Every dancer has their forte and my Creative Director, Annette Carmichael was just highlighting mine. Sure some can spin and leap and have amazing flexibility – but I was in possession of a “very useful skeleton!”

“Just let him jump on to you, don’t try and catch him”. Simple instruction. Focus. I tried to relax as Scott again tried to put his right leg over my left shoulder and gracefully leap on to my useful skeleton. We were at the start of our intensive journey together. We had a week to recreate the duet in The Beauty Index.

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The duet we were working on was a core part of the performance and the source of a lot of adulation and adoration (and the best photos) in the original performance. For the remount, I was assuming a part held by the very talented Sam le Breton last time around. This was my second time as part of a production and to say the rise was giddying is to put it lightly.

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In the months after Annette confirmed that we were getting (most of) the band back together to remount “our” work, The Beauty Index, I had worked incredibly hard to get myself fit. I wanted to hit “the Sixty” so much harder this time around, so there were months of weights and fitness classes in the lead up to our first rehearsal. I was going to tear my old role apart! As performers, we all held a lot of ownership in the work – being involved in so much of the original choreography had elevated our sense of engagement in the piece – all those who were returning wanted to lift this remount higher than the original. Never mind the fact that we were opening up for a group of flexible, talented young people as part of a two-show bill. Our pride was at stake!

At the first rehearsal back, Annette told us that Sam would not be able to come back and perform in the remount. This meant someone could come forward – or someone would be tapped to step up. I though about this for a while. Last year was my first time dancing on stage. I was not sure I was up for the physicality of the role. I refrained from stepping forward and committed to thinking about it. There were serious doubts.

I got home and there was a missed call from Annette and a message. Would I step in to Sam’s role? Would I perform the solo? The duet with Scott Elstermann? Play such a key role in the performance? I sat on the couch and stared at my phone. I was a lot fitter than last year – but could I actually do it? The performing? Holding the audience? It is a role that demands intensity and focus. I walked in to the kitchen and asked Jas what she thought. We chatted. Was I comfortable? Was I capable? Was I up for the challenge?

I messaged Annette: “Just got your message. I’m keen”.

Mind is keen, body is….

Annette and I went through details, organised rehearsal schedules, chorography, scores, musical cues. I was bursting with excitement. We had a series of one-on-one rehearsals scheduled to nail down the gruelling solo early. Annette was sick for a rehearsal, so I decided to head in alone and work through some dancing. About forty minutes in to the session, I leant forward innocuously, and my breath left me. Pain surged through my chest – wrapping around me like two hot wires stretching around me from between my shoulders – one around my chest, one down my spine. This was bad. My back was screaming.

I chatted with the physio after my second session with him. It had been two weeks. I’d been swimming as often as I could to free up my back. I was still in pain but recovering. He reassured me I would be fine for the dancing– it was probably a 4-6 week injury, so I was ok to ease back in to things. Six weeks had me up to the last week before working with Scott. Five days of intense rehearsals – two hours a day with Scott, two hours with the rest of the cast. There was not a lot of wriggle room if I pinged it again – but I had an entire show to re-learn, a solo to master and a duet to prepare for. There was not time to rest. Only time to recover.

There were weeks of hot and cold packs. Intense stretching. Intense hope that my fitness work before rehearsals would leave me in good stead to not just recover but be at performance standard. As the performance inched forward, my back freed up increasingly and I was able to perform more of the choreography with an improved range of motion. I would hopefully be fine. Hopefully.

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Screaming on the beach. Totes normal

A box, the corner of the shed

One week of intense rehearsals with a professionally trained dancer is a privilege that my football playing, punk rock loving teenage self would never have considered, but here I was. Warm-ups were a treat. Led by some woman who I begrudgingly met in Broome six years ago as I was dragged for an obligation (the incredible, hilarious and talented Sandi Woo) we explored space, movement, our body.

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The Woo Technique

Scott and I worked on our connection as dancers. How to work together. I was in a space that many professional dancers would’ve happily traded for. We worked hard in warm ups to learn how each other moved (well, Scott learned how I moved, I learnt how to move). In footy parlance, we trained bloody hard.

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Scott leaping on the waiting #usefulskeleton (Pic: Alison Bennett-Taylor)

We worked and worked. I slowly got more and more of the details and nuances I needed. Not all, I never got it 100% there – but that is the beauty of working with someone like Annette. No matter how good I got it down, there was the next way to improve. It wasn’t meant to be good enough. It needed to be the best I could do it. And finding that best takes exploration and improvement right up to the final time I did it on stage.

Performance mode

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Acting calm (Pic: Nic Duncan)

We did two shows for this remount – a Friday and a Saturday night in the Albany Entertainment Centre. It is a pretty serious venue. Early rehearsals had gone well. Dress rehearsal not so well. I, personally, was a mess and as a collective we misfired a bit. Didn’t bring the passion. We needed to step up for opening night.

