Dance & Theatre – It takes two to tango…

Elise May writes about the contemporary dance genre known as ‘Dance Theatre’, which she describes as a kind of liaison between dance movement and theatrical ideas. She also shares her insight about the challenges of playing the fiery, passionate character of Carmen in Expressions Dance Company’s Carmen Sweet.

‘Dance’ and ‘Theatre’. We can identify with these two terms separately, but what does it mean when we put the two words together? Historically, the first signs of the two words used together emerged with the German term “Tanztheater” translated as ‘Dance Theatre’ in the 1920s. As modern dance was breaking away from its ballet tradition and as drama too was departing from its naturalist history, it seemed unavoidable that these two forms might eventually crossover and begin to share some of the same territory. At the same time, dance seemed to be moving towards naturalism with the use of everyday movement and gesture, whilst drama was looking for ways to become more abstract and more physical. Inevitably a hybrid form emerged when both dance and drama adopted elements of the other, breaking down the barriers and allowing for a new form to emerge. (2)

The beginnings of dance theatre emerged in the work of a series of dance artists including Rudolf Laban, Mary Wigman, Kurt Jooss and later, Pina Bausch. Laban was the first to make a clear distinction between what he called ‘movement choir’ and dance theatre. Rather than a dance form in which anyone could participate, he insisted that ‘dance theatre’ was and art from presented by professionally trained dancers. His student Mary Wigman called her dance art “dance absolute” and choreographed many works revealing a central issue: man and his fate. Kurt Jooss, another of Laban’s students wrote an article called “The Language of the Dance Theatre.” In this article he wrote:

“A work of Art in order to have meaning needs a concrete subject… The choreographer conceives the theme of the dance work and he translates and structures it into harmoniously composed rhythmic movement, into dance.”

Pina Bausch, a choreographer well known for prolific dance theatre work in the twentieth century, was influenced by this lineage of artists as well as American Modern Dance and German Expressionist Dance (Ausdrunkstanz). She became the director of her company ‘Tanztheater Wuppertal’ in 1973. Her unique dance theatre was based on realism. (2)

“Pina Bausch’s dance theatre is largely autobiographical; its strength is in the intensity of the experience in its expression… Bausch intrudes uncompromisingly into the private sphere and observes the seemingly unimportant with clinical eyes. She brings out people’s motivations.” What emerged in Bausch’s work has been referred to as a ‘theatre of images’, This form of theatre is not so much concerned with telling stories, but rather with conveying feelings using visual, vocal and physically embodied images. (2)

We cannot discuss the development of dance theatre without in turn mentioning the work of Loyd Newson and his company ‘DV8 Physical Theatre Company’. ‘Physical Theatre’ is another term, which possibly only came to public attention around 1986 when DV8 was founded, but which has since been used by a younger breed of theatre and dance artists to capture a sense of the ‘exciting’, ‘risky’ and ‘cutting edge’ when promoting their work to possible new audiences. The term ‘physical theatre’ has recently been synonymously interchanged with ‘dance theatre’, which has blurred our understandings of the subtle differences. Loyd Newson was a practising psychologist before he became a dancer and his works essentially speak of human emotions and feelings.(1) He has spoken of his work as: ‘breaking down the barriers between dance, theatre and personal politics’ and of ‘taking risks, aesthetically and physically’. (3)

In Australia, the physical in theatre has been present since the 1980’s with a rich landscape of leading companies and choreographers employing elements of dance theatre in their work. Such artists as Meryl Tankard, Leigh Warren, Graeme Murphy, Gideon Obarzanek, Gary Stewart, Tanja Liedtke and Expressions Dance Company’s founding artistic director Maggie Sietsma, to name only a few, have shaped a uniquely Australian aesthetic and physical embodiment of theatrical ideas and concepts, each in their own unique ways.

Natalie Weir, current Artistic Director of Expressions Dance Company and creator of Carmen Sweet was initially careful not to ‘label’ her work as dance theatre, however Natalie is known internationally for her highly physical partner work, her organic movement style and her touching insight into human nature. As Artistic Director of EDC, Natalie continues to create work that balances artistic risk with accessibility and that speaks of humanity.

