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Artist Profile| Michael Hennessy - Springing into integrated dance

Sprung!! Integrated Dance Theatre, based in the village of Tintenbar near Ballina in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales, is developing a new work, Encounters: Looking In, Looking Out under the artistic direction of former Sydney Dance Company dancer, Michael Hennessy.

The two year project, funded through the Regional Arts Fund, will develop interactive dance theatre modules that explore the effects of chance encounters on perceptions of identity, belonging, ability and disability, and how through encounters these perceptions can change.

Michael toured nationally and internationally with the Sydney Dance Company when it was under the direction of Graeme Murphy. After leaving the company, Michael freelanced as a choreographer and dance teacher on numerous projects including choreography for video clips, singers and fashion parades.

His work with Ausdance NSW on community dance and physical theatre projects took him to the Northern Rivers area for the Dance Now project. In 1993 he moved to the region and established and implemented the dance course at the Northern Rivers Conservatorium where he was Head of Dance until 2007.

Robyne Young asked Michael what had attracted him to join the company, and about the progress of the project.

I did a project with Sprung!! in 2013 where Robyn Brady, co-founder of the company asked me to perform a duo with her daughter Tara. As an older dancer, I had some reservations whether it would work, but I liked the project and the spirit behind it, so I devised a character and choreographed a duo with Tara and it did work.

Also, I saw “Dwell” one of Sprung!!’s early projects and I really enjoyed the company. Tara stood out as a dancer for me then, and now we get to work together. Tara and the other company dancers are inspirational and a joy to work with. There are some wonderful moments.

Had you worked with dancers with disabilities before?

I had.  When I was still with Sydney Dance Co I was approached by the Challenge Foundation in Melbourne to choreograph a work with their young people with cancer for a benefit performance. It was truly one of the most amazing experiences to work with those dancers and remains one of the best projects I have worked on.

Also, I’ve facilitated workshops for Canteen and in various community settings throughout my career. For example when I was working with NORPA (Northern Rivers Performing Arts) I had the opportunity to do some workshops with CandoCo, and Integrated Dance Company from London. They are a national and international touring company and for me epitomise the true nature and philosophy of integrated dance.

Is there an expectation of the standard dancers with a disability might  reach, or is it a case that what is important is  contributing to the performance?

I’ve always said Sprung!! is a company of dancers, some who happen to have a perceived disability … so the focus is always on dance and not on the disability. Obviously we take care and consideration for the disability, but it’s really what the dancers bring to the work and it’s been incredible. I love working with my dancers and seeing them grow as performers and as people. We continue to ask the questions “what is dance? what is it about? who’s it for? and who is it done by?”

In what ways, if any, has working with Sprung!! changed or developed a different way  of thinking when it comes to developing works?

I’m not sure if it has changed my way of thinking in terms of developing dance, but it certainly heightens the humanity and spirit that Sprung!! dancers bring to the work. One of the words I have been using a lot is “consideration”, so it works on many levels – consideration for one another, consideration for the task at hand, consideration for dance and movement and how it is performed. This is the area I get excited about and it’s what Sprung!! dancers bring to the work that I love.

In the Encounter  project interactive theatre modules that explore the effects  of chance encounters  on our perceptions of identity, belonging, ability and  disability are being  explored through workshops with  schools and other community groups. What has been the  response so far? What has been the response of the dancers?

So far Encounters is going very well, so much so that I can’t wait to get into production of the work in 2016.

We’ve been workshopping at our base in Tintenbar throughout the year and it is already starting to take shape … exploring the themes of “Identity, Ability and Belonging” some of which we showcased in our July workshops. The response from audiences was overwhelming and I love seeing our work put smiles on people’s faces. Some find it quite moving too.

Showcasing the work also gives me an opportunity to see how the work is developing and I can already start to see not only the realisation of the ideas, but the nuances and “feel” of the work. We are really fortunate to work with John Rado, our General Manager and a film maker, and Katrina Folkwell a photographer, so our work is always beautifully documented. Their work will also form part of the Encounters production.

Further to that in Term 2 we worked with the Special Ed unit at Mullumbimby High School. Max and Tara have been working with me as facilitators as well, not just dancers. I am really interested in our more experienced dancers leading some of our workshop tasks as part of their professional development and it is great to see Max and Tara grow as dancers and semi-professionals.

Also, we performed again at this year’s Lismore Lantern Parade, one of the region’s largest and most popular community events and also at the Harmony Festival in Mullumbimby. Performing in these events informs part of “Belonging” – so one dance piece is inspired by these events.

In September we will be collaborating with Byron Bay Youth Theatre, an established company of young local actors which will add another dimension to the “Encounters” project … and we have been invited by Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in Brisbane to perform and workshop there in the near future. That’s a project we are really looking forward to.

You’ve already mentioned that film and photography for a large part of the work, and this will be thew basis for creating a layered dance theatre/film performance with touring  potential. Is there further progress on this aspect of the project?

There is. We’re seeking funding for the next component Windows to Encounter which is a web based film work which will show interactive thematic Windows of the Company and dancers  with such themes as “Getting Around” that looks at how people with disability get to their various destinations; “Letting Go” – how independence is important and formed; “Hopes and Dreams” – the hopes and dreams of our dancers … so we plan to create several Windows to illustrate the life of Sprung!!

I am really excited to be part of  this company, and to lead such a wonderful group of dancers. It enriches me professionally and personally and I look forward to seeing “Encounters” unfold in 2016.

 

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