Interviewed by Penelope Ford
I was introduced to Nat Cursio as choreographer via “Blizzard,” a work created and performed at the lovingly restored utility turned arts venue, The Substation, in Newport, Melbourne. It made the whole building sing. “Private Dances II” is the work of Nat Cursio as curator, the second piece I inhabited for a brief moment. They have in common the brilliant effect of building a world around you, as audience—although one feels slightly more privileged than the ordinary dance-goer in a Cursio work. Her upcoming work, “The Middle Room” is a piece for a single viewer (“participant”) at a time, realised in her very own apartment.
Nat Cursio, choreographer, performer, curator and producer, is based in Melbourne, Australia. After graduating with honours from Rusden College and Deakin University studying Dance, Drama and Media, she formed Dance Elixir, a collective with whom she made five full length works from 1995-2000. From 2001 Nat worked as an independent artist. In 2004 she was part of the Little Asia Dance Exchange collaboration and tour, which led to the establishment of nomadic group Homeless Dance Company, of which Nat is a founding member and co-producer.
From 2007 Nat began to work under the title of Nat Cursio Co. presenting “With a Bullet Remastered” for Full Tilt at The Victorian Arts Centre and later creating the award winning “Private Dances” as a keynote project of the 2010 Next Wave Festival.
She has been honoured with a Greenroom Award, the City of Perth Dance Award and was a nominee for the Australian Dance Awards. In 2006, Nat was awarded an Asialink Residency. Currently supported by Insite Arts, she is preparing to present “The Middle Room” for the inaugural Festival of Live Art in Melbourne in 2014. Nat kindly answered my interview questions via email.
In “The Middle Room” you describe the audience (it is performed for one person at a time) as a participant. Intimacy of experience is a common theme in your work. What inspires this? How do you achieve this?
The extraordinary and the ordinary—I think that’s perhaps a useful way to start to answer this question about inspiration. I’m very interested in creating experiences which are out of the ordinary—experiences which are counter to the ordered, logical, scheduled and “normal” way that humans often go about living. To choose to come to the home of someone you don’t necessarily know at 10.30am on a weekday, let yourself in and be part of a participatory experience where communication is largely non-verbal is unusual. It takes one away from their typical world. This is one reason why I think “The Middle Room” is particularly suited to non-artists who may not take the opportunity regularly to place themselves in situations away from their comfort zone. At the same time I am interested to capture and celebrate the ordinary, to encourage people to sensorily notice what might otherwise be nothing or not much—to re-see little and large things about the world and themselves. Visitors to the work are called participants because they are not simply coming to notice me but they are there to notice themselves also.
The first point of communication is that I personally email the participant to provide some basic instructions. Without giving too much away about what I actually do with the participant when they arrive (because part of the curiosity and engagement with the piece lies in not knowing how it’s going to be). I’ll simply say that I go through a series of actions and activities that gradually implicate the participant as time progresses—I become ambitious as to what I try to elicit. I’m focusing less on choreography of my movement but more on a mindful engagement with (and particular quality of) texture, touch, light, sound and connection. The dance (if it needs to be interpreted in that way) functions to illuminates these things. I aim for a calming, welcoming and clear yet somehow abstract communication with this person. The experience can be both confronting and comforting (for both of us!).
What is the most significant phase for you in your choreographic process?
It really depends on the particular work I’m making. It can be determined by the particular area of enquiry, the space the work is made for and the dancers I am working with. All these factors are pretty significant in the “The Middle Room” and all led me to the conclusion, very early in the process of making the work, that the only way to rehearse the piece (to make it) was to in fact perform it. The piece, from my point of view, doesn’t really exist without a participant. So I have already performed the piece around 30 times and each time it occurs I make small or large decisions about how it should be next time—what I might cut, what I need to be thinking about, how I can attend to something in a more interesting or focused way. The actual middle room is part of the flat in which I live so the choreographic process has been fraught at times (working from home it’s easy to be distracted, and working alone means it’s easy to begin wondering what on earth I am doing this for. ‘Is this absolutely ridiculous?!’) but in other ways it means I am deeply connected to the work-space and it prompts me to consider the way art making is connected to my daily existence—all sorts of musings about purpose and creativity pop up. So perhaps the most significant aspect of this process has actually been the visitors. They are the “angels” of the work who I feel very grateful towards.
