The Dangers of Creativity
One of Australia’s most innovative companies is performing at Bleach* Festival in Queensland and Coral Drouyn talks to its founder.
Gavin Webber is a dangerous man, and not just in the generic sense that all creatives are, or should be, dangerous. They challenge us, they invade our space, they hold up mirrors we would rather not look into. No, Webber does something more – he subliminally changes our thinking about deep issues by making us laugh at them. He has found the perfect marriage of art and entertainment, without either suffering in the process. His company, The Farm (based now on the Gold Coast) owes its roots to his time in Berlin. The productions are an eclectic mix of dance, acrobatics, storytelling and performance art. Dialogue is minimal, because language can be a barrier and Webber has a very clear vision
“We want to have a conversation with as many people as possible whenever we perform,” he tells me, “and that’s why the Farm’s original works have broad entertainment appeal. In Australia we are used to Independent companies blurring the lines, but Europe has more definitive criteria for Art.”
Gavin chuckles as he tells me, “We were doing a show in Berlin and a woman, clearly an arts aficionado, came to congratulate me after the show and said ‘I enjoyed it so much I wasn’t sure if it was good’.”
Insult or compliment? Gavin chose to take it as the latter but does feel that Australian audiences aren’t so quick to pigeonhole performance.
“Young people especially are prepared to react on a superficial level and not think about the subtext or message until later, and that’s fine. As long as they connect with us, and feel something, it doesn’t have to be laid out for them all at once, in fact it works better if they discover new levels while talking to their friends. That’s why we love this festival, love performing for schools as well. Our audience is definitely not those people who subscribe to ‘The Yarts’.”
It’s 25 years since Gavin, who became a dancer quite late, joined the Meryl Tankard company.
“I hit my twenties with no idea of what my purpose was, other than to experience life,” he tells me. “So I travelled, did some writing, went skiing a lot, hitch-hiked round most of the world. I was 22 before I buckled down and started studying dance like crazy and realised this was what I was made for.”
As Artistic Director of Dance North and a major choreographer for companies like Chunky Move and Strut, he quickly carved a niche for himself and then, later, for The Farm. Storytelling through movement is not new - all classical ballets are story based. But Gavin was more interested in story and dance as an allegory for life. All of the concepts are metaphors. In Tide, two executives, trying to make a living selling real estate, are at the mercy of rising waters which threaten to wipe them out. In Cockfight there is a battle to the almost-death between an aging Boss and a young usurper. Lawn – which won six Green room Awards – sees an everyman character trapped in an apartment where even the doors and windows are wallpapered over, and trying desperately to find freedom.
The work is always uncomfortably deep, yet side-splittingly funny. It’s also physical in a way which most of us cannot comprehend. And there’s another dangerous edge to the creativity. Gavin and the collective of The Farm keep pushing physical boundaries to the point where their physical well-being is on the line. One slip could cause disaster. So, how hard is it physically, at 50, to deal with work that even a twenty year old would find a stretch?
Gavin is philosophical. “Strangely enough, it’s easier now than it was 10 years ago,” he says. “At 40 I railed against the idea of aging. I was determined to conquer every chronological challenge and prove to my body that it could not dictate terms to me. Now, we have a kinder, more symbiotic relationship and I do listen to my body, and I use more gentle persuasion to push the limits. I don’t work out as much as I did because I found my partner late and now have a three year old son. He is the best exercise I could ever get.”
While The Farm works as a co-operative – with everyone contributing creatively – it is Gavin who pushes the agenda to challenge themselves so that they can in turn challenge the audiences. The company keeps a strong presence in Germany, because it wants to keep expanding its perceptions and drawing from cultural diversity. The company receives standing ovations wherever it plays and is highly respected, but Gavin is acutely conscious that it could not sustain a permanent presence without help from outside.
“It’s still surprising to me that the council here on the Gold Coast was prepared to back us financially. It’s equally surprising that an arts festival with the originality of Bleach* continues to thrive and grow. I am quite used to seeing raised eyebrows now at the idea that Sun and Surf can not only co-exist with Art, but can complement and even enhance it.
On Sunday morning (April 8, 2018), Gavin, and his long-time dance partner and protégé Josh Thomson, will start a 49 hour live performance in the middle of Currumbin Estuary, at the mercy of the tides and the weather, and relying on the audience to supply food and drink. Whilst there are parts they can set and rehearse, generally this is improvisation taken to its extreme, and it’s that element that excites Josh and Gavin. They know each other as artists and friends so well that they aren’t afraid of anything that might occur.
First commissioned for BLEACH* in 2015, they have extended the 48 hour performance by an extra hour.
“It helps with the advertising,” Gavin says. “We can honestly say it is ‘Bigger, Wetter, Longer, Better’.”
I will be heading down there on Sunday (April 8 2018), and - if you are anywhere near Currumbin - even Northern NSW – you should too. We need more “Dangerous Men” like Gavin Webber in the world of the Arts.
Images (from top): The Lawn, Gavin Webber. Tide, Foodchain and Josh Thomson.