Natalie Weir's Carmen Sweet. Pictured EDC's Elise May. Image by Dylan Evans

Although Natalie’s body of work displays diversity from strongly theatrical to quite abstract, her upcoming production of Carmen Sweet, is very much informed by the traditional notion of dance theatre. What is very unique about this production is that Weir’s femme fatale is brought to life by three dancers playing Carmen’s different states of mind and alter egos. “I thought it would be interesting to see how the story unravels when you have three women take on different aspects of the Carmen persona. The Carmen story has all the elements for great dance; passion, love, revenge, jealously, betrayal, and even a touch of murder”.

In Natalie’s work, I play one of the three aspects of Carmen. I find the role challenging because as a performer, you need to identify the desires and motivations of the ‘character’ in order to convey the ideas to the audience. I believe in the ability for dance to tell stories, and it is in the performing of Natalie’s work, in particular where there is a strong narrative driving the movement and performance, that I feel most challenged and fulfilled. For me, the body is a tool to communicate and it’s primary expression of being is what dance and theatre are all about.



1 Martha Bresmer and Lorna Sanders Fifty Contemporary Choreographers Taylor and Francis, 2011, p. 298
2 Royd Climenhaga, Pina Bausch Sourcebook: The Making Of Tanztheater, Taylor and Francis, 2012, p. 1-­‐47,
3 Simon Murray and John Keefe Physical Theatres: A Critical Introduction Taylor and Francis, London, 2007, p. 14

Natalie Weir’s Carmen Sweet. Pictured EDC’s Elise May, Samantha Mitchell and Riannon McLean. Image by Dylan Evans

The Emerging Choreographer – How to Kick-start your Chorographic Career

Australia’s dance industry boasts a number of very talented choreographers whose international reputation rate highly amongst the best dance makers in the world. The choreographer’s passion to communicate ideas and stories, coupled with the desire to use movement as a medium of expression drives many to create meaningful and relevant work for contemporary audiences. So what does it take to be a choreographer? And how can developing your interest in choreography help you to diversify your dance practice and contribute to an emerging culture of brave new dance work?

So how does a young dancer know if they have a hidden choreographic talent? Some of the following questions may help to identify whether or not you have an interest or inclination towards choreography:

  • Firstly, do you have something to say? In other words, do you have ideas that you would like to express or communicate in ways other than the written word, or other forms of traditional communication?
  • Do you visualise or imagine movement or theatrical concepts? For some choreographers, the inspiration to create choreographic work often originates from a single imagined idea or concept.
  • Do you enjoy creating original movement or experimenting with new ways of putting movement together?

If you have answered yes to at least two of these questions, chances are you probably have some of the creative attributes of a choreographer. Developing your interest in choreography is something that you may like to consider as an addition to your creative skills-set as a dance artist.

Just having an interest in choreography however may not be enough to kick-start a choreographic career. Finding opportunities to experiment with your ideas is really important. Like any art form, we are not immediately expected to be masters of our craft. Developing your choreographic skills may take many years of play and experimentation. So if you are interested in choreography, the best place to start is in the classroom or rehearsal studio with your friends and peers in a supportive environment. If you know of other dancers who are interested in experimentation you may find a way of working together as a group where each person has an opportunity to experiment with some choreographic ideas on the rest of the group of dancers.

In these early stages of experimentation as an emerging choreographer, it is best to start with small-scale tests or exercises just honing in on single elements or concepts. For example, going back to basics and creating just a simple movement phrase that includes movements with a range of levels, directions and shapes is a great place to start. Creating a phrase (like a movement ‘sentence’) that encapsulates a simple but clear intention is a really important skill in choreography, so spending time on this aspect is really beneficial.  Once you have become comfortable creating simple phrases, experiment with expanding these by introducing new movement concepts such as repetition, timing, spatial orientation and dynamics.

Also, experimenting with ways to work with your dancers in the choreographic process is important. Setting small tasks where the dancers generate their own movement to contribute to the phrase is a great way to approach the choreographic process in a collaborative way, this can also generate some very interesting results that enhance and enrich the movement language that you create together in the studio. There are many ways to establish a working practice with your dancers that can set up very specific dancer-choreographer relationships and rehearsal processes. It is worth experimenting with different approaches and being open to new possibilities.

