Ros Warby: reframing the dancing body

Erin Brannigan

Ros Warby

Ros Warby

Ros Warby

Ros Warby is one of a handful of truly distinctive Australian solo dancer-choreographers creating a body of unique works and steadily gaining international attention. Warby’s work has also included significant periods since 1990 with Danceworks, Russell Dumas’ Dance Exchange and currently with Lucy Guerin Inc, performing memorably with Guerin in Robbery Waitress on Bail around the world. Over the last 6 years, Warby has been committed to presenting her own work created in collaboration with sound and design artists. Her program Solos, which premiered in Melbourne early this year, will tour to the 2002 Adelaide Festival and the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (USA). Erin Brannigan spoke to Warby fresh from working in the US with choreographer Deborah Hay.


The US experience

Was your main purpose in the US to work with Deborah Hay and learn Music?

Yes, I travelled to Whidbey Island outside of Seattle last August where Deborah conducts the Solo Commissioning Project each year. It was there that I learnt and performed Music. This is the second solo I have learnt of Deborah’s. I performed my adaptation of Fire, which Deborah choreographed in 1999, in my own program Solos earlier this year and again in NYC with Deborah in her trilogy program at St Mark’s Church. It was a tremendous experience for me. We performed the solos back to back. I was in white leotard and headband, she in an odd shaped black pantsuit. She is 60. I am 34.


What is your history with Hay?

I have worked with Deborah over the past 5 or 6 years in Melbourne, New York, and on Whidbey. I first met her at one of her Melbourne workshops in 1996. Her work resonated deeply and immediately with my own. I recognised an extraordinary teacher and artist, and understood how her experience and practice could expand my own…Her attention in performance is extraordinary…her clarity and efficiency in getting to the core of what makes concise and refined dance performance.


Working through the ranks

How would you describe your career as a dance practitioner?

I went through the ranks I guess. I trained in Europe at a variety of international ballet schools and on returning home immediately made a beeline for Dance Works (this was around the time Nanette Hassall, who had founded the company, was leaving). I needed frameworks for my development as a dancer and an improviser/choreographer (as I then imagined myself) and a company like Dance Works seemed to offer those opportunities. I did not presume for a second I could figure all this out on my own.

After 3 years at Dance Works I went to work with Russell Dumas in Sydney for the next 3. His influence was profound…Russell and other Dance Exchange founding members had created and were nurturing links with American dancers, improvisers and choreographers–such as Dana Reitz, Eva Karczag and Lisa Nelson–who became important teachers for me. All the while I was plodding along with my solo work and from my early Melbourne days knew Shelley [Lasica], Trevor [Patrick], and Sandy [Parker]. Shelley was making a lot of solo work at the time and had Extensions studio where work was being shown. However unconsciously, these people represented a context or framework for my solo work. But the influence of the American practitioners has had the most profound impact on my practice in the long-term.

I had met Lucy Guerin in NY when I was on a travel study tour in 1993. I began working with her after my time with Russell and I have worked with her for the past 6 years, the same time as with Deborah. Over this period I have arrived at a point where I feel I have the appropriate history and stimulation to concentrate on my own choreographic and performance practice.


Given your interest in and connection with high profile American dance practitioner, why haven’t you chosen to relocate overseas?

When I was on my travel study tour and finished working with those artists in America, I considered staying and working in the States. But because I was interested in developing my own practice and had an opportunity to work with Russell Dumas, I decided that I would have more time, space and opportunities to do that in Australia. And the fact that I have been travelling backwards and forwards to maintain those connections has been imperative to my development.


The importance of solo

So you have always combined working as a soloist and working with companies. I have a preference for solo work–the focus it allows me and the chance to become familiar with a singular way of moving. But perhaps this is a symptom of what’s on offer in Australia outside the large companies. What are your feelings about solo work?

I love solo dance–the opportunity to see a performer’s attention moving through them. It is difficult to see, and sometimes to practice, such specificity in group choreography when the focus is often directed elsewhere. As a solo performer, I love the opportunity to direct people’s attention to the most intimate and invisible moments. I am actually directing my own attention there, and hope others may recognise something. I love the simplicity of the form.


The recent performances of your solo work Eve seemed to me like a departure for you into what almost verged on role-playing. The ‘muttered’ gestures and whispered words were often directed to the audience in a way I haven’t seen in your work before. Did this solo work mark a shift in your relation with the audience?

