Kristina Chan

Kristina Chan

Kristina is one of Australia’s most well known and celebrated dancers of the past decade. She has been awarded two Australian Dance Awards for ‘Outstanding performance by a Female Dancer’ for both of Tanja Liedtke’s full length works: 2006 for Twelfth Floor and 2008 for construct and a Helpmann Award for ‘Best Female Dancer in a dance or physical theatre production’ for In Glass. Highly in demand since leaving Garry Stewart’s Australian Dance Theatre, she’s worked with numerous Australian companies, choreographers and directors including: Chunky Move; Sydney Theatre Company; Theatre of Image; West Australian Opera; Opera Queensland; State Opera South Australia; Tasdance; Stalker Theatre Company; Michelle Mahrer; Stephanie Lake; Bernadette Walong; Tanja Liedtke; and Deborah Hay. Kristina has been working with Narelle Benjamin since 2003 and has performed in her works Insideout, Out of Water and In Glass.

I’ve known Kristina since she joined the Australian Dance Theatre when I was a first year student at the Centre for the Performing Arts. She and I have kept in contact and crossed paths on a number of occasions ever since but I’ve spent the past three months in Adelaide getting to know her more. We chatted in my garden one Spring afternoon and I’ve discovered there’s a whole lot more to her than meets the eye.

You didn’t take the popular route of a tertiary dance education at any of Australia’s institutions like the VCA, WAAPA, QUT or AC Arts. Can you tell me a little bit about your background growing up in Sydney and how dance became part of your life?

Well I started ballet classes at the age of 3, Mum asked me if I wanted to do ballet and I said yes. Then at the age of 14, I became obsessed with classical ballet and I wanted to pursue a career in dance so I enrolled in a full-time ballet course in Sydney. I was quite keen and young but I realized you needed to be young in this country to be a dancer so I did correspondence high school and kept dancing which was hard work to say the least. During that time I discovered contemporary dance and realised it was more suited to my body and luckily I found it much more interesting and engaging than classical.

Once I completed training I went overseas to Europe to audition for dance companies. i was 18, too young and at most auditions, they told me to come back in a few years. It was a different mentality than I knew and they were mostly looking for people with more life experience. After a few months of travelling and auditioning in Europe I actually took a break from dance and got a job waitressing in London. I questioned whether I really wanted to dance and thought “am I doing this coz it’s all I know?” I think I grew up quite a bit during this time and was probably exactly what I needed. After living in London for about 8 months I decided to come back to Australia, gather myself and get back to my roots and think about what I wanted to do with my life. I really did want to dance and going home seemed the right thing to do at that time.

I had only really just got home when the Australian Dance Theatre (ADT) held a national audition and I went along just to do class because I hadn’t danced for about a year and wasn’t expecting to get the job at all. ADT were recruiting ten new dancers for the interim period between the time Meryl Tankard left and Garry Stewart arrived (Bill Pengelly was the director for this year). It was the beginning of a new era at ADT. To my huge surprise I got the job amongst 9 others that ranged between established artists to new young ones – Tanja Liedtke, Antony Hamilton and I were at the beginning of our careers.

When you joined ADT in the interim year (1999) between Meryl Tankard and Gary Stewart’s directorship, you embarked on a life-changing career as a professional dancer. What was that like and what were some of the highlights that followed when Gary finally took over from Bill Pengelly?

It was really challenging… It was my first professional dancing job and I was the youngest in the company. It was quite daunting. Compared to the other young ones who had had tertiary training, I was really inexperienced. I was extremely challenged in choreographing task work and by anything outside of the straight classical training. It was quite an intimidating time for me. It was really hard actually…I didn’t have much confidence back then so I constantly felt as though I didn’t really deserve to be there because everyone else had so much more experience.

When Garry arrived all of those insecurities were heightened for me because the work was so much more challenging. Garry wasn’t going to employ me for the next contract but I still had three months left under his direction. During this time we made and performed Birdbrain for the Adelaide Festival 2000. I slogged it out knowing that my contract was coming to an end but my hard work and persistence must have made a difference because at the completion of those three months Gary had changed his mind about me and asked me to stay.

I think I just took on the work for myself because I knew I only had 3 months left and even though I knew my contact was coming to an end I wanted to make the most of my time there. I was surprised but I think I realised that maybe working for myself and trying to learn just for myself and not anyone else was the biggest achievement, which is probably why I gained so much and developed as a young dancer because I shifted my reasons for being there. I had nothing else to lose. So I guess I learnt from that experience.

Looking back, what was it that initially prepared you for a career that has since seen you go on to win several awards for your work as a dancer?

