Dance in the public domain, dance and the everyday, dance histories, cultural memory and identity memories, the people, and the places that define. This Is Where It Happened, is a dance performance that seeks to trance then re-tell the intricate dance history and story of the community found in the Lilydale and Yarra Ranges. No small undertaking, Gülsen Özer the creative force behind this project has chosen evocative text spoken by the multiple voices of community elders gathered by Özer during her research and development. These melded with iconic sound samples; the voice of Dame Nellie Melba against the sound of Murrundindi of the Wurundjeri people, playing didgeridoo. Özer herself is a mix of multiple cultures; tracing her mother’s family lineage back to her Aboriginal ancestors, she also has Italian, English and Turkish provenance. The Melbourne Critique spoke with Özer about the projects multifaceted approach, community, and story telling through the physical form.
What was the genesis for This Is Where It Happened, and how best would you describe the project and its use of multi-art forms?
I was interested in ‘lifting the veil of time’ on stories about the history of a place and in particular public space – spaces that are inhabited by citizens who might not know the history of those spaces. There is a saying that ‘as you get older history becomes more important to you, because you have more of it,’ and I guess that could be said of me. This affects my values in my arts practice. As I age, learning more about where I have come from and what has come before me both personally and artistically has become something of a creative nexus. I care about the past, instances of repetition and change in history fascinate me.
At first, I was interested in unique stories that happened to individual people: a girl who became lost by a creek for example, or a pioneering female wine maker. Later, after a talk I did at the Yarra Ranges Museum for an exhibition Dance X earlier this year, in the Q&A there were these great comments coming from the local Lilydale Probus Club; they were recounting their memory of social dancing in their communities growing up. After this encounter I thought it was both ripe and relevant to research dance histories explicitly for this iteration. It seemed a great fit. So I started reaching out to the keepers of this historical knowledge.
I am also always fascinated by the place of dance in contemporary societies. Is the body hemmed in by social codes that inhibit dancing freely? Was it always so? The work positioning itself in public space is always in dialogue with these questions. I notice these shifts a lot when I travel both internationally or from suburb to suburb locally. This project kind of straddles both of these interests: how it was and how it is now to land a contemporary reimagining of the dance from the past through the memories of living elders and the bodies of young dancers.
Using sound design heard through headphones offers an immersive and intensely private listening experience: a sense of being in a secret world that only you know, understand and hear. It has a very cinematic effect in how we read the happenings around us. We can, in the absence of normal outside noise, focus or be focused in our attention to the rhythm of movement. Somehow the simplest of happenings can seem significant. It is also practical in public space to use headphones to support the ease of listening to the exceptionally detailed sound score without competing with outside noise.
The use of video animation has been chosen to give deeper historical context to the work and functions as a prologue to the live component. The animation is photo-based and uses historical pictures to give a flavour of dance history in Lilydale and surrounds. It is presented as if the audience is walking down a hallway of framed images, like you might imagine being in someone’s home. They are candid images of people and place and dancing. The use of video on hand held screens seemed to be an appropriate transportable and discreet viewing platform again for this work in public space. If the work were in a large darkened space, I would probably have used some form of projection. With site specific work, there is always the intent, the aesthetic and the functionality of each element. As there is so much happening in public space, the craft is often about finding a balance for the ‘art’ to be riding in, under and on top of the already expansive activity happening in the space: the sway of trees, other people walking through the space, children playing, birds flying across the grass. There is a tension in making a work like this between set performance material and being open to the possibility of chance and change.
Talk to us about the local area in which this work is being performed, responding to it, and the history and stories that form part of this areas fabric.
There is so much history I researched! Most of the accessible historical data that has been collected relates to the Western European narratives of dance culture. In this history, dance was central to social life; it was seen as entertaining, a way to meet people (often a partner) and a way to exercise and have fun. There were dances on almost every day of the week.
