Larissa McGowan and Chris Scherer

Vitalstatistix spoke with artists Chris Scherer and Larissa McGowan who are both developing solo dance works through a partnership between Vitalstatistix and Performance & Art Development Agency (PADA).

Chris is a South Australian-born cross-disciplinary artist and performer currently working between Berlin and Australia. Larissa is a SA-based choreographer and dancer, who has worked and toured widely with Australia Dance Theatre and now works independently.

Vitals: Could you each tell us about your artistic practice?

Larissa McGowan: I am a contemporary dancer and choreographer and I love challenging myself to find new body pathways. I am always working to develop movement that I haven’t explored before. This is always going to be a challenge as the body wants to develop and learn your natural body pathways. I find it difficult yet exhilarating to challenge it.

My artistic practice is always made more interesting by using a collaborative process. I work closely with a director and a dramaturg to challenge my ideas and to develop a stronger overall concept or vision.

Dance is a visual and ephemeral world that allows us to feel things through our body. I love being able to evoke a feeling for an audience through the emotive qualities dance can offer.

Chris Scherer: My artistic practise is always jumping around and is super specific to what I’m working on/with. My story is basically this: I danced as a kid and then quit when I became more interested in theatre as a teenager. I went to acting school at AC Arts and then, once I had graduated, decided to go through the dance program to get in touch with my body again.

The goal at the time was to do more experimental theatre, not to become a dancer… and then it kinda just happened. I was really into making films and devising work and then I moved to Europe. It was only when I was there [in Europe] that I realised I had a pretty flexible skill set.

I don’t think I’ve ever worked in a traditional artistic form, like dancey-dance or a classical play (which I’m starting to think could be kind of fun) but it does make it hard to articulate a clear practice. I just do what I do, I don’t think I can be any more articulate than that. Whatever I feel like the work needs, I give it a go. What do they say? Jack of all trades, master of none?

V: You are each developing solo works about iconic artists who inspire your own artistic practice. Chris, your work Duncan responds to the philosophies of dance pioneer Isodora Duncan; Larissa, your work Cher explores the persona and characters of this singer, actress, icon, and ultimate pop chameleon. Could you tell us about these women and why you are investigating them?

LM: As a woman, I am constantly drawn to those iconic female figures that have somehow paved a way for empowering us. I love how Cher has been able to move with the times. She has remained relevant by doing this and has repeatedly reinvented herself through various personas. She is able to transform by breaking convention and challenging the system while remaining a constant in a male dominanated entertainment industry. She has qualities that rings true for me as an artist and help me question my ideas, work and presence within my industry.

CS: I have been researching Isadora for quite some years now. In 2014 I made a dance work with AC Arts students called Izzy D, which was actually shown as a double bill alongside Larissa’s work.

I find Isadora to be such an incredible woman. The more I read about her, the more she inspires me. Isadora was really such a radical and pivotal artistic figure in history. Her work is hugely significant for many reasons, but to me, I am continually impressed by her commitment to, and belief in, her work. She really had a dream for dance.

She was a social and political radical. She practiced free love, advocated for women’s rights and was a living symbol of revolt and revolution. She was an educator and an intellectual.

V: How are you each exploring these women through the art works you are creating?  What is your approach?

LM: I feel like Cher is more of a totem for the overall theme of the work. The work is forming ideas around reinvention and changing with the times. The work can explore all of these things and play with gender roles; power and dominance; popular culture and identity.

I think this will be a work that shows transformation and power but also over-the-top entertainment. And with the range of stimulus to work from it will be a crazy experience – I am particularly excited to play with auto-tuning.

CS: I’m using the work of Isadora Duncan as an artistic score. I’m looking at her contributions to art; her influence on other artists of the time and her work as an educator. I’m trying to capture her radical, intellectual and political qualities. And I am really trying to honour her ideology, and working method, while generating something suited to a contemporary context in my own artistic voice.

I’ve been inspired by Isadora, but in Duncan I have tried to use an expanded choreography that questions what her work could have been now.

Isadora encouraged her pupils to have a sense of authorship – so I have taken plenty!

V: You have both spent time working and training in South Australia; what do you think is particular about being here as an artist?

LM: I think SA has an excellent range of artists from many fields and this allows for a more collaborative way of working. For a close-knit community it really thrives on developing ideas and finding unique ways to put art out there.

SA is the festival state but this also happens all year round on different scales and I believe people here are keen to see work of any level.

CS: I love the sense of community in South Australia. I have always felt really supported by peers and people working within the industry. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Adelaide is smaller (than say Berlin) and a lot of artists have come through the same institutions here. I think it generates a warmth and long-term relationships within the industry.  Well this is my experience – to be honest I don’t know what people say behind my back! ;)

V: What are some current key influences (ideas, collaborators, other artists, other forms or experiences) on your practice? What excites you about dance globally at the moment?

