‘Embrace your own strange notions': Choreographer Lucy Guerin on working with third year dancers at the VCA

Lucy Guerin's latest work 'Splinter Group' will premiere at the VCA in November. Image credit: Gregory Lorenzutti.
Lucy Guerin's latest work 'Splinter Group' will premiere at the VCA in November. Image credit: Gregory Lorenzutti.

In her latest work with third year dance students at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), award-winning choreographer, Lucy Guerin, takes her inspiration from the students themselves. We spoke with Lucy about the creative process, and the critical lessons learnt during her remarkable career.

“This year’s graduating dancers have had a tricky start to their degree, probably more so than any other year at the VCA,” says Lucy.

As Melbourne’s lockdowns fade to memory and society emerges from the worst of the pandemic, Lucy’s words are a poignant reminder that these dancers spent the better part of their degree perfecting their craft online.

Now, with the pandemic hurdles behind them, the finish line to graduation is in sight.

In a few short weeks, this group of 21 dancers will take the stage in Lucy's latest choreography 'Splinter Group' as part of the VCA graduate dance season in November.

A move that will see them end their degree on a high note.

VCA third year dancers rehearsing 'Splinter Group'.

Inspired by the students 

Recognised as one of Australia’s most accomplished choreographers, Lucy’s works have been performed internationally to great acclaim.

In 2020, she was made an Officer of the Order of Australia for her distinguished service to contemporary dance as a choreographer, mentor, and advocate for emerging artists.

In three decades as a dance-maker, Lucy's choreographic output has been extraordinary. Her works have explored an eclectic and diverse range of themes, including Indonesia's underground metal scene in Metal, 1950s film noir in Motion Picture, the 24-hour news cycle in Human Interest Story, and even the 1970 collapse of the Westgate Bridge in Structure and Sadness.

When asked what inspired her latest work on the third-year dancers, she answers “the students,” with a smile. Though on a deeper level, she explains, “the work is also concerned with ideas of the group, of social movements, and the role of the individual within that.”

VCA third year dancers rehearsing 'Splinter Group'.

Choreographing ‘the group’ 

At the time of this interview, Lucy and the dancers were at the tail-end of an intensive five-week development, turning these initial ideas into a physical reality.

Their studio explorations have resulted in a powerhouse choreography where dancers navigate an extraordinary movement terrain to make it to the end of the work.

“The choreography takes on this sense of always shifting, splintering, re-forming, and dividing,” says Lucy.

“It’s an energetic and at times dramatic piece where single dancers will emerge from the group before being swallowed up again or forming entirely new groups of their own.”

For Lucy, the choreographic process has been a spirited one, which she attributes to the exuberance and energy of the dancers involved.

“As a group, they’re incredibly excited, motivated, and energised by each other. They’ve also been a supportive and generative team to work with choreographically and that has helped me in the process enormously.”

The finished work, which is comprised of complex choreographic phrases and improvisational scores has been developed in-collaboration with the dancers.

“Two of the more complex phrases that we call Fragment 1 and Fragment 2, were created with each dancer contributing two counts of movement, which we then combined to make whole choreographic phrases.

“I then had the students reimagine these phrases into a series of duets and trios, which you see throughout the work. It’s a very multi-layered choreography in that respect, and it has been a great process working with them.”

VCA third year dancers rehearsing 'splinter Group'.

Something clicked

Lucy was struck by the growth of the dancers during the creative process.

“I’ve enjoyed watching the dancers find their place in the work and recognise their strengths. Some are exceptional problem-solvers with the material, and others are truly settling into their performance presence. It’s been inspiring to watch.”

Interestingly though, the learnings haven’t been one-sided. Lucy has had her own illuminations throughout the development period.

“When you’ve worked with the same professional dancers for years, there’s this sort of shorthand,” she says. "They can almost predict what you’re looking for, so your aesthetic can roll out easily – which is not always a good thing.”

“That’s what I’ve quite liked about working with the students, is that ease became a little bit challenged. I’ve had to articulate what I want clearly, which is something I should do more of with the dancers I work with.”

“Having to verbalise what I am seeing or what I would like the students to do, has been a clarifying experience for me.

"I like to always come away with some new learning,” she says.

VCA third year dancers rehearsing 'Splinter Group'.

In talking to Lucy, it’s clear that her natural inquisitiveness and desire for continuous learning have been key to her success. Of the many lessons learnt during her career, she describes one as being the most valuable:

“Very often, dancers are trying to conform to some sort of ideal,” she says.

“And I wasn’t one of those dancers who could easily get to that ideal. So, I spent more time than most trying to achieve that.

"But there was a moment when something clicked.

“I realised my strength was myself somehow – my individuality, my aesthetic, and my own way of seeing the world.

“Since then, I’ve seen the value in not being afraid of your own strange notions – and staying true to your own voice.

“I hope that throughout this process with the third-year dancers, I’ve encouraged them to do just that.”

Splinter Group, a new dance work by Lucy Guerin will be performed at the University of Melbourne’s Southbank campus from 9-12 November 2022. Book tickets here.