Life dancer

Barbara Karpinski talks to Dean Walsh

Dean Walsh, Flesh:Memo

Dean Walsh, Flesh:Memo

2002 got better and better for Sydney-based dancer and choreographer Dean Walsh. This indiosyncratic and provocative artist was awarded the prestigious Robert Helpmann Scholarship by the NSW Government, a development grant by the Australia Council, and he was declared Outstanding Male Performer at the recent Ausdance Awards for his role in the Australian Dance Theatre’s Age of Unbeauty. Walsh is also one of the choreographers selected for the Ausdance (NSW)-Sydney Dance Company Space for Ideas project.

The Helpmann Scholarship will enable Walsh to research and develop a work with DV8’s Lloyd Newson in London in early 2003, and to collaborate with Paul Selwyn-Norton, an independent choreographer and performer working between Amsterdam, Tel Aviv and Sydney. The Australia Council grant will contribute towards his work with Andrew Morrish on improvisational techniques and with animator/film maker Antoinette Starkeiwicz on an animation/live action version of Walsh’s Unspeakable Acts. Starkeiwicz’s animation is “very beautiful and unique,” says Walsh. “It suggests a moving expressionist painting.”

Dean Walsh has collaborated on 12 works with performance and dance companies over the last 10 years, most recently in Garry Stewart’s The Age of Unbeauty performed by ADT at the 2002 Adelaide Fringe Festival then at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House. He was choreographer for the Australian premier of Giordano’s Andrea Chenier for Opera Australia in 2001 and its restaging for the South Australian State Opera Company. He has also made 16 solo works, 5 of which have toured nationally and internationally. He was part of the cLUB bENT tour to Britain in 1996 and the New Moves (new territories) international dance festival (Glasgow, 2000). In Sydney he has performed in cLUB bENT and Taboo Parlour (Performance Space, Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras) and in Independent Dance Collections between 1995 and 1999. His Retro Muscle-Song was part of the Mardi Gras Festival Foursome program in 2000 and was the genesis of Maternal Tattoo which he presented as part of his Flesh: Memo for the 2002 Gay Games Festival.

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Dean Walsh’s diverse professional and personal experiences each inform the other. He began working life on the rooftops in the ‘burbs as a roofing plumber and now struts his stuff on stages around the world. From cLUB bENT performances that were more like flagrantly fleshy peep shows than high brow dance, Walsh has refined his up close’n’personal style to create works of visceral intensity and mathematical precision. From avant-garde to mainstream, peepshow to pomo, Dean Walsh owns it all.

What was Walsh’s early experience of dance? “Until the age of 20 I really didn’t know what dance was…I mean I knew that ballet existed because, when I was about 7 years old, my grandmother took me to see the The Royal Ballet Company movie of The Tales of Beatrix Potter. I remember sitting there stunned. It was one of those defining good memories.”

Another memorable performance during his childhood was a Disney on Parade extravaganza where the audience’s focus became split between the colourful action on stage and a severe storm building up outside. “The storm eventually ripped a massive hole in the tent ceiling creating a chaotic mass exodus. Larger than life Disney characters, like the Big Bad Wolf, were telling people to be calm only to have the kids scream even louder in terror!” Walsh says he wasn’t exposed to any “artsy dancey culture.” Meanwhile domestic reality was biting hard: “My background was one of disruption and high Richter scale violence and other more insidious abuse as an everyday way of life—one of those families marginalised by income where freedom of choice is cut back to the bare minimum. It was the kind of family life where insight comes from hard-lined reality, not through money and good education. It was an environment of continual fear and hate and emotional upheaval. I lived in a perpetual state of feeling unsafe and sometimes the threat of fatal violence would be heavy in the air!”

Walsh’s candour about his experiences carries through into his solo works which he sees as “shifting through many variations on interconnecting themes, mostly around notions of sexuality, gender, homophobic aggression and extremes in family life. But, having stated that, I think there’s also been a considerable focus on liberation.” He knows however that “a lot of people find straightforward talk about these issues hard to hear. My rebellion and frustration have come not only from my experience but also the ignorance I have sometimes felt in the dance community when I speak about depicting these themes. For me it’s a case of don’t worry, I’m not victimising myself on stage here, I’m fully empowered and energised by the knowledge that this material is loaded. This relationship I have with you as audience is precariously balanced. But that is exactly why theatre and dance can embody these themes so powerfully.”