Once you are at a stage where you are ready to share these small experiments with an informal audience you may need to find opportunities to test out your first creative works in front of small audiences. This is an important step in gaining the necessary experience and feedback that will be very useful in further developing your work as a choreographer.  Getting feedback on your work might be as simple as inviting your peers into the rehearsal studio or asking other choreographers or people from outside the dance field who’s opinion you respect to watch your work. Try to think about whom you will invite. Share your work with people who you think might give you some honest constructive criticism that could help you look at your work from an outside perspective and give you insight as to how others relate to your ideas. In a low-pressure environment such as a rehearsal or informal performance, your audience will perhaps feel more comfortable talking about what they have experienced. It may be a good idea to have some questions ready to ask your audience. For example – Did they understand a particular aspect or idea that you were trying to convey in the work? Or what was their immediate response to the piece? Questions like this might help them to be specific and articulate their response to your work. There are opportunities available to take part in this kind of program in most Australian states. There are also funded programs such as residencies or assisted creative development platforms that offer choreographic opportunities to emerging choreographers. Becoming a member of The Australian Dance Council (Ausdance) in your state will enable you to find out about and access such opportunities.

Having invested time, energy and commitment into your choreographic development, you may then take the plunge into applying for professional choreographic commissions or writing your own grant applications to further your professional development or create an independent dance work. Thinking ‘outside the box’ and considering alternative performance venues or site-specific spaces to present your work may expand your practice outside the traditional theatre setting. Collaborating with other artists and practitioners from other disciplines will also increase your networks and provide new audiences for your work. Finding a mentor (a choreographer whom you look up to or whose work you admire), can be an extremely useful and rewarding experience for emerging choreographers. The mentor figure will be able to offer all sorts of practical advice for you as you begin to generate your own work.

In an increasingly competitive industry, it is important to have a diverse set of skills in order to ensure that you can find, make and create opportunities to work in your field. Dance, like many of the performing arts is experiencing a shift of creative ideals, where traditional notions of theatre are being put to the test through intense experimentation and questioning. In this climate a new wave of young Australian choreographers are emerging to claim this new space for highly innovative and interesting new work. Whether you are already a choreographer-in-the-making or yet to experiment in the world of choreography, there is a calling for your unique choreographic voice in the future of Australian dance.

Elise’s article: ‘Dance Smarts’ How To Develop A Dance Intelligence

Elise May 'Dance Smarts' Article

Learning dance requires a very unique skill set, a very specific and unique talent. But have we stopped to think about the nature and source of this body intelligence? What cognitive functions and processes are we using to develop our knowledge base? How can we encourage ourselves to become more connected to our deep reservoirs of intuition and creativity? And is it possible to train our brain in order to become a better dancer?

The first thing to consider is that a person’s intelligence is complex. There are many psychologists who no longer subscribe to the idea that a person’s intelligence can be summed up by the results of an IQ test. Howard Gardner’s theory of ‘multiple intelligences’ (1983, 1993) suggests that within any person there may exist different types of intelligence, he believes that: ‘Human beings are organisms who possess a basic set of intelligences’ and that each person possesses a unique combination of the following seven types: Linguistic intelligence, Logical-mathematical intelligence, Musical intelligence, Bodily-Kinesthetic intelligence, Spatial intelligence, Interpersonal intelligence and Intrapersonal intelligence. (Smith, 2002, 2008)

According to this framework of multiple intelligences, it can safely be assumed that dancers (in particular) show high levels of Kinesthetic, Spatial and Musical intelligence. ‘Kinesthetic intelligence’ is the ability for using one’s body (as a whole or in part) to solve problems. It is also involves the application of one’s mental abilities to reproduce bodily movements with skill and coordination. ‘Spatial intelligence’ is one’s ability to recognize spatial patterns, visualise objects and solve spatial problems, whilst ‘Musical intelligence’ is the ability to recognize musical patterns and compose or reproduce musical elements such as pitch, tone, and rhythm. (Smith, 2002, 2008). On a daily basis, dancers manipulate their body movement with acute sensitivity to both spatial and musical elements and in effect these elements feel like ‘second nature’. Sometimes as dancers these perspectives become so integral to our mental processes that they become part of the way we think and perceive the world around us.

