Ross is a director/dramaturge/choreographer/producer based in South Australia. He works with long-term artistic associates Vincent Crowley and Ingrid Weisfelt under the company name Torque Show whose maiden dance theatre work Malmö sold out at the Adelaide Festival of Arts 2012 after a premiere season at Arts House in 2011. The Company was awarded the Dara Foundation Climate Change Commission through the Malthouse Theatre and Tipping Point Australia to make Be Prepared. which explored notions of civic responsibility, civil disobedience and their perceived interface. Ross was the Curator for Adelaide Festival club BARRIO in 2012 and returns in 2013 as Creative Director.
Ross and I catch up over a glass of red wine at The Apocathery on Hindley St. We were part of the inaugural ‘Foundation Front’ which was established to bring awareness to the Helpmann Academy’s programs. We haven’t had much contact since then, but I was curious to find out what he’s been up to since.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background growing up and how and when you became interested in the theatre?
I guess I always had an interest in theatre through being involved in the party scene running parallel together, so that led a lot of interest in performance arts and what’s now become ‘live art’ and in the 1990’s I was involved in the outdoor rave scene. I was interested in Mike Leigh and his improvisationary approach to making theatre and I studied at Flinders University with Geordie Brookman, Amber McMahon, Caleb Lewis (playwright), Melanie Velaho (TV actress) and Kath Fyfe…(The Border Project guys), Roman Vaculik as well so it was a strong bunch of people. Sammie Haren was above me and all The Border Project guys were above me too. I was interested in the in ya face theatre like the late 90’s punk theatre like English playwrights like Mark Ravenhill, Anthony Neilsen, Irvine Welsh, and Phillip Ridley. I really resonated with this work.
They talked about the sub culture that I was experiencing and I wanted to do their plays and so I did that for a long time. I wanted to make new Australian work in a text-based capacity and that’s when I met Vincent Crowley and Ingrid Weisfelt in 2005. I cast Vincent in ‘A Thing Called Snake’ and I worked with Ingrid on ‘Crestfall’ by Irish playwright Mark O’Rowe in Melbourne. We co-directed that which had a strong movement background. All the work I was doing with Fourbux (Adelaide-based company Ross co-founded with Ninian Donald & Peter Neilsen) had a strong movement capacity because I had a strong relationship with Ninian and I had wanted to work with actors with strong dancing skills.
I left Adelaide in 2005 and went and lived in Melbourne and did a 6 month mentorship with Simon Philips at the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) because I thought I wanted to get in on that racket, and quickly realised it wasn’t what I wanted to do. It was a very good experience and Simon is an amazing commercial director, but it wasn’t where my interests were and I became disillusioned with straight theatre and I thought Australia was dominated with rep theatre…. so basically as I can see it, we see a lot of the time where essentially some directors are flying to Europe and the States (United States of America) seeing shows and plays and bring them back to Australia and they’re being performed in exactly the same ways they are overseas and to me, its plagiarism. Money is passed for the rights but at the end of the day, its not programming well, which I think audiences want to see it because it happens, but as a theatre maker myself I thought, “if this was the system, I don’t want to be part of it”.
But I watched Simon making ‘Pricilla Queen of the Desert’ and that was impressive to see, but I didn’t find myself in the amount of time in the way I wanted to work with performers wasn’t there. The investigation of ideas or contemporary form is not the primary focus. It was a lot of blocking, big production values and churning out things in a very short amount of time, maybe 4 – 5 weeks to run a major season where they’re charging 75 bucks a head and they need to get TV actors in there to sell the work and it’s a high pressure gig.
I directed a work called ‘Red Light Winter’ By Adam Rapp which I found when I was reading MTC’s back catalogue of works. I enjoyed the content about unrequited love… a theme I was experiencing at the time. Working in advertising I raised the finance myself, produced, directed and operated the lights and wanted to show I could step outside of the funding system and the support networks I had had previously. The critics didn’t like the play. I spent three and a half grand ($3,500) for them to not like the play. Loved the show just not the play. So I wanted to take out the middle man and so that’s when the audience sees the work it’s all ours. No playwright in a foreign country to pass the buck to. So then I made a decision to stop making text-based work and make devised-based work and decided to leave theatre for a while… if not ever.
You studied theatre & directing at the Flinders Drama Centre then become a choreographer? How did that happen?
I can loosely call myself a choreographer because I can generate movement and I’m still in the early stages of learning the craft… how to go about generating that movement required to make choreography. I wouldn’t say I was primarily a choreographer. I would say I was a director of dance theatre. I started in 2007 working with Ingrid and Vincent and we committed to working with each other for a number of years to make a work called MALMO from 2007 – 2011 when it premiered at the Arts House in Melbourne and then it sold out at The Adelaide Festival the following year 2012.
Those four years helped us to cement our process so I learnt a process of making dance theatre with Ingrid and Vince during that time. We created a system where we learnt from each other. It’s totally complimentary yet we’re coming from very different places. Ingrid was one of Meryl’s (Tankard) dancers, she was a contemporary dancer and Vince came late to dance at 26 and he worked with Meryl Tankard, Gavin Webber, Grayson Millwood. Both Ing and Vinny spent a long time working in Europe and that informed the process and techniques they shared with me when approaching dance theatre.