Walsh describes his early life in lurid terms as something like The Days of Our Lives amplified 50 times with the colour and sound turned up full: “my heart pounding with fear, an adrenalin rush that has taken many years to even begin to learn to calm.” The first hint of stability happened at age 17 when his uncle invited him to join his roof waterproofing company for $40 a day. “There I was, half-a-labourer on the roofs of Sydney, trying to be as heterosexual and blokey as I could because these boys in the company were seriously homophobic! So I spent that period day-dreaming far across other roofs, looking for a future. Had someone told me then that I’d end up in dance, I might have given them a knuckle sandwich!”

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How did Walsh move into dance? “After 3 years on roofs and various uninspiring jobs, I asked an older friend if she could suggest a way I might change my life’s direction. She took me to see the British company, Michael Clark and Co, at the Seymour Centre and I was like, wow, now that’s what I want to do! It was an epiphany and a real nod to the future! It was a work with lots of sexual naughtiness, fresh imagery and balletic precision to a thumping soundtrack by 80s UK Punk band The Fall. So 2 weeks later, in late 1987 at the age of 19, I went off and did a class with Margaret Chapple at the Bodenwieser Dance Centre in Sydney. With her incredibly thorough dance classes I was able to get ahead. Mind you, I was doing something like 17 classes a week in contemporary, ballet, jazz and yoga!”

What was Walsh’s first gig on a professional stage? “I applied to The Performance Space to choreograph a group work for the first of their Open Seasons in 1991—a naive and very dancerly little piece. I kind of got the idea that people thought it was well crafted but very prissy.” But Sarah Miller who was then Artistic Director pulled me aside and said, ‘Yes, okay, but tell you what, come back next year with a solo.’ I went back in 1992 with my first solo Subtle Jetlag.”

The theatrical rigour of The Performance Space was alluring to Walsh. “It became a space where I could finally put a voice to the unspeakable. So there I was, running around embodying male violence and stroppy old characters…one friend now recalls that I ‘reminded her of a policeman’ in my early work.”

In 1995 cLUB bENT arrived on the scene, a cabaret smorgasbord of flesh and fuck-you attitudes that has been imitated but never repeated. The imitations lack the nefarious nastiness, intellectual bite and pornographic style of the original. It was part of queer life that did not fit into the gay gym junkies and bean-counting board members who represented the Mardi Gras establishment. Walsh comments: “cLUB bENT was a great platform for investigating all that is queer in society and in dance. It epitomised the demimonde.”

Why was cLUB bENT such a powerful influence on Walsh’s work? “I had a touch of internalised homophobia and began to consider the possiblity that perhaps other gay men might harbour this same confusion, and that its roots were in intense paternal homophobia and sexual abuse. My blood father never let up on policing and belting out of me my every move that seemed effeminate to him. When I was 11, my step-father moved right in and saw my feminine side, coaxed it out of me and, through violence and the threat of it, discovered that he could have his way with me sexually. So on discovering that this happens to other males and that they felt as confused as me, I thought it was an empowering voice to put on stage.

“I came on in my birthday suit and a pair of high heels. I called it Hardware Part 1 for the plumber in me! I designed my body into drag-esque and fashion model posturing to a song about sirens and a manipulated live version of Marilyn’s My Heart Belongs to Daddy. The word ‘daddy’ was vocalised as a cough and a choke and at the very end I gutterally screamed ‘daddy’ before I repackaged my limbs calmly with a glowing smile.

“I wanted to make a piece that would push the audience to see beyond the naked male body, something we don’t see that much in public, and to witness the body passing through various stereotypical masculine and feminine states to reveal an interior emotional and pyschological pain. Being able to explore this subject matter on stage and test the edges of performance was very important to my growth as an artist and I owe a considerable amount of my present success to cLUB bENT and Performance Space.”

