NAC Dance: Lucy Guerin unveils the public/private self in Split

A scene from Split. Photo: Gregory Lorenzutti

The Australian choreographer Lucy Guerin has been surprised by how people view her work Split which will be at the National Arts Centre for three nights starting on Oct. 24.

“I have had so many different interpretations about this work from other people. Some see it as a relationship or a mother-daughter partnership. Some see it as colonization, others as personal responses to death.

“It’s not a work that it needs to be interpreted in only one way. It seems to act as a kind of container for people’s own experiences.”

Split features two women on stage, one clothed and the other nude. My own reaction was that the dancers represented the yin and yang of something.

“I have never thought of them as that, but,” she conceded, they are two different aspects. “I think of it more as a (representation of a) public and private self,” she said.

Lucy Guerin. Photo: Toby Burrows

She explained that the work, which has toured the world and is one of her most successful works, grew out of “a lot” of movement experimentation in the rehearsal studio.

“I had the idea to use space in a particular way. So the dancers use the whole space for the first 20 minutes and then they divide the space in half and use that for 10 minutes. It divides again this time they use a quarter of the space.”

The space keeps shrinking and the movements are more restricted. There is less space  to co-exist and that creates pressures, she said.

Guerin, who runs a contemporary dance company out of that cultural hotbed, Melbourne, Australia, is an award winning dancer and choreographer.

“I have been dancing since I was quite young.” She danced professionally with companies in Australia before moving to New York in 1989 where she worked with Tere O’Connor Dance, the Bebe Miller Company and Sara Rudner, and began to produce her first choreographic works.

“I became very interested in choreography and really felt that was where I was headed.” Guerin returned to Australia in 1996.

She took to choreography because “I think I did want to present certain ideas about dance that I wanted to realize, that I wanted to initiate and shape.

“As a dancer you have a huge input in the making of work and it’s always a very collaborative process for me with the dancers. I think I felt very fulfilled somehow by shaping the ideas and guiding the work.”

She begins her choreography often not from an idea but more from “a place of movement, although I will often bring ideas into the rehearsal room.”

The ideas are quite abstract. “I really need to get into the rehearsal room and see what happens when the ideas become embodied for the dancers. I don’t feel dance is a form that is so great at making very pointed factual statements.

There are other aspects that dance does more powerfully, she believes.

“It’s quite complicated and layered with intellectual, visual and kinetic ideas. It’s less literal and less able to be expressed in a kind of linguistic form.”

It’s not theatre, not film and that makes it challenging.

While her work is often infused by other disciplines “I do try to make the main thrust of the work through dancing rather than through some other medium.

“I am attracted to dance because of its slight confusion and ambiguity. It opens up this other world that is not so black and white. It is more felt and has a richness to it.”

She believes that quite often in contemporary dance the performer is not playing a character. “They are embodying their own physicality. Sometimes I think people are looking for the story of that body and that’s not always what is being represented.”

That is why Split works. It seems to draw responses out of people, she said.

“It wasn’t necessarily intentional from the beginning, but sometimes you don’t always know the impacts your work is going to have on an audience.”

Guerin does talk about her piece in notes that the NAC provides on its website: “For me it gives seriousness and normality to the female body, which is such a site of commodification, exploitation, shame and shock. In Splitit is what the body does as much as what it is that is important.”

Having one dancer naked and one clothed manifests that idea.

“I wanted the two dancers to exist in very separate worlds and spaces” even though in the first 20 minutes they are dancing in unison, she said.

“When I first saw it, I was really struck by how normal the female form looked in this context and the strength and skill that was revealed in that. The clothing makes the other dancer hidden and more complicated.”

Sometimes on stage a nude woman can be over-wrought and over-dramatized, she said. “I just felt this was a straightforward” presentation of the body.

“Your naked body is very personal. It’s not something many people get to see. Then we have to go out in the world and conduct ourselves” in a way that conceals that personal self.

Split is her company’s most toured work. The work has been positively reviewed, but for Guerin, the responses from audiences have surprised her.

“I wasn’t expecting such a strong emotional response from audiences. It think it’s because there is space in the work for them to see themselves.”

She hasn’t grown tired of it, even though she has seen it many times. That could be partly because it is improvised in part and keeps fresh that way.

The work has even been toured to places you might not expect. In some countries, she said, people have gone ‘Ooh, Ah, a naked dancer,’ that’s pathetic,” she added. But more surprising was the reception in Jakarta, Indonesia, which is a mainly Muslim country with strict pornography laws.

“I was a little bit nervous there. It was very brave of the theatre to put this work on. The theatre didn’t announce there was nudity beforehand because there might have been protests. There was also quite tight security.”

Once people were in the theatre, which is known for showing experimental work, she said they were told there was nudity and they were given the chance to leave. “Nobody left.” And once the word got out there was “no trouble at all.”

The performance in Jakarta in 2018 made an important point, Guerin said, “to show that it’s ridiculous to shroud the female body in all these ideas of negativity and shame and hiding. That’s who we are.”

Lucy Guerin Inc presents Split
Where: Azrieli Studio, NAC
When: Oct. 24 to 26 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.