A central point for social dance was the Athenaeum Theatre located just behind the performance site. It was used for social dances, competitions and balls. The Lilydale Dance Club held fortnightly dances from the early 1900s onwards and possibly earlier, often in aid of the Red Cross or other societies. Fancy dress and masquerade dances were popular from the early 1910s onwards. Modern Dancing Championships, exhibitions of Scottish dancing, square dancing and debutante balls became increasingly popular post WWII, and in the 1950s, debutante balls as a social event and as a marker of teenage girls’ move into adulthood were very popular. The work references the heavily gendered dress and roles prevalent in social partner dancing and the oft-told story of it being where elders met their partners. As one of the elders I interviewed said, ‘You ask anyone of my generation “where did you meet you partner” and they’d say it was either the church or the dance hall.’
Also included in the work is story and history shared with me by Murrundindi, Gary Hunter Elder and head man (Ngurungaeta) of the Wurundjeri people. Murrundindi gives an important and incredibly valuable perspective: a personal and historic account of how Aboriginal dance was affected by colonisation. The work wouldn’t have the depth I longed for without his contribution.
I guess the work is at once a celebration of dance and a lament to the lost or diminished dance art forms. These comments or utterances sit side by side in a delicate balance or dance and this is where the work kind of works on the audience a bit.
Through the physicality and the language of choreography, how is the art of storytelling extended upon?
The dance extends the aural narrative by choreographing and placing the audience in the landscape. As they sit in a central location in public space, they are observing and being observed. The gaze is complicated and offers multiple readings of the performance, where and when it is happening.
The dancers and choreography give subtle commentary, or rather perhaps develop a dialogue with the voices and sounds in the sound score, giving additional and sometimes contrasting information about the story. Sometimes they are enacting and embodying the story. Other times they are abstracting or animating specific elements or ideas. Sometimes they maybe poke fun, sometimes they are reverent, and sometimes it is their disappearance from view or ’stage’ that speaks most loudly.
The choreography also dances with the site. The dancers dance with place in relationship to the slope of the hill, and the towering tree. This affects the way the audience engages with the site, too. That is the hope: that we can see the layers in the land.
What does this project give to the local community, but also to the audience?
The project has brought a broad range of community groups together to work on a common goal. This is always exciting. Working with elders on this project, I have enjoyed seeing them reconnect with their memories and often-evident love of dance. I imagine this has been enjoyable for them, too.
The work gives the local community a unique and hopefully exciting way to engage with heritage and history. I am particularly interested in sharing the work with some of the young people and families new to the locality. My hope is that the work is impactful and meaningful and affects how they engage with, or really, how they feel in the place.
What is the future of dance? Does it still hold a place of significance in contemporary societies and communities?
Dance will save us. Yes, I think it is still really significant. I know it sounds very essentialist, but I think there is a natural urge to engage with the body and express through dance. When we look to aboriginal cultures, I think we can see this most clearly. In contemporary society and communities this urge, need, and even birthright expresses itself in a whole range of ways – ways that are culturally accepted and supported. Sometimes I think sport and fitness culture are full of would-be dancers. If only our cultural, structural, educational and economic systems valued dance more. That’s not to say that dance is better than those other physical pursuits; it’s just that I think dancers or those with the urge to dance are often funnelled by cultural forces into channelling their energy into something with a more supported pathway. I am endlessly excited by dance and long for it to continue to develop and be valued in contemporary societies and communities. I am super proud of the advocacy in the dance community and the great work going on in the dance sector to de-stigmatise dance and get people dancing.
I recently met with Arnhem Land, Gupapuyngu man Gawurra, at Emerald’s Lakeside train station near where he now lives. An Indigenous (Yolngu) musician, speaking 8 Yolngu languages as well as English and performing in at least 4 of these languages, I think that Gawurra is something of a national treasure.
It was as recent as the 1950s (and in WA the 1970s) that Indigenous Australians were disallowed through the ‘Aboriginal Protection Act’ to even speak in their own language, let alone perform live on some of the biggest stages in the country. I feel immense grief in knowing this and also great joy in celebrating Gawurra’s music and voice.
In 2016 Gawurra’s debut album Ratja Yaliyali which translates to Vine of Love; a thread of love that keeps everything connected, received a 4.5 star review from Rolling Stone Magazine and an ARIA award nomination, four NIMA Awards and The NT Song of the Year Award. The first of many accolades I am sure.
