New People was a work we developed and presented in co-production with Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in 2019. Conceptually we wanted to make a science fiction work about aliens who come to earth searching for a better life. Still, we also wanted to make the concept auto-biographical on the part of the performers, where they could have the opportunity to look at their oeuvre with new eyes; essentially, the aliens were a metaphor. Still, we liked that aliens are not generally considered high art and wanted to see how that interacted with the work of these very elite performers.
I remember speaking with our dramaturg Marc Wagenbach early on about seeing choreography as a critical practice or a social practice and finding ways in which we wanted to work that were utopian and a lot about going outside of the neo-liberal model of making work. On that subject, Michael and I discussed ways to elevate the process above the product and what that would change in how we organised ourselves and our collaborators to make this work. At one point, we decided to throw ourselves into the deep end and go as utopian as we could. This demanded deep engagement with our value system, which meant being very transparent with everyone involved in the piece.
Ironically at this point, because it required pragmatically re-arranging ourselves with new priorities, we had just increased our workload significantly. Still, we were not yet quite at the point in our research where we realised the importance of our well-being. To create these conditions, we decided that we needed to give everyone a certain amount of autonomy. We realised that for them to feel good, they needed to be given respect, independence and good social conditions in this project, so first of all, we used technology to schedule. We programmed sheets to create accessible interactive agendas for each collaborator. We encouraged the performers to take complete freedom to change their rehearsal times or places to suit their needs. Also, if necessary, they could cancel their rehearsals at the last minute, as long as they let us know, and we asked them not to tell us the reason; we trusted them to know what was best for themselves.
In terms of good social conditions, we know that a certain intensity is better for most artists than too casual. So although Michael and I like to joke around, we kept rehearsals challenging. Not in the way most choreographers do, where it’s just a huge workload and a lot of pressure to perform well. Instead, we asked them to perform without any pressure, to be themselves and allow their feelings and thoughts to enhance their creativity. Most dancers lose interest in a project because it doesn’t push them enough artistically yet pushes them too much personally (limits of physicality, horrible working conditions, transgressing personal boundaries). So we aimed to challenge them artistically while allowing them very much to find and then assert their boundaries. I would need to write a whole page on how we did this alone, so I won’t go into it too much, but the performers all found this challenging, fulfilling, and healing.
We also worked with them on how they wanted us to give feedback, with the goal that we wouldn’t accidentally lower their well-being by giving them feedback in a way they didn’t find constructive or that was triggering or damaging for them. We can’t stress enough the benefit of bespoke feedback; it has the ability to change power dynamics. Michael and I were making this kind of project within the mechanism of an institution, which meant that our well-being was often at stake, as most of the time, it created tension with management, who were comfortable with old ways of working.
We kept a journal that everyone within the production could view, and we kept transparency in where we were at with the process and Marc, as we always spoke to him separately.
In the end, it was a sort of social experiment, and we like to joke that it failed in that self-effacing Australian way. Ironically, it didn’t fail; it was a fortifying, collectivist experience that changed how we thought about our work, the creative process and the role of director and dancer.
Our more recent work with OFEN is on the back of this initial research, and we would love to do more artistic work about this topic, but unfortunately, the funding bodies struggle to see this topic as artistic. Perhaps speaking truth and being authentic are not valued by our arts funding bodies?