Gabriel Comerford and I recently spent six weeks living and working together in regional Queensland. Gabe is a contemporary dancer, an amazing artist and a joy to collaborate with. He inspired our students so much and kept me (relatively) sane. Towards the end of this project, we recorded this conversation whilst driving at 100kms an hour somewhere between Toowoomba and Dalby. This follows on from many conversations we had about the state of criticism in Brisbane. He’s not a fan.
Fleur: As someone who lives in a city that is almost devoid of arts commentary, how do you think this affects you?
Gabriel: The fact that our reviews that are so emotion-based and lack commentary means that there’s no conversation happening between artists and audiences that goes any deeper than “did you like it? Yes or no.” Good commentary gives audiences perspective and lets them connect with artists. They feel like they can be open about their reactions to and interpretations of the work. They realise “oh, it’s okay that this is how I felt about it” and that goes beyond “I didn’t like it”.
Fleur: I think as artists it puts us on such a back foot to be waiting for the reviews with this feeling of defensiveness. If all you’re getting are those accusatory why-did-you-put-me-through-that responses, it is hard to keep valuing that response time and time again. They’re not giving you the respect you want to be giving them.
Gabriel: I can really only speak for Brisbane. I think that defensiveness has become so ingrained. There’s a great deal of people who say that they want that constructive criticism but, when they get it, their reactions are not those of people who are seeking a dialogue about their work.
I want people to tell me that they love or hate it and then why. That doesn’t mean I’m going to change it but we need to be able to understand why an audience member reacts a particular way… Dramaturgically, we can only see a certain amount of our work because we’re so entwined in it.
Fleur: When you value your audience’s opinions, they’ll discover opinions they didn’t know they had. I find this all the time with the audience conversations. At the start they’ll be a couple of quite vocal people and a someone going “I don’t know what I thought. Don’t ask me.”
Gabriel: “I didn’t think anything!”
Fleur: Exactly! And as it goes on most realise how many opinions they have. Even if they don’t come to the theatre often they know how something made them feel. And you don’t just have to respond to theatre or art within the context of other theatre or art experiences. You can respond within the context of life because you have lived. Sometimes that’s all you need.
It’s also difficult at Q&As mind you because… well we’ve all been in the audience when someone has asked a question that’s not a question. That eye rolling moment of “oh you’re just – ”
Gabriel: “You’re just telling us your opinion.”
Fleur: Yeah! But that’s because the framework is such that we say, “you will sit there and ask us, the undisputed experts on our own art, questions. We have the answers and you have the questions.” It is actually a very different thing to create a forum where we say, “don’t even pretend that’s a question! Put that out there as a statement! Own that!”
Do you think about stepping up to perform that job of critical commentator yourself?
Gabriel: Yeah, it is definitely something that I’ve started thinking about and talking to people about; how I feel and react to the way art is talked about in Brisbane, particularly in the dance world. There are really only two dance reviewers in Brisbane that get published. Often I don’t agree with their views. Perhaps they write great reviews but they can be so out of touch with contemporary dance and what’s happening with the independent work being made around Australia. I don’t know if it’s a generational gap thing or something that comes from our isolation in Brisbane. I’ve definitely started talking to my peers and saying, “this is something we need to take ownership of.”
In the last two weeks I’ve seen two or three theatre shows, some circus and some dance. Obviously I have opinions about everything I see and I have experience and exposure to all three of those genres but I don’t know that I’m situated to review or critically respond.
Fleur: Fuck that. Do it.
Well I say, “fuck that” and “do it” but when a reviewer is coming at it with a very conservative expectations born of ballet, like you mentioned, they can end up with a defensiveness when they talk about contemporary forms. “I didn’t get this! Why didn’t you make my kind of work?” I wish they would declare their bias. Don’t go in expecting one art form to be like another.
But I also, I do believe whole-heartedly that you don’t have to have done a theatre degree and post-grad to be able to respond to theatre.
So moving away from critical responses… Why dance?
Gabriel: Biggest question in the world. For me.
Fleur: Good. It should be. Otherwise why are you doing it.
Gabriel: I think all of the reasons and none of the reasons.
The dance that I am passionate about is guttural and emotive and incredibly raw. I appreciate beautifully crafted, technical dance but it’s not what moves me. I want dance that feels human. It doesn’t feel like these crafted, chiseled bodies: it feels like the imperfection of humanity. You put that onstage and give the audience the power to connect to that humanity and see something of themselves onstage. The majority of your audience see and understand beauty but they don’t relate to those lithe bodies with legs flying everywhere. But they relate to this guttural, human clashing of bodies and running and jumping and power.
Fleur: What it is to have a body.
Gabriel: Yeah. It’s that ability to express things that can’t be put into words. There are a thousand adjectives to describe an emotion but sometimes not one of them can express it the way that a simple movement or gesture or moment of connection with another human being can.
Fleur: What do you think that Australian dance needs more of?
Gabriel: Money would be nice.
Fleur: What do you not see happening?
Gabriel: What I don’t see is the work that I love. So many of the European companies like Ultima Vez and Ballet C de la B make these big, unpolished productions. They are amazing and the dancers are amazing but they don’t need to be a clean-cut show. There’s ugliness. I think there’s a lot of perfection and beauty put on stage in Australia at the moment. I don’t know where that comes from. I think it’s Australia trying to find its own voice, which is great. I don’t want us to be trying to copy the great European companies or feeling that we have to mimic but –
Fleur: But Australia as a culture is also not this refined, pretty, abstract thing. It can be all of those things (because we are fucking complex) but it is also raw and rough and comic. This isn’t getting onto our stages?
Gabriel: Not the mainstages, anyway. There’s this sense of making dance for the upper-echelon crowds, who perhaps are the clean-cut and the refined, and not for the general public: not for the masses. I guess what I want to see is stuff that reflects that Australian culture a little more organically. I think there are choreographers who are doing that stuff in Australia. I think Antony Hamilton’s work is not necessarily the guttural thing but it has a connection to its people – its audience. You leave going “that was about me!”
I think there’s great work being made in Brisbane and there’s an incredible bunch of artists who believe in great work. At the moment our lack of infrastructure makes it so hard to make the work we want to make and need to make. Lizzie and Zaimon Vilmanis at Prying Eye Dance Company just did their first show as independents. They’ve been building it over about four or five years. It was fantastic. It had that sense of human-ness and ugliness balanced with some beauty. I think we need more work like that in Brisbane.
I think there’s a growing audience that loves the break in narrative and not having had their hand held through a story and through a show. The Danger Ensemble’s Caligula was a really good example of that because it really divided audiences. Some absolutely loved the lack of narrative and the lack of clear progression through the work and some hated it for the same reasons: “Where’s my story? I didn’t understand what was going on!” People will find their niche and that will dictate what they go and see but I think there is a big mix in Brisbane as far as work that crosses the dance and theatre line – the music line. Multi-disciplined work. But what Brisbane needs is just to make more work.
Fleur: I’m going to stop this because I literally need to eat some chips.
Gabriel: Yeah, you haven’t eaten yet!
Fleur: No, I haven’t.
Gabriel: I see you speed camera. So discreet.
Gabriel Comerford is part of MakeShift Dance Collective.