I stared in to the night sky, allowing deep breaths to enter my lungs, fill me with energy and leave my body as clouds of steam. I stood still and strong in front of my family, my friends, my community. I felt their gaze on me, I enjoyed their attention, their focus. The lights slowly became brighter and our names became distorted. This night was the final night of The Beauty Index, a project I joined to get out of my comfort zone. What shocked me, as I watched another breath of steam rise above me, was how comfortable I felt.
Way back in December I attended a workshop that was a taster to becoming more involved in a men’s dance project. As I’d previously overcommitted in a car park (follow the link to my SeeSawMag interview) as an enthusiastic spouse at Annette Carmichael’s Creation of Now; I felt I had to rock up and see what this whole thing was about. I was terrified walking in to the Civic Centre. Some of the men here could already dance, already move well. I felt awkward and uncoordinated. Self-conscious and stiff. It isn’t like I never danced or moved – I loved mucking around at concerts and festivals, I was fit from running and football – but keeping in time and having awareness of my body? I was lost.
I enjoyed the day, and felt like I should commit to the project – but this was not coming from a place of confidence. I was desperate to push my boundaries and get myself out of my comfort zone. I really wanted a new challenge, and the way I had felt on that first day – this whole “becoming a dancer” thing was going to be that challenge. When the call came out in April to put up or shut up – I dove in to the main group of the project. A group of men with varying physical abilities, fitness, age and experience.
What followed was months of rehearsals. There were times I questioned how wise this whole thing was. There were times we couldn’t walk in a straight line, or keep basic three pattern movements in time – how the hell were we going to be part of a big performance. We ground away, getting better every few weeks – before putting in some utter shit-show of a rehearsal that would have everyone, including Annette, second guessing us. Then, things would click, timing would improve. We developed a sense of ownership over the project and the process. We could do the rehearsals – now, could we perform it?
I had no performance experience – dance or otherwise before this project. In fact, my first time on a real stage was the Wednesday before the start of the Country Arts WA Regional Arts Summit when we had the chance to wander about ManPAC as part of our “bump-in”. We were in Mandurah to be the living, breathing proof of effective community engagement and were there to work alongside delegates to put on a show on the final day of the conference. It was invaluable experience – the bunkered in rehearsing for hours; the joy of sharing a house with five other men; the late night partying and frivolity of a world far from responsibility; the hangovers; and on the final day – getting on-stage in front of an audience to perform. It was unifying. It was exhilarating. It was the chrysalis of the ManPack.
Suddenly, we were back in Denmark and back with the wider group. Hard in to rehearsals. On site. Dealing with dancing on slippery clay in the rain when we’d spent months rehearsing on floorboards, in doors. I slipped and fell hard moving in a way I had previously had no second thoughts doing. I wasn’t hurt but I was rattled. We were in hoods for our costume. Another adjustment. The floor of the shed was high pressure hosed to get rid of the slippery clay. We were rehearsing under lights. Suddenly it was dress rehearsals. Suddenly – there was no more time. Suddenly, I was going to find out a lot more about my comfort zone.
Our Tech Rehearsal night, from my own perspective, had been a debacle. I was late, or early, or just out of time. My body was not right. My back felt sore and I felt heavy and unstable. I went home in what at best could be described as a funk. At worst – abject terror. Had I not been driving a couple of fellow community dancers home that night – I would’ve burst in to tears. Had my windscreen not been so difficult to see out of, I would’ve still done in in front of them. Dress rehearsal came about and I was stressed. We had a handful of VIPs in to watch and this was a full run through. The stakes were much higher than ever before, even higher than Mandurah.
Dress rehearsal went ok. We weren’t great. We weren’t bad. I was ok. I felt the nerves that had rocked me the day before became slightly placated. Things were going to be different on opening night in front of 140 people – but at least I wasn’t about to burst in to tears. Hopefully. As a group we were happy with how it had gone – the mistakes that are inevitable in a performance weren’t big enough to cause trouble in the run – and the manner in which we either recovered from them, or covered them was a tribute to our preparation. I went home ready to take on the real thing the next night and ready to let the world see what we’d been playing around with for months.
