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rosie dennis

confessions of a fast talker

keith gallasch talks with improviser rosie dennis

Rosie Dennis, Rosie Dennis,
photo Heidrun Löhr

With a quiet seriousness (so different from her performance spin-outs), Dennis conveys a clear-eyed sense of purpose and of careful analysis of the performance path she’s chosen for herself or which, as she tells it, perhaps chose her. “Accident” and “luck” figure strongly in her account of her career. However, while she says she’s not a planner she confesses to having been, at times, a control freak. It was interesting to hear how Dennis, as she developed her craft, moved towards structured improvisation—a model providing both freedom and form. Similarly, she says that being vulnerable is what appeals to her about improvisation, but it doesn’t frighten her. These are not contradictions but perhaps elemental to the art, and life, of this improviser.

What’s driven you to become a performer?

An accident really. About five years ago I auditioned for the VCA to go into their director’s course, that was my trajectory at that time. I’d done a couple of short things for the unbecomings season at Performance Space and before that at university as part of my arts degree. So I thought a creative way to get around not getting into VCA was to go back on the floor and train, so that if I was working with performers I’d be in touch and coming from a similar place. At that time, in 2003, the improviser Andrew Morrish just happened to be doing a weekend workshop in Sydney. I almost chickened out but my partner said I needed to go. Andrew said to me on that first day, “I don’t think you’re really a director. I think you’re a performer.” I said okay and I felt really exhilarated after the workshop like something had changed for me. I hadn’t really performed at all before, except at school, just directed.

Andrew said he had a Sunday night thing with just a few artists meeting to perform for each other. I went to that every Sunday. I had a huge appetite. Something had been unlocked and I was finding something new every week, and it helped with the way I’d write. I could do it on the floor instead of sitting down, and new text would come and new doors open.

You were writing before you began performing?

Yes. The first play I wrote pieced together about 45 Gertrude Stein sentences into a love story which became a show, Can Fish Be Wives (1996), at Downstairs Belvoir during one Mardi Gras. When I think about it, it’s exactly what I do now, poetic text, and it had sound, it had music and it had abstract movement. I was 20-21 and working it out.

My writing was heavily rhythmic, so improvisation helped: as I was walking around the rhythm of my walking was changing the rhythm of the text. I realised the two were feeding each other and I became aware of specific hand gestures and I thought the movement’s feeling the text and the text is feeling the movement and this synergy is good. But at this time I did little movement in my performance work at all. With Elly Brickhill I improvised vocally in darkness at a microphone while she danced in Waiting to Breathe Out (2002-03). By now I was 25 and I was very shy on stage, even after working with Andrew—but that had been for only five people at a time.

The improvising was feeding my writing but it was research still and I was getting frustrated, having more and more questions about things happening on the floor I wanted answered and Andrew said you’re going to have to do it more. He teamed me up with the dancer Martin del Amo and we decided to practise with each other. It’s very specific: we have half an hour each and we perform for each other. So it’s not a collaborative process, not a duo. That began in 2004. We’re still doing it.

But then you leapt into the void.

The big moment was with Polish in Next Wave in 2004. I thought, okay I’m going to try this now, over five nights, without a very clear theme but investigating the same sort of material every time. I did it and I thought, I’m a performer.

Was it a good leap?

A good leap. Well, it was a ride on a freeway and it was very difficult to slow down and speed is still something I use in my works very particularly. I find the faster I go the more opportunities and options that I’ve got to play with. I’m in the moment but thinking ahead and I’ll stumble and I’ll hear something in the word and that can take me in another direction. I like that.

Did you have a structure?

No, I was just freefalling. I’d have a little clock in the corner and just watch for the 20 minutes to be up and then I’d find an ending. It was a good experience.

How did you move into structuring your work?

That was me wanting to go back to writing. I’d been a control freak in my early 20s and constricting myself about what I wanted to do—terrible in retrospect. But after improvising I now had a real fear of putting something on paper: “God, now I’m going to have to stick to it.” And I still only write down points, but I am going to get older and I’m going to forget things, so I am trying to write things down while they’re all still in me.

I decided it was good to put some structure down because that gave me parameters to work within, which I’ve always done—time constraints, physical obstacles. Having a ‘score’ gave me more freedom to do other things in performance because I wasn’t thinking about where I had to go. That’s what I realised in Melbourne at Next Wave where I was always trying to build to 20 minutes duration. I thought, “Rosie, you don’t have to do that because maybe that improvisation is actually only 16 minutes. You need to be able to give yourself permission to leave when it’s finished or cut to the next section.”

What happened after Next Wave?