Gawurra speaks of the importance of songlines in his music and explains what songlines are. He says they are “the story from beginning to end that tells the history of the people, spirit and land”. Songlines, or in Gawurra’s language, ‘manikay’, are particular to each clan but are also interconnected. His song Mulunda (Kingfisher) on his first album release is a modern rendition of a songline in the Djambarrpuyngu language and was written for his beautiful wife of 25 years, Valda who also came with Gawurra to meet me. The couple’s two daughters, Charlene and Rihanna, go to Cockatoo Primary School and are enjoying their time very much.
I asked Gawurra if people wanted him to sing in English more, or at all. He said he does get asked and he thinks having one or two songs where he sings in English would be fine on balance. “That is the challenge. I am not a white man. I am a black man. I don’t want to sing in English all the time. My Elders would say why are you singing that in English? Don’t loose your culture”. Gawurra has an acute understanding of how his visibility and being heard is uplifting for Indigenous people to, as he says “share and shine in the world, with who we are.” This wisdom is two-fold and is a call for being seen in all of one’s authenticity, for Indigenous people, as well as for all people.
Gawurra explains that he grew up in the bush till he was 12, Gupapuyngu is his first language and his parents taught him from a young age, cultural lore. “I just came from the bush, I am telling my story, I love singing. My dream, my story.”
Talking to Gawurra about his move to Emerald, Victoria from Arnhem Land we expanded to reflect upon the complexity of belonging and identity in Australia. We acknowledged that many people, like myself, are a mix of multiple cultures; be that characterized by ancestral lines, through a connection to one’s place of birth or as an adoptive home through migration. I for example, have a great-great grandmother who was Aboriginal, a grandfather who was Italian, an English Grandmother, a Turkish Father… and so on. Gawurra says to me, “I come from a long way and my spirit is being changed by this land, this land is owning me. I’m not the person I was before I came. I am still Gupapuyngu but I am changed by the embrace of this land. The land is keeping us. Sacred place. We are becoming Wurundjeri. Our spirit is connected to the people of this land – Wurundjeri country. With all five clans across the Kulin Nation, we are also looking after this place. We have mutual respect between past and future. The spirit sees us.”
I feel blessed to hear these words from Gawurra and I imagined life if we all connected to place in this way, what a wonderful sense of belonging we could share as a community and a people.
I am also an artist. I am a dance artist and I told Gawurra that I have a thirst for collaboration and connection with Indigenous people. I asked him to comment on what he thought about collaboration between cultures. Gawurra turns to me and said, “Don’t be shy. I learn your culture and we can know each other better” I come to the conclusion and confer with Gawurra that collaboration that is thoughtful and respectful will come along slowly, if it is based on connection.
Towards the conclusion of our time together Gawurra tells me he has a big question for all people, “Why are you here and what are you doing? Are you here for yourself, for your people or for All?” He points to other people going about their day around us at the train station, each from different cultural groups and says, “They know why they are here and what they are doing, and we have to respect them. We know why we are here and what we are doing.” Gawurra includes all present at the table and says “We are all representing Australia – those who came here from a long way and me as an Indigenous Australian. What I do and make is not just for Indigenous people but for all Australians, making the way for black and white.”
Gawurra’s touring dates can be found at gawurra.com I encourage you to feed your soul and spend some time with him at one of his upcoming shows.
Dance X is an exhibition that playfully encourages people of all ages to move: creating opportunities through which viewers are enticed to ‘dance without realising they are dancing’ (as artist Viv Rogis describes it). Viv Rogis, Gareth Hart and Gülsen Özer, the three lead artists on this exciting new project, evolved their curatorial concept in a spirit of pooling their dance, spatial and technological knowledge to create an installation specifically for Yarra Ranges Regional Museum. Whilst most of the works combine dance and technology, including 360-degree HD video, X-Box and gaming technologies, and other works employ ‘low-fi’ materials such as cardboard boxes and flash cards, the six installations that comprise Dance X encourage experiential participation and (gently) impel the viewer/ participant to move.
