Sue Healey and Sarah-Jayne Howard, Virtuosi.

Dancemaker Sue Healey: ‘thinking through the body’

Australian choreographer, filmmaker and educator Sue Healey (MChor 2001, BA (Dance) 1983), currently an Honorary Fellow at the VCA, presents On View: Quintet at Dancehouse this month as part of Dance Massive, March 20-22. Here, Sue writes about the challenges of being an independent artist, how cinema extends her choreographic territory and her fascination with portraits.

ON VIEW: Quintet was sparked by the extreme adventure of making my first feature-length film Virtuosi. This film (about 8 NZ dance artists around the world) drew me into thinking about the nature of portraiture – what is a moving portrait? And in fact, why as humans have we always made them?

So, I began to make a series of cine-portraits of Australian dance artists who have been central to my recent work. The process has been a lengthy one – involving many people around Australia, many film shoots and rehearsal periods. It has taken years to raise the cash, create the filmic and the live element and then of course, to secure the right contexts to have it shown.

Raghav Handa, Martin del Amo, Nalina Wait, Benjamin Hancock, Shone Erskine – ON VIEW: Quintet.
Raghav Handa, Martin del Amo, Nalina Wait, Benjamin Hancock, Shone Erskine – ON VIEW: Quintet.

It has been a constant morphing process, from exhibitions of solo portraits, to a triptych (for galleries and theatres) and now a quintet, a major performance installation (which premieres at Dance Massive).  In July ON VIEW: Septet (Quintet + video installations of Dame Lucette Aldous and Professor Shirley Mckechnie) will be presented by Performance Space at Carriageworks, Sydney.

Lucette Aldous ON VIEW: Quintet.
Lucette Aldous ON VIEW: Quintet.

Under the radar in this work is the sense of sight.  In our screen-based culture we experience an overwhelming deluge of moving images on a daily basis.  I am interested in determining what makes an image stand out in this cacophony and in asking how we really see.

For dancers, being seen is a given.  Through their meticulous attention to movement, these artists have unique skills in shaping and revealing ideas that are both seen and felt.  Dancers are masterly.  They know how to be seen!  And they know how to see!

Essentially I want to show the dexterity of the artist  – I believe that dance has always been under-played, under-valued, although central to our culture.  So ON VIEW, for me, celebrates the diverse ways of thinking through the body that these artists possess.

ON VIEW: Quintet – Nalina Wait and Benjamin Hancock.
ON VIEW: Quintet – Nalina Wait and Benjamin Hancock.

ON VIEW has been a multi-faceted project – with the shoot, the edit, the live rehearsal, the installation design – all needing equal and undivided attention.  So I am throwing on different hats every day.

The challenges are the usual ones facing an independent artist – raising support, scheduling busy collaborators, riding the rollercoaster of inherent ups and downs of creating a major piece of work… but throughout this process I have had the extraordinary privilege of a Creative Fellowship (Australia Council), which opened many doors for me and ultimately, made the grand scale of this project possible.

I have an incredible team – cinematographer Judd Overton (we have made seven major films together), composers Darrin Verhagen and Justin Ashworth (Darrin and I have been working with since 1993) and of course, the dancers – all of whom I’ve worked with for many years (Shona Erskine and Nalina Wait are two of my key collaborators over the last 15 years).  These artists are all exceptional innovators, and as dance and film are inherently collaborative, I am indebted to them for what they bring to my vision.

Cinematographer Judd Overton and On View, performer Martin del Amo.
Cinematographer Judd Overton and On View, performer Martin del Amo.
Judd Overton shooting Healey’s film for Red Shoes for Expressions Dance Theatre, performer Elise May.
Judd Overton shooting Healey’s film for Red Shoes for Expressions Dance Theatre, performer Elise May.

Working with moving image and film has been central to my work for many years now – the ability to frame minute and subtle detail; the camera as a moving dynamic eye; the infinite possibilities to manipulate both space and time – are a constant fascination to me. The cinematic extends the choreographic territory for me, into new conceptual palettes, new movement possibilities and interestingly, new audiences.

I also love the fact that the translation of dance to screen can be an antidote to its impermanence – I create a dance that can be filmed, which can then morph into an installation, a documentary, and then back into live performance.  A rich and satisfying process that sustains me through all the drama of being an independent artist.

Sue Healey and Judd Overton shooting ON VIEW. Image by Heidrun Lohr.
Sue Healey and Judd Overton shooting ON VIEW. Image by Heidrun Lohr.
Raghav Handa, ON VIEW.
Raghav Handa, ON VIEW.
ON VIEW – Benjamin Hancock, Shona Erskine, Martin del Amo.
ON VIEW – Benjamin Hancock, Shona Erskine, Martin del Amo.

I can’t imagine life without making work.  (I could be making cine-portraits for a good many years to come – the resource is limitless!)

My early training at VCA (1981-83) laid the foundation for everything that has followed in my career.  My good fortune came in the form of exceptional teachers (Nanette Hassall, Lucette Aldous, Alan Alder, Anne Woolliams, Helen Cameron, Shirley McKechnie…) who, from day one, showed me that I could be a dance-maker and dance-thinker, as well as a performer.  This perspective set me on a path that still is opening in front of me.  This fundamental training gave me the discipline to keep asking questions… and the inspiration to keep looking.

Sue Healey. Image by Sue Healey.
Sue Healey. Image by Sue Healey.

(Main image: Sue Healey and Sarah-Jayne Howard, Virtuosi)

A version of this article originally appeared on Channel, the Faculty’s previous publishing platform.