Choreographic boom for WA

Erin Brannigan: Interview, Paul Selwyn Norton, Director, STRUT

Paul Selwyn Norton, Director, STRUT

Paul Selwyn Norton, Director, STRUT

Raised in Africa and the West Indies and based in Amsterdam for 25 years until his recent move to Australia, Paul Selwyn Norton has danced with Amanda Miller/Pretty Ugly and William Forsythe’s Ballet Frankfurt. He set up a production company, no apology, in 2003 to support his work in the Netherlands while creating and restaging work for Ballet Frankfurt, Batsheva Dance, Galili Dance and, in Australia, Stalker Theatre and Chunky Move.

Norton was about to undertake Doctorate Studies in Dance with QUT in Brisbane when he was offered the job as Director of STRUT, The National Choreographic Centre of Western Australia, Perth. Norton’s vision is transforming STRUT into a national organization, opening membership up across the country and providing choreographers with introductions to unique methodologies and offering considerable development opportunities.

He is emphatic about his aim for STRUT in 2014: “This year is literally about bringing in benchmark training methodologies. There are a lot of performance outcomes but nothing really massive until the end of 2014 with the Mini MoveMe Improvisation Festival and then in early 2015, a co-production with Perth’s Fringeworld.” 2014 is really about coming back to our physical poetry and how we research that in our work.” With a national review of dance, Future Moves, and state government reassessment of the WA dance scene, “I thought, okay, what a great opportunity to come back to the body and not immediately produce work.” He’d also noted that there is little of the training associated with William Forsythe in Australia and nothing of Gaga [Ohad Naharin’s unique movement vocabulary which is now the daily training for the dancers at Batsheva Dance Company]. “As soon as I got this job, I phoned Ohad and Bill and said, hey, those methodologies are very pertinent, very resonant still and not practised here.”

Was it government policy decisions or your perception of the field that determined your approach?

It was a combination of three things—a paradigm shift in terms of benchmark training here in Perth, a strategic policy move and [a reflection of the fact] that I’ve worked with most of the national artists on previous visits to Australia. It was easy to get strategic leverage by bringing in two really high-end international choreographers. The Board and I thought it was a good balance between policy and artistic direction. Besides, Forsythe and Naharin will be represented by people who’ve worked with them, for instance Rachel Osborne—an Aussie girl who trained at QUT and used to work with Batsheva—has invited [another Batsheva alumni] Guy Shomroni to join her.

The Forsythe method is coming via Riley Watts and Michael Schumacher?

Yes and we’ve just signed off a deal with Christopher Roman, the Director of the Forsythe Foundation, who proposed mounting Forsythe’s One Flat Thing reproduced (2006). As we build it over the next three years, we’ll use this piece as a choreographic training model, since it has many extrapolations back to earlier Forsythe works such as Robert Scott (1986) and forward to Synchronous Object (2009, a website exploring One Flat Thing’s choreography). We’ll be doing the same with Batsheva, building pieces of repertoire into a full evening performance, exclusively on Australian dancers.

What are your plans for 2015?

In 2015 we just add another layer on top of 2014, working with a lot more locals, like Rachel Ogle, Jo Pollitt and Shona Erskine—who is doing some incredible work with Performance Psychology. Plus we’re designing a collaborative program, helping young choreographers who haven’t worked with composers before or those who’ve worked with them later in their development and would rather have developed the vernacular and understanding earlier on in their process.

Are you maintaining current programs?

Some of the current STRUT Seed Residencies that will go on to second and maybe third stage development, ready for presentation will be supported and presented in the bigger MoveMe Festival at the end of 2016. For the first time this year, a Seed Residency went to interstate artists. That was a contentious issue, but it’s about actually sharing and communicating across the states. So it is great that Gabrielle Nankivell and Luke Smiles will work with WA artists—it’s about making a beautiful, robust garden and sharing that experience.

