Traditionally dance has been thought of as a young person's game but does it have to be?
That's the question Nina Levy asks in "Dancing at any age", the first part of which ran in the August/September issue of Dance Australia, featuring an interview with renowned dance elder, Elizabeth Cameron Dalman. Part 2 of this series will include Q&As with a range of dance artists, including this interview with Katrina Rank, whose latest work for older dancers, The Right, is about to premiere at Dancehouse as part of Melbourne Fringe Festival.
Nina Levy: Tell me about your practice…
Katrina Rank: Dance as an expressive art form is deeply meaningful to me. I am a dancer. I have always been a dancer and always will be one. I aspire to be an artist who is brave, unashamed, strong and resilient. I’m still working on this.
I create dances for myself and for others. I teach Dance for Parkinson’s, in aged care settings, and I teach and make work for Fine Lines [an initiative that provides dance classes and projects for older dancers], which I founded in 2013. All the people I work with teach me something about the value of dance and its potential. They inform my practice and aesthetic as an artist. It has shown me that dance can be anything and often is.
And so my practice is anything and everything. It is art making and the art of teaching. It is the art of choreography, costume design and manufacture. It is writing about dance and movement. It is all stuffed into the swag of practice that I bring with me from place to place, project to project. I create short films and live work, on site and in theatres. I make these with both trained and untrained dancers. The most recent works include Stupendous, a film with Paris Wages, Andrew Garton and dancers with Parkinson’s disease, Birdwatching, a live solo work performed most recently at the BOLD Festival, The Archivists, a work for the City of Whittlesea in partnership with Ausdance Victoria, engaging local residents in live performance and film, performed again at the Bold Festival 2019.
Older dancers have a lifetime of experiences in both life and art. They have loved, raised families, suffered, grieved, built and rebuilt. They draw on decades of embodied knowledge and sensation.
NL: How do you feel you have changed as a dancer, over the years?
KR: I was drawn to expressionism even as a young dancer. I guess that’s why I became a ballet dancer and loved Graham technique. When I was young, I wanted opportunities where I could apply my advanced technique. I’d worked very hard to acquire it, so I suppose that’s fair. But young dancers rarely get a chance to be the artist they aspire to be. There are so many other young dancers out there trying to do it too, and structures that control development.
Now I don’t fret about the technique. I still try to maintain my skill, but I’m now aware that my body is a different one, altered by time, gravity, injury. I use my accumulated knowledge to help me engage better with the body I have now, not the one I used to have. I realise now that the technique is only a means to an end and for me, the end does not involve how high I can jump or how well I turn, so why worry?
As an older dancer I feel I have a better understanding of nuance and of doing more with less. I can channel attention to the smallest movement and I know, better than before, the power of stillness and breath. I am less self-conscious than I was. I’ve also learned patience, to listen to others who may have a better idea and to be thankful. I’m more creative because my instrument has altered. I have advanced arthritis in both ankles which can make me feel very limited at times. But these limitations offer more than they restrict and produce an unusual aesthetic that I really like.
NL: What are the positives of being an “older” dancer? And are the challenges different to those faced by younger dancers?
KR: There are many challenges both older and younger dancers face: finding appropriate performance opportunities, attracting funding, affordable training, making a living while making your art. The difference often lies in support and respect. We live in an ageist society with many prevailing assumptions and patronising attitudes. We assume older people have had their lives. It’s time to roll over and let others take the mantle.
But this is silly. The world is wonderful because of its infinite difference. An older dancer will never take a younger dancer’s place or vice versa. I like to think that youth dance and elders dance have more in common than not. They are simply different expressions of the human condition. They both strive to educate, advocate and show life as they see it. They seek opportunities to showcase talent and the power of dance to show a person as a creative, energetic force to be reckoned with. Youth with its vibrancy and enthusiasm is just as importance as experience and knowledge. Both seek. Both strive and both want recognition for who they are now.
Older dancers have a lifetime of experiences in both life and art. They have loved, raised families, suffered, grieved, built and rebuilt. They draw on decades of embodied knowledge and sensation. Their unique challenge is to accept and understand the body they have now, not an idealised body that will be acquired after years of training. And so, many training paradigms are no longer relevant. No one cares if we have flat turn out. No one gets a prize for moving faster or longer. We must unlearn some of the less useful teachings of the past and appreciate every moment of dance in ourselves and others.
My work and the work of the senior artists in this field tend to challenge the stereotypes around age and dance. We are not slow, dottering, ugly or quaint. We are not homogenous. We are as different as you are. And above all we have a sense of our own might.
NL: As an audience member, what do you enjoy about watching “older” dancers perform? What do you and your fellow senior dancers bring to the stage?
KR: I enjoy seeing older dancers who bring their unique selves to a role. I’m interested in learning something about them or their world view. I delight in seeing a mature dancer draw upon a lifetime of experiences, particularly if their instrument is nuanced and exact. Elizabeth Cameron Dalman and Eileen Kramer are inspiring, as are the many other mature dancers continuing their practice across this huge country.
