Stepping Out Of Bounds

As the curator and artistic director at Temperance Hall / Philip Adams BalletLab in South Melbourne, choreographer, dancer and performative provocateur, Phillip Adams has been an icon on the Australian dance scene for over 25 years. Now, he’s embarking on a new journey of exploration and memory that closes the circle on his ‘80s experience in New York. Phillip joined us to talk about discovering new artists and making new work.

Choreographer Phillip Adams teaching. Image courtesy of BalletLab
Phillip Adams (2022). Image courtesy of BalletLab

Ausdance VIC: Let’s talk about this idea that as an artist, you’re always emerging. You’re an established artist, you’ve got a 25-year history in dance, a solid repertoire, and a track record behind you. But you say you’re always emerging. Give me a quick take on that.

Phillip: I grew up in the late 1980s through the 90s dance scene of downtown New York. I was a denizen of the experimental performance and art scene, that was emerging from the studio space and into theatre outside of a studio to be witnessed by the public. And my body was immersed and I was very much part of that experiment. I came back to Australia in the late 90s, after investing 10 years in that practice in those studios and being with those incredible artists who were following the bloodlines of the Judson Church dance theatre milieu, from ‘60s New York, creating a postmodern dance legacy. And so experimentation has never left the DNA of this body. I continued that experiment, perhaps I’ve created my own Judson Church ethos here at Temperance Hall.

Ausdance VIC: One of the things that’s coming up for you is “Out of bounds”, which I think, is an interesting project where you’re inviting young dancers very much into this experimental space that you’ve occupied, and continue to occupy, to do a series of short works. Is that something that happens in front of an audience? Or is it just behind closed doors for critique?

Phillip: Yeah, that is this experiment that you’re talking about, if we can call it an experiment. That is, it brings to the studios of Lucy Guerin Inc and Temperance Hall, as a collaboration, a partnership that operates on two levels, in that it allows for an emerging choreographer or artist to show a work in progress or just simply an idea that they’re thinking about, for public view. Their ideas are then championed further by a facilitator, such as an established choreographer, or artist in the community, who then brings together the artist with an audience that attended to talk about or ask questions, supply feedback and mentor the artists further in their experiment.

The idea came from Lucy and me growing up in New York at the same time in the 80s, and we were just two streets apart in Alphabet City. We used to attend these open-ended showcase days where one after another young choreographers showed their wares, and some of it was horrendous and others were hilarious, and others were genius. So you got a smorgasbord all day and it was such a community, it was like everyone was there, it was packed to the rafters. So we brought that experience back because we just loved how important that was for us showing and making work when we were young, and that hadn’t been established here in Australia, or in Melbourne yet on that scale. It started out as a one-off and it’s a no-brainer. Everybody loves “Out of bounds”. We’ve showcased about 25 artists and choreographers across a weekend. Yeah. And there’s not one of them that doesn’t come away. absolutely like in love and have changed. And it’s from the experience.

Ausdance VIC: I could imagine that being quite scary. I’m a visual artist, so when I’m in class, and I have to put my latest drawing up on the board to be critiqued by my peers, sometimes it’s a very, very disturbing moment for me and creates quite a lot of anxiety. So how do you feel about that?

Phillip: You nailed it. It’s your first outing of a new work, and it’s normal to be shy about that. So we try to dismantle that anxiety in a way that it’s a shared process. But I agree, many artists, just prior to showing, even backstage or in the new studio, say “Oh, my God, I was terrified. I couldn’t believe I was just about to go out there and show 10 minutes in front of like, 50 people,” but afterwards, there’s this kind of absolute relief, and that, you know, it’s been done, and so they can body forward, to the next phase of the work.

Can I add something really important about this “Out of bounds” project; at least four or five of the projects that get shown as works in progress, then go on to have a presentation context at Temperance Hall, either in Midsumma, or the Fringe Festival.

Ausdance VIC: Does that mean that you then commissioned the artists out of that showcase?

Phillip: Yes, you want to discover our next choreographers. There’s very little platforming in Australia to put forward who’s out there, who’s making work that’s really interesting. It’s for someone who’s been a graduate for two or three years and chipping away on the side and who’s not had a forum to come forward. Their work’s not being programmed into one of the houses. And so the “Out of bounds” opportunity is gold. And, I’m just enamoured with the results of “Out of bounds”, there’s nothing else like it in Australian dance history. And it’s shapeshifting.

Ausdance VIC: So it’s a public performance that you sell tickets to?

Phillip: It’s all free. You just turn up to the session you’ve booked online. We have a capacity of 60 people or so per session. So there’s four performances in a session, and there’s four sessions in a day.

