Lina was recently in Adelaide developing her new work, ‘A Delicate Situation’ for the Adelaide Festival Centre’s inSPACE program. Since graduating from the Victorian College of the Arts in 1999, Lina has maintained a professional career as a dancer, choreographer and teacher. She has been a member of Garry Stewart’s Australian Dance Theatre (ADT), performing in works such as Birdbrain, The Age of Unbeauty, Nothing, Plastic Space, Attention Deficit Therapy, Held and G. Her time at ADT saw her being nominated for a Green Room Award along with receiving the Emerging Artist Award by the Adelaide Critics Circle for her works in ADT’s in-house choreographic seasons of Ignition.
Photograph: Ben Flett
Dancers: Carol Wellman Kelly and Suhaili Micheline
We meet in the studio apartment she’s been renting close to Rundle St in Adelaide. Lina whips up a quick salad and tells me that that’s all she really eats lately because she’s been so focused on her work and we decide to have coffee rather than tea. When the coffee pot came to the boil Lina confessed that she’d forgotten to add the coffee even after she remembered telling herself not to do so. We laugh and small talk over lunch, catch up on a bit of gossip from old friends and discuss what its like being an independent South Australian artist these days.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background growing up in Melbourne and how dance became part of your life?
Basically I had no interest in dance until I was about 17. I had never danced previously. I was lost and not sure of what to do by the end of Year 12 and had the pressure of having to go to university, so I visited a careers advisor who told me to choose something I loved doing. So at the time all I knew was that I loved ‘dancing on the dance floor’ and my high school Rock Eisteddfod where I would not actually participate, but just watch rehearsals and teach myself the moves.
I then found myself looking at courses which had dance components in their programs like the Performing Arts Course at Deakin University in Geelong. Here you didn’t even have to audition! You just applied with a written letter. I also auditioned for the Dance Instruction and Management course at Boxhill College of TAFE, which focused on training students to become dance teachers. I was accepted into Deakin however, the day before enrollment I received a call informing me that I was also accepted into Boxhill. I chose Boxhill simply because it was strictly dance…. not that I knew what I was doing!
I don’t think I had intentions of being a dance teacher, I just loved dancing, and suddenly I was doing this thing called ‘technique’. Within a year I skyrocketed, enjoying the focus on dance. I realized in the second year I wanted to travel and after finishing up (passing exceedingly well), found myself in England. Initially I thought I’d go over to the UK to be a nanny and eventually teach dance, but instead, ended up in a place called Swindon and auditioned for a local Foundation in Dance Course run by the Thamesdown Dance Studios. This course was via Swindon College which had a focus on training students in dance foundation techniques with the intention to prepare them to audition for universities around the UK and Europe to further their dance training as performers.
I was accepted into this course and due to my previous experience, was allowed to move straight into the second year. This is where I first thought about dance as a profession, learning ballet and contemporary with a new perspective. During this time I was inspired by a dance company called RJC Dance Theatre, a Reggae Jazz Contemporary company based in Leeds, who would come into town and audition students to be part of their seasons in the local theatre. With comments such as “wow… you have to keep doing this, you can’t give up, you’re meant to be a dancer… natural talent’, members of this company were my initial inspirations to continue my training.
So after finishing the foundation course I was accepted into the London Contemporary Dance School and Laban Centre for Movement and Dance however, trying to get funds as a international student to pay the upfront fees was impossible. I knew I wanted to dance professionally so made the decision to come home and train at the equivalent training institutions in Australia. My arrival back home was after the cut off date for entry into the university system so I had to wait a year before the next auditions. I then travelled to teach and choreograph dance on a Performing Arts Summer camp in the USA. In 2007 I was accepted into the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) and after one year realised this particular course was not pushing me in the manner I needed, so I auditioned and transferred to the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) where I graduated at the end of 1999. This was a good decision for me as I received the kind of technique training I was seeking. I felt that the standard of the students around me was of a level that put me outside of my comfort zone and encouraged me to push my abilities further in order to keep up with them. My teachers at the time also encouraged me to achieve a top level.
