This transcript is from an interview that was first published on 9th of February 2018. This transcript has been edited slightly to help with clarity, the audio of this episode and more information can be found here.
This is a generous and wide-ranging interview, which covers the process involved in commisioning work and programming a festival. This intervew took place in the lead up to Perth Festival 2018.
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The interview started by asking what was the first dance performance that made Wendy take note?
Wendy Martin: Oh, my God. Well, I remember when I was about nine. I mean, you know, as a kid, I learned our lady like many of the two. But as a 9 year old, somebody took me to see it was a mother of friends and Netherlands Dance Theater in Sydney.
And I remember they were dancing in the nude, and this is big thing in the media.
But it was. So I remember, I remember that. Because, you know, as a 9 Year old that was kind of naughty. I also remember that it was it was really extraordinary. And I mean, you know, I had the great privilege when I, when I started working at to the Sydney Opera House, you know, traveling around the world, and really getting to know contemporary dance and to experience it very regularly. And then when I was living in London, of course,
there's so much done going on there all the time. And I think, you know, Sadler's Wells is one of the leading dance houses and so, so I got to see every single week, you know, in the work that I was presenting itself, South Bank, the work that I was looking for when I was at South Bank, and then having Sadler's Wells around the corner.
And I suppose one of the great privileges really has been getting to know the great contemporary choreographers, so at Sydney Opera House you know, we bought Akram Khan in I think it was 2002 with his early piece called MA and then you know, we continue to bring all the really great contemporary dancers and getting to know them and understand their perspective. And I think what really excites me is brilliant choreographers and dancers are as articulate as, as articulate with bodies as, you know, writers are with words, and for me, that's a really exciting way to receive stories and ideas. [3:10]
Andrew: What is it that dance can do as an art form that, I guess other art forms can’t?
Wendy Martin: I think it can be an extremely, you know, visceral experience. Remember, for example, when, you know, Hofesh Shechter exploded on the on the world stages. And I remember the first time I saw one of his pieces, and I was actually sitting really close to the front, I was in Rome. And it was a sort of, it was a visceral experience, you know, you could feel the energy and you could feel the emotion of the dancers, you know, he was somebody's Hofesh Shechter, who danced with Batsheva in Israel and, you know, within inspired, inspired by that Gaga Style that comes out of Batsheva. And I think that is a really the Gaga style is very emotionally engaging. Hmm, the way the dancers move, and, and I and I, I feel it just, it just touches you, it touches you in a way that word don't always because you've got your imagination as still as well as what's in front of you. [4:37]
Andrew: For some people don't say dance, or might be more invested in theater or other forms. Dance can often I guess, seem inaccessible, quite unknown, what would you say to somebody to, you know, encourage them to go and see dance for the first time, or to just experience it?
Wendy Martin: I think people, I completely understand your question. And it often gets asked. And I think people can get their head around narratives and the idea of narratives, you know, and, and ballet traditional ballet has a narrative and people go in looking for a very clear story, and usually they can see it and I think people are more nervous or approach with more trepidation.
Something that is, is more abstract and I think you really just need to sit in the audience and let it let it flow around you and not be looking for anything in particular, but just to sort of accept the beauty you know, the music, the light, the conversation that's going on between dancers, bodies, and and lives and actually one of the first times I was like, deeply, deeply moved by contemporary dance with the British choreographer Russell Maliphant, who was on a residency at the performance space in Sydney with many many years ago. And Russell Maliphant always works with the British lighting designer Michael Hulls and the way that the body interacts with the light Michael Hulls uses very very dark light and you just often just see the outline of the shapes of the body but somehow that was emotionally engaging and it was like it was like alive artwork like a living sculpture. [6:51]
Andrew: When you came from south bank of from Sydney Opera House to the Southbank Centre you've got this really I guess unique perspective of seeing dance in different contexts and I guess in your role now at Perth festival you know you thinking about the context in which the work then gets re-presented and I'm wondering how does it maybe change messages or meanings that might be behind a work?
