Matching Moves

Choreographers Sue-ellen Kohler and Julie-Anne Long talk dance

Julie-Anne Long and Sue-ellen Kohler were students together at the VCA in the 1980’s where they learned among other things that you couldn’t dance until you’d truly experienced orgasm. They ran with this advice noting at the same time that the life of a dancer could be a bit too closely monitored if you weren’t careful. For Julie-Anne dance education brought out her assertive side. Her work these days is disobedient when it comes to form, the shape of dancers’ bodies and tasteful costuming. She combines elemental movements (swinging, striding, turning) with everyday gestures and bizarre (sometimes kitsch) touches to create idiosyncratic dance narratives that often include a commentary on movement itself. This is where her work makes connections with Sue-ellen’s very different style.

Sue-ellen Kohler has over the last few years created a body of work which is minimal/epic in its concentration on movement as articulated by particular body parts. In Hybrid she writhed in a shallow pool of water, slipping and struggling to stand, while on a circular screen above, her pelvis (among other images) was projected in close up. In Bug she literally doubled up with Sandra Perrin, their backs bent into shapes that made their bodies look like insects crawling through the semi-dark.

The One Extra Company has brought the two of them together for Cannibal Race, the second full-scale work choreographed by Julie-Anne as Associate Artistic Director of the company. Her first, Suburban Pirates involved a cast of three dancers, one actor and 10 performers from the Flying Fruitfly Circus. REAL TIME caught them at the end of an 8 hour day in the beginning of phase 2 of their rehearsal period.

The 8 hour day is a “shock to the system” for Sue-ellen who starts with yoga every day at 6 and is more used to working 4 to 5 hours maximum in the creation of her own works which “take as long as they take – usually most of a year”.

So what’s a dancer like Sue-Ellen doing in dance theatre? “I’ve worn a lot of different hats. I worked with Tasdance, a Spanish dance troupe, walked on stilts. I worked with Dance Exchange and the Sydney Front – now there’s a contrast! I’ve been creating my own work for a while now, so when Julie-Anne approached me to work on Cannibal Race I said ‘Are you sure you know what you’re getting yourself into?’”

Julie-Anne likes working with people who are not going to give her what she knows. “I’ve worked with actors, non-performers, all sorts of dancers. You and Trevor Patrick certainly bring a different sensibility to this work. Narelle Benjamin is someone who throws herself into dancing.” The cast also includes a child dancer and appearances by Julie-Anne and Artistic Director, Graeme Watson.

So how’s the collaboration going? A long pause as the two try to describe the stage of rehearsals when things could go either way. “Today I feel like I’m too old for this,” says Sue-ellen. “In the process of making my own work the patterns of my body have become more particular, my aesthetic sensibilities are more defined”.

JA Does it feel risky or scary or are you comfortable?

SE Ask me when I’m there. How is it for you?

JA A big responsibility. Closer to the way I worked 10 years ago. Normally I let the form develop. In this one I’ve let the music determine the structure.

SE At the VCA you were one of the musical dancers.

JA Was I?

SE The ones who thought of dance in terms of musical structures. I would have liked to be musical but I wasn’t.

JA But look what you’ve got from not being musical.

SE My dance tends to coexist with music and other elements – film, sound, light.

JA Cannibal Race actually started with the title. The Chopin came next.

SE What made you choose Chopin?

JA In dance, Chopin is usually interpreted romantically whereas I find an uneasy undercurrent in it. It will be played live by Ben Abdallah and I love the sound of the piano in the space. Some of the music suggested narratives. Some sections are more like states of being within the story. Episodes interlock. But more than anything I’m trying to create something that moves, that moves me, moves along, makes me think of something else – like The Partridge Family!

SE I like movement that in performance actually becomes something else.

JA I love watching what you do but I don’t have your patience. My favourite thing is watching people walk and run.

SE I’d prefer to watch walking and running from a great height or upside down.

JA I use steps to bring out the rhythmic quality of ordinary movement. I’m always uneasy when dancers don’t look like real people. While I think of it, what did you think about the exercise we did today when I just called out that quick phrase in words, “Back. Side. Step. Cross,” without showing the movement myself?

SE You got a whole world in each dancer’s version of the words. But what happens to the particularities of those movements in this approach? Do they just turn into your steps?

JA I borrow them for a while but in the performance, the work is yours.

SE I’ll enjoy performing it but it’s your work – that’s the difference.

JA Once we’ve gone beyond a certain point, as the work settles and redistributes itself, you will have back all you have contributed.

SE You have artistic control.

JA I like to work with people who intercept my vision.

SE But if I did, would you still be able to do what you do?

JA Yes, because I have a strong idea of what I’m after.

SE I’m not sure you can make a work from different visions.

JA Your own work is very personal.

SE Well parts of it are but it’s not just my work. It’s Mahalia Middlemist, Margie Medlin, Ion Pearce, Sandra Perrin, William McClure. I’m the frontliner – that’s all. Working with you certainly helps to illuminate my own process.

JA In your own work you invent from scratch. I tend to work from what’s already there.

SE So do I. I seem to be always on the point of knowing what my body is, but never “finding” it.

JA Your work is pretty rigorous. Cannibal Race must feel like “time out”.

SE Well, that’s usually when you stop and eat, isn’t it. Making your own work is certainly intense. But here inside my body is not a fortress, it’s just another place. You and I have done a lot of dancing – most of it I never want to do again – all those swings in psyche and age, all those institutions! At the moment, I’m working on a piece called The Inadequate Body in which I dance in half a tutu and one point shoe. The other half of my body is naked. At the same time, I’m a dancer working with you on Cannibal Race and enjoying it.

Cannibal Race opens October 13 at St. Georges Hall in Newtown, Sydney’s second largest remaining Victorian Hall and much needed new dance / performance venue.

RealTime issue #3 Oct-Nov 1994 pg. 7

© Sue-ellen Kohler & Julie-Anne Long; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 1994