I walked into the Australian Dance Theatre (ADT) after that.
You graduated from VCA in 1999? and then what happened?
A fairytale story, really….basically by the end of third year I set my sights on ADT and organised a secondment placement with the company for the following March. In the February I packed my old Country Road bag and headed to Adelaide with the intention of staying and ‘hanging about’. I found accommodation and a job in numerous bars and clubs, until my secondment. I managed the first week well and joined in on the beginnings of ‘Plastic Space’ which was Garry’s first work as the director of the company. One dancer had organised to leave and her role had already been replaced. At the beginning of the second week, the new performer began, however left the following day! Garry called me into his office, sat me down and basically offered me the contract. His words were, “You’re strong, look good and you have the right body type.” Of course I was on probation for a couple of months however stayed as a full-time member for the next five years, and then on and off for another two as a Guest Artist.
It got quite difficult as a guest artist because you’re not training in the work consistently. Even though the style and information is in your body, that kind of work takes time to build up the strength to be performing at your best. You really need a month to get back into it.
So what was it like to work with Garry Stewart and ADT?
Challenging is the only word I can use. Physically challenging of course because the work and the training regime that comes with it is so demanding. The one thing I have learnt and has always remained with me as performer is the ability to be disciplined with my training as a dancer. You cannot get away with not working hard at ADT and I find that this work ethic is instilled in my practice today, especially because I know what rewards come with working at your best… all the time.
I would like to have felt more versatile and be challenged by different movement vocabulary while in the company. I was very much the ‘gung ho chuck ya self around the studio’ kind of dancer. Of course I enjoyed this and it obviously was my strength, but by the end of my time there I was ready for something new. I enjoyed listening to Garry’s great ideas… they’re very visual and grand, but most of all, I really loved having the responsibility of contributing to the movement vocabulary of the company. I do believe this played a part in my own desire to choreograph and generate movement. I am proud to be one of the many dancers that helped spawn the reputation of ADT and it definitely remains one of the highlights of my career as a performer.
And since you left, what have you been doing?
After leaving ADT I continued to perform with other companies and artists in Australia. For instance I worked on Narelle Benjamin’s ‘Out of Water’ and ‘Glow’ for Chunky Move, which was a solo I had to learn in five days and perform! I worked with Lucy Guerin in Melbourne, on ‘Structure and Sadness’, Troy Mundy in Adelaide and Shona McCullen in New Zealand. I started venturing into creating my own choreography, and made graduation works at the Adelaide College of the Arts (AC ARTS) and VCA. I began the journey of applying for public funding to create large-scale work but then made the decision to investigate a career overseas. I was invited to work with the David Hughes Dance company in Scotland, which is a project-based company that commissions choreographers and directors to make work. This is where my affiliation with Al Seed began, a physical theatre director based in Glasgow who is renowned for creating brilliantly dark theatre. I’ve been involved in the creation of Al’s last two works and undoubtedly been inspired by his approach and his way of thinking about theatre.
Along with connecting and performing with other international choreographers, in 2008 I was invited to create a work at the Fontys Dance Academy in Tilburg, Since then I’ve created four works for the university which have all been presented at the ‘Its Festival’ (International Theatre School Festival, Amsterdam) and toured throughout regions of Holland. I continue my connections as a choreographer and guest teacher at the school.
In 2010 I had the opportunity to be involved in the Swiss International Coaching Project for Choreographers (SiWiC), a two and a half week intensive program where selected international choreographers are given an opportunity to be mentored by a respected and highly acclaimed choreographer from Europe. Participation in this project is by invitation only. SiWiC is set up in a very specific format. The invited International Artistic Director is obliged to select a theme for the entire two weeks, and based on the theme, allocates daily creative exploration tasks for the choreographers to complete. The focal point of the task altered each day and all choreographers were required to address the same task. The number of dancers allocated to the choreographer each day also varied, encouraging us to work with smaller or larger groups. Two hours are assigned for rehearsal in the morning with another two hour session in the afternoon. The day continued into the evening with choreographers demonstrating the result of their exploration, along with a formal discussion about the daily activity. It was a really invigorating experience.
