Descansos – Helen Herbertson. Photo Daniel Zika.

Q&A with Helen Herbertson: ‘artists always find a way’

Choreographer and performer Helen Herbertson is a Lecturer & Postgraduate Coordinator (Dance) at the VCA. This month at Dance Massive, Helen takes on the role of “artistic companion & provocateur” in The Boom Project, presented by Arts House & Rosalind Crisp / Omeo Dance. Here, in a wide-ranging interview with Alix Bromley, Helen talks about her career journey, her choreographic process, the new Master of Dance at the VCA and the current health of the Australian dance industry.

Can you tell me about what your early dance training involved?

Well, like a lot of girls, it started with ballet as a kid. I think I probably liked the dressing up side of it more than anything. I did that for a long time until I was a teenager, then I stopped dancing. I probably wanted to be a ballerina and then realised I wouldn’t be. Then someone dragged me along to a jazz ballet class and the world sort of opened up again.

I grew up in Brisbane, so there were a couple of amateur groups there that I belonged to which meant a lot of performing. One of those was a company called Queensland Modern Contemporary Dance Company. I belonged to that group through my late teens into my early 20s. That particular company really introduced me to contemporary dance, I suppose. I think Sydney was really the hubbub of that contemporary world in those days. Bodenweiser Dance Centre was there and it was the place where different dance styles were explored … you know, jazz and primitive …

Was there much of an influence from America and the UK at that point?

I think the waves were more through the companies that came to Australia. So when Alvin Ailey came, suddenly primitive and that way of moving became pretty interesting.

Dancers in those days where still going away to study. I do remember when the wave of Graham technique came through Australia and a lot of people went to study that, so that was a really important technique for a while.

Then Cunningham technique arrived, following on the back of what was going on in America. So I did those classes and learnt that. In those days there weren’t really training institutions beyond the [Australian] Ballet School. So, companies or particular teachers would visit and you would go and do classes or workshops.

You progressed through the 1980s as a choreographer and then became artistic director at  both Danceworks and Dancehouse …

So, once I hit Sydney, I kept training of course but I really went there to start exploring choreography. In those days, there was probably a larger pool of dance companies around Australia, so I freelanced for about 15 years before I went to Danceworks, first as co director with Beth Shelton and then as sole Director.

I cut my teeth on making work for the small companies. Dancenorth was there, One Extra, Kinetokos and Two Dance Plus in Perth and TasDance – there was more of a spread; there were dance and education companies in every state, it was just how the form percolated. Then there were larger organisations like Danceworks that Nanette Hassall started that were able to support young performers and choreographers.

Over time, we’ve lost a lot of those small companies which is a bit of pity as it was a testing ground for young performers and a place where young choreographers could learn and make a decision about moving on to one of the bigger companies, say.

Delirium, Helen Herbertson. Photo Daniel Zika.
Delirium, Helen Herbertson. Photo Daniel Zika.

What kinds of physical skills and experience do contemporary dancers need today in order to make their way in the profession, either as a company dancer or as a dance maker? Are they different from your experience?

I still think as a maker you need a sense of your own self and an understanding of the kinds of things you want to express. I don’t think that’s changed. I think stylistically now, because there is institutional training, an important component of it is that you take your time to find your own voice, test your own ideas and use the training as a mechanism and as a tool.

I think independent artists these days need to be pretty resilient. You need a physical grounding and an understanding of the body. From my point of view, you need to be passionate about using the body as the tool for expression. But also, dance loves other forms, loves to sit beside other things, sidle up to other ways of doing things. Over time you also need a good understanding of performance and the way it can help express an idea. That loop between making and performing is the thing that I’ve always been interested in.

What drives you to continue making dance work?

Dance has just always been my means of expression since I was a little girl. For me, it’s one of the most powerful ways of being able to express being human. I think dance can really say and touch people in so many ways; in ways that other forms just don’t do. And I’m still interested in what it can do … I think with every work I get closer to understanding how dance can express ideas; I’m still grappling with that.

As part of Dance Massive, you will be presenting a new work at Arts House in North Melbourne in collaboration with dancer and choreographer Ros Crisp and designer Ben Cobham. Can you describe a little of the choreographic process for The Boom Project?

It’s really Ros’ project, she’s the initiator of it. She is the most incredible improviser. That’s been her practice for a long time.

Is that what drew you to work with her?

We’ve known each other’s work for a long time. She’s been living in between Paris and Australia for a long time, and just in the last three or four years she and her partner have been spending more time moving back and forth.

I went to Paris to teach a workshop with Ros and another wonderful improviser, Andrew Morrish, at Atelier de Paris where Ros was an associate of the studio. It was a three way workshop and we just clicked. Since then, over three years, we’ve had periods of time where we’ve been in the same city. And I’ve been able to be in this witnessing, provocating kind of role with Ros.

Ros has been working as an improviser for a long time and she has some really fantastic choreographic tools that she works with as the basis of her work. I’ve just brought another aspect of working, to do with image, which has just ignited a whole lot of things. But I think seeing the work is the way to go.

Definitely. Is there, there may not be, but is there a shared starting point in language or music or something more abstract? Or is it that point of difference?

I think it’s the point of difference. Well, also a shared understanding … I can provoke what’s happening, I can ask it things, it’s fascinating and she’s such an incredible artist with an amazing capacity to launch improvisationally but also return and recall. In my experience that’s incredibly rare.

