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How Lucy Guerin made How To Be Us

The renowned contemporary choreographer was specially commissioned by The Australian Ballet to make a work for its DanceX festival.

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Lucy Guerin with Lilian Steiner and Samantha Hines. Photo Rudi Lo

The work, How To Be Us, features two dancers, Lilian Steiner and Samantha Hines, performing both directed and improvised movement. Here’s how Guerin and her dancers made it, and why for her it represents “an ideal way of being in the world”.

Can you tell us about the blend of set and improvised movement in How To Be Us, and how you structure that?
Over the last few years, I’ve become increasingly interested in the relationship of the dancers to the choreographer as a kind of social example. So in How To Be Us I’m working with the idea of set choreography versus tasks that the dancers can take part in, and improvisation with varying degrees of autonomy. In some instances, the choreographer is more like an outside authoritarian figure, and that’s kind of where the piece begins, with very structured, set, linear material, and then as the piece progresses, it involves more input from the dancers, and the end of the work is an improvisation, where we get to see much more of their individual dancing and it’s much more open. So it’s kind of about the different ways of existing in society.

Unison, for example, is a particular kind of conformity, and then there are various moments where the two dancers are moving independently, but it’s choreographed … the dancers move through this terrain of different relationships to each other and to the choreographic material. And then the end of the work is much more open and improvisational. There is a trajectory from control to openness.

Can you give an example of one of the tasks?
One of the tasks that I’ve used in the work is to give the dancers a very simple action – for instance, to be washed by a wave, or to pick apples – and a number of counts, and both dancers create their response to that. So the timing of the movements is the same, and the form of the movements has a similar dynamic, but they’re different. It’s not in unison, but there’s a sort of rhythmic togetherness.

Was this work something you’d had in your mind for a while, or was it specifically inspired by the festival commission and the site?
Absolutely, it was very much made with this event and the Playhouse in mind, and the context of being presented with a lot of other companies. It's a 15-minute work. Generally, I make full-length works, and they don’t excerpt very well; they have a structure and each section has a relationship to the other sections. So it was a really lovely task, and a joy for me, just to work with dancers and music and make a very choreographic work.

The title of the work is intriguing – what does it mean to you?
It refers to an ideal way of being in the world: to be able to maintain our individuality, but to be able to cooperate and work together with others as well. To have individual freedom in a social context.

One of the most interesting things about your company is its commitment to supporting other dancemakers. How has that evolved?
When I started Lucy Guerin Inc, it was because I felt I needed a framework and a support for making my own work. But fairly quickly, I realised that because I had this structure and support, it was easy to open that up for other artists. I spent quite a lot of time as an independent choreographer myself, and it’s a really unique position to be in. Finding financial support and space to rehearse is always difficult, but at the same time, you don’t have all the pressures of having a company, where there are certain outcomes that need to be delivered. So, over the last 21 years, the company’s really grown its program for independent artists: we have a resident director each year, we have a First Nations resident director, we have other residencies for choreographers, we have workshops, classes, a whole range of opportunities for people to engage with the company. To me, that creates community, and that’s one of the things I really value in dance: a sense of interaction, sharing ideas, having other artists around to talk to. I spent seven years in New York in my 20s and early 30s, and I drew a lot of support from that thriving downtown dance scene and all the interactions there.

How do your dancers train for performances?
All of our dancers are project-based, so they’re not full-time with the company. When we’re rehearsing our projects, we would have a morning class – and that might be a contemporary dance class, it might be an improvisation class, it could be a yoga class or a ballet class. That’s a ballet class specifically for contemporary dancers, so there’s more of an emphasis on strength and anatomy and basic technique. We’d generally have just one of those a week. Then there would be rehearsals, which could consist of setting tasks for the dancers or coming up with improvisational structures, or me setting choreography – so there are a lot of different ways of coming up with the movement.

In a few words … how would you describe your choreographic style?
It's a hard question to answer, because each of my works is really different to the rest, but I like to work with more unfamiliar coordinations, more disjointed movements, that are not necessarily familiar to dancers and that interrupt the natural flow of the movement. I really try not to use generic contemporary dance steps. I use a lot of arm and hand and finger work; it’s often quite gestural. And fast!

Delve into DanceX through this series of podcast conversations with selected choreographers

Learn a section of choreography from The Third, Australian Dance Theatre's contribution to DanceX