On the Couch with Gavin Webber

Gavin Webber Arts Review On the CouchWho is Gavin Webber?
I’m a choreographer and one of Australia’s oldest dancers. I’m about to go to Melbourne with a show called Cockfight and I’ll turn 50 on the last day! I feel pretty proud of that. I had a Helpmann nomination last year which was referred to, by members of our company, as the Paul Newman award (referencing Newman and his Oscar for The Colour of Money, really a nomination for stuff he’d done when he was younger). Everyone thought I might get it out of sympathy but in the end the Helpmann was won by someone who could still dance. That hurt.

When I put a suit on I am also the co-director of The Farm, a dance company based on the Gold Coast with roots in Berlin. We’re about to partner with Supercell Dance Festival in Brisbane to present our next work, Depthless, created by Kate Harman and Ben Ely, and our first workshop series, Bare Bones. At The Farm we make performances that range from dance-theatre to installation to immersive. We follow our instincts and use any tools necessary to create work that we believe in.

What would you do differently to what you do now?
I would surf better. That means basically being able to stand up. There’s a theory that the reason people feel time passing more quickly as they get older is because they have fewer new experiences. For a child each moment is astonishing and full of potential but we become jaded, get comfortable and time flashes by like a film. So I’ve decided to learn to surf. Today I had to tear a bluebottle’s tentacles off my arm while getting dumped by monster waves. That was certainly new.

Who inspires you and why?
The people I work with are my number one inspiration. That’s because I draw so much from who they are, whether I’m choreographing, collaborating or dancing alongside them. Recently I performed in Chile with Kayah Guenther, an amazing young man with Down Syndrome that I’ve been mentoring. It was Kayah’s first big performance and I wasn’t sure how he’d react. I was nervous. When we started I felt his commitment and strength and support and was inspired by it. I never liked singles tennis, I was always much better at doubles because I like the teamwork. On that stage I knew Kayah had my back and at the end we had a response I’d never seen from an audience before, not only a standing ovation but ten minutes after we went backstage to change, the audience were still there. They wouldn’t leave. I’d like to say it had something to do with me but I know it was because of Kayah’s ability, generosity and presence.

What would you do to make a difference in the world?
Wow that’s a great big question! But I guess in some way I have been thinking about it, especially in the wake of global news which is often overwhelming and indigestible. The question is how to engage with it. I find it difficult to cope with or fully come to grips with the news cycle which seems to be spinning faster and faster. I certainly don’t feel capable of making change on that level but I can focus closer to home. I can change myself, number one. Or maybe not change but come to terms with who I am and how I behave.

I can only think of having any sort of impact within a community, or alternatively to an audience from a stage, which is something I am able (and fortunate) to do for a living. Instead of trying to reach a huge number of people I think of affecting a small number profoundly. Our company, The Farm, is engaging with issues I believe in, such as Climate Change. We can’t change policy by making a performance but we can do our bit to point to issues that affect us.

To have an impact on even a single person seems to me to be a goal. I have never really hungered for world domination (not surprising when your profession is contemporary dance), I am as pleased to make a difference to one person in a small country town, who has never been to a theatre before, as I am to a knowledgeable dance crowd in Berlin. We can only evolve ourselves in the end and hope to affect the world through our participation in it.

Favourite holiday destination and why?
At the moment I have to say home. Bit of a cliche I know but you have to take in account that I live on the beach at Burleigh Heads on The Gold Coast. It’s a place that other people come to for holidays. Over the past year I’ve been away a lot of the time so it feels really novel to be at home with my family, deciding whether to swim in the ocean or the creek. That’s the tough kinds of decisions you make when you’re on holidays. If I’m not allowed to choose home I’d have to say swinging in a hammock on a slow boat down the Amazon. I’ve done it once and am certainly happy to do it again.

When friends come to town, what attraction would you take them to, and why?
See above… the creek or the ocean. I guess the outdoors is the greatest attraction of the coast and I have a terrible habit of working with my friends which means we spend a lot of time in the rehearsal room (although commonly our rehearsal room is also the beach). Going out and getting wet seems to come naturally to sweaty, overworked dancers.

What are you currently reading?
I’ve got about three books on the go. I am an avid reader but this has become a bit of a habit of late and not one that I really think is great. I prefer to immerse myself in a single novel but when I’m busy I find my concentration span is affected (as is my time) so I tend to read different books at different times for different reasons. Currently I’m on Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, Eckhart Tolle’s New Earth and Mark Frost’s Secrets of Twin Peaks. The last one is a tease for me. I’m a huge Twin Peaks fan and I think I can credit that show with making me be properly aware of art when I was a teenager. That TV show, and the work of David Lynch in general, made me understand there were unexplainable secrets to the world. The idea of mystery and art has never left. Past productions like Roadkill and Lawn were dripping with references to Lynch and Twin peaks. When we were making them we’d always talk about where we would put our Bob moment.

What are you currently listening to?
A tonne of vinyl. I’ve got a new record player because the one I brought back from Germany three years ago finally gave up the ghost. Along with that I’ve been buying second hand records and revisiting my teenage years as a result. I’ve heard that music is never more resonant than to a teenager and I can certainly vouch for that when I put on Black Sabbath, Bowie, Lou Reed, Kate Bush or The Pogues.

Happiness is?
Overrated. Or at least our version of it is. Happiness is an overused term that seems to send most of us scurrying for something we need to fulfil ourselves. I would say I am filled with a deep sense of peace and joy after a swim in a waterfall, wrestling with my son on our bed or sitting on the balcony of our small flat with Kate talking about the day. Work also gives me that same sense of peace, strangely when the shit hits the fan I often understand that the result is less important than the communion of working together and pouring your heart into something you believe.

What does the future hold for you?
Surfing and standing up.

Gavin Webber is co-Artistic Director of The Farm, based on the Gold Coast, Queensland. For over 25 years Gavin has had a successful career both as a performer and as a dance-theatre maker splitting his time between Australia and Europe. As Artistic Director of Dancenorth he took the company from regional Australia to national and international touring, receiving many accolades including six Greenroom awards in 2009. He was also one of the founders of renowned Collaborative ensembles Splintergroup and Animal Farm Collective, early incarnations of The Farm, whose work has been seen across four continents.

The Farm’s new work, Depthless will be presented at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts on Saturday 25 February, as part of SUPERCELL: Festival of Contemporary Dance. For more information, visit: www.supercelldancefestival.com.

The Farm’s production of Cockfight will be presented at the Meat Market: 24 – 26 March, as part of the 2017 Dance Massive Festival. For more information, visit: www.dancemassive.com.au for details.

Image: Gavin Webber – photo by Darcy Grant