Last year was spent working with Al Seed again for a work which was presented at the Edinburgh Festival. He remains a mentor for me and has no doubt inspired the direction of ‘A Delicate Situation’.
I’m curious to know if you are a South Australian or Victorian-based artist and does that play any relevance in your work?
In 2008 I made the decision to spend time working abroad. I felt limited here in Australia and wasn’t able to find what I needed in either Adelaide or Melbourne. My intention was to go for a long while, until my desire was fulfilled. I didn’t feel ready to contribute to the arts scene in South Australia while my hunger for more was still thriving. So again, I packed my bag and headed off to the next adventure.
Then the big tragedy happened for me when my ex-boyfriend fell terminally ill and I decided to come back to Adelaide to be there for him during that time. After his death I took time off and my impulse was to stay close to my family and friends at a time that I needed them the most. I needed space to get myself ready to go back overseas and pick up where I left off. Since then, I have only ever been back in Australia for a maximum of two months where each time I choose to see my family. Two months in Australia each year is not a lot.
So I spend time in Melbourne to see my family when I can and then come back to South Australia to continue laying seeds for my career. All my connections and links remain here and I love the freedom and the space that I have when I’m back. I made the decision that what I learn on my travels as an artist will always come back to South Australia, where I believe my roots as a choreographer lay. I appreciate the support I have from Arts SA, ADT and fellow independent artists and when the time is right and my free spirit decides to strop roaming, then South Australia will be where I lay my hat. For the moment, I need to roam in my life. This inspires me to create… to be who I want to be and it keeps me from becoming stale and that’s not what I want to be. I need to be moving but I also want a base to keep coming back to. It feels so rewarding to make my work here as South Australia is watching me grow as an artist and I understand the people here. The day will come when I settle down, but until then when I’m called, I will always follow. That is what keeps me alive, growing, learning and being human.
You fell in love in Adelaide with Dave. Can you talk about your experience of juggling a relationship and work. What’s different now if anything?
It’s an interesting question. In the beginning I was working full-time at ADT… 9 to 5, so you come home and you do the usual thing of making dinner, watch some TV and go to bed. I wasn’t writing applications etc, so juggling a relationship was not so difficult to do. It was what I call the ‘normal way of living – Monday to Friday’.
When I decided to leave ADT it became much more complicated, juggling more than one thing, a different timetable, different contracts in different cities etc and it became tough to give both the same amount of dedication and commitment. I guess the seams started to fall apart. My interest in choreography became stronger and transitioning from being a performer to choreographer started to direct my time to other things and places. It became difficult to make a decision between one or the other. So I got to a place where I needed to be selfish again, to be able to achieve the things I wanted and become the person I envisioned. I needed to shed a lot. This was tough and one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life. I admit it tore me apart yet I knew it was right.
In terms of now, and the juggling of relationships with career… well, I’m in a different place now and much more familiar with the way the industry works and accepting contracts and planning time. The things that were an issue before are not so much an issue now, but now there are new obstacles that make juggling career and love difficult. But I’ve been away and traveling from one place to another for awhile now living life out of a backpack, so I’ve not had to address this until recently. As I’ve grown older I’ve become more independent, so I’m finding that it’s harder to compromise. But I am in a relationship at the moment with someone very similar to me and it’s forcing me to look at how I can bring a relationship into my world and find time to give it what it needs, especially if I want it to last. We’re both so highly committed to our work and have contracts which we focus on separately. He’s in Glasgow and I’m here in Australia, both on other sides of the world. We’re just finding out how it all works as we go along.
What was it that inspired ‘A Delicate Situation’?
