Not “just a dancer”

The many dimensions of Gülsen Özer 

Gülsen Özer is a stalwart member of the Ausdance VIC Dance Educator team and regularly tours Victorian schools with our Blue Sky Dance program. We spent a few minutes with Gülsen to find out more about this multi-talented artist.

Gülsen Özer

Ausdance Vic: One glance at your resume, and it’s clear that Gülsen Özer is not “just a dancer”. You are a multimedia artist across many platforms. Can you give us an idea of the breadth of your practice?

Gülsen: I work in the visual and performing arts creating two-dimensional work as well as installation, sound works, video and public art. I also do performance work, that in recent years, has been site-specific and performed outdoors.

Some of my recent work has been in creative recovery; working with bushfire disaster-affected communities on projects to support their recovery. Creating spaces for reflection, reconnection, and moving together towards a reframing of their experiences and amplifying their sense of pride of place and community.

Other work supports young people to have a voice in their communities through public art co-design projects. I also run trauma-informed incursions that encourage young people to express their emotions and build social connections and I work with elders and intergenerational cohorts in creative movement and dance.

Ausdance Vic: A lot of your work is focused on the Dandenongs and Yarra Ranges. Do you feel a particular affinity with that location?

Gülsen: I returned to Melbourne in 2013, after living in Istanbul for two years, and moved into a beautiful place in the Dandenong Ranges, on Wurundjeri and Bunurong country. I grew up in regional Victoria on Gundijamara country, in Casterton, so some aspects of living in the Dandenongs mimics a sense of home, be that the rolling hills, or granite outcrops or riverbanks.

There are many wonderful Aboriginal elders who live or visit Coranderrk and they are often willing to share their deep knowledge with us. After several years working with artist and curator Gretel Taylor on various projects, we are now part of a collective called Body Place Project that make, host and program site-based research, performance and visual art projects including residencies-on-country, first nations led walking programs, and exhibitions.

Gülsen Özer performing a TWMA
“Frame-work”, Tarrawarra Museum of Art. Performed by Gülsen Özer

Ausdance Vic: Your work has been described as “emotionally expressive” and “conceptually rich”. Can you unpack this for us?

Gülsen: I like it when performers communicate emotional states through nonverbal movements, including through the face, and how audiences feel those emotions. When I work with people in creating performance work, I want emotional states to be communicated. This is one of our strengths as humans and performers, and that is a big part of what distinguishes the things we create.

I think “conceptually rich” just means there are lots of ideas, or layers in my work. It isn’t about just one thing. When you look at the structure, themes, iconography, colours, titles, process, and presentation – there are a lot of concepts happening at once. For example, “From Where I Stand”, is enacted by two dancers (myself and Gretel Taylor) standing in separate locations, who simultaneously collect data about wind direction, location and other sense data and create improvised movement scores. This work is about daily practice. But also about the value we place on the body as a tool for scientific measurement, shared connection, geographical distance and topography. It’s about connection to place through the return to place; about mapping/alternative mapping and power. There are also layers about the wind and emotional states, and climate change/storm disaster. And it is about the human senses, including imagination, as potent pathways for repetition, ritual and cultural production.

Ausdance Vic: We know you as a dancer, choreographer, and teacher. Where does dance fit in your persona and your creative life?

Gülsen: Dance and choreography are my core skill set. They are my practical tools. I kind of think everything I do is choreography. And everything aims to bring the body and somatic experience along for the ride and so in that way, dance is always present. So even when I am working on something more visual, like “Surrealesville”, I’m still looking at the site and how the audience will be choreographed into the scene.

The way I look at collaboration across projects with multiple stakeholders is also informed by my early experiences in devising experimental new dance work with collaborators Gareth Hart and Dani-Ela Kayler in 2003. That was my starting point for a dynamic, present, co-creation model of working. It was a seminal time of experimentation, deep mutual support and developing leadership for all of us and its influence endures in the kinds of relationships I have been able to build and the work I make.

Even before I started making work, I majored in Visual Culture as well as performing arts. This field of study intersects with philosophy, anthropology, cultural studies, critical theory, and art history so this foundation and the inspiring teachers I had like Dr Anne Marsh who introduced me to feminist performance art, had a big impact.

Gülsen Özer teaching Blue Sky Dance
Gülsen Özer teaching at Hepburn Spring Primary School (Blue Sky Dance Tour 2023). Photo by Anna Every and Suzie Ward

Ausdance Vic: As a member of our Blue Sky Dance team, you visit a lot of schools across the state. Tell us about some of the kids you’ve met and your experience of teaching Blue Sky Dance.

Gülsen: It’s the best. My heart just swells when I see young people light up in an activity, they are just such amazing cohorts to work with. The young people I see in regional Victoria are very hospitable and even if they are shy, they are curious. I’ve been to farming communities, which have a strong sporting culture, and I love talking about how dance skills translate into life and team sports skills.

Many young people take time to stay back after the session and let you know how much they enjoyed it. I met some young Turkish people at one school who were excited to have another Turkish person at their school. They said, “It is great that you are here. No other Turkish people come here.” and I thought yeah, I know how that feels. There were no other Turkish people in my hometown when I was growing up.

I like encouraging young people to support each other and their unique dance. In all our known, or maybe unknown, cultural backgrounds, dance is, and has always been, a part of being human and we all have the right to dance. Even if what we are doing isn’t considered mainstream, it can still be dance and it’s as natural as walking, eating, singing and sleep. I encourage them to create a culture in their community that celebrates this.

Ausdance Vic: We’re curious about your work from 2017, “Virtual Dance Class”. Audiences were holding onto a dance barre with a headset covering their eyes. Can you tell us more about this?

Gülsen: Yes, that was a fun collaboration with Viv Rogis back when we worked in the same group show, called Dance X, at Yarra Ranges Museum. The shared focus of our work was participatory experiences for audiences to explore dance and choreography.

Viv was already making work with 360 video, and I thought it would be interesting to work with this and the phone media ‘VR’ player to recreate a youth ballet dance class in the gallery. It provided audiences with a sense of disorientation, through the technology, but also a good dose of nostalgia, joy and voyeurism. Having the barre was an important conceptual, practical and risk-mitigating element. But it also helped add to the sense of immersion. Part of the virtual scene was anchored in the real world.

Ausdance Vic: What’s next? Do you have any new work in the pipeline?

Gülsen: I’m supporting the development of a co-designed queer temporary public artwork by artist Tay Haggarty and a group of youth collaborators as part of my role facilitating the Queer Art Collective which is a project of Burrinja Cultural Centre. I am designing and leading some workshops for TWMA outreach education program in conjunction with the TarraWarra Biennial 2023: ua usiusi fa’ava’asavili till the 16th of July.

After completing the 2023 Blue Sky Dance tour, I will begin a creative development for a new dance film. And following that, will be reworking a solo work called “Just Like You” that I made in 2019 about my name.

I hope to also develop some more ensemble dance-theatre work if I can get that funded and find a group of available dancers. Calling all dancers who like my vibe…DM @missgulsen on insta please!

Gülsen Özer