Wendy Martin: Yeah that's an interesting question so many years ago it was in 2012 I was involved in commissioning a work that the Sydney based choreographer Martin del Amo made on Paul White, who I think is one of the finest contemporary dancers in the world is originally from Brisbane. He is in Sydney for a long time and then to Tanztheater Wuppertal where he was part of the Pina Bausch’s company and he's now living in Berlin and I think Paul so that work that Martin made on him called Anatomy of an Afternoon inspired by The Afternoon of a Faun, and Paul performed that in Sydney festival. And it was a pretty stunning work that years later I invited I invited them to do it in London.
And Paul having matured as an artist because, you know, a number of years had passed since they first created it. And having danced with the Pina Bausch company and experience living in Berlin, I thought, when he he performed that work in London, he bought a very new and interesting depth to that work. And I saw it as a completely as a completely new work. And the same with The Oracle, I commissioned. So The Oracle was a commission from Meryl Tankard, that Paul performed in and that premiered in Spring Dance, I think, the first Spring Dance which was in 2009, at the Sydney opera house. And then I invited him to come and perform to the centenary of the Rite of Spring in 2013, in London. And again, there was a depth to the performance that I hadn't seen before. And also I think bringing a work to to London to the center of the world. And that work being performed, it was actually performed on the evening of the centenary of the Rite of Spring. To a full house of 900, and initially, it had been performed in the Play House, which is about 400 seats at the Sydney Opera House. So they were all those incredible resonances going on in May 2013 that that gave the work a richness and a new focus that wasn't there the first time. I thought Lucy Guerin work was, what it called. It was four guys and she the two guys who. [10:12]
Wendy Martin: Untrained exactly the four guys. Yeah. And it was, it was really interesting to see that that work mature, I first saw it in Melbourne. And then I brought it to Sydney. And then I invited them to London. And what was interesting with that work was to see how the performance who were the untrained performers grew into the work because, you know, when they started out as they were naive performers, and they got a lot more savvy and started playing it for laughs in which they got many so. So it was a very interesting journey for those performers. And for me to see it from the very, very first performance, and then see it a year later in Sydney when they when they tour and then a couple of years later in London, and that work really evolved. And it was very, it was very different piece, but it's still had the charm of the bloke who were picking up instructions from the ground the floor that Lucy had had given them. [11:28]
Andrew: So when it comes to programming work for different audiences, and different settings, do you have to think about, I guess what the audience would appreciate? Or is your role more about making an offer that you hope he's received well?
Wendy Martin: No, I think I think very, very much about the audience. And then whenever I'm watching a work, I think about obviously, I have my own responses to it. But then I ask myself a series of questions like, why, why would I present this? How would I talk about it? Who would I be inviting in?
And I think part of being a curator, or perhaps the biggest role of being a curator it to be a storyteller, because ultimately, you're wanting to invite people in and share something that you think is wonderful with an audience.
And so I mean, in my first year, for example, at Perth people knew that I had a great passion for dance. And I wanted to present a range of work that would potentially speak to many different audiences and because I started in the role quite late, I had to put the program together very quickly. So I thought about how do I how am I how do I make the offer in to the festival first, for example, I think Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui is one of the really great contemporary choreographers, what I love about his work is how he integrate nearly always live music and in fact, live singing. And so I thought about the beautiful piece that he created with the Corsican acapella singing group called A Filetta and the polyphonic singers. And so Apocrifu was with really this beautiful interaction between Belgium dancer who performed a alongside Japanese dancer and a Bunraku and circus artist and the seven singers A Filetta and it explored ideas about the different religions and the book from which we learn about the major faith system of the world so there was there was there was a lot going on to talk about to invite people in so for example if people didn't necessarily love contemporary dance there are many people who love the voice and A Filetta one of the great vocal ensembles of the world so that was one way into it contemporary dance and then there's also the idea of what the work was exploring and I talked a lot when we were selling the show about the ideas which in this world that we're living in which is divided by people trying to create division around different belief systems and different religions it's a piece that explored all of that and ultimately saw watching the work that that really it's all same same but different so and, and that seemed to seem to work I did have I mean, I've presented five dance shows in my first the festival.