Walsh’s exploration of his personal plight and its wider ramifications has informed his solo work right up to and including its most complete statement to date, Flesh:Memo. However, working with other artists in performance and music theatre has contributed significantly not only to his performance capacities but also to his sense of form and the possibilities of collaboration.

In 1995 he appeared in Nikki Heywood’s Burn Sonata, a searing performance work, without words, about a dysfunctional family. “Working within a powerful group of mature performers and with a generous and talented director was empowering for me. It was a very powerful and physical work. The cast was made up of performers who work in various physical ways and we did daily 3 hour warmups using Min Tanaka’s Body Weather technique. This became the common physical ground that we employed within the work and on subsequent projects.

“Another director I’ve worked with a number of times and whose style and radical approach to theatre has assisted and influenced my own is Nigel Kellaway. I first worked with Nigel in 1994 with Sidetrack Performance Group on FRIGHT!!!. In 1997 Nigel and soprano Annette Tesoriero set up their company, The opera Project, and I performed in 2 works, The Berlioz and The Terror of Tosca. These works deconstructed opera on a small scale but with a large, very physical theatricality. With both Nikki and Nigel I learnt how to manipulate theatrical form and embody very different physical and vocal spaces on stage.

“Probably the most enjoyable and gay-friendly experience I’ve ever had on stage would be when Brian Carbee and I performed our collaborative work, Stretching It Wider, in 2001 for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival. Brian instigated the concept and the project and was very receptive to my ideas. In the equivalent to 3 weeks rehearsal we had a full-evening show made out of friendship and a desire to tell it as it is.”

Do all the awards achieved this year signify a shift in direction for Dean Walsh? “I want to use this period to develop my performance practice and future solo and group works. This doesn’t mean that I plan to leave my queer-focused work behind me. These ideas will work their way into future work but they’ll be more informed by other processes and perspectives. I guess it’s about keeping true to what you believe to be your own creative strengths but also instigating shifts to set up challenges, something that has been very difficult out there in the independent arena without financial assistance.”

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Looking ahead to working with Lloyd Newson, Walsh says, “I’m very interested in the ways in which he orchestrates the moving body to express so much, especially the unspeakable…DV8 was formed out of a desire to demonstrate how important aspects of the social realm could be powerfully presented through movement. I think the important thing is to not shy away from depicting the depth of the social experience; you know, dance for thinking adults.

“Lloyd has expressed interest in my work and I’ve asked him to act as a mentor of sorts. His primary focus is on content, without being literal, and its readability through fluid movement with an emphasis on release technique. I think his concerns are with the visual but also the emotional levels that can be depicted without the over-use of text or obvious dramatics…how it can effect an emotional space for the audience, and this really speaks to me.”

About his other collaborator for 2003, Paul Selwyn Norton, Walsh says, “He begins with content and crafts an almost geometrical abstraction within his various choreographic systems. This includes setting up improvisations directly associated with the various themes he’s presenting so that the dancers play a significant role in the discovery of the material. As an audience, you feel a solid theme beneath the immediate physical presentation.”

Of his own audience, Walsh says, “I like to leave space for people who may have experienced very little, if any, sophisticated dance. At the same time I present vocal or visual ideas that may confront or cause them to squirm in their seats, re-adjust their protective body language one minute and perhaps have a good, limbs-akimbo belly laugh the next. If someone comes up to me and confesses how much the performance spoke to them, and they tell me they’ve never seen dance before, and that they live at the edge of suburbia (where, by the way, life is truly abstract but emotions are very real), then I feel at my most gratified for doing what I’m doing! Same too for having academics or colleagues giving me the thumbs up or offering helpful criticism. But ultimately my work is directed from a real space in reference to my life…challenged or not by other people’s points of view.”

Barbara Karpinski is a journalist, playwright and film director. Her award-winning documentary, Night Trade, about love and war, screened at Chicago, Rio de Janeiro and Melbourne International Film Festivals.

RealTime issue #52 Dec-Jan 2002 pg. 21-

© Barbara Karpinski; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2002
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