I understand, but feel uncomfortable with, self-deprecating work. On one level I understand why we do it. It’s like cushioning the blow. “Hey we all get older. You’re gonna get wrinkly, slow, creaky etc.” But on another level, I rail against it because it is so one-dimensional and so diminishing. My work and the work of the senior artists in this field tend to challenge the stereotypes around age and dance. We are not slow, dottering, ugly or quaint. We are not homogenous. We are as different as you are. And above all we have a sense of our own might. We have self-determination, experience, drive and suffer no fools.
NL: How long have you been working with older dancers? And how did you come to work and research in this area?
KR: I’ve been working with older adults since 2006, a few years after completing my PhD. One of the things my study showed me was how story and memories are etched deeply into a person’s body. I began working with migrant groups, both recent and established, exploring their dance traditions and stories of migration. That was a deeply moving project which ended in the publication of a book and a sharing of practice between the groups. After this I was awarded the Caroline Plummer Community Dance Fellowship which was a six-month residency in New Zealand. I took this concept of physical etchings further and created a dance film and live performances of My Body is an Etching with participants over 60. It’s a theme I am continually drawn back to – the connection between story and embodiment.
I work part-time for Ausdance Victoria as Director for Education and Lifelong Learning. I’ve been working in this role for several years and have contributed to a national focus on seniors and the elderly. At one point, we had a huge number of enquiries for dance teachers for seniors in the community and the elderly in aged care and wondered if this was the beginning of something big. So, we applied for some funding and researched whether this was the case. And yes, it is. It’s an area of dance that will continue to grow as the last cohorts of Baby Boomers retire and others enter supported living. You can see the report in Leading and Teaching Dance to Ageing Populations.
Many will have learned how beneficial dance is to maintaining balance, coordination, flexibility and strength, while supporting neural health – key things that prevent falls, physical and cognitive decline. Others will be looking to engage with dance as an art form, to learn about history of art and dance, investigate choreographic themes, develop skill and refine artistry through classes, projects and performances. So, there is enormous potential for the dance Industry.
NL: Tell me about Fine Lines...
KR: Fine Lines was established in response to under-representation, lack of appropriate classes, performance opportunities for older dancers and loss of community.
Being a dancer is fundamental to many dancers’ identity, irrespective of age. However, in Australia, older dancers are notably discriminated against and discouraged from serious dance. They are overlooked, patronised, treated as hobbyists and denied opportunities to grow and achieve their potential. Many older dancers are vulnerable to mainstream suggestions they have nothing more to offer, unless it is self-deprecating. When one’s whole identity is indivisible from that of being a dancer, when one believes their best artistic years are yet to come, this is devastating and debilitating.
The people who come to Fine Lines are attracted to that level of serious engagement: we range from mid-30s to mid-70s. Many trained intensively (London Contemporary, Australian Ballet School, QUT, Lynn Golding, full time dance courses) and performed in professional and semi-professional contexts (Margaret Lasica’s Modern Dance Ensemble, Jacobs Pillow, One Extra, Meryl Tankard, The Australian Ballet, Northern Ballet Theatre, Victorian State Opera) and have worked with numerous Australian and international artists.
Through our projects and ongoing activities, we fight oppressive and pervasive attitudes towards older dancers, particularly women. We challenge prevailing stereotypes and seek to create an alternative aesthetic in dance where older performers’ ideas and physicality contribute to a broader cultural conversation. This advocacy work raises public awareness that older bodies can and do dance; can and do perform; and can do both well. I hope this will encourage and embolden other mature dancers to re-engage or continue their lifelong learning through dance.
Through our projects and ongoing activities, we fight oppressive and pervasive attitudes towards older dancers, particularly women. We challenge prevailing stereotypes and seek to create an alternative aesthetic in dance where older performers’ ideas and physicality contribute to a broader cultural conversation.
NL: And tell me about the work Fines Lines is presenting at Melbourne Fringe Festival, The Right…
KR: The Right references the Ballet Russes’ Rite of Spring, originally created by Nijinsky’s to Stravinsky’s musical score. We chose it because it is bold, uncompromising, has something to say and isn’t afraid to say it. Much like many of Fine Lines' dancers.
You can't do a Rite of Spring without reflecting on the sensational fact, that during its premiere in Paris in 1913, there was a riot. This was in the lead up to World War I. There were existing political tensions, including a strong anti-Russian sentiment fuelling the flames. There were lovers and detractors of The Ballet Russes and Nijinsky’s choreography was not universally loved. Stravinsky's score was barely heard in the first performance. Since that time there have been many notable versions of the work by well-known choreographers and companies.
Our Right is a roll into the scruff and tumble of contemporary politics. It reinterprets the Rite’s original theme of sacrifice for the greater good through that lens. We look at how idealism is compromised and ask: Do you really have to play the game?
Our Right is not very pretty. You’re unlikely to feel transported but you will be amazed at the vivacity, the power and the deviousness of the dancers. You will hear Stravinsky’s score, unaltered and as challenging now as it was back in 1913. There are many versions of The Rite of Spring but you’ll never see one like this again.
Pictured top: 'The Right', by Katrina Rank. Photo: Robert Wagner.