Well probably good training to start with. Shane Carroll and Jane Beckett were two of my teachers at my full-time training course. All my other teachers were also fantastic and taught great technique but I learnt something else from these two people. They showed me that dancing is much more than good technique and execution of choreography, it is a self expression. It’s about going beyond your body, and the more I dance the more I realise that while we all strive for perfection it is actually the imperfections that make us who we are. You are a person before you are a dancer and I find it much more engaging to approach choreography knowing this.

Who would you say was your main influence in your career? Is it any one person or a sum of many?

Definitely a sum of many…Shane Carroll, Jane Beckett, Tanja Liedke, Narrelle Benjamin, and many colleagues that I’ve danced with…they’re all constantly inspiring me. Films, visual art, food and nature also inspires me.

You met Tanja Leidke when you first joined ADT who you later became very close to, both personally and professionally. Can you tell me what she was like as a friend and a choreographer and how her sudden death in Sydney in 2008 impacted on your life?

She was crazy…(laughing)…she was a lot of fun to hang out with. We toured around the world with ADT for a number of years, I guess that’s why we became so close. She was a great friend and we were both very supportive of one another. Her personality was very organised and mature and then she had this wild streak about her which always surprised me because it would only come out every now and then. I guess you become close to someone when you work with them for so long…and this can sometimes divide the group. That level of intimacy means you get to know each other really well and Tanja and I really clicked.

She really knew how to switch on the professional mode, between work and play she really became a different person. There was still mutual respect there and even though we were very close friends you know your boundaries and our roles in the rehearsal room, so we could just get on with work and make it happen. She always had high expectations and was quite demanding in the studio. She always wanted more. She was always exploring the work and never let anything rest until it was fully investigated. If there were any ideas brought up in conversation she would want to see them physically and see if they would work. You would have to perform an idea in the studio and make her believe it. Nothing was ever done half heartedly. She and whomever was dancing for her grew as artists because of this. We were never complacent… there was always rigour in the work ethic and what we were discovering in the studio. She was quite inspiring because of her passion and drive for her artwork. It was very evident because of how much work she was putting into it . She would always be in there on the floor working it out. She had such a high level of discipline within herself. I haven’t witnessed this with many choreographers and because she was so hard working it ensured you kept working even if you were at your wits end and she was in there with you so you had no excuse to not do it.

How accurate was the portrayal of Tanja in the award winning documentary film by Adelaide’s Closer Productions? What is one thing that we couldn’t possibly know about her from watching this film.? What do you think she would have thought of it?

I thought the film portrayed Tanja quite accurately which was quite a shock for me to see because over time you forget about who that person was and seeing the film made me sad and how much I have actually forgotten about her. Seeing it made me realise this.

She would always seem to achieve what she aimed for. She wouldn’t bring anyone else down in the process the but she would always get what she wanted through hard work and determination.

I guess in the film you didn’t really get to know her insecurities but she had them just like anyone else does. Most people think successful people don’t have insecurities but she definitely had them. The film didn’t really reveal her personal life but it wasn’t focused on that which is a good thing…it focused on her through her art.

I don’t know what she would have thought, I cant really answer that because I’d only be imagining what she might think. But i think that She would have been proud of Sophie and Bryan for making such a beautiful film. I can hardly watch it without cringing about myself on screen so I can’t imagine her enjoying watching an entire film about her..if it was about me it’d be my worst nightmare.

Does losing someone so close to you make you evaluate your own life and what’s most important?

I guess yes it does to a degree. Particularly at the time of the incident, but I’m only human and I’d be lying if I said I now live my life constantly differently. Yes I think about how short life is and how it could end suddenly but I still wish for things and complain about things and want things as I did before. particularly as time goes by you forget because it becomes less of an impact as the years go on.

You recently made your first full-length work at AC Arts, Kingdom Mourning with the third year dancers. What was the starting point for this project,  how did you know you were ready to step into a choreographic practice and what have you learnt in this particular process?

I had never really shown any interest in choreographing up until about 2 years ago. Before then I was completely satisfied being a performer in other people’s projects. These projects are generally collaborative in the process so I get to choreograph within them and express myself that way. However in recent years I started to notice that something missing for me creatively and I wasn’t being fulfilled. I realised that I wanted to attempt to make work. So I began to play around with ideas in the studios on my own. I received a 2011 Critical Path Responsive Program residency which I researched ideas in collaboration with myself and Tahli Corin as dramaturg and collaborator. I found the two weeks incredibly fulfilling and sparked a curiosity in researching choreography. So I’m only just starting out and I would not yet call my self a choreographer.