Do you have particular choreographic influences?
I don’t have a very specific lineage and my training has been a mash of all sorts of stuff. I wrote a very detailed and reflective response to a similar question posed by Jordan Vincent in 2012 which led me to conclude that it wasn’t so much style, format or concepts of other choreographers that were/are influencing me. I feel more influenced by attitudes—artists with ethical values, artists who are resilient, artists who are not doing what’s “cool,” artists who are not beholden to the dominant venues and organisations, artists who make work on their own terms. David Pledger, Helen Herbertson and Fiona Bryant spring to mind. Also the dancers I work with are key—their bodies are the material that the work is made of. They deliver the work through their corporeal, emotional and professional intelligence. Their energies, their sensibilities are inevitably a huge influence. “Blizzard,” for example, would be a different work had it been made with different dancers.
I’m driven by observations in nature and culture, and one of the things that attracts me to working with bodies in a small, unadorned and often low-tech manner, is the light tread that the work exerts on our natural resources. Dance is such an elemental form and I love that it takes us away from conventional logic. Actually one of my all time favourite dances is the serendipitous choreography of seagulls hanging around train stations and beaches—endlessly fascinating displays of spatial composition, complementary and contrasting relationships and moments of surprise. Not to mention my (almost) 6 year old son who is remarkably inventive in the improv department.
As a curator of dance, what do you seek to present?
Curating dance programs gives me the opportunity to work at a larger scale and with a range of artists from varied perspectives. I tend to develop an overarching theme and allow artists to respond—they have to work to a brief but within that they have their own voice which sets up interesting ways for each artist to position and assert themselves. I like to create curatorial platforms that the audience can relate to and in this relating the show can become about the audience and their own past and present experiences. For example “With a Bullet: The Album Project” is a project that asks choreographers to recall the first song to which they ever made up a dance—and then they must re-imagine that song to create a new short piece (it’s like an album of short dance singles). What tends to happen is that audience start recalling their own very particular experiences (and importantly, the songs they made dances to) and in this way they watch the program of works through their own sheen of nostalgia and playful consideration of what they might do with their song if they had the chance. It gets people talking and moving. As does “Private Dances.” I saw audience members coming out of tents at “Private Dances” and they were physically describing movements to one another, trying to embody the sensations that were transmitted through watching dance so close. They were actively de-briefing what they had just seen, comparing opinions and experiences. I like to curate programs that procure action in people. “Action Stations” (a commission for Campbelltown Arts Centre, New South Wales, 2011) is also an example of this.
What does the future hold for Nat Cursio Co.?
In 2014, after “The Middle Room” shows at the Festival of Live Art, I’ll continue developing a new screen piece (a commission for Carriageworks’ 24 Frames Per Second initiative) in collaboration with media artist Daniel Crooks and treasure of movement practice, Don Asker, which will be exhibited at Carriageworks, New South Wales in 2015. Through my second year as choreographer in residence at The Substation, I’ll be working on a choreography called “Recovery,” which is a project that has existed (and persisted) in small stages over a number of years with collaborators Shannon Bott and Simon Ellis (among others). The work mines experiences of grief, looking at resilience, adaptability and letting go, and we intend to create some kind of performance platform for “Recovery” later this year. There will be a Next Wave Edition of Critnic (the book-club for dance!) and the beginning of a new collaboration (“Both And”) with Nicola Gunn under Theatre Works’ development program. Looking a little further ahead we plan to bring “With a Bullet: The Album Project—West Australian Edition” to a fully realised performance event in Perth in 2015. On the wish-list is the extension of life for “Blizzard”—a bit of touring would be nice!