I met the British artist Richard Layzell at the National Review of Live Art (NRLA) in Australia in 2003 and he took me to Perth because we’d done a little bit of collaborating at Time_Place_Space 2 [Dennis was a participant in 2003 where Layzell was a mentor]. I did a late night solo and he got people to look at it. I got invited back the next year to make a piece, which was Access All Areas, and the NRLA director Nikki Milican invited me to Glasgow. I went in 2006.

I did nothing at all in 2005. While at Next Wave I got a call from Performance Space who were looking for a publicist and I needed a job and took it but didn’t feel I could promote my work there. I kept training and doing stuff at Omeo Studio [the Sydney base for Morrish and other improvisers] and eventually the Sunday night program there faded out and I curated the odd event and then went overseas.

And once there you made immediate connections.

The Inbetween Time festival in February 2006 at Arnolfini in Bristol was the week before NRLA and the curators from Portugal’s Festival Trama in Porto saw me perform Love Song Dedication there and asked me to come and do two shows for them. That was really lucky. And at NRLA there was the buzz of seeing so much work. I was really happy. Three months after I got back, Nikki asked me to come back in 2007, but the airfare was a problem. The first time I got Australia Council support. So I discussed it with my partner, about consolidating my work at NRLA and how that would benefit my work here. The travel cost would be an investment worth making in myself as an artist. I wasn’t worried about the airfare—I wanted to perform. In Australia there aren’t as many opportunities, there aren’t as many places to perform.

I’m difficult to program. I’ve approached fringe theatre venues here. I do sit, if weirdly, in theatre and I do move, so I fit with dance, but I’m not really theatre and I’m not really funny. Performance Space was incredibly supportive of me as an artist: last year they co-produced Martin del Amo and I doing solos over three nights. But in Europe there’s a place for short works. Four hundred people come a day to NRLA.

I was in NRLA 2007 and I performed again at Arnolfini in Bristol. A lot of the same people came back and saw my new show, Hitting a Brick Wall; some have seen all three works. I performed at Chapter in Cardiff and did a workshop at the university there. I came back home and then self-funded another trip in May and I’m about to go again at the end of September. Nothing is ever a waste, I meet great artists and I always see work. At the ANTI festival in Kuopio in Finland I’ll do a show, a workshop and a talk, two shows in Lubljana as part of the City of Women Fesitval, and I’ll perform and do a workshop at Lancaster University—people there had seen me at Arnolfini. I’ll be in Experimentica, a live art festival in Cardiff, and the Word About Town spoken word festival in Hastings.

Are you tempted to move to the UK?

No, I really like Australia and making work here, and I’m turning my focus to how to do more stuff in Australia. I’m running an occasional series called Fantastic Animals at a studio in Annandale because I need to show work, and I invite other artists to join me. And I’m making a new work as a companion piece to Access All Areas so they can be marketed and performed together, the new one as a response to the first. This is rather than making a 45-60 minute piece. I don’t want to do that. I have to be true to what I enjoy.

What kind of responses do you get from audiences?

People have strong reactions, and they are always much older than I expect. I always thought that my work appealed particularly to women. The last two trips overseas have proved me quite wrong about that. I got much more feedback from men. Bizarre. Someone said ages ago. “Your work’s so female.”

What is it that audiences connect with?

I’m drawn to improvisation because it makes me vulnerable on stage. I’ve become quite confident in that vulnerability. It doesn’t frighten me at all, but if I’m not there being exposed then I’m not fully making the kind of work I want to make. The vulnerability is what people connect with.

Is the work about you? People often play themselves, or logical extensions of themselves or adopt personae in contemporary performance.

In London last month someone who knew me thought the performance was about my partner and I, and was alarmed. But I don’t mind if people think the work is about me. The work starts very specifically and then I broaden it.

When I watch the rushes of the film of Access All Areas [titled Quietly Collapsed] I do think, “You’re so intense.” It comes with the speed I’m working at.

How did the film come about?

I’d said to Sam James, the video artist, I want to make a film of Access All Areas, people respond well to it wherever I go and I can’t take the show everywhere. And it could screen in festivals. Sam suggested we apply for a commission fee from the ABC Dance 4 Film project [a broadcast partnership between the Australia Council, ABC TV, Channel 4 and Arts Council England for the screening of dance films on the ABC and Channel 4 in the UK] and we got $3,000, for a 3.5 minute film. [Sean O’Brien was the other successful Australian filmmaker applicant.]

So is there a long term plan, beyond the double bill and the film?

So much came out of working with Andrew Morrish, from Time_Place_Space and NRLA and, although I said I don’t plan, I did sit down and come up with a five-year plan, a realistic strategy. I’m optimistic about what I’m doing now. I might not do it forever. I’m a true improviser. This is what I’m doing now.

Rosie Dennis is currently touring Access All Areas, Love Song Dedication and Hitting A Brick Wall.

RealTime issue #81 Oct-Nov 2007 pg. 15

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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