At AC Arts I wanted to take some of this research and see how it applied to a group of dancers. I learnt that working with these students was more challenging than I anticipated because it was not just about making a work which was already a new thing for me anyway, but I found that i had to give a lot of information about how to dance and how to perform and things I take for granted working with professionals. Its easy to forget how much knowledge you and your peers actually do have and you don’t really realise it until you work in an institution. So it was a bigger challenge than just making work on 8 dancers.

One of the big challenges was working out how to communicate what I wanted and how I wanted the choreography to be done, getting across the experience i have in my body and translating that to the students . I constantly tried to unravel what it was that I wanted because it wouldn’t just happen instantly. And sometimes interesting things would come out of that and take it in a new direction.

I expanded my skills in communicating and translating an idea into a reality into the physical body, because when you choreograph on yourself you don’t go through the translation and communication. There is a translation of the idea but all I have to do is work it and find it in my own body without having to explain it to anyone else.

You were able to transport the audience into an abstract world that was both fragile and destructive. How did you communicate what you wanted from the dancers in the rehearsal studio? What was challenging about this?

Through constant work with the students in the studio on how they approach the choreography , so once we discovered what we were doing, we spent a lot of time discovering how the choreography was to be executed. I used a lot of visual imagery and imagination to inspire this, I think it’s how I work as a dancer. This experience helps you to understand your body and interpret everything in infinite qualities. One choreography can be done 1000 ways using different qualities because essentially its all abstract movement, I depends on how you’re doing it.

With young dancers it’s very difficult to do that because that kind of understanding comes with age and experience. Referring back to when I was auditioning in Europe it is only now after working with young dancers that I really get what they meant when they said i needed more experience. I didn’t truly get how that life experience would contribute to my dancing and I can really see that now 14 years later.

I did a lot of demonstrating which doesn’t always help because I found they were replicating what I was doing rather than understanding it and find it for themselves, so demos are not always the best tool but are useful at times. I used a lot of images… for example I wanted the to roll across the floor – so i used the idea of rolling at the bottom of the ocean floor. There’s a quality in that image for me that’s different to for example tyres rolling down the hill. It’s a completely different quality but they’re still rolling. I’d have to get hands on and was constantly giving them fresh images to work with, trying to access a physicality through a visualisation. It isn’t as easy as it sounds to do this. Through doing…a lot of doing, you can talk and talk but its through the actions or doing that you can properly do it because it’s a physical art form.

What is critical dialogue, is it important and how does this help shape your creative ideas through the making process?

Well about a third of the way into the process of making Kingdom Mourning I invited industry peers to attend a rehearsal of what we had already created and presented as a straight run through. This inspired critical dialogue between the guests, myself and the dancers which was useful for me to question what it was that i was making and for the dancers also to understand there role in both the actual work and in the process of making. It was good for the students to hear this feedback coming from respected professionals about the work and about their performance and approach to the work, other than my repetitive voice. i think it sparked a new level of commitment for them and made it more real for them. For me just having the guests in the studio allowed me to see the choreography differently, like seeing it for the first time. It forced me to sit back and watch it for what it was…already I could see what I wanted to change, what was and what wasn’t working before anyone said anything.

The feedback was really useful because people asked such great questions about the work and it got me thinking about what it is I wanted to say in the work. There’s a point that you can’t see clearly anymore…you become consumed by it and you can’t really see what it is you’re doing so clearly. It came at a point that I could start making different choices for the work and maybe taking a few risks in taking a different path for it.

What’s easier…being a dancer or choreographer? How is it different?

At this point being a choreographer is more challenging for me…it’s definitely more challenging, but I wouldn’t say one is harder than the other because it depends on where you’re at in your career and what your interests are. I’ve been dancing long enough now that I know how to enjoy it. I’m much more experienced at being a dancer. You have a lot less control over the big picture when you are just the dancer, even though you actually have a lot of control over your performance which is a vital part of the big picture. On the other hand, although you have control over the direction of the work being the choreographer you do rely a lot on the performers to make it happen for you in the way you visualise it. In other words there is a fine balance and a lot of trust that must happen between the choreographer and dancers roles to create good work.

Can you give any advice for a  young aspiring dancer?

I don’t really know how to give advice…if you’re passionate about it keep at it. If not find something else to do. Just like anything in the arts, it takes drive, passion and hard work, it isn’t easy but the rewards make it worth it.

What would you do if you weren’t dancing?

Something to do with food I think, like open my own specialty cafe on the central coast of NSW or in Italy somewhere maybe.