Nat Cursio (award-winning “Private Dances,” “Blizzard,” “The Middle Room”) and Shannon Bott (“Racket,” “Hang in there,” “Nice Mate Nice”) have been creating “Recovery” for a period of six years. The work came about due to untimely deaths in both their families, and confronts grief, and what it is to continue on in the wake of loss. Simon Ellis, well-known creator of intimate choreographies, joined the creative process, and just when it seemed “Recovery” would never be, here it is. I am deeply appreciative to Nat Cursio, Shannon Bott and Simon Ellis for answering my questions via email.
“Recovery” will be performed December 2-9, 2014 at the Substation, Melbourne. Seating is limited, and the audience is requested to wear black.
Penelope Ford: How did you come to work with Shannon Bott and Simon Ellis?
Nat Cursio: I first worked alongside Simon when we were both performing in a work by Anna Smith. There was lots of partner work and in rehearsal Simon was asked to run at me and wrap his body around my waist—I was supposed to catch him. I didn’t. I fell flat on my bum. I can’t remember how he landed but it was pretty funny (and embarrassing). Since then I’ve worked with Simon in various contexts including as a performer for his work “Indelible,” which was developed at the Australian Choreographic Centre (Canberra) and had its season at West Space, Melbourne. I later invited Simon to be one of the choreographers and dancers on “With a Bullet: The Album Project.” Around that time he introduced me to Shannon Bott, who I also invited into the project. As part of this project, Shannon and I were cast as Simon’s dancers in a duo called “Tight” which was set to Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” performed in 2006 at Arts House. It was re-mounted in 2007 at the Arts Centre Melbourne after Simon had moved to the UK, so a too-pregnant me replaced became his rehearsal director. Shannon also performed in two of my pieces on a tour to Busan (Korea), so we have a history of collaborating in different contexts.
PF: You mention “Recovery” was a slow burn. Take us through the phases of development since it began in 2008.
NC: We’ve made this work in tiny spurts, small developments at distant intervals. Our first development (summer 2008 /09) began with a curiosity in the potential relationship between the adaptive behaviour of insects and the human ability to cope. We set tasks for each other, based on spatial constraints, responses to key images/concepts such as hard shell, soft centre, camouflage and transformative possibilities such as turning from soft to brittle. We used improvisation to gather a series of physical materials—some became choreographed sequences, others more open, like scores. Once we had an entirely silent day where no talking was allowed, not even hellos and goodbyes, and we ran ancillary activities such as a reading group that involved six people sitting around a table reading and discussing different articles and ideas around endurance, brain plasticity, and the characteristics of insects.
Simon Ellis was brought into the project for our second phase (winter 2010) after Shannon and I decided that as the performers in the work, we wanted to have some direction from the outside. As our other collaborators accumulated (there was a third and forth phase! Spring 2011 & summer 2012), the process was enriched in different ways. We’ve tested ways in which to scientifically and poetically label the body digitally (using sensors and video projection with media designer Pete Brundle) and literally (using chalk lines in a floor based duet), Simon Ellis devised a training regime of tri-weekly running sessions as at one point we thought we might actually begin the work at the point of utter exhaustion. Ben Cobham and Benjamin Cisterne created a prototype set piece or ‘spider’ that we began placing the physical materials under much like a microscope/malevolent or nurturing force. And Byron Scullin played with positioning the dance amongst a field of tiny speakers.
In 2013, after numerous heart-breaking ‘no’s’ from presenters and funding bodies, we held a ‘wake’ for “Recovery,” thinking we might kill it off by placing a death notice in the paper and ritually burning all our funding applications! But somehow the project just wouldn’t die, and we decided to make the final work on our own terms, in a minimal and experimental way. With the structure and format of the work having been considered in so many ways: as discreet cells of ideas; as a relentless, morphing, pulsing whole; and as a series of materials governed by a set piece and rotating audience platform, it is now perhaps the most raw it has ever been, responding to the spatial and tonal characteristics of a small and rarely used room at the Substation, using the materials that have repeatedly risen to the surface and maintained our interest.
PF: Can you elaborate on the ‘duel with time’?
NC: As we come towards performing, the question of time (and how we deal with it conceptually and performatively) is ever present in the way we are considering ourselves to travel through this work. Who are we and where are we in this work—are we both ourselves in the now and ourselves in the past? We are working at how the passage of time and transformation are present in the structure and choreography, and how our roles as friends, carers and grievers intertwine. The manner in which we are positioning this dance within a very particular space brings into focus our own mortality. We share with our audience an unsentimental yet honest acknowledgement of that.
