“It’s like being possessed”: Australian star choreographer Lucy Guerin talks about 20 years of dance | To dance

AAustralian choreographer Lucy Guerin has just landed in Melbourne from Aix-en-Provence, where she is working on a show involving young dancers, all aged 11 to 18. “It opens in November,” she says. “I’m going back once again because we have to rehearse during the school holidays. In the meantime, she is in Australia to create a new show, Flux Job, at the Arts House in North Melbourne.

This eclecticism, not to mention her global reach, is typical of an artist who has always had a foothold on the international stage – both for artistic reasons and practical necessity. “There aren’t a lot of touring options in Australia. If you spend a lot of time and money doing something, you want people to see it,” she says.

“I just think it’s impossible to label yourself” … Lucy Guerin. Photography: Gregory Lorenzutti

It will be 20 years this September since Guerin launched the company that bears her name, Lucy Guerin Inc. While not subject to looking back, she has begun to reflect on her past work in preparation for another show. that she foresees. “I don’t tend to put out the old videos, but I go back to some of the movement concerns I had when I was younger,” she says.

It is an extraordinary body of work, including shows such as Structure and Sadness, which used symbol and abstraction to explore the 1970 collapse of the West Gate Bridge; or Human Interest Story, which mixed speech and dance to study the impact of news cycles on our psyche. Or the gloriously monochrome film, which saw 1950’s DOA film noir projected onto the dancers.

Born in Adelaide, Guerin “really started my choreographic life in New York”, the city where she lived for seven years. She initially trained as a ballet dancer, which surprises those familiar with her work, eschewing the emotional appeal of ballet for something more sparse and cerebral. “I never became a ballet dancer, but the idea of ​​repetition, those sequences of movements that you do in class every day, discovering more and more of the same movement, gave me the sense of investigation. , to deepen things”, she explains.

Ballet isn’t the only influence that has stayed with Guerin since those early days; she became interested in “release techniques”, which she describes as “much more about how the body is anatomically structured”. By emphasizing the natural inclinations of human movement, the principles of fluidity and ease, release techniques have greatly influenced contemporary dance. “There’s a funny thing that happens when you’ve been a dancer for a long time and you get into choreography,” Guerin says. “You try to create movement and you really feel inhabited – it’s like being possessed – by a lot of different ghosts. It’s like all the movement styles you’ve learned are starting to come out.

But over time, the anxiety of influence fades. “Now it’s the opposite. I’m almost more influenced by younger generations of choreographers, or just curious about what’s to come,” she says. It is this curiosity, this need to “let the flood of ideas overwhelm you, just to stay connected with what is happening”, that has ensured that Guerin’s reputation as an innovator remains as strong today as it is today. the moment she burst onto the scene. “Dance is a social and collaborative form, so I am always inspired and in communication with the dancers – and with my collaborators, composers, designers, costumers – when I create new works.”

Guerin's show Split, which involved two dancers bifurcating the stage with duct tape until they could no longer stand.
Lucy Guerin’s show Split, which involves two dancers bifurcating the stage with duct tape until they can no longer stand. Photography: Gregory Lorenzutti

His new show, Flux Job, was not meant to reflect the lives of dancers over the past two years of isolation, but he has bled in the job, perhaps inevitably. “It always started with four individual dancers inhabiting their own worlds. And because it was postponed and rescheduled for almost two years, it became a matter of separation,” she says.

Two central ideas solidified for Guerin as she developed Flux Job: space and time. “Space has become such a concern, and proximity is now fraught with danger,” she says. “Everyone is very aware of space, which is one of the fundamental and essential elements of choreography. I almost couldn’t help but incorporate that into the work. And likewise, the malleability of time during confinements; for Guerin, “There would be days when it just seemed to fade away and freeze up, and then others when it would expand.”

Guerin has been branded postmodern almost since the start of her career. Although she doesn’t bother to categorize her work – “I just think it’s impossible to label yourself; it’s other people’s work, really” – she understands why his style encourages the term. Postmodernism has a special meaning in dance that stands out from other fields, such as art or literature; he describes often non-linear and anti-narrative work, rejecting dramatic arcs and emotive gestures. Any suggestion of climax or catharsis is almost considered suspect, as being too easy or cheap a way to communicate meaning to the audience.

“I don’t like going to shows where I can feel pushed and manipulated into certain emotional states,” Guerin says. “I like to see things that are more abstract, that give me a lot of space to have my own thoughts, where I can almost participate in the work, rather than having it imposed on me.”

The 2015 production of Macbeth at the Young Vic in London, directed by Carrie Cracknell and Guerin.
The 2015 production of Macbeth at the Young Vic in London, directed by Carrie Cracknell and Lucy Guerin. Photography: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

It could almost read like Guérin’s manifesto. His ascetic and highly disciplined approach to the art form is why audience reactions to his work can vary so widely, why there seems to be such a wide range of interpretive possibilities open to us. Even Guerin is sometimes shocked: “I can never say what the reaction of the public will be.”

She remembers the reaction to her 2009 show Untrained as particularly disconcerting. The show saw two professional dancers and two amateurs respond to specific instructions; the gap between the two pairs became a kind of competition between clumsy naturalism and refined skill. “People thought it was really funny – I was sitting in the audience mortified. I thought ‘Oh my god, this is terrible, they don’t care about work!’ “, says Guerin. “But in the end, this laugh really supported me and I got used to it.”

With such a rich catalog of works, are there any that Guerin believes are at the heart of his legacy? “Sometimes you work on an idea and it might take a few works to really bring it to fruition, but there are a lot of them that I like,” she says. She mentions Split, an ingenious work that involved two dancers bifurcating the stage with masking tape, then giving up half the playing space, until they ended up with a square too small to do anything but stand up. And Conversation Piece, which recorded live improvised speech and looped it in increasingly bizarre and complex ways, exploring the connection between spoken and gestural.

“I’ve always had this interest, or confusion, about the relationship between language and movement,” she says. “I tried in many works to understand it, not always successfully. In Conversation Piece, I found a significant connection between these two things.

She rediscovered this interest for Flux Job, which mixes text and movement, this time in collaboration with the brilliant director Adena Jacobs. And having the dancers speak on stage – not their usual job – refers to Untrained and to the border between professionalism and competence.

It seems that no matter how far Guerin goes as a choreographer, his interests and ideas loop back on themselves, scraping through a sequence of movements to find the layers below. This discipline, the sense of inquiry she learned in ballet class all those years ago, has deepened over time. “I guess that’s what I’m looking for,” she says. “Something distilled and uncluttered – but really compelling.”