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On stage, pre-show, final words of encouragement (Pic: Nic Duncan)

I’d convinced a few personal VIPs to come both nights – all incredibly supportive individuals that have a special place in my heart. All a long way from contemporary dance devotees. There were some serious personal nerves, but I felt like I could do a solid job. The solo was the killer for me – to go too hard meant being too exhausted for the duet and “the angel” later in the show. There was no recovery time off stage after my solo. Not go hard enough and the solo lacked impact. It was a pretty fine line – the solo channelled anger and hate. Keeping a lid on that is not easy.

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Backstage at the AEC (Pic: Nic Duncan)

The first night, up to the solo felt solid. I was concentrating well. Keeping in time. Keeping myself together. “The Sixty” was so imprinted on my mind and body now that it was ingrained in my muscle fibres. Intensely familiar and personal. There was a zone. I was in it.

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The Sixty – a beast (Pic: Nic Duncan)

The performance progressed, I hit the solo incredibly hard. I screamed, the tortured scream of a broken man. I contorted as my body broke apart. I collapsed in a sopping pool of sweat. Shattered. Chest heaving. I rose for the duet, making my way through the lifts as best I could while my quadriceps screamed at me for rest. Scott and I connected. We broke apart. I focussed on my role. My embodiment of hate and fear and terror.

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My solo – finding all the rage and pain from my life and expressing it on stage (Pic: Nic Duncan)

We hit the crescendo of the duet. A backwards hinge. During rehearsals it had been decided this part needed more action during the remount. We were to run backwards before quickly connecting and hinging backwards together. Annette had wanted us to be more “reckless”. Adrenalin surged through my body, dripping with sweat I came to the point that I ran backwards.

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The reckless double hinge (Pic: Nic Duncan)

I neglected to look back and relied on the fact that I had a highly skilled professional on the other side who would (should) connect and catch me. He always did in the rehearsals anyway. We brushed arms. I threw my head and body backwards. We flicked in to position. We held. My chest heaved. I squeezed my glutes and abs to effortlessly rise in to a standing position and walk into our next position. I fell. Slumping to the ground. Shit. There would be a note for this….

A little less man-love

We ran through notes of the performance the next night. Scott saved me the night before, scooping me up of the ground in a tender embrace. We paused. I walked off in to the next position and tried to forget about it. To move on. We covered it well, but it was not right. The rest of the show had been great – our returning performers had stepped up to a new level. Our new guys were incredible. There was a lot of excitement within the group to go better on the second night, but the duet needed to be perfect. Thankfully, we (I) had a final chance to make amends. We got our note on what to work on for tonight. I would try to not fall over. A little less man love.

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Notes

It was a big night for me. A front row filled with family and friends. There was a lot of nerves. My eldest brother had come along. Tony was a long way from his comfort zone attending and I felt a lot of internalised pressure to perform well. I felt like I couldn’t just be good tonight – I had to go to another level again. This of course, failed to recognise how far I’d come in the eighteen months since I decided to give dancing “a bit of a go” for the first project – but family, ego and emotion aren’t really logical things.

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Side stage

There was also my brother-in-law and good friend who had travelled from Perth just before flying out of the country to make the show. Mikey had attended the previous year’s show (and also Annette’s Creation of Now, which Jasmine had a large part in). He may be the “Manpack’s” greatest fan and is well known to the cast. His infectious enthusiasm and desire to understand the work has made him stand out amongst our impressive throng of groupies and admirers.

Mikey knew Sam wasn’t in the show. He knew rehearsals had gone well. He knew I was pumped up to perform again and he was surprised to hear that there had been changes to the show overall. We had breakfast together that morning, but I still hadn’t told Mikey I was now in the lead role. I was excited for the surprise to hit him – as it wouldn’t become apparent until just before the solo. There were a lot of things go through my head.

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Stay calm, stay calm, stay calm (Pic: Nic Duncan)

Breathe, breathe
We were on to the second round of the Sixty and I realised I wasn’t breathing. My heart was pumping so hard I could hear it above the snare in the music. Adrenalin was reaching towards redline. I had gotten myself a little too wound up.

This wasn’t entirely unfamiliar to me. In some games of football and soccer, if it was too big an occasion and I got myself too lathered up, I would struggle to get “in” to the game. I would float through, not performing at the level I wanted. In those situations, I needed a reset. Either a long break or a big hit to the body. I careered through the rest of the Sixty, missing a beat, slightly out of time here, slightly fast there. Imperceivably to most in the audience, screamingly obvious to me. We lurched in to the second last group of sixty beats, a time to “break apart”. I bent my back, almost falling. I broke again, arching and driving my shoulders back. And again. I fell. On to my back. Fuck that hurt. I looked up and flipped myself to continue to dance. I think I was back in the zone now. I could hear the music again. Feel the timing. My head was back in the game. Just. I found my hit to the body.