Our first two nights of the season were fantastic. There was a buzz amongst us and a buzz in the crowd. People had come with a forgiving mindset and a careful curiosity – I mean, seriously, how well could a bunch of blokes from the community really dance? It was good of us for having a go. What no one had counted on was our desire to be more than a curiosity. We went for it both nights and put on solid performances. The buzz around town was fantastic. People were clamouring for extra tickets to the sold out Saturday night show. People willing to stand. People who had heard that we were actually pretty good. Even some of the art snobs who didn’t want to watch men plod around stage.
Suddenly the final night was here. The night were this post began. We’d had our now traditional warm up to the Game of Thrones intro. We’d a brief sing-along of the Lion Sleeps Tonight. We mucked around in the dressing room together. We’d told a few more dodgy jokes, done our warm up games and had our hugs. There was a feeling that tonight was going to be a big one. I was feeling good. The aches and pains weren’t too bad. The energy in the group was great. Our unity was forged.
We hit that final night with another level of focus and intensity. Standing in front of my family, my friends and my community. Some of my family had travelled from Perth to come and watch. As I gazed out towards the moon, peaking out from behind the trees; just over the heads of the audience; I readied myself to go as hard as I could one last night for them. You have to meet commitment with commitment. I stood and enjoyed sensation, audited my body in my mind and relaxed.
That was the most amazing thing about this process – that moment of relaxation, of enjoyment, of comfort. At key moments in the show I had the chance to take in the audience, enjoy their gaze and attention. Make myself to take up more space and feel larger than I truly was. We were performing in an old saw mill – a huge industrial space, a place of masculinity, blood and sweat; where trees came to die. There was no fear of overwhelming the stage with presence. We had to fight for the audience’s attention over our setting – it challenged us to be bigger and demand more respect as our confidence grew in each show.
After the second show, Annette asked me what I was going to do on the final night – what was going to come out in my performance. I think the both of us had been pretty shocked how far I’d come along in the process. I’d trusted her fully in preparing us to perform; and had unlocked part of myself along the way. That final night, as I challenged myself to go harder and harder through the show to take up more space, stretch further, embody the work more than the night before. I wanted to move with more air, more grace, more intensity, more purpose. I felt fantastic. I felt alive. I felt comfortable.
Sure, my dancing still has its moments; I’m very much untrained – but this project was about getting out of my comfort zone and trying something new. About putting my trust in others and seeing where it would lead. About giving part of myself to the creative process. About forcing myself to take in the gaze of an audience and enjoy it. I’d talked about taking a running leap from my comfort zone, away from running and football and taking the piss out of myself.
I had never expected to so comfortable on-stage (well, on-concrete). To feel so comfortable performing, especially in front of my community. To find a new comfort zone. One I never new existed. One I am so grateful to Annette, the crew and the ManPack for unearthing. One that I’m not keen to lose track of again. Now, I’m not packing my bags for WAAPA – but what I have done, is added dancer to my identity.
Leader, mentor and force of nature: Annette Carmichael http://annettecarmichael.com.au/Home/Home.html
Our Incredible Community Performers: Don Anderson, Adrian Baer, Brad Black, Dennis Buffart, Alexander Grace, Carl Heslop, Alex Pyke, Todd Anderson, Rick Bentink, Emil Davey, The Mountain Nigel Levinson, Phillip G Light, Martin Sulkowski
Professional Performers: The incredibly gracious and supportive Scott Elstermann, the capoeira king Zak Launay, the quiet intensity of Sam Le Breton, and Peter Fares (research phase)
Epic sound designer: James Gentle
Design gurus: Kevin Draper and Indra Geidans
Costume designer, stage manager and general support legend: Symantha Parr
Lighting designer: Kevin Blyth http://www.allevents.net.au/AllEvents.html
Photographic genius: Nic Duncan www.nicduncan.com
Tear inducing filmographer: Rob Castiglione http://www.robcastiglione.com/
Producer and Jingle-jangle lookout: Sandi Woo https://sandiwoo.com.au/
Co-ordinator of everything: Anna Boaden
The Beauty Index is supported by Denmark Arts; the WA Government through Departments of Cultural Industries and Regional Development; Country Arts WA; the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts and the Regional Arts Fund; Lotterywest.