For both of us it’s just been a really fascinating dialogue between what she’s doing, what potentially could happen and the unfolding of it. And also just holding it in this improvised way so it remains enough unknown, still able to launch off the edge of the cliff, if you know what I mean?

I do. And Ben Cobham, a long-time collaborator of yours. Over time, have you developed your own language together?

I am sure we have. How to describe that relationship …

Is it about creating a total environment?

It is about that now. When we first met we were maybe masquerading more in roles. He on the production side and me as a choreographer. But up until I met Ben I hadn’t started making longer work. Making longer works made me more interested in the whole thing. Starting to find collaborative relationships in dance works made me more interested in what it’s like to start a work together, as opposed to build it and then ask these other things to come on board.

I’m really interested in things tracking together, you both bring something to the table, mostly what you’re interested in at the time and see how it works together. I think our relationship is a lot about play and testing. Erin [Brannigan] has dragged a lot of that out of me in there [Helen points to a book on the table – Bodies of thought: twelve Australian choreographers].

Descansos …resting places – Helen Herbertson. Photo Daniel Zika.
Descansos …resting places – Helen Herbertson. Photo Daniel Zika.

I’m open to each of our creative interests leading the way and informing the work so what tends to happen now is that we make some kind of built form which has grown over time. Wanting work to be seen more and wanting to tour, you’re better to construct an environment you can control. I’ve had too many situations where we haven’t been able to do that so we make something we understand completely that houses what the audience can see. Part of that is a physical form and part of it is light, part of it’s sounds, part of it’s moving … it becomes a whole thing which has evolved slowly and component parts have been tested against each other so after a while it’s quite hard to see where one thing starts and other finishes.

It’s slightly architectural, in the last bit of time it’s been a response to the world. What’s a human doing in this world at this point in time? How’s she feeling? What’s she doing? What’s happening? How can I find a way for an audience to get close to that, experience that?

Sunstruck [2008], the last one we made – what’s it like now when we’ve been in drought for I don’t know how many years. Both of us are really, really  interested in trying to crack the way that people see dance work, to be different, to find ways to have it in unusual ways. So you have the chance to be touched as a person because I think dance is a person-to-person exchange. I don’t make work for great big theatres any more. I’ve done that, but the work is for intimate spaces, for small audiences of 50 or 60.

So our work is all those things and it’s often just well, what are you interested in now? What am I interested in now? What is the lastest light source? Let’s get it in, let’s play with it, how does a body look in that light?

With the new Master of Dance that’s offered at the VCA, is the focus very much on different choreographic approaches?

Yes, it’s always about that. For me, it’s about trying to help these young artists understand what it is they’re wanting to say and help them realise that through performance and choreography.

So in this particular course I’m trying to have us think about the way something is performed and the way it’s made, rather like the way I work with Ben in a more holistic way, so the making and presenting of something is embedded in the beginnings of how it’s made.

Dance is always about how form and content evolves together. It’s not like you have a script, you’re more of a writer until you’ve got the raw materials, the language and there’s something about the way the performer speaks inside all of that which becomes the exploration and focus of the course.

Also trying to examine that moment when a work goes from the rehearsal studio to its realisation. That vital often underestimated step to understanding what is it now? What does it need? How is it going to speak to an audience once you’ve taken it out of the rehearsal space? And all of the interactions with light, sound, production, the way we’re watching it, where are we, all of those elements which come together to realise the work.

The course is full of strategies for waking those young artists up to all of these component parts, helping the work stand as a whole.

You mention the collaborative nature of dance. Will that be encouraged on the course across the student body at the VCA?

Yes, there are some cross-discipline studies in the course – interactions with the designers, the directors and the dramaturgs. I try to remind a dance artist that all those other components are part of it.

We have collaborative studies with the designers where we’ll be talking about space, or responding to the space with a provocation. Or we’ll have some sessions with Ben to play with light, waking your awareness up to how light can be a partner in this or a starting point. At the same time they’re making and performing work, being coached in how that’s happening and responding to each other’s work.

In terms of the Australian dance industry as a whole, right now, do you think it’s in good health at the moment? How do you see it developing over the next ten years or so?

Do I think it’s in good health? There’s a whole lot happening, there are lot of project artists, independent artists. The growth in it is incredible. I would like to see more things that have a longer term flow. There are a lot of beginnings …

If I think about things over the last 20 years or in my lifetime there are an amazing number of things. But there a lot of project companies, small groups that don’t work all the time.

And that’s related to funding?

Yes, funding cycles which are project-based. But that’s how it goes. I think it’s harder for young dancers, performers and dance-makers, to interact with situations that have longevity. But that said, no matter what you say, at any point in time I think artists always find a way. I’d like to see the potential for more longer term support, more than anything.

We have a different kind of funding cycle with the Australian Council, things have changed there. I’m not so sure about the six-year cycle of funding that’s about to happen. That’s great for those who are in but for those who are out, six years is a long time. But they’re trying to do things differently and things have to shift so we will see what happens.

Dance is everywhere … everywhere. In every other art form, on screen … it’s just BOOM [makes explosion sound]. So, it’d just be great to have more, I suppose.

(Main image: Descansos, Helen Herbertson. Photo Daniel Zika.)

A version of this article originally appeared on Channel, the Faculty’s previous publishing platform.