LM: I have recently been interested in popular culture themes to help an audience understand, or be more engaged in, the abstract world of contemporary dance. Movies, music, video games – anything that connects us to our own reality or has become a part of our everyday life – I am able to combine these themes with an abstract style of movement.

I am also still fascinated by the human body and how it moves. So I guess I will always come back to making movement that tests how far the body can actually go.

CS: Over the last few years I have been ping-ponging between a theatre context and a visual art context in the work I’ve had as a performer. Although there is a vast difference in what I do, and how I do it, I have to remind myself that my body doesn’t really morph that radically. Working in this way has been a major influence in the type of work I am making with Duncan. I have this diverse performative history, and now I am just selecting what to pull out. I can’t deny that working with colleagues, and for employers, has really helped shape the work I am making. Their influence is too strong to ignore.

What excites me about dance at the moment is that it is super open. It can be anything.

V: Your creative development with Vitals/PADA will end with a public showing of your work-in-development. What are the benefits of putting work in front of an audience while you are in the process of making it? How does it contribute to your process?

LM: It is always a blessing to test ideas on an audience. I feel a work is only finished, or fully put together, once it has been observed. Art is about connecting and I can only develop my ideas further after constructive feedback.

CS: For this process specifically, having a work-in-progress showing for the public really shifted the way I approached the development with Vitals/PADA. I have spent many months working on Duncan, but I was really caught in my head. I was working through it conceptually, doing a lot of research – diving deeper and deeper in an attempt to build what I hope is a strong ideology – but once I got to the studio I knew I had to apply it.

This really was a major step and was super hard. I don’t know if I would have made this step if I didn’t have the push of having to show something. Of course I have been in this position before, but with this project specifically it was a major challenge. When you are working alone, sometimes a strong push ‘like now I really have to do it’ is what you need.

V: You have both worked with larger institutions, as well as having your own independent practice. What is the value of working with smaller organisations like PADA and Vitals –what do you get out of a relationship with an organisation?

LM: It is extremely necessary to work with smaller organisations. I feel like the work is strengthened even more by the people curating them.

The close relationships between independent artist and smaller organisations often means working much more closely together on a project, the artist’s vision, and the overall outcome. I also like seeing my work performed in places and spaces I wouldn’t normally use. Smaller organisations are truly amazing at finding a way to make art happen.

CS: I love working between larger and smaller institutions. Firstly the type of audiences you reach are very different. You only have to look around at the audience within different sized organisations/venues to realise that.

Generally speaking, I have found that when working with smaller organisations (such as Vitals/ PADA) the artistic community is more concentrated in these venues. This is always nice, especially in terms of constructive feedback and for a sense of community and support. The support from within the organisation is also important in facilitating the project to the final stages, rather than just programing finished works. Additionally, working closely with people within smaller institutions has helped me clarify and refine my ideas.

On a practical level, the types of support I have received from Vitals and PADA would not have been possible from larger institutions. Whether the programs are there or not, I am still developing my practice and my career is still evolving. But in saying this, I think working within larger institutions and for ‘larger’ names has also given me experiences that have made opportunities available in smaller institutions. Somehow for me, this has gone hand in hand.

V: How do you feel about the role of artists and art in the current conservative global climate?

LM: Hmm, I have personally found it very challenging to make work and develop ideas with the funding opportunities currently available. I would like to know that my work has a way to be seen and toured after developments or small performance outcomes. I always feel sad knowing that a work only has a certain life span due to lack of money or assistance for independent artists.

I also feel like dance has become so commercialised that contemporary art is becoming a style that people just don’t go and see because they think they don’t understand it. I hope people can become more informed about art and the positive impact it can have on a healthy mind, and creativity and a wider view of the world. It can teach us to be open and question our own feelings and opinions about the world.

CS: We gotta keep going!

But, really, it is one of my motivations for making Duncan. Given the dominant ideology of our times: neoliberalism, I’m interested in addressing notions of individual freedom, democratic artistic space and the lineage of revolutionary trailblazers.

V: What’s up next for you, after us?

LM: I have a second stage development of a work called Owning the Moment. The work looks at our needs and desires to acquire things. It allows the audience to bid and remove parts of the work from the show; allowing them to change the viewed performance for the entire audience. I’m making it in collaboration with Sandpit – we are currently exploring how this acquisition can be made possible with technology.

CS: I have some really nice gigs coming up – I can’t talk super specifically about them as they have not been publically announced – but I have work in Bulgaria, Russia and Switzerland taking me through to the end of the year. After that, who knows?

There are also shows in Berlin with Schaubühne, where I am a guest artist, and I have a few new projects up my sleeve.  I plan on getting stuck into my own work between travels as I try to keep up with making while working for others.

You gotta mix it up!