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Me resting at the back while the Manpack hyperventilates (Pic: Nic Duncan)

The performance raced though time and space. The solo didn’t exhaust me this time. Scott and improved our duet. The reckless bend was just right. My body allowed me to unhinge. There was less man love. There were small moments of panic. Of adjustment. Of problem solving on the fly. I didn’t dance as well as I did the first night, but I fixed my mistakes better. Our duet was better the second night.

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Scott looks light, but is not. Here I am gracefully lowering his impressive bulk to the stage with my very strong legs and back (Pic: Nic Duncan)

And most importantly in a team sport – the rest of the cast were more solid the second night. As a group we had improved again. The young performers in A Light Shade of Red hit their straps too, shining and rising to another level. We joined them onstage for the finale, took our bows and danced on stage. We’d done it. Somehow.

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What a team (Pic: Nic Duncan)

Final reflections
Community dance is incredible. The growth I’ve felt within myself is immeasurable. The bonds and friendships that develop priceless. I’ve been able to role model to my two young boys that men can dance and choked back tears during their stage debuts perform just a few weeks after our remount. I’ve been able to show to family and friends that dance is a lot different than they may think it is. Even if the appreciation is mainly on the physical requirements – a lot of those who came would never have come to a dance performance without a community connection.

This remount was a huge moment for me. Last time around was a leap out of comfort zone to discover I enjoyed dance. This time around was a nervous return to explore a new level. It was like SCUBA diving after learning to snorkel. There were serious moments of doubt. There was a strong feeling of being held by those around me. There was just incredible support from everyone–  James with his genuine words of support, Sym, Rob and Nic’s notes on my progression, all the other critical components that got this off the ground and me on the stage.  I refuse to list you all in an arbitrary shopping list – but these productions require many hands, many minds and many hearts.

The Manpack 2.0 was incredible. What a group of talented, well rounded, supportive and empathetic Aussie blokes who happened to do a bit of dancing. Everyone a brilliant person – everyone in their own way, critical to the success of this show the second time around.

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The amazing A Light Shade of Red cast with the wisened (old) The Beauty Index Cast – and Annette (Pic: Nic Duncan)

Community dance has given me the chance to interact with some incredible professionals. Some incredible gracious, generous and genuine individuals who created an environment for me to step up and thrive. Sandi Woo was a reassuring force for me in both performances. We have come a long way since our first meet and greet and I would like to think I’ve stepped up the quality of our interactions since then. It was such a privilege to have had such a quality human being and seasoned professional support our cast through these two seasons. A talented champion.

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Sandi Woo, keeping it serious in the high pressure zone back stage (Pic: Nic Duncan)

Pina Busch Fellowship Alumni Scott Elstermann. Our bro-love got a bit too much for everyone else by the end, but what a bloody talent. Seriously. My admiration (bordering on adulation) was not unusual – the ManPack were transfixed whenever Scott rehearsed with us. To have not just the honour to rehearse so closely was so special, let alone watch him perform. And personally, to actually have the chance to perform a duet alongside Scott is something I’ll never forget. I don’t know what Scott is going to achieve over the next few years, but I’ll watching. You should too.

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Scott (Pic: Nic Duncan)

Finally, the force that is Annette Carmichael. Annette has an amazing ability to turn everyday people in to performers. It is not about 15 minutes of fame – but an opportunity to expand their personal identity. It draws you in and allows you to grow. Annette convinced us that we were worthy of the audience’s gaze. She built us up to be ready to take on the challenge – and stepped back as we stepped up. Her ability to weave a special place of magic for everyday humans to do something extraordinary is unique. Denmark and rural WA is fortunate to have her.

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Annette found a way to turn a footy player in to a dancer. I still don’t know how (Pic: Alison Bennett-Taylor)

I love this project. It has given me far more than I feel that I have given it, as the returns were so great. From the mental health benefits from expanding my creative mind; to becoming part of a Manpack; to taking up a new challenge. The physical benefits. The new opportunities. The improvements and impacts for our family and my relationship. The joy of seeing two small boys take to the stage a few weeks after my own show – the original reason to jump off and be involved was to show my sons they too could dance if they wanted to.

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Jack performing a solo onstage
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Henrik onstage

This project has brought me so much and genuinely made my life better than it was. I owe this project. I owe Annette for believing in me to fulfill my role in it. There is no pressure or obligation to repay the debt, but a passion to ensure that others have the chance to challenge themselves and reap their own personal benefits.

The next chapter: Annette is seeking Two hundred women (!) to perform in her next dance performance called Chorus (Denmark, Albany, Mandurah, Bunbury, Perth and Ravensthorpe) Workshops will take place across the South of WA July – Dec 2019 leading to performances in March 2020. Don’t make excuses – if I can, anyone can. Email your interest at projects@annettecarmichael.com.au.

A beautiful and honouring documentary from Rob Castiglione from last time around:

We made the paper:

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Another review:

https://www.seesawmag.com.au/news/youthful-exuberance-creates-a-future-from-the-past/

And the full show on Youtube:

 

2 thoughts on “A Useful Skeleton: a Thing of Beauty

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