Meet Cara Hagan and Brenton Surgenor, new faces of VCA Dance

Cara Hagan photo by Zoe Litaker and Brenton Surgeoner

Leading specialist in somatic education, choreography and dance science Aotearoa-born Brenton Surgenor has lived and worked in the US, the UK, Hong Kong and Australia. His career has spanned choreography, TV, arts administration and higher education.

Internationally established artist and scholar Cara Hagan is a dancer from New York, where she has had a rich career including as director and curator of an international screen dance festival, and as facilitator of a grassroots community dance group Small and Mighty Acts.  

Here we talk to Cara and Brenton about a life in dance and the new Master of Dance at the VCA, University of Melbourne.

By Sarah Hall

In a few sentences can you tell us who you are and what you stand for?

Cara: I am a mover, maker, writer, curator, champion of just communities, and a dreamer. I believe in the power of art to upend the laws of time and physics, a necessary occurrence in pursuit of liberation.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

Brenton: I’m originally from New Zealand, but I have lived most of my life elsewhere. I danced professionally there and then the UK. In the UK, I choreographed a little and completed my first masters degree in choreography and aesthetics.

Like many dancers, I had an eclectic and varied career which saw me working in arts admin, bodywork, and I even worked for a short time with the BBC as a TV presenter.

Since 2006, I have been working in higher education, first with the New Zealand School of Dance, then Auckland University. Prior to arriving in Melbourne (mid lockdown number six) I spent 13 years at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.

Cara: Before coming to the Victorian College of the Arts, I was working at a university in North Carolina, while also directing and curating an international screen dance festival, and facilitating a grassroots community group, Small and Mighty Acts, aimed at helping people to reach their civic potential. I grew up in Syracuse, New York.

What is the Master of Dance and who is it suitable for?

Cara: The Master of Dance is suitable for those who seek to expand their practice in non-traditional ways and explore their artistic voice in a supportive environment.

Is there a philosophy or piece of advice that has held you in good stead throughout your career?

Cara: Show up and participate.

Brenton: Be positive and be flexible! Dance is a community activity so being positive is also super important. People like being around positive folk. As a dancer, I didn’t have perfect technique, but I turned up on time, didn’t complain and was enthusiastic with a can-do (I’ll work it out on the fly) attitude.

What's to be gained from a life in dance?

Cara: So much! Dance skills are life skills, I always say.

Brenton: Dance is a great place to develop skills for life … Being creative, adaptable, social, and having excellent problem-solving skills are important in all aspects of life.

When and how did you decide to pursue a life in dance?

Cara: I was an active child and as soon as I got wind that one could dance not just for fun but as a career, I wanted in. I’ve been walking that path ever since, and have had a fun and dynamic adventure in all the spaces I’ve been able to occupy through my art.

Brenton: I’ve had so many career changes. A career in dance means being flexible and constantly adapting to the environment. Most dancers have a portfolio career and even if you spend some time with one company, chances are you might want to try something new.

There are also transitions that come about from a life in dance because of injury, family commitments and desire for a more financially stable life. This sometimes means retraining, further education and re-focusing all the wonderful skills developed through dance.   What makes a good dance student?

Cara: Someone who is curious. Curiosity and the motivation it creates are foundational to any art practice.

Brenton: Being open and curious. I think this is generally easy for dancers as we are naturally curious and creative … It's important to respect, but also to question, traditional practices.

What excites you about your field?

Brenton: Dance is an exciting field to be working in as a researcher, because there is still so much to learn from our traditions and there’s still so much we don’t know.

Cara: I love the ways people are using their art to create positive change in the world. They’re bringing attention to the urgent issues of our time, like racism and climate change, and they’re creatively engaging audiences and other artists to do something.

What is your personal favourite dance style?

Cara: Honestly, I love dance, period! I love seeing people move in ways that feel like home to them. As a dancer myself, I’ve had opportunities to study a wide range of modern techniques, ballet, jazz, tap, flamenco, West African, Afro-Caribbean, ballroom, belly dance, Kathak, and other styles.

I am not at all equally proficient in all of these types of dance, but I appreciate opportunities to dip into various styles as a way of learning about people and cultures different from mine.

Brenton: I’m not sure I have a favourite style. I’ve seen outstanding (and not so outstanding) examples of many types of dance. I like to be challenged by what I’m seeing and prefer work that makes me think.

What do you hope to pass on to your students in this new Master of Dance course?

Cara: A dedication to experimentation, and a fierce appreciation for their unique perspectives and creations.

Can you complete this sentence? If I wasn’t working in dance ... 

Brenton: I completed my Master of Counselling degree in 2018, so I think I would be a full-time psychotherapist. I’m interested in relationship therapy. Not just for couples but for all of us. Maintaining positive relationships is important for a happy and healthy life whether these are with lovers, parents, children, friends or colleagues.

Cara: I’d be gardening more, walking in the forest every day, and writing books and books and books.

Brenton Surgenor and Cara Hagan join Professor Carol Brown, Head of VCA Dance, to deliver the Master of Dance, the first program in Australia dedicated to dance as an interdisciplinary practice, launching in 2022.

Find out more about the Master of Dance at the University of Melbourne.