Vincent became the meeting point for me and Ingrid coz he was crossed-trained and often the conduit for our conversations. I had to let go of plot and character and became more engaged in dramaturgy and in that we found a different relationship with the audience, which is where we’re at now. We’re now working with the choreography of the audience. You have to rehearse it with audiences which is constantly showing them your dirty underpants…and we listen to our audiences because it has to be made like that…like in film its like a green screen. Its hard to perform against something that is not there. You can cast a whole lot of expectations and then the audience don’t do what you expect and that’s fascinating and shit scary!
In ‘Be Prepared’, Kialea-Nadine (Williams) and Dean (Cross) were so tired more than they have ever been because they were so consciously aware of where the audience is in the room and what they’re doing and where they are at all times because they (the audience) are the central protagonists. But maybe getting back to your questions…I cant make the work I make at Torque Show by myself, I have to work with a fluid authorship as being makers of the work and I rely on Vincent and Ingrid as co-creators so they are as much part of the creative input on all aspects. If I tried to make it on my own I couldn’t…I don’t think they could either. What we make up is the sum of all parts.
Who are your biggest influences in your work?
Ingrid and Vince and Geoff Cobham – there are of course other ones because you have artistic crushes with people you’ve never met, but these are the ones I can draw on in a tangible way on a day-to-day basis. They are all different. Geoff has been my mentor since 1999 since I started but we discontinued the mentorship and became artistic honeys in 2005. In a sense… master kungfu moment. My relationship with Ingrid and Vince keeps evolving…it keeps getting better.
What I’ve become really conscious of when I left Adelaide and I was working in Melbourne in a super competitive environment and realised the opportunities are just as short on the ground as they are in SA, the only thing you can rely on is your artistic collaborators and that investment is completely tangible in terms of its artistic and financial value. It is something that no one can ever take away from you. They can not give you a grant and then they give you a very big one and the things that continues in the artistic relationship and it grows. They seem to be a most perfect couple I have ever met and they are not like they’re in an artistic relationship they can ever break up, like a band or something. They can divorce me, but because they stay together it soaks into our relationship so that we always make it work. Geographical, statistically and career wise…I chose to leave Melbourne and our artistic relationship became stronger.
What are the elements that you think make up a good choreographer? Does having a dance background help or hinder?
For me a choreographer has their own vocabulary of movement that isn’t generated always from the performers and so I think the great choreographers have their own vocab and they are trying to explore that. Antony Hamilton (Melbourne-based choreographer) is a new example of that. He is placing a vocabulary on other people’s bodies and doing great things. Larissa McGowan and Daniel Jaber are two people in South Australia who are having and have had amazing dance careers and are now seeing what it (their movement) looks like on other people’s bodies… movement that its influenced by their experience.
Choreography is a love affair I will never have because I’ve never been a dancer so I wont ever know what its like. It must be amazing to know the movement on your own body and give it to someone else. I’m a dreadful dancer, an appalling actor, and a terrible singer, I feel often like an imposter because I was trained to illicit a performance from a performer. A director sets up a cast to create on and it’s a conversation between the director and the audience…rep (repertoire) is a one-way system where he is guiding and blocking the performers around the stage and I don’t think that is what inspires me and yet dance theatre does inspire me. I’m inspired from the work of Pina – who used a formalised relationship between the task-based. I find it hard to work with actors because they don’t respond to my tasks the same way that dancers do, so I have more satisfaction working with dancers than actors.
What is the message you’re trying to convey with your work?
Each work is different because we’re working in collaboration between friends. Each new idea for a work comes from usually a different person within the group so the message is often influenced by who that person is. But there have been a whole lot of commonalities within the work we try to frame. We currently work with political messages and its about exploring releasing the audiences from seating bays, and its not to say that all our work will be like that in the future, but our last four have been. Some of them are in development and some in rep but they all touch on those two things.
How do you work collaboratively with Ingrid and Vincent? Do you each have designated roles or are they more fluid?
Yeah its very fluid. MALMO was different because I was the outside eye and they were both dancing and they watched themselves a lot on video and Grayson Millwood, Alejandro Rolandi and Fiona Cameron gave feedback on the choreographic elements which was a different way of working for us.
‘Be Prepared’ was different coz it was collaborative. Ingrid was the choreographer, I was the director, and Vince felt like he could continue to direct from within the work. We could come back together as a unit and discuss it. We can make work incredibly quickly because there are three directors and you can make more material faster that way. Three directors can manage three tasks faster. It looks more expensive on paper, but responding with my producers hat on, it’s in a weird way cheaper because there are three directors and 10 dancers. The performers are your biggest cost and yet they are there for the shortest time, so you have to get a higher outcome out of a short amount of time.
We direct in isolation from each other and bring it (the outcome) to each other. Ingrid might bring a choreographic investigation into dramaturgy I’ve brought to the work and we use our different strengths to take passes at creating the work. When we’re all directing at the same time. I quite enjoy when we have arguments as well.