The three renowned dance artists are all residents of the area and have shared interests in place-based research and practice, as well as in motivating community participation. The link to environments of the Yarra Ranges, as well as the inclusion of other local dancers in some of the works, layered upon the architectural site of the Museum in Lilydale, gives the exhibition a distinctly local connection, yet it also extends beyond these place associations.
Viv Rogis has created a choreographic game Chance or Choice, (the title/ concept referencing modern dance innovator Merce Cunningham) whereby she invited local dance artists to be photographed arcing and stretching in relation to their favourite trees of the area, demonstrating potential choreographic shapes on flash cards. The Dance X program includes a series of workshops by Rogis, an established dance teacher, facilitating children of various age brackets (from 3 years old!) to create their own dances using her game, which originated from her explorations with young children in her dance classes.
Gareth Hart’s 360-degree interactive film ‘this is all a little bit queer, isn’t it?’ features six performance artists enacting distinct and bizarre acts in the stunning Redwood Forest outside of Warburton. Viewers explore this dynamic between real and surreal, self and other, via iPads in a ‘choose your own adventure’ experience, through which they themselves are inadvertently moving in relation to the projected image.
Many people still think of dance as something spectacular or virtuosic, but Gülsen Özer’s installations draw attention to – and offer the viewer an experience of – the close-range engagement with one’s own body and surroundings that a dancer’s sensibility entails. A recorded reading of Steve Paxton’s 1970s ‘small dance’ which brings intimate focus to one’s eye socket and movement of the base of the skull, accompanies a neon sign reminding the viewer/ participant that You are Here.
In Duet, as the viewer’s walking within a 5-metre space relates to a video image of a dancer who appears to imitate your speed and proximity, we realise that this pedestrian action is potential choreography. Duet communicates an expanded understanding of dance and affirms to participant/ viewers that any body can dance.
Özer’s Virtual Dance Class brings the viewer/participant into an immersive experience of a youth ballet class (of local dance students taught by Viv Rogis), via a headset and google pixel phone, whilst the viewer is physically stationed at a ballet barre. Like You are Here and Duet, Özer has directed and designed this work using simple, formal aesthetics, for clarity of experience and reception, given that in the 360-degree format, ‘you can’t direct the audience’s gaze’. In contrast to the lack of, or ‘exploded’ ‘frame’ of the 360-degree surround video, Rogis’ In and out of the frame offers an alternative to the technological interfaces (which can be mysteriously mind-blowing to un-techno types, such as the author!) This work invites viewers/participants’ exploration of ways of seeing through the familiar form of cardboard boxes: breaking down the processes of perception and selection that are under way in the transition from live performance to a filmic point of view.
Dance and the gallery or museum are not new bedfellows, but this sort of experimental, participatory adventure is a rare treat in the outer suburban/ regional zone we inhabit. Dance X promises to be fun and welcoming, with ‘user-friendliness’ a major aspect of the project. Having predominantly worked in dance contexts, creating installations in which the viewer becomes the performer was a particular challenge and opportunity for these artists. The project, supported by a Yarra Ranges Council Arts and Heritage grant, has enabled Özer, Hart and Rogis to explore and expand their dance practices through the interaction with particular technologies and the theme of viewer participation. The three agree that the duration of the exhibition (three months) will also allow them to witness how participants engage with the works, which may inform further iterations and future explorations.
Open Wed 10 May-Sun 30 July, 2017
Yarra Ranges Regional Museum,
35 Castella Street, Lilydale
Fun times - participatory flashmob dance project facilitated by Gülsen Özer with choreography by Etienne Khoo. In April 2016 a wonderful and diverse group of participants danced in public spaces across three townships; Belgrave, Upper Ferntree Gully and Sassafras in Victoria, Australia. This project was supported by Yarra Ranges Council and Burrinja Cultural Centre for the Dance Here project.
Gülsen is a choreographer and also teaches workshops in contemporary dance technique, as well as in developing choreography and creating dance theatre.