Helen Herbertson will be a familiar name to many. She is well-known in the contemporary dance scene for her longevity as a performer, her choreographic work and as a mentor to many young dancers.
In 2022, Helen’s lifelong contribution to Australian dance was recognised with an Australia Council Award for Dance. It’s not Helen’s first accolade, and it is unlikely to be her last. In 2007 she received the Kenneth Myer Medallion for her distinguished contribution to dance and in 2017 was honoured with a lifetime achievement award and the Australian Dance Awards.
Helen is still performing and danced in the Lucy Guerin and Matthias Achack-Arnott work, Pendulum, at the 2022 Melbourne Fringe Festival.
We are delighted that Helen joined us in conversation for Speak Up for Dance.
Your career has spanned a period of more than 40 years, given the physical demands on the body that’s a long time for a dancer. How have you kept going?
I think it’s always been a question of taking things as they come and trying to adapt to the physical requirements of each project as needed. In the early days taking regular classes to continue my training would have been part of my day-to-day routine. Because I have worked so much as a freelance/project-based practitioner, where there have been periods of needing to take other work to survive, sustaining training outside the regular ‘company class’ format has had to be part of the norm.
I have also become more savvy about my training routine. I think about what is the most appropriate training I need at any particular moment even if that is sometimes a bit unusual. I’ve certainly learned to be more adaptive as my body has gotten older to be sure that I can still listen to what it needs (or not) at any point. Along the way, I’ve found some great allied health practitioners (e.g. massage, osteopath, acupuncture, chiro) who help keep me on track.
You’re at the age and career stage where there are now retrospectives looking at your work from the 1980s; how does this feel?
I find it surprising because the time seems to have gone by so quickly and yet there is now a clear body of work to consider. Because of the nature of the dance form, I’ve been intently focused on making the next new work and pursuing the next creative curiosity with complete attention all this time. I have always been keen not to repeat myself, so there has been little time or interest in going back. But recently having opened to the possibility of retrospectives and looking back at past works, their history, the creative territory they explore, and the journey of their process, I’ve been fascinated with what has emerged.
I’ve found it stimulating and very positive, generating new thoughts and ideas. Now that I’m actively reconsidering the context of the time, and the ephemera of work, revisiting old photos, videos, memories, and writing has been surprising and valuable. It’s been very satisfying seeing my choreographic work reignited in a young performer, seeing the material come alive again has been a thrill. It continues the creative journey in ways I hadn’t considered.
You’ve often said that in your mind dance is often about ‘people and place’; can you expand on that for us please.
The phrase ‘people and place’ came about as I began to recognise that for me, I’m always seeing people when I’m watching or making dance, I’m connecting to the dancer/figure in a person-to-person way, through what I consider to be an exquisite form of communication.
I’m watching and recognising another person who is experiencing or expressing something – some of the complexity of being human perhaps – in an environment or surrounded by an atmosphere that is enveloping or impacting them. I don’t mean in the strictly narrative sense, but rather that I can sense a complex, multidimensional interaction for them inside themselves, with others, with us watching and with the space/place. ‘People and place’ seemed to be a simple way to express that idea.
You’ve worn many hats over your dance career: performer; dancer; choreographer; artistic director; teacher and academic; performance coach and staging consultant. Which one do you think suits you the best today?
In whatever capacity I’m involved I try to tune into the situation and right now I’m trying to consider every offer and give it my best. Currently, I’m performing in a show for the Fringe, working with some younger artists on adapting some of my choreography, mentoring several artists, working with some collaborators on the beginnings of new work and sifting through the residue of some older works. I hope there will always be occasions for me to wear one or more of these hats so that I can stay involved as long as possible.
Given the many roles you’ve had, is there one aspect of dance that you enjoy more than others?
I’ve always enjoyed making work. For me, the journey towards that has always been a thrilling ride. I like travelling into the unknown, the feeling of trusting my instincts and heading towards something that I know is out there but that is not yet clearly in view. It’s kind of like following the scent trail of perfume.
I love the process with a creative team, the striving, the crafting of every aspect with fine detail, directing the process and integrating every aspect to bring the ‘whole’ into high relief. I particularly enjoy the performance coaching with performers and the moment when the work is presented to an audience, and then the fine-tuning that is possible once the work has had time to breathe. Clearly, this has been an obsession that has not gone away.
When you started dancing in the 1970s, was contemporary dance a ‘thing’?
When I encountered contemporary dance – modern dance as it was then called – in the early days it was as something very different to ballet which so many of us were training in at that time. Modern/contemporary dance had a different physicality, new ways of training, an exciting dance vocabulary, and different ways that work was made and presented. I found that so interesting. It was a recognition that structures and protocols could be broken, and traditions challenged.