My very early solo work, prior to the influence of the American practitioners, contained the essence of this recent solo. The early work was very emotionally driven, but I didn’t have the facility to utilise that expression well and I’d wind it up in a little ball. I recognised that I wouldn’t get much mileage out of that kind of intensity. The work with Deborah, Eva and Russell over the last decade has allowed me to filter that intensity through my whole body. Deborah uses the term “loyalty and disinterestedness at the same time.” My work with Deborah is very relevant here, particularly her performance practice. She always leaves the house lights on in the theatre when she performs. It’s so that the performer’s perceptual awareness is fully engaged–on a visual, oral and cellular level.

Eve is about the multi-faceted nature of the female character, the various layers of child, adult, sister and lover. The invitation to be seen and a generosity of spirit runs throughout the entire piece. In the first section where I am quite child-like, there is a simple, storytelling, look-at-me quality, along with reference to dance class and following the teacher’s steps. And then in the last section it arrives at a more integrated place, a place where the character is generous and inviting. I was referencing the Dying Swan a bit…but rather than death, a kind of lightness or flight. Eve is more character-based than anything else I’ve done in the last 6 years. Mary, an early solo work from 1990, was also character-based so I feel as though I’ve come full circle.

Putting it into words feels like I’m undoing the complexity of that process. The only way I can work with those kind of simplistic images in performance is if there is a sophisticated layering occurring… to be with the image or instruction and out of it and combining it with other images at the same time. I have to say, I’m not focusing on characterisation, it’s just something that grows out of my practice. Perhaps it’s the nature of solo performance. When I’m performing Eve, it’s like I’m following a path or a ‘yellow brick road’, but I’m being constantly available at every moment to impacts upon my perception–whether they’re from the audience, the space, the instructions or my imagination.


Working with choreographers

How does the process of working with others fit in with your own choreographic work?

I presented 3 solos in February this year in a season called Solos. One was by Lucy Guerin, one by Deborah Hay and one by myself (Eve). There are 2 aspects here–the choreography and the dancing. I am primarily interested in the dancer and dancing. I have always practiced dancing and this usually happens in solo moments, hence the attraction and empathy I have with the solo form. By ‘practicing dancing’ I mean the dancer dancing alone as a pianist would practice alone. This is not something encouraged in dance training in general, yet it seems essential. So whether I’m dancing my own choreography or someone else’s, I engage in the same performance practice. The choreographic instructions vary, the limitations and liberties I place on myself differ slightly in each work, but the attention is equal.

Framing, crafting and aestheticising dance is the choreography–an opportunity to detach from your individual idiosyncrasies and go beyond the surface of that purely kinaesthetic sensation. Choreography makes room for the performer to manage and organise themselves in mind and body, imagination and timing, within the framework of a singular vision. I am interested in how best I can occupy those frameworks. In relation to other people’s choreography, that’s my job. Although, in my own work, the process towards finding a clear framework for myself to occupy is often more challenging than when it is delivered to me. In my work I can choose when and where to go. I feel I can inject more of myself into the work, not indulging the emotional self, but investing in it and detaching from it simultaneously.

Both Lucy’s and Deborah’s choreographic practice provide me with similar room. The choreographic instructions are clear as a bell and this is the work that rings true to me, that interests me. It’s the clarity of their work that allows me to fill the choreography with a cellular intelligence. Feed the imagination with impossible tasks. Trust the body as mind. It requires a lot of thinking and re-thinking, moment after moment to arrive in this place.


Dancing and Choreography

Can you explain a little more what you mean by ‘dancing’ here and why it occurs in solos as a more ‘purely kinaesthetic’ experience? And how it is different to ‘choreography’?

Dancing, for me, is how the dancer organises themselves inside their own perceptual, physical, emotional and intellectual realm, and inside the choreographic structure. It is a state in which the dancer engages this ‘cellular intelligence’ to translate choreography into dance. The choreography is the framework or score for the dancer to occupy, whether in solo or ensemble form. Choreography is a designed structure that can provide strong reference points for the dancer to dance from, or inside of, and not get lost in their own preoccupations. Choreography cannot be seen unless danced, as a song is not heard unless sung. The dancing performer has the task of integrating all cellular and perceptual intelligence–many layers of experience–body, mind and heart, in order to articulate choreographic ideas. A dancer needs to practice ‘dancing’, not simply an execution of choreography.