I think what inspired this piece was from working with Al Seed in Scotland and being involved in a work that was hilariously dark. His way of presenting work offered such interesting themes and ideas that I’ve not ever witnessed in contemporary dance. Directly experiencing how Al was able to encourage dancers to bring life to a narrative story in an abstract manner was something I really wanted to investigate, particularly because of my strong dance background. So I wanted to attempt this, so I searched for a story with dark, ugly, repulsive images and themes. My opportunity to do this was on a choreographic residency in Malaysia where I chose to present an evening-length work. I found the Malaysian myth of the Pontianak, known to be a female vampire or a ghost of a woman who has died in childbirth, and returns to haunt and torture victims. It is a very popular belief across Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore with varying components that make up the story, but in general it has such dark and ugly themes.
The work has also been inspired by my recent experience of watching death and disease take life away from someone so rapidly and aggressively. I began to research humanities, fears attached to death and dying and the personifications of death that have existed over time. These personifications are usually something that haunts most humans. I became interested in finding a way to put onstage how this figure can aggressively tear people’s lives apart. Death almost has a life of its own. I witnessed this process so closely that it became another major inspiration for this work.
I could soon see parallels to the Malaysian myth and my personal experience. The ugliness, birth, death, something that infects you like disease, that tortures you, and controls you and then the way we choose to deal with it is a story on its own.
Do you have any reservations about making work that has been inspired by your personal journey of death and dying? What have you learnt along this path?
Sometimes I think I’m too honest. Maybe I should keep it all to myself and not let anyone know where this work comes from. I feel a bit exposed, but I feel so strongly about putting this experience out onto the stage. The work is what it is because of my experience. To an extent this work has become a part of my grieving process and I think that’s why it’s taken me a while to process it, and find it’s right journey.
Dave once said, “Lina…why do you always put our life on stage?” I remember replying with two things. 1) because it means that it is real, honest and comes from the heart. I can’t make it up as I go along, and 2) because it’s a way of documenting my life. I record everything. I have loads of books full of great text messages, emails, letters, picture, cards, anything that makes me remember people, times, experiences, emotions. It’s also my way of processing the world and where I sit in it. It’s my way of expressing who and what I am I guess.
There is an interesting line up of people you’re collaborating with on this new work. How did they all come together?
There are international artists that have been involved in this work from the beginning. Basically in 2008 I received an Asialink Performing Arts residency. I chose to spend time at Rimbun Dahan, Malaysia, where I gave myself the mission to create a full-length work. With the help of Rimbun Dahan, I auditioned four Malaysian performers and decided on three female and one male. One of these performers was Suhaili Micheline. This is where I created the first version of ‘A Delicate Situation’. Here I worked with Hardesh Singh as the original Sound Designer.
Previously I’d been performing in a project in Scotland, where Eve Lambert was the Costume Designer. I was amazed by her work and invited her to join me in Malaysia to take on the role of designing the costumes. With the help of the Scottish Arts Council, Eve received funding to join me on the project. In 2009 I undertook a self-funded development of ‘A Delicate Situation’ in Adelaide. I was wanting to look at different aspects of the work, and invited Carol Wellman Kelly to join me in my new exploration. Eve offered to come over to Australia to continue our collaboration on the work as we both have a shared vision for its end result. This was a brilliant period, with no pressure, no expectations and just pure investigation.
The next step seemed obvious; to bring Suhaili, Hardesh, Eve, Carol and myself together and intertwine all that had been explored into one. Ben Flett was recommended to me and has been incorporated into the mix of such amazingly talented artists.
Do you think life imitates art or art imitates life?
As Arni de Franco says, ‘Art may imitate life but life imitates TV’.
Have you discovered how to balance work life with personal life or does it all just mesh into one?
It totally just all meshes into one big ball of sloshy soup.
What plans do you have for the future?
None. The future is not here yet. All I know is what is happening right now. My experience is that anything and everything can change in any moment and it can be totally out of your control…. So I think, why plan? Just be and do what is right for now. (I’ll probably eat my words later!!!)
If you could turn the clock back and start all over again, what would you do differently?
Honestly… become a graphic designer