Ahead of the premiere of his first full length work, Valentine, choreographer and dancer Kynan Hughes talks to Nina Levy about his life in dance.
I first met Kynan Hughes at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA). The year was 1998 and we were both starting first year. Although 16 year old Hughes was the baby of the group and I was nearly the oldest at the grand old age of 23, I rarely thought about the age difference when we worked together. A deft and beautiful mover, Hughes was an old soul, sensitive and highly creative. I never thought to ask him why he chose to leave school early, perhaps because it was clear from the start that he was going to flourish at WAAPA.
In fact, he tells me 20 years later, the decision to leave was fuelled by his absolute conviction that he wanted to dance, coupled with an intense dislike of school. “I was desperately unhappy at high school,” he remembers. “I liked learning things, but I didn’t like everything else about it.”
WAAPA was a revelation to Hughes. “I feel like I hit the jackpot with my year group. I had a really supportive home life and a really supportive peer group who were more than happy to have a 16 year old running around with them. It was the first time that I felt great in the education system.”
It dawns on me, somewhat belatedly given our two decades of friendship, that I have also never asked Hughes how he came to dance in the first place. “My story about how I got started is fun in one way and about necessity in another,” he tells me. “When I was about 18 months old I came down with this thing called Kawasaki disease… it’s a relatively rare auto-immune disease. It slowed my movement development, which meant that as a child I wasn’t very physically adept. Sport at school was hell for me. Climbing on monkey bars I really sucked at. All those things that are a great joy, I had trouble with. So as a little guy I wasn’t very physical at all.”
The turning point? Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. “When I was 8, I was in the lounge room at a friend’s place watching TV and ABC put on a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film. And I loved it. I thought it was one of the most amazing things I’d ever seen. My mum remembers me going home that night and shuffling around and pretending to tap dance.
“Shortly after that I was at a birthday party, and all the mums were in the kitchen. A new dance school was offering adult tap dance classes and one of the mums said, ‘I’ll only do it if Kynan’s mum does it,’ and my mum surprised the other mum by saying ‘Sure!’”. The class happened to be on night dad had to teach late at TAFE, so I was taken along to the class and because I had just seen Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, I wanted to join in. So I did… and that was how it all started for me.
I don’t know what I’d be like as an adult, in my body, if I hadn’t done dance.
Soon Hughes was taking ballet and jazz classes as well. “My mum was really worried because she had spent my entire life to that point dealing with the distress that comes when you’re not as physically co-ordinated as other kids. As an adult she told me, ‘You were so excited and I was so worried it would be another thing you couldn’t do,’ but it actually helped. In that way it was a necessity. I don’t know what I’d be like as an adult, in my body, if I hadn’t done dance.”
It’s not surprising that Hughes finds it difficult to imagine life without dance. He has worked with an impressive range of companies and artists, including Leigh Warren and Dancers (where he got his first break), Dancenorth, Buzz Dance Theatre, Natalie Weir, Emmanuel Gat, Kenneth Kvarnstrom, Chrissie Parrott, Sue Peacock, James Berlyn, Sally Richardson and Natalie Cursio… and, of course, three years with Sydney Dance Company (SDC).
Hughes tells the story of his successful audition for one of the country’s most prestigious dance companies with customary self-deprecating humour. Although he had always wanted to dance with SDC, when an audition opportunity came up shortly after the appointment of current director Rafael Bonachela, he felt like it was “out of [his] league”. After encouragement from friends, he sent in his application on the day of the deadline. An invitation to audition arrived the next day.
At the time he was working with Leigh Warren and Dancers in Adelaide. “So I flew in to Sydney and I walked into the room and there were all these hardcore, amazing dancers in their unitards,” Hughes recalls. “The audition was intense. We did a ballet class first. I was right at the front of the room because it was alphabetical and that was where “H” landed up, right in front of the panel and I thought, ‘I’m screwed. Ballet at this point? Not my strong suite.’ I think I was in the third class of the day – they had a huge number of people auditioning. So I wrote myself off, and thought, ‘At least I can look around Sydney.’
