by Neil Nisbet

Jeni Sutton (above left) and Eliza McNeill (above right) are students at the Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts in Perth, Western Australia. Currently in the graduate company "Link" the pair spoke to Article19 back in March about studying dance on the Australian west coast.

Article19: Describe an average day at WAAPA and how you came to be on the course to begin with?

Jeni: Arrive in the morning for either a ballet or a contemporary class then go straight into rehearsals usually. At the moment, because we’re doing a show in two weeks, we’re rehearsing probably 4 hours per day on the one piece and if there’s spare time we work on our own choreography.

Eliza: Well Jenni and I moved to Perth about 3 years ago from Sydney and went to WAAPA (Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts). The we auditioned at the end of our course and both got accepted into Link (4th Year performance company), to do an extra year

Jeni: So we’ve now been at the academy for 4 years by the end of this year. But you have to audition at the very beginning to do the course in the first place. So if you don’t get accepted into the course you have no chance of getting accepted into Link either. You have to have graduated from the course to get into the company.

Article19: What techniques do you study here?

Eliza: Everything! Mainly we did contemporary and then classical ballet as our second style but we also did circus skills, jazz, yoga, martial arts. Just anything that they [the teachers] thought would benefit us and give us a wide range of skills for the contemporary field. We also did a lot of theoretical work like studying anatomy [and so on] and choreography was a big part of the training.

Jeni: We did improvisation and duet work and things like that. Just a lot of time for us to really create our own things rather than just sitting in the classroom and listening to what someone else has to say. You have a big input in the course.

Article19: Do you study Cunningham and Graham?

Jeni: In first year you do Cunningham and Graham the whole year, you don’t get to do much else other than that, so if you make it past the first year you’ve already succeeded in doing something (laughs). But Graham; we did two to three times per week and Cunningham at least once or twice per week. So, you start very strong [laughs] then you get to venture out more into the, I guess you would say, the original side of contemporary things after that, meaning; each individual dance teachers style.

Article19: What’s the best part of studying dance in WAAPA

Eliza: Performances! Getting different choreographers coming in and offering you something that you haven’t had before. We only really perform two or three times per year, one being a student work season, that’s pretty good as well because you get to do your own piece and they do the lights and you get your own costumes and we’re actually doing that again this year. In Link we have a season at a theatre in Northbridge in the city.

Jeni: They [the school] don’t just get anyone of the street that no one has heard of. At an academy like this we’ve had Annette Hassle, who’s running the place, who brought contemporary dance to Australia, [she] started one of the first contemporary dance companies that ever came to Australia. [Having] her running the academy is just so beneficial because when you go overseas they know who she is.

Article19: Who has been your most influential choreographer?

Eliza: Well, this piece that we’re actually doing at the moment, that was Olivia Millards piece. A few of us [performed] it at the end of last year. So we have only just started back a few weeks ago and we’re teaching a couple of the other girls that weren’t in the piece. So that’s the one that we have been working on the most and rehearsing with and cleaning it up. She [Olivia] is pretty amazing.

Jeni: There’s someone who’s coming actually next month who, I wasn’t in his piece when he choreographed here before but just watching it influenced me more than anything. His name is Philip Addams and he’s based in Melbourne. He’s coming to work on us and I just can’t wait because when I saw his last piece I said “I wanna’ do that!” [laughs] So, yeah! People like him are a big influence

Eliza: Becky Hilton, she’s from Melbourne,

Jeni: She’s actually in Chunky Move!

Eliza: So there’s that whole Melbourne way of moving and because we are so far away we don’t really get to do much of that sort of stuff. So that’s pretty awesome when we get to do class with them and we see a whole new style of movement. We’ve also had Kim McCarthy who’s been over to Europe, it was a contemporary ballet [style] which was something different and that was quite interesting and a really good way of moving as well.

Jeni: I would say as well is that working with someone like Justin Ritzou who came from a company called Expressions, they do a lot of task based things, they don’t just dance. They start with a feeling and an emotion and a story and then they create movement from that. You have to remember the story and the feeling you felt when you said it the first time while you’re dancing. Just learning to move like that made you realise that you don’t just have to dance you can really tell somebody something through what you’re doing. Working with him was just a really big advantage in learning a whole new way to move.

Eliza: He’s pretty cool with tasks a well, we get really good choreographers who are really task based and it’s a really good way for us to develop our skills and stuff and for making our own works.

Article19: How do you see your career path developing?

Jeni: I’ve actually been offered work touring to the UK doing cabaret and jazz because my other passion is doing musical theatre on the side of this [contemporary dance]. I love contemporary dance and hopefully I will get a job in contemporary dance. But at the moment I’m going to the UK next year to do a performing arts festival there doing Chicago the musical or perhaps the Rocky Horror Show, they’re not quite sure. But I’ve just recently finished performing in Chicago so I’m hoping to get into that.

I also have a base in Hip Hop as well and I’d really like to get into my Hip Hop side of things. But if I don’t I would actually prefer to go to Asia and work with some of the contemporary companies over there because I think they’re onto something and there are a lot of contemporary companies over there. I have actually been to Europe before and I’d like to see a different part of the world so that’s where I’m heading [laughs].