Short Cuts has been a staple for STRUT for years and I wouldn’t want to shift that because it’s a great platform. But artists tend to use it as a launch into development and grant applications. I want to take that pressure off. So I thought let’s pull back and do Off-cuts with a smaller turnaround, more like an open-mike approach, or show part of your work and get some critical feedback, so artists don’t feel like they get one shot at that one Short Cuts program and that’s it for a whole year.

And what sort of support do they get?

It depends on what level. Say with Short Cuts, you get the performance space, production money, the door money—we don’t take anything from that—and technical support. Off-cuts is just studio time and you get the door. Prime Cuts, which is the final stage, is curated from Short Cuts and then there’s a substantial fee to produce the work in a real venue; this year we’re doing it with the WA Ballet Theatre. We are also building bridges between ballet and contemporary. Jane Smeulders, principal of the WA Ballet, was already in the first Gaga workshop.

What about the high male quotient in your 2014 program?

I’ll put it this way, Erin, Ohad and William are the two choreographers I’ve danced and created for and I needed to get some serious clout into the organisation because government was like, okay STRUT’s on standstill, Paul, you’re gonna have to pitch. So, I phoned up Bill and Ohad. I can phone them but I can’t phone say Trisha [Brown] or the Pina Bausch Foundation as I don’t know them. I phoned Stephanie Lake but she’s a very, very busy lady. I had to write a business plan in two and a half months. I just pulled what I could when I could. I talked to Nellie Benjamin who will be coming over and a lot of local female choreographers will be working with us next year. It’s something that’s happened by default. I have no preference either way. It’s got to be good work, good art, good poetry…

How do you see STRUT in terms of the changes happening in Perth?

The city is undergoing infrastructural change. The Metropolitan Redevelopment Authority (MRA), has four massive centres that it’s re-igniting and connecting so you’re going to get grungy Northbridge meets the corporate south. And all the beautiful local cafes that we have here—three of which we’re in partnership with because I really believe in community exchange—are full of tats, inks, beards and suits and power heels: a fantastic mix and that’s either our audience or potential new members.

There’s also the reactivation of the Cultural Centre where PICA, the Blue Room and the State Theatre Centre are. That’s why the Mini MoveMe Festival is centred there. STRUT is working with the MRA’s reactivation mandate to specifically enhance it. They’re ticking their boxes and we’re ticking ours. Michael Schumacher will present his Dans Le Jardin to JS Bach solos in the courtyard of the State Theatre Centre and then Pied-Piper the audience out into the Cultural Centre.

As for your own practice, you will be working with the Sydney Dance Company’s graduate year students later this year?

I was there in May. I did a two-week process and I come back in June and I think the work will be shown sometime in September. I think it’s important to continue those dialogues with your own practice and to feed it back into the sector. And dancers who are graduating there, not all of them are going to the Sydney Dance Company.

We’re saying to them, we’re a beacon and not a lighthouse. It’s not career suicide to go west. It’s actually career development, a beacon of opportunity and that’s why the Australia Council was so excited to get involved. This is something else I use when I enter the corporate conversation: ‘You’ll be investing in a national organisation and it’s in Perth.’ There are not many national arts organisations in this city, but we’ve got big dreams and the hope is that it all feeds back into the dance ecology here in WA.

The 2014 STRUT program includes Master Workshops with Byron Perry, Antony Hamilton, Improvisation Workshops with Riley Watts and Michael Schumacher and the Mini MoveMe Festival in partnership with TURA New Music, Ausdance WA, the State Theatre Centre of WA, the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, The Blue Room Theatre, FORM, Venn Gallery and Moana Project Space and featuring artists Rosalind Crisp, Ros Warby, Andrew Morrish, Peter Trottman, Jo Pollit and Paea Leach, workshops and a ‘caravan’ of works travelling on to Sydney’s Critical Path, Melbourne’s Dancehouse and Brisbane’s Judith Wright Centre (with Ausdance QLD). Nov 21-30; www.strutdance.org.au

RealTime issue #121 June-July 2014 pg. 30

© Erin Brannigan; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

9 June 2014