“But I didn’t get cut. So we went into repertoire, and each time there’d be a cut, I’d think, ‘Ok, this is it. And then we got to the end of the day and they said, these are the people we’re keeping for tomorrow’ and my name was called out. I got back to my hotel – it was an airport hotel because I thought I’d be flying out fairly shortly – and I was so sore, so chronically sore! I remember getting into the bath and thinking, ‘How am I going to dance tomorrow?’
I remember getting into the bath and thinking, ‘How am I going to dance tomorrow?’
“The next day we rocked up at nine in the morning and it was a two-hour Cunningham technique class. I was like, ‘Well this will be it. I can hardly walk…’ but to my surprise I was still not shunted out the door. So we did more repertoire. Then we finished the day with improv and I think that’s probably what got me the the job. I think Raf was looking for people who could really contribute to the creative process.”
Hughes danced with SDC for three years, 2009 – 2011, and describes his time with the company as a whirlwind. “It’s a machine,” he observes. “It’s wonderful, it’s terrible, it’s all-encompassing. You get home, you eat, you sleep, you go back the next day and you dance really hard. It’s amazing to be a part of that. I watch the company now, and I have to pinch myself to remember I did do that. It doesn’t seem possible now.”
While Hughes’ entry into SDC was a fairy tale, his decision to retire from company life and return to Perth was wrapped in reality. “The decision to leave was twofold,” he explains. “I hit 30 and I went, ‘Ow. It’s much harder [physically] than it was a year ago. I’m not bouncing back as easily as I was.’ And the schedule was punishing.
“The other factor was that my father passed away. I had the sudden realisation that I had not been around my family for about 12 years. My father’s death affected me really deeply in terms of that realisation of how brutal change can be. I needed to step back, re-connect with family and my body needed to have a break from that level of intensity.”
While the reasons for coming home were not happy ones, Hughes has no regrets. He has found employment as an independent dance artist and as a teacher with the WAAPA dance department. “I feel I’ve been able to give back to the community here by teaching at WAAPA. I got so much from WAAPA as a student, it was so formative, that the thought that I can give a little bit back is quite lovely,” he reflects. Dancing for local independent choreographers and directors, such as Sue Peacock, Chrissie Parrott and Sally Richardson, he relishes the contrast between life as an independent dance artist and life as a company dancer. “You get to do what you want as an independent! That’s a great joy,” he explains. “Of course, I learned so much in company situations… but it’s empowering being able to choose where you put your energy.” There are challenges, though, he adds. “Being an independent affords you a freedom that you don’t have in a company, but what you get in freedom you lose in security. In a company you have an income and you have a schedule. I miss a schedule. You know your life is planned. All you need to do is sleep, eat and stretch.”
In a company you have a schedule. You know your life is planned. All you need to do is sleep, eat and stretch.
Thinking back to our WAAPA days, Hughes was a keen choreographer, so it’s no surprise that another advantage of being an independent is that it allows time for him to pursue making his own work. Currently he is in the thick of rehearsing his first full-length work, Valentine, which will be performed by Hughes with renowned dancers Natalie Allen, David Mack and Rachel Arianne Ogle. Shaped by the characters of commedia dell’arte – the innocent, the bully, the manipulator, the object of desire – Valentine explores loneliness and desire through dance, theatre, puppetry and mask play. “Commedia is something I’ve always been fascinated with,” remarks Hughes. “And mask work… you know when you make those paper plate masks in primary school? I loved doing that. Commedia is interesting because it’s so influential. You still find the characters and archetypes in film and literature today, the journey man, the fool, the Pierrot. It’s pervasive across all art-forms.”
Commedia dell’arte is about story-telling but many of the traditional stories are problematic from a contemporary perspective, particularly in terms of the way women are represented, says Hughes. “There are interesting questions that arise from using an old story with such inherent problems in a modern-day context. The work hopefully starts to interrogate some of those things like, what is ok to retell? Should we be finding new stories to tell? Maybe they are cautionary tales – maybe we tell them to illustrate how we don’t want to be. Stories are really powerful. The power of narrative is persuasive – we see Trump trying to control narrative, political parties trying to control narrative, take news. Art can interrogate that, asking how does this story apply to us now? What do we need to do it to for it to carry weight?
“So Valentine looks at commedia like that, it distils everything that’s been and questions whether it’s something we still want to talk about, or whether it’s something we can leave behind.”
Top: Kynan Hughes, photographed by Jenni Large.