Acclaimed Australian dancer Daryl Brandwood doesn’t consider himself a choreographer and yet he is about to finish making his second work for Momentum Dance, Perth’s ground-breaking ensemble for dancers over 45. He told Nina Levy all about the chain of events that led him to make this unplanned move.
Dancers’ careers are notoriously short-lived. The physical demands that dance places on the body means that many retire in their 30s or earlier. And then there’s Daryl Brandwood, who began his career at West Australian Ballet (WAB) in 1990 and 22 years later won the Australian Dance Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Dancer, for his independent work HELIX (as well as various other awards and accolades in between). As anyone who saw his solo performance in that work will attest, it was a superhuman feat, testament to both his physical and artistic virtuosity.
Perth born and bred, Brandwood trained at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts before joining WAB. He went on to perform with The Australian Ballet and BalletMet (US), later returning to WAB, and then joining Expressions Dance Company from 2012 to 2016. Lithe and lean, he combines athleticism with absolute elegance. He is the kind of dancer who inspires in the viewer an insatiable greed for more. Selfishly, when I heard he was heading to Brisbane to join EDC, I was gutted.
In spite of his stellar career, Brandwood’s departure from EDC and return to Perth took place with no fanfare. When I admit to him, somewhat sheepishly, that I’m not sure when he returned, it turns out there’s a reason for that. “I left Expressions at the end of 2015 because my mum was really ill,” he explains. “It was a horrible time for me within the company. When someone in your family is sick your mind finds everything else unimportant. So [my time with EDC] ended not really nicely. My career wound up – it wasn’t all because of my mum – it was time. I’d been with the company three years, I didn’t feel like I had any more to give and I wasn’t in a good headspace.”
For the first twelve months after returning to Perth, dance was far from Brandwood’s mind. “With mum so ill, it was an awful year,” he recalls. “I don’t know where I was that year. I didn’t even tell anyone I was here. I didn’t feel like having anything to do with dancing for a while.”
But Perth is a small town, and eventually word got out that Brandwood was back. “All these little things fell into place,” he says. “I went in to do class at West Australian Ballet and Nicole Ward [WAB’s access co-ordinator] asked me if I’d like to teach some of the public classes, so I’m doing a little bit there. Perth School of Ballet approached me to coach some really talented boys. I thought I didn’t want to work with children or ballet schools particularly, but it’s been a really lovely, welcoming place and the kids really listen and apply [feedback]. So that’s been nice.”
And then there is Brandwood’s work with Momentum Dance, Perth’s relatively new contemporary dance ensemble for dancers over 45. The group knew that Brandwood was in town because his sister is a member of the ensemble. He was initially asked to come in as a relief teacher when a regular teacher was ill, he recalls. “Then they asked me if I’d like to choreograph for [their premier public season] ‘Unstoppable’ and they’ve asked me back for this year’s season, ‘Unbreakable’.”
There is mild surprise in Brandwood’s voice as he recounts this development, perhaps because he doesn’t think of himself as a choreographer. “I love creating small things, and I enjoy it, but I’m not someone who aspires to choreograph,” he reflects. “I have some nice ideas and I just try to do something the dancers feel good about and that suits them, but also challenges them at the same time.”
Brandwood’s work for Momentum’s “Unbreakable” season is called Journeying, and will be performed alongside another new work, Preludium, by dancer and choreographer Richard Cilli. While Brandwood may not perceive himself as a choreographer, listening to him talk about making Journeying he does sound remarkably like one.
“I thought about this group of mature dancers,” he says. “I based the work on little episodes of their lives – one section around childhood memories, one section around adolescent memories, a section on losing someone… a mother, a father figure in your life. Another section is about a passionate relationship in your life, something you wish you could go back to, something you dream about. I also thought about the way birds migrate over huge distances and they all go together… I saw that as a metaphor for us, flying together on a journey.
“I’ve got live musicians in this piece, too, violin/guitar duo Four on Six. They provide half of the music and the rest is recordings. It’s been so lovely working with the musicians and a new challenge for the dancers, because they get to work with live music and it’s so different [to dancing to a recording].”
For Brandwood, after a 26 year career as a professional dancer, Momentum is a very different context in which to be working. “There are challenges,” he remarks. One of these is that the group only rehearses once a week. And even then, not all the dancers are able to attend every week. “One dancer had open-heart surgery – and she’s still in the show! – another dancer I lost through a meniscus tear,” he explains. “We’ve a few go overseas. And they’re mothers, they’ve got families… there are things that come up. So I’ve really not had all the dancers very often.”
But it’s clear that, whatever hurdles have to be cleared, Brandwood relishes working with the Momentum dancers. “What I love is about working with mature dancers is that, talking to them about what they love about dancing, two things come up. Most people think it’s about fitness, which is a big part of it… but the first thing they mention is about picking up material, keeping the mind active… and I know that they’re picking up material faster than last year. The other thing they’ve mentioned to me, which is really beautiful, is that there are very few activities where you get to have self-expression. In the dance they have a chance to express, bring emotions up, feel something.”
I almost can’t bring myself to ask Brandwood if he has any plans to return to the stage; it seems… unreasonable to ask when he has already given so much. To my delight, however, he reveals that he does, indeed, hope to perform again. “I’ve just started getting my body a little bit into shape, doing class with a wonderful teacher, Denise Nunn,” he says with a smile. “It’s only dawned on me recently that I left dance in a really negative headspace. I had a great career, and I don’t regret [leaving company life], but I would love to do something small, something independent, possibly solo… but nothing on the scale of HELIX. I’ve got a lot of ideas and have put out a couple of feelers here and there to a few people… so possibly, if I can get in enough shape to really move well, I’d like to get together something small.”
I’m sure I’m not the only Brandwood fan who is thrilled by these words.
Pictured top: Daryl Brandwood rehearsing Momentum dancers. Photo: Damian Doyle.