Dance, Features, News, Performing arts

A manager and a maker

Denmark-based choreographer and creative producer Annette Carmichael has been short-listed, together with collaborator James Gentle, for a prestigious Australian Dance Award. Over a cup of tea, Nina Levy found out more about this multi-talented maker and manager.

Annette Carmichael
Annette Carmichael. Photo: Jessica Wyld.

When Annette Carmichael moved from Perth down to the WA town of Denmark back in 2006, she didn’t imagine she’d find herself working as a choreographer. Although she trained in dance for many years, Carmichael was firmly established in her career as an arts manager (albeit one specialising in dance), and had worked with the likes of West Australian Ballet, STEPS Youth Dance Company, Buzz Dance Theatre, STRUT Dance and the Festival of Perth (now Perth Festival) in that capacity.

But fast forward to 2018 and Carmichael has been shortlisted for the competitive Australian Dance Award for Outstanding Achievement in Community Dance, for her role as choreographer of The Beauty Index, alongside sound designer and collaborator James Gentle. Described as “daring and divine” by Seesaw critic Amy Wiseman, the contemporary dance work explores vulnerability, strength, terror and beauty, and was created on and performed by a cast of men from the Great Southern region of WA, most of whom had no formal dance training prior to the project. The Beauty Index was performed at Denmark’s Brave New Works Festival in November 2017.

So how did an arts manager find herself making as well as managing?

“I moved down to Denmark at the end of 2006,” recalls Carmichael. “Community arts practice was, and is, pretty strong here. I met up with Nari Lees, who’s a dancer based here, and Paul Doquile, a great legend of community arts, who, very sadly, has since died. So they were here and I arrived and I was an arts manager, and they were like, ‘No, but you dance! Come! Come and do things!’ They were so inviting. So we started doing things.”

Carmichael was no stranger to community dance at a management level. As WA regional dance facilitator at Ausdance WA between 2009 and 2013 she founded and implemented the ground-breaking Future Landings project, a model that uses dance as a means of animating regional communities.

Her motivation for making her own community dance work, however, is artistic rather than altruistic she tells me, and hugely rewarding at that level. From her first project with Doquile and Lees, a piece for male dancers entitled MoveMENt, Carmichael was won over by the artistic satisfaction she found in making community contemporary dance works.

‘You can go incredibly complex with community dance.’ A page from Carmichael’s notebook showing the score for the Vigil, from ‘The Beauty Index’.

“It’s so challenging artistically,” she reflects. “You can go incredibly complex with community dance. You might have a limited palette of movement so your scoring has to be really interesting.” Carmichael opens up her choreographic notebook to a page full of numbers. “This is the score for the Vigil (a section from The Beauty Index). So each person has their own score and they intersect at different times. That’s the level of complexity you can go to in community practice, but within the constraints of what the performers can do and what movements have meaning for them.”

Currently Carmichael is working on a new work for 16-26 year olds, entitled A Light Shade of Red. It’s chapter II of “The Beauty Index” trilogy, Carmichael explains, with chapter III planned for 2020.

A Light Shade of Red will go into the Albany Entertainment Centre in October,” she says. “It’s part of the lead up to centenary of Armistice Day. In 2014 I made a work called My War? and that was for the centenary of the flotilla departing from Albany. That laid some of ground work for A Light Shade of Red, which is about being in a liminal, transitional space. When we spoke to veterans, in consultation for My War?, they talked to us about this feeling when you’re about to come home that’s really complex. You’re so connected to your fellow soldiers, you’ve been keeping each other alive for months and then you go home, and it’s weird. You’re doing things like mowing the lawn, and trying to relate to people again. A Light Shade of Red is looking at being on brink of change, and that sensation of hope and anxiety.

“I chose to work with 16-26 year olds to make A Light Shade of Red because they seem to experience that state often in terms of finishing school, leaving home, those kinds of things. So they have a real empathy for that. Also the soldiers were around that age, so it makes sense. It’s not narrative, it’s not based in historical fact, but about this sense of being on the edge of something.”

Men walking across the stage
A scene from Annette Carmichael’s Australian Dance Award nominated work, ‘The Beauty Index’. Photo: Nic Duncan.

In comparison to the austere aesthetic of The Beauty Index, the feel of  A Light Shade of Red will be very different, says Carmichael. “A Light Shade of Red has got this stronger sense of saturation, hope and abundance in it.”

While the theme of A Light Shade of Red was the catalyst for using younger members of the community as performers, Carmichael’s early plans for the third part of the trilogy have been made in response to community demand, she says. “I think that the final chapter of ‘The Beauty Index’ trilogy will be a work for 200 women,” she reveals. “That decision is really driven by the fact that we get women come by here and they look at that poster for A Light Shade of Red and they go, ‘I’m too old for it!’ I’m being asked a lot at the moment, by women, ‘When is our work?’ So this is basically responding to that. But it also feels right that the final chapter will be large women’s work.”

While 2020 may seem a long way off, Carmichael has already begun thinking about the creative process, during a four week residency at Albany Entertainment Centre, funded by Country Arts WA, to make a quartet for local dancers Summer Addy, Holly Carter,  Symnatha Parr and Tash Rolfe. “That quartet will probably seed the 2020 work,” she muses.

At a broader level, and with her arts manager hat on, Carmichael is thrilled by the growing demand that she sees for locally made performing arts, thanks to both her own project, Future Landings, and Circuit West (an arts membership organisation that exists to build connections between its members and stakeholders, to benefit WA audiences). “There is definitely an increase in appetite for contemporary dance and theatre works to be made regionally,” she concludes.

A Light Shade of Red premieres alongside a remount of The Beauty Index at Albany Enterainment Centre 19-20 October.

Pictured top: L-R Alex Pyke, Alexander Grace, Adrian Baer in ‘The Beauty Index’ by Annette Carmichael. Photo: Nic Duncan.