I find indulging in the kinaesthetic sensation alone, a limiting approach to dance performance. The kinaesthetic sensation I am referring to is responding immediately to a physical, emotional or intellectual impulse and allowing the body to follow that momentum uninterrupted. It is more interesting as a solo dancer to challenge that moment of impulse, to pause and give space to the whole system organising itself within the instruction, idea, choreography or whatever, so the expression of this moment is not overloaded with meaning but at the same time enriched with the dancers entire experience. This does not limit the dancer to just the kinaesthetic experience, but broadens the experience by including all perception, imagined or true. Dancing solo offers opportunity to listen to this process closely and embody the choreography appropriately, so it is full, not empty, or overflowing. It is a delicate balance.


What do you mean by ‘the body as mind’?

I have spent many years training and re-training my body and mind to be in dialogue with one another. This has involved physical training, ballet, modern dance, tai chi, meditation, Alexander Technique etc. When I talk about the body as mind I am assuming for myself that a lot of understanding already exists in the body without the need for me to interfere, reinvent, relearn or think through this system. I am trusting my body as my teacher. It is from this point I can begin to practice performance, to detach from self and to utilise all past work and training to it’s optimum, inviting and trusting my perception to steer the dance within the choreography. This practice is to attend to what is there, in each moment, within the choreography, within the task, to attend to the task with complete commitment and loyalty, to invite the layers present to be appropriate to the moment I’m experiencing.


Can you talk a little about your own choreographic process… methodologies, collaborations, the relation between improvisation and performance?

I have always improvised, which is really what I mean by ‘dancing’ When I begin dancing in the studio I start these sessions with a very particular attention. It’s a listening…a patience and diligence in waiting for the body-as-mind to deliver. I then identify particular things from that that interest me and slowly build the choreography or the score with this material. I identify the intent and can begin imagining, and then experience a storyboard unfolding. By storyboard I mean that as the sections of the piece develop, I take that material and create a storyboard on paper so that I can begin to play with the structure. With Eve, the film images were very specific to exposing aspects the character that I, as the dancer, couldn’t imagine expressing. The film’s processes provided a way of separating the layers at specific moments.

Earlier in my work I collaborated with musicians and composers, Helen Mountford in particular. I worked with the choreography between movement and sound, letting that lead the development of the score. I still work with sound but trust the song of the dance more these days, for instance, letting Helen see the dance before she begins the sound score.

I also let space and circumstance influence the shape a new work takes. I imagine the actual framework that may house a particular dance. Imagining the house you may like to inhabit or occupy for instance. This means including design much earlier on in my work than before. I have collaborated with Margie Medlin on my last 2 projects (Original Home and Eve). I trust her work with mine and, like trusting a choreographer, know that she will work toward framing the dance, whether with structures, in light, or on film. Margie also worked with me on my first solo, Mary, in 1990 which I mentioned earlier, so we really have come full circle.


Dancing with film

What do you see as the relationship between the film image and the image of the live dancer?

I am interested in film having the ability to reframe the dancing body, to show details of the dance from inside the dancer’s experience, to show moments that are sometimes missed by the audience because of distance or attention. In the context of Eve, I originally designed the dance to fluctuate between the live and filmed dancer as a means of clearly drawing the viewer’s attention to details–face, hand, torso–that were relevant to the character’s experience. I imagined some of the projected film images to be quite small. Margie [Medlin] made them large, often 4 times life-size. The result impacted on the dance substantially. As I storyboarded the dance and the film, I wasn’t taking into account an environment within which the character could exist, so Margie’s contribution was not only the projection design, but also the creation of that total environment. Margie became interested in the character having other playmates and an overwhelming playground, hence the oversized projected figures.

I am also interested in the choreography between the film and live image to create a dialogue or phrasing in the work, literally the rhythm of the piece as a whole, similar to how I’ve worked with the choreography between sound and movement. Trusting Margie’s aesthetic and artistic choices has been important and has often bought into focus for me a particular intent or moment. We have a compatible aesthetic and process and are attuned to improvising together, building frameworks to house a dance.

Ros Warby’s Eve was seen as part of the antistatic dance program Scope at Performance Space. Also featured in Scope were Lisa O’Neill’s Fugu san and Cazerine Barry’s Sprung. Scope will be reviewed in RealTime 47, Feb-March, 2002.

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 26

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

1 December 2001