One of them was Aurélien Bory piece Plexus, which he did with the Japanese dancer Kaori Ito. And that was really a portrait, he's done a series of portrait of female dancers from different cultural backgrounds and that was very much a kind of live art installation with electronic music, and Kaori was dancing amongst five kilometers of elastic bands, so it was a very sort of stunning visual show that was also of interest to people who love circus, because, because Kaori also came from a circus background. So then we had the opportunity to talk to an audience that that appreciate visual art as well as contemporary dance.
And, you know, I noticed when I was in London, a lot of a lot of contemporary dance audiences crossover with visual arts. And so we speak very much to those audiences. And, and again, you know, this year, for example, we have a Damien Jalet’s Vessel, which is astonishing piece from Japan, we have, we have another piece Beyond Time from Taiwan. And I think in the context of Perth, it's important to be looking at the work and the story that the cultures that are closest to where we live. And so I've very much tried to focus on, on works on the Indian Ocean ring, and the and the Asia Pacific. And then, of course, this year, we have Michael Clark's work to a simple, rock 'n' roll . . . song. And I chose that I mean, I love Michael’s clear and precise choreography, you know, he comes out of a background of classical dance, but he's madly passionate about pop music, and has been very engaged through the duration of his career with the pop music world and the fashion world. And that manifests itself in his work and to a simple, rock 'n' roll . . . song is that it's very much a, a homage to the composers and musicians that he loved. And in the case of this work, is Erik Satie, the French composer, but then Patti Smith and David Bowie. And the music, the music, the music, Patti Smith, music comes from her, you know, iconic album Horses, and the Bowie music is both from Black Star, his final album, and so the Bowie music ends with the song Aladdin Sane, and I just thought that that work would bring because of the music because of you know, the names Patti Smith and David Bowie that it would bring audiences that don't necessarily come to contemporary dance, but love the idea of seeing a dance work driven by the music of those two iconic artists. And interestingly, it's looking to me like it's working, because the sale for that piece and Michael Clark piece just just went off really, really quickly. [18:17]
Andrew: Yeah, amazing hearing your passion to talk about the works and the meanings and I guess the messages behind them. It's just phenomenal to think that an artist can do that and can create work that, you know, changes the way people think, and that kind of stuff. And I just think, you know, increasingly the role of the artist is questioned by funding, you know, funding cuts or society more generally.
Wendy Martin: I gave a talk I was talking about that, really, because I think for me, the two sets of people who really explain the world for us both a scientist and artist and nobody would question the value of a scientist but people do question about, you of artists and I think, you know, they help us see and understand and also, reimagine the world as a better place and, you know, in your questionnaire, you just sort of hinted at the idea that Art can change the world and I think for people working in the Arts and certainly for me, if you wouldn't do what you do, unless you believed in the power of it.
And when you talk about it, it changing the world I think it's certainly you look at art and what it does is it for the audience and so many it, it changes the way you feel about yourself and, and how you feel about the world. And then experiencing those shifts and changes it does create bigger change or create the desire in people to help see the world and make the world a better place. You know, to, to change things. And I think it's absolutely absolutely invaluable. And I mean, this is not dance but I'm going to give you a classic example of why it's so important. I mean, we have actually, this is dance in a way we have to the first 10 days of the festival were presenting a work that's called Siren Song. And Siren Song is going to take over the main I call it the Cathedral of commerce the main commercial street of the city of Perth, St George's terrace and there's 400 speakers line along the terrace and in the in the speakers what you will hear is the voices of of female singers thus the title Siren Song but in addition to the there is also a performer that two former just happened to be a helicopter that that does this extraordinary dance across the sky with speakers attached to it that has a single board. But one of the voices that we recorded is a Persian singer who was born in Iran in 1984, Tara Tiba was born the year before women were banned from from performing in public in Iran. And women are still banned from performing in public in any way in Iran. And first Tara, you know, she said to me, she talked to me about how much that invitation makes to her that her voice is going to be resounding around the city of Perth, for a radius of about three kilometers.
And that's, you know, when she talked to me about that, you that, you know, that changes the way how it how it changes the way I see myself in the world now. So I am living in a country where I'm getting invitation to have my word heard.
