Gideon Obarzanek, choreographer: my life
We caught up with the award-winning choreographer and founder of Chunky Move Dance Company, who will present a new work at the VCA from 2–5 May.
As told to Susanna Ling
I lived in a kibbutz when I was young, and left when I was eight.
My parents were born during the Second World War – one in Poland and one in Russia, although both of their families were Polish. They grew up in Soviet Poland when there was still an incredible amount of anti-Semitism. My father literally had to fight his way home through the streets of the town he studied in. They emigrated to Australia in 1958 and met in Melbourne, where I was born, before heading to Israel.
In a kibbutz, children who are roughly the same age are housed together. You see your parents every afternoon but you don’t sleep under the same roof. I don’t know whether it’s like this now, but in the late 60s and early 70s it was an incredible example of universal socialist idealism in practice. Two parents a week would be on a roster to work at the children’s house with one or two teachers. You lived in dormitories, you shared your toys … you shared everything.
It gave me, I think, a sort of emotional resilience in some ways, although I’m not sure it’s a great model for bringing up young children. And, maybe now, as a choreographer, I feel comfortable in a room working collectively with people because of this background. I can’t say for sure but I can certainly rationalise a relationship to that.
My mother’s a painter. She’s quite an individual and independent person. So she wanted to move back to Melbourne at a certain point to study Fine Arts at RMIT. For my younger brother and I, it was very much as if we were moving to Australia for the first time.
It was terrible. From living on a collective farm we were now living in a suburban, red brick, California bungalow house in South Caulfield, and going to a state primary school. I’d never lived with my parents full-time before. And in those days there were no allowances in school for migrant kids, no remedial English or any kind of special course – you were thrown into a classroom and you just had to survive. My brother and I didn’t know a word of English.
I didn’t become interested in dancing until I was a teenager – actually, what I was interested in was going out dancing. I discovered this one night when I was dancing at a party and I thought, “Oh, I like this”. My mum eventually encouraged me to go and do some dance classes. I wasn’t sure about the idea at first, and I when I finally did go I found it very challenging.
I knew nothing about formal dance training and what it required, but I think I liked the challenge, and that very quickly grew into a passion for me. I did dancing after school hours, and then I auditioned for the Australian Ballet School while I was doing VCE.
I was going to study marine science at university, but I deferred it to study dance. I’ve always had a fascination and a love of the ocean, and I still do. I’m a very passionate surfer, and I’m always very close to water. Over the years, a few colleagues and friends have asked me, “Why don’t you marry the two? Why don’t you do a dance performance about the ocean or water?” People have talked about surfing as some kind of dance and choreography, but I don’t really see that connection.
I became a professional dancer but very early on, even during my training, I became interested in choreography and making my own work. After five years of being a professional dancer, I switched to choreography and directing. I was a freelancer in my 20s, and then in my 30s I started my own dance company, Chunky Move.
When I left Chunky Move I was invited to become a resident artist at the Sydney Theatre Company for about a year and a half, and I decided to devote all of my time to writing and directing. Prior to STC, I was already kind of flirting with creating dance theatre work and, once there, I wrote a play and a film project – a sort of docudrama. The play, I Want To Dance Better At Parties, went into the 2013 Sydney Theatre Company season, became a dramatised documentary film for ABC, and was then screened at the Sydney Film Festival the following year. Since then I’ve maintained interests in theatre and dance, but I don’t mix them together any more.
I’m currently performing in a play that I’ve co-written with Brian Lipson, who’s an actor, writer and director, and a colleague of mine. It’s called Two Jews Walk Into a Theatre. The whole play is based on our fathers. We performed that for the Melbourne Festival, and we’re about to do it at the Sydney Opera House.
For the past couple of months, I’ve been choreographing a work called Us 28 with the VCA Dance students. When I was a younger choreographer, I used to put together a series of movements and shapes to create dance, and then I taught them to other dancers to copy and perform. Now I tend to create tasks for dancers to think about and do. They respond to a series of directions to come up with performative responses. It’s a very collaborative process – the authorship of the actual content really belongs to everybody.