Swain mentions that Stalker was working with choreographers as early as their second show, Toy Cart (1990): “Nigel Kellaway directed and Rosalind Crisp choreographed and it premiered at Spoleto in 1990. It was high energy but it was also quite visually driven work and quite lyrical—a strong aesthetic that exists to this day.” Clarkson recalls that Swain “was never in love with Fast Ground (1989), our first piece, but looking back at it and at Grotowski’s movement work I can see connections—muscle and bone work, always distinctive from circus even though stilts are a circus thing. It was always for me about embodiment: ‘a state of being’ expressed through the body and what visual imagery we might use to support that embodiment.”

Swain and Clark acknowledge significant differences between their bodies of work, their aesthetics and Marrugeku’s artistic direction. Marrugeku started in 1995, commissioned into existence by Perth Festival. Stalker produces Marrugeku, but the company has its own life, based first in Central Arnhem Land for seven years and subsequently in Broome for eight, and with its own steering committee and direction. “But,” says Swain, “there are certain core elements that link all three bodies of work, combining dance theatre processes and aesthetics with circus forms and a fairly poetic, layered dramaturgy prevalent in all the works. David and I worked collectively to make material initially and then slowly brought other people in—Sue-ellen Kohler choreographed the third work we did, Angels ex Machina (1993)—often in very strong collaborative partnerships. Both of our processes are physical—we make material on the floor—like choreographers.”

working europe

Some of the aesthetic influences on Stalkers’ work came from their rapid arrival on the European summer festival street theatre touring circuit in their first year of existence. “We were exposed to a whole raft of European companies from the small street theatre acts through to really large scale: Generik Vapeur, La Furas dels Baus, Les Ballets C de la B, Vis-a-Vis, Dogtroep, all making very ambitious, large scale work.” Clarkson says that the company saw a model they thought they could adapt. “Some of the shows were in the streets, with a full 1,500 seat grandstand and all the production values, like the Dogtroep work. We saw a model used to create an incredible audience base and access to touring circuits, came back here and tried to function between the two markets, Europe and Australia. For about a decade that was both our advantage and, to a degree, our bête noir. We were trying to exist as if we were a European company but there wasn’t the market here for large scale outdoor shows outside the five major festivals.”

Swain regrets that “for me, the only presentation in Australia I’ve had outside a festival has been when the Sydney Opera House commissioned Incognita (2003). We’d spend our year in the European summer and come back for the Australasian summer for 10 to15 years.” Clarkson recalls that “in the early years we were on the road for 10 months of the year.” In the mid-90s, when Justin Macdonnell was the company’s manager, its circuit extended to Latin America, as it did to Japan with Marguerite Pepper and Rosemary Hinde. Clarkson says, “We were really surviving by touring and weren’t really funded early on. For youngish performers it was a tremendous experience and great exposure for us, an exciting way to live, but the ensemble burnt out. You can’t actually live by touring eight or nine months of the year.”

a model for survival

I asked when it was that Swain and Clarkson decided not to work together. Clarkson explains that he took “a big sabbatical in 1999. Blood Vessel was a Stalker show without me performing in it. I was in the States. Throughout the 90s we’d had a very close working relationship but then decided to go our own directions. [Arts consultant] Antony Jeffrey came in to work with us as facilitator to devise a new model. I think we both thought it meant either ending the company or one of us taking over. Personally I think what we got is a really great model for survival in the arts—shared infrastructure and management for two bodies of work that have similar sets of concerns.” Swain says, “it’s become a way of sharing resources and a point of dialogue and support for each other’s work, which I think we possibly wouldn’t have come up with ourselves. And so Antony is to be credited.”

market adjustments

Swain says she “went very strongly into the large scale outdoor theatre model and somehow managed to make that function until the dance theatre element of it became stronger and stronger and the large scale outdoor European summer festivals didn’t know how to program it. It was somehow too ‘arty’ for the summer festival world and the dance festivals that were starting to get interested didn’t know how to present outdoor work. So my work started to fall between the cracks and I think the fact that Shanghai Lady Killer [Swain’s latest creation for Stalker, 2010] became an indoor work has been a part of that process. I just wasn’t finding a way to park the work. Incognita should have had a longer life. It did three of the national Australian festivals, which is about as good as you can get in this country. Then in Europe we couldn’t fit either field any more. We have multi-arts festivals here so we’re used to all kinds of works being in a festival whereas in Europe they’re very artform specific.”

from the body

In 2010 David Clarkson created Mirror/Mirror (2009) for Stalker in collaboration with dancer Dean Walsh (RT94, p36). Before that he’d made Red (2004) and Four Riders (2001) “with an ensemble that I trained, with them taking on my approach to physicality.” Clarkson is currently developing a new work, Encoded, “working with a range of artists, virtual cameras and projection and point cloud generated animation” and wondering, “What is the next phase?” He suspects he’ll direct Encoded but not perform in it—“but it’s my own physicality that still enriches my creative process.” Like Swain’s Shanghai Lady Killer, Clarkson’s Mirror/Mirror also moved indoors.

a choreographic heritage

Rachael Swain appears to be working more and more choreographically, via collaboration with a range of choreographers, as in Incognita (2003) and Shanghai Lady Killer (2010) for Stalker and the Marrugeku creations (MIMI, 1996; Crying Baby, 2001; Burning Daylight, 2006, 2009). The works are large, multi-plane, theatrical, culturally dense. She attributes this in part to the influences of Europe in the 1990s and also of Stalker’s agent since 1991-2, Gie Baguet, as his first international company. Swain says, “Gie’s also the agent for Les Ballets C de la B and he introduced us to their work and other northern European dance theatre companies. The last decade for me has been a big project to bring something of their aesthetics into a dialogue with the kind of raw physicality of Australian dance and Australian new circus techniques. We saw so much work. We were in Amsterdam during the Yulidans international dance festival every year. We saw the evolution of the works of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, Wim Vandekeybus, Needcompany, Les Ballets C de la B. And we saw them every year. Australian physical theatre, dance theatre and circus have a really amazing physicality, a lot of which comes from a relationship with the landscape and the physical environment. I wanted to bring this and European aesthetics and processes together. A lot of that work is about a theatrical improvisational process that, as Alain Platel says, “sometimes leads to people dancing.”