Aside from the obvious talents and skills that dancers possess, ‘Interpersonal’ and ‘Intrapersonal’ intelligences are likely to be at work within successful dancers. ‘Interpersonal intelligence’ is associated with the ability to work effectively with others and understand the motivations and desires of others. ‘Intrapersonal intelligence’ involves the ability to understand oneself, and to recognise one’s emotions and motivations. (Smith, 2002, 2008). In this sense intelligence can be thought of as a kind of awareness. In cognitive therapy, it is known that becoming aware of a problematic behaviour or pattern is the most important step in overcoming it. As dancers this can be applied to our daily practice. If we are not able to observe our own habits and gain an awareness of ourselves how can we expect to grow and improve?

The intelligent dancer for example, will not rely solely on corrections from the teacher as a source of motivation. As dancers we learn to develop an inner dialogue, a kind of self-analysis or conversation with our body that is informative and provides feedback for ourselves. This feedback expands our awareness of why and how we perform actions, make decisions and interact with other dancers. It is important that we become self-aware of our strengths, weaknesses, body’s limitations, movement preferences, attitudes and even our emotions. Becoming aware of these aspects of ourselves as dancers will not only give us the ability to be self-critical, (in the positive sense of the word), by helping us to make improvements, but it will also open us up to the larger questions like; Why do I dance? and Who am I as a dancer?

The good news is that recent research in brain science indicates that your brain is changing all the time. Whilst we once believed that you we were stuck with the genetic potential that you were given at birth, scientists now believe that your brain is also shaped by your experiences and behaviours throughout our lifetime and it is possible to ‘train’ your brain into a healthier and ‘smarter’ existence. (Arden, 2010 p. 1) For dancers this news is encouraging. This means that we can actively participate in becoming better dancers by allowing our brains to absorb dance knowledge in all its facets, essentially thinking ourselves into becoming better performers and dance makers.  Becoming great dancer and meeting your full potential may not a pre-determined equation. The sky is the limit and all you need to do is put ‘mind over matter’.

Written by Elise May

Smith, Mark K. (2002, 2008) ‘Howard Gardner and multiple intelligences’, the encyclopedia of informal education,

Arden, John B. (2010) ‘Rewire Your Brain’, Think your way to a better life, John Wiley and Sons, New Yersey.

Grove, R. Stevens, C. and McKechnie S. (2005) Thinking in Four Dimentions’, Creativity and Cognition in Contemporary Dance, Melbourne Univesity Press, Melbourne.

This article was written for Dancehub digital dance magazine. To visit Dancehub Australia, click here

Elise’s article: To Dance or Not to Dance, That is the Question – Choosing a Career In Dance

Elise May Dancehub Article

[nggallery id=8]


When it comes to deciding whether or not to pursue a career in dance there are a lot of considerations. For many, the idea of not continuing dance beyond the immediately conceivable future is a daunting thought. The experience of learning dance as a child and through our teenage years results in dance becoming more than a fun past- time, it quickly becomes a passion and hugely rewarding activity – something that defines us. Naturally, to imagine a life without dance then becomes a very strange prospect. So after years of dance training and as graduation from high school looms closer, many are faced with the decision of choosing a career. For many this can signify a turning point into another profession. For others a path towards a life as a professional dancer may unfold.

So what is the next step? How does one make the jump from a dance enthusiast to dance professional? The first step is further training. It may be hard for some to contemplate the idea of more training, especially if they have already completed many years of dance tuition from a young age, usually from a private dance studio or dance centre. What a tertiary degree or nationally accredited course however can provide is a more focused, refined, full-time study program tailored towards the specific needs of your particular dance genre or area of interest. The intensity of these programs is equivalent to the hours of training and performance that one would experience as a professional dancer. A program of this kind can usually take anywhere from twelve months to three years to complete and can be seen as a kind of ‘finishing off’ that prepares the dancer for employment. Like many other professions, a degree or certificate is desirable for most employers within the dance industry. Queensland University of Technology, Victorian College of Arts and the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts are among some of the most notable tertiary dance programs in Australia. There are also countless nationally accredited dance courses across the country, which offer specialised tuition. Researching courses thoroughly and finding the right course for you is really important, so get online early, and start collecting as much information as you can about each course in order to make an informed decision about where to study. Entry is usually by audition, so be sure to check out the audition dates and set aside plenty of time to prepare.