The life of this work has run parallel with many shifts in our lives, with Shannon and I as new mothers, with long distances between working together and between countries, the devastation of presentation opportunities eluding us and almost killing-off of the project. The decision to strip the work back to its essence and present this raw, and perhaps fleetingly small season, reflects upon very nature of life and the inevitability of change and loss. The process has tested our ability to hang in there and this performance is a quiet celebration of being here, for now, living.
PF: How does your understanding of psychology shape your work in dance, as a choreographer and as a performer?
Shannon Bott: I am very interested in the psychology of perception. The idea that the way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe. I am very curious about the assumptions we come with when making, viewing and experiencing art. I am talking mostly about the relationship between the performer and the audience. In response to this, I like to hold certain questions in mind that might assist the lens with which I think and see through when making. For example, how as a choreographer can I engage with ideas and the construction of a performance that might enable an opening up, a puncturing or a clarifying of these assumptions? In the language of psychology, it could be seen in terms of behaviours or thinking structures that sit unconscious and the consideration for what is needed to bring this forward into the conscious mind. It is these considerations that are of interest to me.
As a performer, it would heavily depend upon the nature of the choreographic work being performed as to the nature of the psychological enquiry. For example, over the past number of years I have been involved with work that has a level of intimacy with its audience. In terms of “Recovery,” it requires a certain physical and mental space and a particular kind of care when entering into the performer audience relationship. The considerations are very different then to performing in a large scale work in a large proscenium art space.
PF: What made you want to engage with your own grief in this way?
SB: Back in 2006, grief was changing my experience of living. Which ultimately was impacting how I viewed the world and my art making. It was the discussions that were occurring at the time when Nat and I were in the studio together (engaging in a space grant at Dancehouse) that became of interest to me. Both that we were living through / with grief and also that we were finding a way to talk about it framed through the lens of ideas and art making. It has been this way through the years on this project. Discussions that use the personal as a departure point. We began by discussing loss and resilience. This revealed fertile ground and themes that have permeated many peoples lives. So, we thought, why not investigate this through performance making.
PF: Has the personal nature of the work impacted your creative process?
Simon Ellis: “Recovery” is a personal work, or at least it is a work that has developed from very personal experiences of grief and coping. But these specific experiences were not mine, and they are not the experiences of the people who will be watching the work. This represents an important challenge: how might the creative teams understanding of the personal give enough space to the imaginations and intelligence of the audience such that they are able to enter an affective space in the work? The nature of this affective space is open—as a creative team we don’t really have control over it, but we do make things possible for audiences. I think these ideas have something to do with—when we talk about art—who is responsible for the authorship of experience. My sense is that the more personal a work’s origins are, the more important it is for the makers to step back from owning or controlling the outcome.
PF: What is the key to creating an intimate work?
SE: Making intimate work depends on three simple things: scale, closeness and tone. Humans respond very strongly to large-scale events—think of Olympic opening ceremonies—but we also respond to the microscopic or tiny. Our imaginations are captured by the delicate, the detailed the unconventionally small. What happens when we are asked to look more closely, or to lean in in order to see more detail? The idea of scale also holds for audience size. In smaller audiences we feel more responsible for what is going on (sometimes this isn’t the best feeling either!)—it’s the inverse of the ‘bystander effect’ or ‘social loafing.’
Regarding closeness or proximity, when I am physically close to someone I begin to notice things that are not available to me at a distance: how we smell, blemishes on skin, the lines on our faces. It is both normalising (we are all the same) and distinguishing (these lines are his). These changes in proximity are built-in to the mechanics of, for example, film but in performance we have to go to more trouble to find ways for audiences to be close. Helen Herbertson and Ben Cobham’s work “Morphia Series” is such a refined example of an audience literally being zoomed in to the performer.
Lastly, by tone I mean what is the overall sense or feel of a work? Some ideas (or perhaps themes) lend themselves more openly to experiences of intimacy in performance. In a previous work I made—with Shannon Bott—called “Inert” the work was ostensibly about love, and in being so, it set up a particular tone that helped audiences seep into the experience of intimacy and closeness. In “Recovery” we are working with these three ideas—scale, closeness and tone—in order to welcome and provoke the imaginations of the audiences.