Larissa McGowan

Skeleton Image 2 - Image Chris Herzfeld Camlight Production

Larissa is one of a handful of young Australian dancers of the last decade that have become iconic. Her physical virtuosity landed her in roles in some of Garry Stewart’s award winning works including, Be Yourself, G, Devolution, HELD, Vocabulary, Nothing, The Age of Unbeauty, Birdbrain and Attention Deficit Therapy. She is a multi-award winning dancer having received the Green Room Award for Best Female Dancer (2003), Best Female Dancer in a Ballet or Dance Work at the Helpmann Awards and the Australian Dance Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Dancer (2004). In 2008 she became the Assistant Choreographer at the Australian Dance Theatre where she danced for ten years before embarking on an independent career that has seen her working non-stop around the country.

Larissa and I first met as students at the Options Tertiary Dance Festival held at the University of Western Sydney. When that event eventually moved to Adelaide and was held in conjunction with the Adelaide Festival, tertiary dance students from all around the country converged on the city. Like two peas in the pod, Larissa and I were one of the few students reveling in all the city had to offer while maintaining the dedication to our early morning classes no matter how much sleep we’d had the night before. Through our work over the years since then, we’ve had several opportunities to collaborate together and I’ve found Larissa to be one of the most supportive members of the dance community.

What was it like growing up amongst so much talent in your family? Are you the golden child amongst your siblings?

My family were all a bunch of high achievers, that’s for sure. I remember going from swimming training to athletics, to netball, gymnastics and of course dance. I never remember a time when I wasn’t in training for something and I wouldn’t change it for the world. I was very privileged to have parents that were willing to do anything for their 4 children. This included the many other children my mother probably taxied around in the family van, from event to event. I think anyone that was given the chance that we were would have had success if they had the support of such amazing parents like mine.

No one in my family is the golden child but I think I have been so far away from my family (who live in Brisbane) for so long that it feels like I get treatment every time I have a show on or I head home. I really appreciate how proud they are when they hear about my career and it just shows how much they really care about each others’ success.

Was there a pinnacle moment that made you decide you were going to be a dancer?

Not really. I had a huge decision to make when I was in grade 10 though. I was questioning whether or not I wanted to be a runner or train more intensely in dance. This resulted in changing schools to go to The Queensland Dance School of Excellence. I still didn’t know if that’s what I was going to do though, so I continued to pursue athletics on the side. That’s when I was doing ridiculously crazy days of training.

I also started to feel myself being drawn to the creative side but was also about extreme physicality. It seemed to have the best of both worlds and slowly took over.

You finished your dance training at the VCA in Melbourne back in 2000. How did you land the job at ADT?

I auditioned in a ‘cattle cal’ as they call it, in my 3rd year at VCA. I went into it thinking it would be a good experience and didn’t expect much from it. I got down to the final few and felt pretty chuffed that I had made it that far. But I knew they had auditions in other major cities to come, so I wasn’t getting my hopes up.

I received a phone call to meet Garry Stewart the director some time later. I remember sitting there during the meeting trying not to smile the whole time but I’m pretty sure my face said it all. He had talked about a huge tour that was happening the following year and told me I was going on it. I then remember running back to Uni at full pelt and flying into the cafeteria yelling I’ve got a job!! I have never felt so much relief knowing that all that hard work had resulted in some security in my dance future. What a crazy day. I’ll never forget it.

You’ve traveled the world living out of suitcases and performed to audiences in some pretty extraordinary places. What was company life like and how if at all is it different when you’re touring?

Touring is a totally different world to rehearsal life. You are on an extremely tight schedule and most of the time you are going between a hotel and a theatre and not much else. It’s funny when you’re trying to speak in your bad French one day and the next you’re figuring out what language the people are talking to you in because you are constantly crossing borders back and forth. I now know a lot of greetings and basics to get me by in a lot of places. Really wish I had focused on one of them at least! A day consists of travel, bump-in, show, sleep and then do it all again the next day in an entirely different town. But when you do have a day off, you get to explore cities you may never have normally put on your itinerary. For example I have been to Alaska at least a couple times. And it’s amazing. What’s also amazing is performing somewhere like New York then following it up with a show in Orange, NSW. Each show having the same value no matter how large or small a place or audience but really weird to experience.

What is the one major highlight of your career so far and who has been your biggest influence?

I think performing at Theatre de la Ville in Paris was a huge highlight. It had always been a dream to perform on one of the most famous stages in Europe and each time we went back the feeling was always electric.

I am mostly influenced by the performers around me. You learn so much in the studio from people that are more experienced and then eventually passing on information you have received or learnt in your own practice. I think everyone who passed through ADT has contributed and influenced where I am today and I am continuing to be influenced and find influences.

Its a bit like a… ‘which came first, the chicken or the egg?’ kind of question, but in terms of movement vocabulary, who influenced who in Garry Stewart’s ADT company?

He definitely influenced me and lead me to want to achieve and progress my own practice. Although dancers contribute a large amount of vocabulary to his work, he nurtures and creates a space to learn and further your abilities physically and mentally. He has always continued to train ADT dancers to the highest calliber. He is an extremely intelligent man, who brings together groups of artists that collaborate and work to produce incredible work. I appreciate every opportunity he gave me.

You’ve developed quite a buzz on the dance scene around the country creating works with SDC, Tasdance, Link Dance Company etc etc but South Australian audiences are yet to witness your work post-ADT. What can we expect from the World Premiere of your new first full-length work, Skeleton?

I think I’ve had a lot of experiences since I’ve left ADT and they have been a great learning curve in the progress of making and developing my own style. Skeleton is a projection of years of ideas and hard work that has come together and ready to be seen and absorbed by others. I know it’s my first full-length work but I question what full-length means. I think a work is the length it needs to be not forced to be. I set out to make a more lengthy work but didn’t set a time parameter.

This piece has 5 incredibly diverse dancers who are unique and incredible. The piece is both virtuosic yet extremely intricate and I hope it’s a work that people can connect with.

How do you manage the role of choreographer/dancer in this work?

I am very fortunate to have Sam Haren as co-director, as well as Carol Wellman-Kelly as rehearsal director. This allows me to focus on dancing when I am in the work, however always having an understudy helps and videoing everything you do is a must.

Photograph: Skeleton by Chris Herzfeld / Camlight Productions