Ingrid and I are very passionate about our ideas. I disagree more with her than Vince. Vincent really has to like the idea that I come up with because he has to sleep with the woman that doesn’t like my idea and he has to convince her and vice versa. I know when they’ve been plotting and planning against me and it (the conversation) comes back and I know when their gunna do a number on me and now I know when to bow and coerce. Not because I always agree, but because I know it’s the best way forward. It comes down to aesthetics. She has a more abstract aesthetic than I do and Vincent has a comic absurd aesthetic and a sense of showmanship and he’s more interested in what the audience is experiencing. And I’m hoping I have a less narrative bent which I want to give up…people wanted more traditional conflict to narrative aspects which we deliberately shied away from …it was about the audience trying to have that moment…the characters should…. at the end of the day it was the audience that should. In Be Prepared its about challenging the audience to become part of a social movement. How far are they prepared to be involved…the conflict in the work is not that of character but ideals.
Your recent work, ‘Be Prepared’ promised to educate and re-ignite protest as a form of political expression for a contemporary society. Can you talk a little bit about your experience of Climate Change protest and what responses your audiences had.
It’s a unique project in that we were given what it should be about because we were commissioned to make work for climate change….so did Arthur Miller make ‘The Crucible” about McArthurism or has he written a play about a witch hunt in Salem?. Does a playwright set out to make a work about something politically or does meaning stem from the story or form of the work?
Ross posed the question…
How does dance theatre make a work from task-based improv…how do we know what it’s going to be about from the start of the process…? I found myself having to go back to what the work was about…to work back from that.
What we decided to do was that it had been a scientific-led issue and that there was a lot of conjecture about that science that was directly related to how smoking was mis-communicated by lobby groups and now we’re becoming the same way about climate change. So it becomes a psychological problem so there will never be a yes or no answer. And there is currently no direct evidence that smoking causes cancer, but you know there is relation to the numbers of people who die from cancer who smoke and the same with climate change. It’s a complex system problem so we are dealing with a psychological barrier within ourselves to deal with this problem because we’re hooked on fossil fuels and we’re like a junkie not trying to wean ourselves off it.
So in ‘Be Prepared’ we chose to train people to be activists for climate change… by culture-jamming the scouts because they inheritantly already train people, they are connected to the environment and you can’t arrest a scout.
The scout is the environmental version of a Catholic Nun at a women’s lib protest…its an impenetrable thing. They are monarchists, they are highly religious and they are environmentalists and in modern terms, incredible at promoting civic duty in a world of individualism…. They are altruistic crusaders who place community before themselves to improve themselves.
The scouts are actually about giving back to the greater good and are essentially socialists really, but you would also say there would be a lot of right wing voters in the scouting movement so they are the perfect organisation to bring up climate change with…because it’s learning through doing.
An anecdotal experience…
I was working with an incredibly gifted scout master…John Caddy (?)….we asked him to treat us like 10 year olds and he took us on cub training which was the basis of the work, and after three days he asked why we were doing this….then I told him about the climate change agenda…my perception was that he had misgivings about climate change. We found so much commonality (by doing civil duty, relationships to the environment, healthy children, physical outdoor behavior, group kinesthesis) that it was a redundant argument.
So what are you working on now?
Currently I’m the Creative Director for Barrio 2013. Shits going to get hectic with Barrio. The ideas are mental and we are asking the audience to go deep with us..so deep there will magma. We have such a crush on our audience we want to kiss them behind the bike sheds of life.
What do you think success is? What’s the marker for you?
Success is my mob. The people you create with. Finding them and building something you are all proud of.
When are you most happy?
When I’m in love
Ross Ganf is a director/dramaturge/choreographer/producer. Ross works with long-term artistic associates Vincent Crowley and Ingrid Weisfelt under the company name Torque Show. Torque Show has a highly collaborative process that creates work with a fluid authorship under the stewardship of the artistic associate. Torque Show’s maiden dance theatre work Malmö sold out at the Adelaide Festival of Arts 2012 after a premiere season at Arts House in 2011. Ross/Torque Show is currently developing a verbatim dance theatre work Farrugia with presenting partner Vitalstatistix, the State Theatre Company of South Australia and collaborator Joshua Tyler. Farrugia focuses on the interviews of Joseph Farrugia who is the owner and choreographer of the Crazy Horse Strip Revue in Hindley Street Adelaide. In 2011 Torque Show was awarded the Dara Foundation Climate Change Commission through the Malthouse Theatre and Tipping Point Australia to make Be Prepared. Be Prepared seeks to readdress how participants protest climate change in a contemporary society. Using the non-threatening frame of the scout movement, Torque Show wants to explore notions of civic responsibility, civil disobedience and their perceived interface. These works exemplify his unique approach to theatre/dance that continues a dramaturgical arc of releasing audiences from seating banks while renegotiating the performer/audience contract. Ross was the Curator for Adelaide Festival club BARRIO in 2012 and returns in 2013 as Creative Director for BARRIO.