And, you know, Anthony Hamilton and Tony Ayres, Ros Crisp, Melanie Lane, and other artists, and choreographers are the facilitators of the talk session. So you branch off, right, and you can be with one of the four choreographers that presented, get to know them. And it’s a really lovely, open-ended conversation, people get to ask questions, so the artist doesn’t feel put on the spot. And all the choreographers ask questions back.

We’re pushing more also for Arts Access projects, First Nations projects, and LGBTQIA plus, so we have a very expanded context of who gets to perform. And you know, we discover people who’ve never heard of before. They get tech time, they get a little bit of money, and they get supported all the way through right to the end.

Ausdance VIC: Wow. Then how many people normally would audition for this? Only 25 spots, you’ve got how many making a pitch?

Phillip: A lot. It continues to be in demand. Each round we get up to 50 or 60 applications and we have to choose about 25. If you’re a dancer starting your career it’s an incredible stage to have. But also senior choreographers participate too, which is great.

Out of Bounds 2022. Image by Jeff Busby

Ausdance VIC: And how do these more established artists feel about being critiqued like that?

Phillip: They love it. You know, they’re terrified and excited, of course. Maybe they haven’t danced for years and just want to have a space again to be really public and visible. And that’s really something so endearing to provide that experience for them.

Ausdance VIC: And what are you doing now? Apart from your curating and directorial role here at Temperance Hall and BalletLab, are you also making new work?

Phillip: I am just starting on a new project that I’m proposing that takes me from behind the camera and places me directly in the firing line of performing again. I’ve hidden behind that directorial space. Not hidden exactly,  but not as visible in the last decade. And so it’s important for me to be thinking about my body at 58. And what this ageing physical instrument can achieve. And certainly, you know, I’m not the mover I was when I was a young man. I’m interested also in the fixity of my queer experience, and what that bodies forward, if I were to be in a solo practice, or duet practice with somebody.

So, it’s about identity, showing myself at this age and what this queen and her tiara and what she’s been about. I asked myself, “What would propose if I were to have a forum in which I could explore identity and portraiture?” And so I’m working on a new project, that’s an international collaboration with a Montreal-based choreographer, José Navas, whom I met in the 1980s, in New York, as a young man. Now, we’re finding ourselves 30 years later in the studio, and we’re talking about our queer bodies, across decades of radical upheaval and social change, looking at the challenges of the social class, in that time of AIDS, and then kind of moving forward around how we’ve managed to continue to be really relevant, and what we’re doing now. I might add that the very thought of commencing this collaborative process with José is wonderfully terrifying and exciting all at once, as it confronts my usual maximalist scale of work under an entirely different regime of making. I feel this urgency to be stepping into the limelight again, to rediscover my love of performing, and to journey this experience in comradery with José feels exactly right. And I cannot wait to experience that moment again. Whether it fails or not doesn’t matter. I’m putting myself out there and I’m doing that job. That’s very important.

Ausdance VIC: Can we expect to see you doing a 10-minute slot at “Out of bounds” then?

Phillip: [laughing] No, you won’t see me doing that.

Ausdance VIC: That’s a shame. You’re not going to turn up in disguise and do a little showing?

Phillip: No, not this time. I love showings, I love showing work in progress because I started doing this in Melbourne as a young choreographer. There were often like 400 people waiting to get into see what I was creating back then. So I created that hysteria and I’m very good at championing and or bringing people to, you know, exciting experiences. And so Temperance Hall has been a saving grace for me. You know, for an artist to go from being just an email address, to having a space was terrifically important in the development of my career.

Ausdance VIC: So, “Out of bounds”, then from what you’ve said, it’s really very much a full circle for you, it’s closing a circle that began for you in New York a long time ago.

Phillip: Yeah, I couldn’t put it better than that. Within an Australian context, yeah. It’s new. We’re such a small community and there’s very little room to be showing and finding bodies in relationships and talking about dance and so “Out of bounds” has established that here in Victoria, which is let’s face it, the capital of Australian dance. We always have been.

Ausdance VIC: [laughing] Sorry, Sydney.

Phillip: Yeah It’s a different climate. Melbourne has always been an important meeting place for contemporary dance, even back in the days of Margaret Lassica’s Modern Dance Ensemble, Nanette Hassell at Dance Works and choreographers like Russell Dumas at Dance Exchange. They are important markers in Australian dance history, so it’s exhilarating to be part of that pioneering dance ecology. Not to mention we’ve got the ballet on our doorstep. I could go on forever, but I have things to say.

Ausdance VIC: Well, I’m sure we’ll have another conversation very soon and speak more to that. Thanks, Phillip, that was a lot of fun and very informative.

The next iteration of Out Of Bounds is on Saturday 12 & Sunday 13 August 2023. Expressions of Interest close on 5th June.

You can lodge an EOI via Lucy Guerin Inc or via Temperance Hall