There is a lot of variation within the world of dance, and so it will be important to choose a specific genre to which you are well suited. Following your passion is important, as you will always feel most rewarded by a career that you are most interested, engaged and passionate about. It could also be wise to consider your strengths and weaknesses in order find a balance between finding something to which you are naturally inclined, but that you also feel challenged and stimulated. Other influencing factors that may play their part in choosing a specific career path within dance could be; personality, training or experience (with that style of dance), body height, size and shape, resilience (both mentally and physically) and your personal attitude. It is a very personal choice and these influences can change over time, so its good to be open to the shifts that occur as we engage with new styles and are exposed to new experiences over the course of our training.

There are certainly some sobering realities that one should be aware of when entering the dance industry. Firstly,despite conditions having improved vastly over the last decade, it is important to know that dancers and performers earn very little money in comparison to other industries. As with many of the entertainment industry professions, it is often hard to find full-time work as it is a highly competitive industry and not particularly well funded. If pursuing an independent or freelance career as a dancer, organising a consistent flow of employment can also be challenging. As we know, training is ongoing throughout a dancer’s career and it can be difficult and expensive to keep the body at an optimum level of training in between performance periods. Dancers need to be diligent in avoiding injuries by employing preventative measures and treatment for minor imbalances or injuries before they become problematic. The stress that is placed on the body can be quite extreme and as a result the dance career is usually a short-lived one, with most dancers retiring from performance in their mid-to late thirties, or transitioning into a less physical role such as teaching or choreography.

If you are not sure about pursuing a career in dance, there are many other professions in which dancers creativity, self-discipline and intuitive understanding of the body are an advantage. People with dance knowledge often make excellent therapists or human movement professionals because of their physical and functional understanding of the body and are also well suited to other creative fields such as design, graphic design, film and television and other performing arts because of their spatial, visual and kinaesthetic knowledge. Many dancers go on to find a second career after dance in an allied or similar area of interest, however some choose to re-train in something completely different. If a career in dance is not your cup of tea, then expanding your interests into other areas may help you to diversify and find your own niche career path.

The good thing is, even if you have studied dance since before you can remember, those skills that you have learned will never go to waste. They are valuable, life-long skills that can be applied to whatever career you choose. Even though one may not pursue dance as their ‘bread-and-butter’ source of income, it doesn’t mean that it cannot play a role in your life. There is a saying; “Once a dancer, forever a dancer” and this is certainly true as it is hard to escape completely whether it is a part-time pursuit, an after-hours past time or just a fun thing to do socially with friends. Whether dance is going to be your job, or whether it is something you will always enjoy as a physical outlet, it is a challenging and rewarding pursuit. If you are equipped with knowledge when it comes to making your decision about your career, then it should make the transition easier. As one who has chosen a career in dance I can say that despite it’s highs and lows it is a most rewarding, exciting and challenging career. I find myself forgetting that it is a job and that is the true mark of something that you enjoy. It is different for everyone. Half the challenge is finding that
special something that makes you happy day after day.

This article was written for Dancehub digital dance magazine. To visit Dancehub Australia, click here

Review: ‘Where The Heart Is’

EDC Elise May & David Williams in 'Where The Heart Is' by Natalie Weir

Aussie Theatre
Review by Bobbi-Lea Dionysius
Expressions Dance Company ‘Where The Heart Is’ 2010
15 August 2012

“The cast members each embodied their characters of the young man’s relatives and past loves, with a highlight being the grand-mother played by Elise May, who wonderfully portrayed a spirited yet elderly woman frustrated by the frailty of her failing body”. Bobbi-Lea Dionysius

Click Here to Read Full Article