That quotation puts me in mind of the work of Pina Bausch. Swain agrees: “Of course that is the lineage. Tim Etchells once said that he thought Forced Entertainment’s work was the end of a line of Chinese whispers that started in Wuppertal [the home of the Pina Bausch company]. And I sometimes think what we’re doing is too. Marrugeku’s Burning Daylight is the result of a very long Chinese whisper that started up in Wuppertal and went to Ghent through the collaboration between me and Koen Augustijnen [of Les Ballets C de la B] for Incognita and Serge Amié Coulibaly [from Burkina Faso; also worked with Les Ballets C de la B] for Burning Daylight and the classes I did over there.

“So I think that’s been the grand project on that front. Yes, I think I conceive and direct work as a choreographer but I really like to partner, most recently with Gavin Webber on Shanghai Lady Killer. Once again, that was about bringing European influenced contemporary dance from Gavin’s time with Wim Vandekeybus, formed through his time with ADT in a kind of loop back into the Australian dance theatre vernacular. I think that’s an ongoing project. And when I’m on the floor I’m working in an improvisational dance theatre process in shaping work.”

Swain is developing Shanghai Lady Killer after its 2010 Brisbane Festival premiere. “It’s a really big work for Stalker. It’s very complicated, an Australian-Chinese martial arts thriller that combines the wire and stunt work used in martial arts films, trampolines on stage, Chinese pole techniques and Wushu which is a particularly lyrical form of Chinese martial arts, in a kind of plot-driven futuristic thriller narrative. This was my first time working with a writer [filmmaker Tony Ayres] which was a great and challenging experience.”

Shanghai Lady Killer

Shanghai Lady Killer

Clarkson says he’s captivated by Shanghai Lady Killer despite early reservations about “the commercial narrative structure which I’ve always had problems with because it’s so bloody dominant.” Swain points out that she and Ayres conceived the show before the Global Financial Crisis when “there was a niche appearing for arthouse commercial theatre,” with some opportunities for radical, culturally diverse content. “But the GFC hit and the support that we had for it internationally went. We’d been aiming for a multi-million dollar version, but had to scale way, way, way back down. We were very lucky to be commissioned by the Brisbane and Melbourne Festivals through the Major Festivals Initiative Fund—enormous support and a big project for the fund. I think there is a big national home for Shanghai Lady Killer.”

intergenerational cultural sustainability

I wonder if Swain craves work on a smaller project. “Absolutely!” she replies. “We premiered Buru [Broome, 2010] straight after Shanghai Lady Killer. It’s a much smaller work although it’s still got a fairly large cast. It was devised and created with 10 young performers from Broome aged between 10 and 21—so it’s a very different feel. We worked for three years together with elders from the Broome community, very much in the wake of Burning Daylight, grasping this model as a way to use theatre as a sustainable form of culture, of carrying stories forward—obviously not the [sacred stories] but the ones they really want to pass on, to be public. The elders started to come into rehearsal and to say this is what I think should be happening now. It was a great moment for the company where there was really direct intergenerational knowledge transmission occurring in the rehearsal process and the young performers were really given the work to take forward. So effectively, we’ve established a youth company for Marrugeku. I don’t know if that means a fourth string to our bow now!”

Clarkson is similarly focused on intergenerational connections: “There’s a piece I’m doing called Elevate out at Penrith with three 19-year-olds, a kind of hip hop street stilt piece which is very much about the next generation. I think it’s only appropriate. Theatre is a gift that’s given to you and you pass it on.”

Swain says that “when I came to writing the speech for Stalker’s 21st birthday celebrations, I momentarily found it quite depressing. What is there after 21 years? What is left behind is ephemeral, in the memories of our audiences in all those different contexts, all over the world. And because that’s been so diverse for us and because what Stalker is in Belgium or what Stalker is in Colombia or what Stalker is in Perth, they’re all different, presented in very different models and to different sectors of the community. Twenty-one years of blood, sweat and tears, quite literally…broken bones and all that.

“But there are company members who have been in our work, learned new skills and gone on and done their own work or gone into other companies and contributed to other processes. I certainly hope in Marrugeku’s case that what comes after us will be the measure of the company’s success—finding a language that reflects the Aboriginal elders’ complexity of knowledge but that is also very contemporary. It is very hard to find the comprehension of that work, especially overseas. People often just don’t know what they’re looking at. I hope that we’re opening doors and that further down the track there’ll be more appreciation.”

Stalker have created a significant legacy over 21 very creative years. If the company had fallen apart a decade ago, that legacy might not have been as rich. Swain thinks that “there were times when I’ve thought had we been sane human beings we would have stopped.” Clarkson agrees, “Either financially or personally…but there have been big rewards, tremendous experiences.” And Swain concurs. Happy 21st, Stalker.

RealTime issue #101 Feb-March 2011 pg. 43,45

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2011
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