Eliza: I would love to be in a contemporary company and I really want to be a contemporary dancer but in Australia it’s virtually impossible because there are just so few jobs and so little funding. My mum’s Irish and I’ve got family over there so I would love to go over to Europe and do some auditions. I would also love to go to Asia and see [contemporary dance] in a different light.

Jeni: Just travel and be a dancer and get paid to do it, that’s the dream [both laugh]. It’s slightly unrealistic but some people can do it so why can’t we?

Article19: What’s your experience of dance from other countries?

Jeni: We have a really extensive video library here, so in one of our classes, dance history, every week we sit down and see dance from all over the world. So that is a huge advantage from that part of the course because that’s where we see it, in class, we don’t get to see much on that stage.

Eliza: I guess when we go back east [Eastern Australia] we get to see a lot more than normal Perth people. You get to see Mark Morris and Twyla Tharpe.

Jenni: We get more American companies than anything else. Americans are really keen to come down under and see what we have going for us as well. A lot of Australians have gone to America to dance as well, there’s a big exchange there. But European wise we don’t get enough. We don’t get that many teachers coming in either, we [also] don’t get many workshops which we would love to get more of. There was a new Zealand company that came over and did a workshop.

Eliza: That was Black Grace, I did that and that was really awesome to do because that was there culture mixed in with contemporary so that was really great to do.

Jeni: We just need more of that I think. You find that all the good Australian dancers are overseas which is a real shame because we keep losing them and we actually need them to stay and build up Australian companies. [I think] that’s a big problem. I can see myself travelling but I hope that Australia will always be my base. And I’m hoping that the girls we’re working with now will also be the same, travel to get the experience, come back and build the best Australian company ever.

Eliza: WA [Western Australia] is so big and there is not a single, strictly contemporary company in the whole of WA. There’s Buzz and they do education and a bit of contemporary but there is no company that gets yearly funding or anything like that. So next year we want to try and do some independent stuff and try and apply for grants, try and do more work as a group and try to hold it together instead of at the end of the year that’s it . [We want] to try and get sponsors but it’s just really difficult.

Article19: Which dance companies really stand out in your experience, and what’s your impression of dance in Europe?

E: La La La Human Steps. We watched them a lot on video then myself and another guy did a repertoire thing so we had to research them a bit and they were pretty awesome. Same with DV8.

J: everyone over here loves DV8, they should come back [laughs]. I saw them why they came [before] about 4 years ago. I got into the London Contemporary Dance School but I couldn’t afford it so that’s why I chose here and my mum didn’t want me to go [laughs] but I think it’s something like £30,000 per year and I would struggle to raise 30,000 Australian dollars. I think it’s a shame that Europe is just so expensive because it’s hard for all of us to want to be there, we want to go but it’s just impossible.

E: because we really want to tour this company, that’s on the cards, but at the moment we will probably tour Australia. [the company] went to France last year to dance in the festival over there and I think they got standing ovations, they did really well.

J: but the lady that set that up has gone overseas, conveniently, for 6 months and she’s the one that organises the whole thing so we’re not to sure what’s going to happen with that this year.

Article19: How hard is it to be a dance student in Australia?

J: Hard work! Financially it’s hard as well but fortunately in Australia we have something called the HECS scheme which is the Higher Education Contribution Scheme. The government will pay for you while you are at university and once you start earning over a certain amount, once you have a full time job you slowly start paying it back. They take it from your taxes straight away. So financially at the moment we are kind of surviving because we don’t have to pay for it now.

E: Because these courses are full time, especially the three years prior to this, that was eight in the morning until six at night every day, you never got weekends because we were always doing stuff. Now it will end up being just as much when the new choreographers come in. But it’s pretty difficult because most people have come interstate so you have to get a part time job to support you because you’ve got to pay rent and stuff like that. But it makes you stronger [laughs]

J: It makes you more determined, a course like this, because you’ve got nothing outside of your course for three years. If you can socialise once a week then you are incredibly talented [laughs] because there is just no time for that. Everyone works at coffee shops or bars.

Article19: Are you positive about the future?

E: I would like to be doing this for the rest of my life. It’s really a huge passion and I have dropped everything to [do all of this] but you have to be a little realistic and think that the best sometime don’t make it and I’m lucky to have even experienced what I have here. Especially just doing this Link year has made me realise that if I’m getting to work with some amazing choreographers and dancers it’s nice to know and comforting that it’s at the academy. But if I don’t get any further than this, as hard as I’ll try, I can still say that I have performed and done this.

J: It’s hard to stay positive being a dancer because you know how hard the industry is but we’ve gotten this far and not many people get into the company, [in fact] not many people get into the academy let alone the graduate company. There were about 600-700 people across Australia that auditioned for our course the year we were accepted. 30 people in and then seven people from that go through into the company. To know that we are that far in Australia and we’re still 21 then hopefully in a couple of years when we’re reaching our peak and we’re still auditioning someone will find us [laughs].

E: We’re pretty lucky as well because there are institutions like WAAPA over in the East [of Australia] and they don’t have a graduate company. I have friends that went to them and now they’re out of a job. They graduated last year and now they’re basically teaching dance and I would feel quite upset if that’s where I was . It would be just so negative to come out and be in that environment of not being able to do what you really love when you have worked so hard.