And I think it's so important that that, you know, artistic leaders that we make these invitations. I was in Sydney at the festival last weekend. And I saw so much wonderful work including a an outstanding dance piece, I mentioned, Paul White before by Paul White and Narelle Benjamin, but because the festival led by Wesley Enoch, who's an Indigenous Australian and deeply committed to hearing to offering a platform for the voice of Indigenous artists. And because he's he made that commitment when he was up in Queensland running Queensland Theatre Company. There's many, many more Indigenous voices on the stages now one of them was wonderful dance piece by a Torres Straight Island dancer, Ghenoa Gela. And she tells she's been telling her story of her people for years with her body. And now she's using her voice where she's been empowered by being by receiving such positive responses from audiences. [23:25]
Andrew: And thinking of the work you did also in the Unlimited Festival profiling, you know, disabled artists and dance artists in telling their stories with their bodies in their way. And that profile really took off as well, didn't it.
Wendy Martin: Well that’s right. So I spent four and a half years in London. And the first job that I was asked to do when I arrived at South Bank Centre, was to curate a disability Arts Festival in parallel with the, with the Paralympics. And so, you know, I came in at the very beginning of that process as an outsider. And it was the most brilliant professional and personal journey to get to know the people in the world of disability are. And you know, when we talk about ideas before disabled artists do what they do because they've got a very powerful set of ideas they want to explore, and they want to open audience's perception to what it means to live with disability.
And one of the great artists that I met when I was living in the UK was a Scottish choreographer and performer Claire Cunningham. And over the years I was there I got to know her really well and commissioned work from her and I felt was really important when I landed in Perth that I maintained everything I learned and discovered working with artists who have a disability in the UK.
And so I made Claire an artist in residence for the 2016 Festival and we presented two works and and she also did a week long workshop in which artists came from across the country to work with her that really did that really did shift people's understanding in Perth of what it means to live to have a lived experience with disability because Claire addresses that in her work and you know she became she became the pin up girl of the festival. She's so smart and so charming that you know, the media utterly they completely fell in love with her and she was all over the radio and she's all over the TV and she was all over everything you know, page three pinup go. And by the last week of the festival, I was sort of having a farewell lunch with her in the final days at a at a restaurant sitting at a table on the street. And I had to abandon any any intention of a conversation because so many people wanted to stop and talk to her. Yes, we've we've actually maintained that commitment this year, we are we are, we've commissioned a new work and we have a partnership with DADAA, which is amazing disability, our organization based here in Perth. And you know, if I can walk away from the festival in 2019 when I finish and people understanding and acceptance of the idea of watching performance by people whose bodies are different and who whose perceptions of the world have different and if I take away something that that is lasting, I think that part of the job achieved. [27:01]
Andrew: And it's just it's actually creating a space for the stages to reflect the diversity of the communities in which should emerge I guess.
Wendy Martin: Now that's absolutely that. That's absolutely right. And I think at the heart of my artistic vision to the festival. In fact, the work that I've done since since I began working the performing arts is really to celebrate diversity and difference and again just sort of coming back to this is dance program and seeing a work from Taiwan might Beyond Time and seeing a work from Japan like Damien Jalet’s Vessel both of those shows and also we have the Whirling Dervishes of Damascus.
So all three shows a coming from very different spiritual belief systems. So in the in the cases Beyond Time from Taiwan, they made that work during a 50 day walking meditation. They are Tao Buddhists and they they made that work out of a walking meditation. Damien Jalet’s work is obsessed with the sort of worship of mountains that is very essential to Japanese culture and Shamanistic practices and Shinto Buddhism.
And then the Whirling Dervishes of Damascus, of course, come out of the spiritual side of Sufi the ancient practice of the dervishes in the incredible practice of whirling, endeavoring, you know, to be closer to a higher spirit. And if you look at what the performers are doing in Beyond Time, you're looking at what the dervishes are doing very much, it’s an endeavor to reach a kind of ecstatic state through mindfulness.
So the work is very different, but essentially although it’s coming from different places, they are endeavoring to travel to the same place. And so it's really interesting to see these work have the opportunity that didn't work side by side and explore a diversity of ideas and belief system. [29:48]
Andrew: Yes, how beautiful How beautiful. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy period for you. I really appreciate that.
Wendy Martin: That’s a great pleasure Andrew, thanks very much.