Interview with Shaun Parker by Jodie McNeilly
Jodie McNeilly in conversation with Shaun Parker
Could you give our readers some insight into your choreographic career and practice: What motivates, or inspires you to make work? Do you see your work as Australian? If so, why and how?
To bring it all back to the guts of it, I am interested in investigating subject matter that looks to human behavior, instinct and all that makes us tick. Through this I can offer something to human consciousness (whatever that is). With choreography, I never chose it; it chose me. As a choreographer I yearn to create a series of motifs and body animations that when juxtaposed with the overall dramaturgy of a 90 minute show allows the audience to transcend in some way: to think and feel differently, and to have something within them shifted. What ultimately drives the work is an interest in the fragility, the complexity, the barbarism, and the absolute joy of what it is to be human.
What makes my work typically Australian is the physicality of the dancers, which is a signature of most Australian dancers. This has a lot to do with growing up outdoors, doing a lot of sport, being under the sun with all that space. Our dance studios are big, and so it is possible to ‘whack up a leg’, making our dances expansive, spacious and hyper physical. We are a very lucky country in that our dancers get the best training in the world from a range of practices. All that technique comes through with this physicality to make the work distinctly Australian.
There is also a self-deprecating humour in my work that is a little bit me, and the fact that I am Australian. We like to “take the piss”, to expose the truth, ridiculousness and absurdity—then laugh at it.
How did AM I come about? What were the first sparks for its development?
The first sparks appeared 5 or 6 years ago after the 2005 Cronulla riots in Sydney, Australia that saw the emergence of mob violence against particular migrant and religious groups by white Australians. I started to think a lot about this inherent, instinctual need in humans to bash, hurt, or kill what is different to us. Essentially we are animals that have evolved somewhat from the need to freeze or attack in the face of another animal. There is something in our brain, or our memory that as we evolved taught us not to do that.
AM I started out to be a socio-political work about what it is to be Australian, but as I investigated more deeply, I wanted to go before Australia was even a nation, back to the cradle of civilization and look at some of the key elements before society, politics and religion brainwashed us. I wanted to strip all the socio-political away, back to something universal. It just kept screaming “pure, pure, pure”.
The question of the self has plagued philosophers and theologians for centuries, and has been empirically addressed by scientists from the 17thC, and less metaphysically by the 20thC. Now, we are faced with new trends in thinking that deprivileges the subject in favour of a more object-oriented, materially networked understanding of the world. I wonder how your human centered work AM I might respond to this kind of discourse?
The notion of quantum physics and its collision with the ego structure has come up in the work. The ego was created by humans to survive, but in fact life will always find a way to survive despite this construction.
AM I begins like a fairytale with “once upon a time” before time there was nothing, time preparing to be something. As humans we create stories, we have always done that; I really like that child like character for we are all children of the universe, still trying to work out the answer. Maybe we will never know, or realize there is no answer. Perhaps the answer to life is life; we just live it.
The visual patterning of the hand and stick animations in AM I are composed to be just as complex as the universe. Some of the 10 minutes scenes took 3 or 4 weeks to choreograph. The work is highly dense; every nanosecond comes from something that took months. The hand animation scene at the beginning narrates our journey from the Big Bang to Modern Society in 5 minutes. For me, that says more than going too deeply with it.
Could you discuss your main artistic collaborations for AM I, what were the provocations for the work and how did they respond?
I have been in a long-term collaboration with Composer, Musician Nick Wales who shares a genuine inquiry into how the music and theatrical dance world can come together. My provocation to Nick for AM I was “If the whole of society were to deconstruct, anarchy reigned, and a group of disparate individuals got together to form a cult or tribe knowing everything they’ve heard from the past, but all the music was destroyed, what would it sound like?”
Nick and the musicians used a lot of instruments from world music mixed with electronica and vocals inspired by Armenian and religious cult singing. There is an element of form with the score; it comes from in here (points to chest). It’s rarely avant-garde, so all of it is beautifully formed. I know if we were to form a tribe we would make a work from our guts, to have it come from that place.
I wanted to have elemental lights, not LED as it was far too modern. Damien Cooper responded by designing a wall of light with 1000 electric globes. It is like brail, a system of communication unto itself. I was inspired by constellations and communicating the concepts of quantum physics through analogue. A lot of high-tech information could be pumped into it, including video graphics that made it behave like pixels. The light wall, like the music, dancers and text has become a large part of the dramaturgy: all elements individually, or collectively drive the narrative at any one time.
Shantala Shivalingappa is the voice of fate, the universe, the other-worldly narrator or storyteller. She speaks seven languages, but not German, and insisted on learning it for the Wolfsburg show in April of this year.
There is a large touring party of 20 for this current tour: 7 performers (who have been with me for anywhere between 9-5 years), 7 musicians to play live on stage, and 6 production people.
Has AM I laid the seed for a future work? Can you provide a glimpse of any new Parker projects on the horizon?
Because the company is project funded, we can only do a new work every 3 years. A lot of my work is big scale, with anywhere from 10 to 14 people on stage. I start development of a new work in December based on the chromosome XY with 9 male dancers and will ask the same questions of 9 dancers born with the XX chromosome. There is also ‘project duo’involving two of my long-standing dancers who share all this history and knowledge together and will, as a point of departur,e see what emerges between them. And finally, a solo work called Little Black Swan, which is a socio-political work set in the ballet world looking at how Kiruna Stamell born with Acromesomelic Dysplasia becomes a ballerina when she wasn’t allowed to because of the way she looked.