As a dance genre, contemporary was shifting in the US and in Europe through this time, but my influences came from experiencing these shifts by working with choreographers and seeing the works of companies that came to Australia as I didn’t travel outside Australia until much later. I learned to thread these new influences into my own interests in dance and forge my own path.
Who were some of the artists who inspired you as a young dancer?
Hard to answer this one. My early teachers and first choreographic influences: Jill Cadden in Brisbane, Brian Coughran, Jacqui Carroll and the Queensland Modern and Contemporary Dance Company. My experiences in the contemporary music and art world – John Cage, Merce Cunningham – in the ’70s, ’80s became important when I moved to Sydney. So many companies were travelling to Australia at the time – the Nederlands Dance Theatre, Pina Bausch, Philippa Cullen, Stockhausen. There are just so many to mention.
How do you define contemporary dance today? How have you seen it change?
Contemporary dance today has so many influences across genres and forms. It has been absorbed into other art forms as a component, but I think it also continues to strive for innovative processes and approaches that continue to challenge protocols and norms. Although I think it can be a challenging art form, I do think it has found ways to be more approachable for audiences, especially as body and health have become highlighted in society. It continues to be difficult to define, as much because it is striving to break out beyond the known.
How has the professional dance/performance space changed?
The profession has grown enormously, especially in the project-based (independent) part. The lack of more permanent company structures is still a frustration to me as I’d like to see more extended and supported pathways for dance artists. There will never be enough financial support, and this continues to be a frustration as I can see things beginning and beginning again as ideas make a start but are not able to continue.
In your experience, how much damage has the COVID-19 pandemic done to the dance sector? How long will it take to recover?
The devastation to the sector has been enormous, the loss of established companies and the disruption for the main bulk of the sector working in project-based situations. The double whammy of the loss of arts activity and income coupled with the loss of income from other jobs (hospitality, health, administration) that supported everyone in between has hit very hard. I’ve seen artists adapt amazingly but also others walk away from what was a struggle to start with.
The pandemic made us all stop and think: “What’s important?” The move to so much dance training having to occur online has been a big shift. I’m not sure we will know the impact of that for some time. I saw students adapt amazingly and develop new skills by picking up information from a screen but at the same time, there was a diminishing of sense of working together in a shared space that is so much a part of being a dancer. Of course, there may be positives and new ways of doing things. I guess over time this will be revealed in the work that’s produced and the way it is shared with audiences. I think it may take some time to encourage audiences to come back to ‘live’ performances. I know I’m certainly still a bit wary of being in crowded spaces and never thought I would be thinking that way.
We hear a lot about the mental health side of dance and performance today, especially since the pandemic. Does the sector do enough (or know enough) to take care of dancers’ mental health?
The pandemic certainly brought dancers’ mental health struggles into high focus but even prior to that I think there has been a much greater awareness in everyone, and in the training structures, about the issues and impacts, the need for a supportive environment and a balance between the striving to reach goals and high standards. Pushing artists to the edge of creative exploration must be balanced out with the resilience provided by rest and recovery.
As training has encompassed a more holistic approach, I think young artists are more aware and able to recognise the signs and know where to go to seek help and support. However, strong mental health awareness requires a daily focus, and we can all have days where we slip. I think it will be important coming out of the pandemic to have programs that can keep us reminded of the importance, encouraging us to share with others and to stay as healthy as possible in what can be a very demanding profession.
You’re a mentor for younger dancers now. What sort of advice do you give them?
I remember for the younger me that going forward was so much about confidence, in trusting myself that I had something to offer. I remember those people who encouraged me to keep going and to trust my instincts. I encourage younger artists not to forget why they love it, especially when getting bogged down in the long hard slog of training, to remember the kick they get when they let it rip across space, the joy in doing it and sharing it with others.
It’s not an easy road to follow, striving towards becoming a professional dancer/choreographer so enjoying the progression is important. Everything accumulates and it is certainly true that dance can be a lifelong obsession. I like to remind them too that in the end, this exquisite expression is a dialogue, one human communicating with another through the body. Remembering this simple idea can help take the shackles off and give the impetus to put your whole energy into what you are doing. There is nothing like it so giving your whole self to the task can really connect with someone in a profound way.
Do you still have the passion and drive you had when you started out?
I probably don’t have as much energy as I once had but the passion for dance I don’t think will ever go away.
Thank you Helen, it’s been a pleasure and may you continue to inspire emerging artists for many years to come.