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Dancing over Ashes

Rosalind Crisp was born in Omeo (East Gippsland), Australia. She studied classical and contemporary dance at Melbourne’s Victorian Ballet School, and in the Netherlands at the European Dance Development Centre. Rosalind has maintained a solo and collaborative, studio research practice for 40 years, at Omeo Dance Studio, Sydney, which she founded in 1996; at Atelier de Paris, Paris; where she was Associate Artist for ten years; and now at the Orbost Studio for Dance Research, which she founded in 2021 with Andrew Morrish. 

Rosalind has been awarded a NSW Women & Arts Fellowship (1996); a MO Award for best Australian female dancer of the year (1997); a Masters by Research from the University of Western Sydney (1998); a choreographic fellowship from the Australia Council (2000–2001); and in recognition of her influence on a generation of Australian dancers, in 2014 the University of Melbourne-VCA made her an honorary fellow. To her long list of accolades, in 2015 France made her a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres (Knight/dame of the Arts).

Since 2013, her solo and collaborative works have engaged with the environmental devastation occurring across her home country of East Gippsland, interacting with science and local knowledge to develop complex aesthetic responses. In 2017, Rosalind’s initiated DIRt (Dance In Regional disasTer zones) to explore how dance and collaborative arts practice might respond to the unfolding extinction crisis, and it is from this awareness that Gracia Haby and Louise Jennison met with Rosalind after the final performance of “The real time it takes...” especially for Fjord Review. 

Rosalind Crisp'sDIRt at logging coupe no. 7735010025, Mt Delusion, 2018. Photograph by Andrew Morrish

Gracia Haby: On National Threatened Species Day, September 7, 2023, Australia added more than 40 plants and animals to its list of threatened wildlife, including the Bulloak jewel butterfly, Kate’s leaf-tail gecko, and 16 types of native spiny crayfish. Twenty-two of the species entered the list at the highest threat status, critically endangered, and most of the 48 were affected by the 2019–20 Black Summer bushfires.

Under the weight of this, how do you go on, personally, or professionally, or are they both the same?

Rosalind Crisp: I think going out and dancing in places has really helped me a lot to sort of accept it all, and it feels like dancing sort of helps, but it goes both ways, because I am not a fulltime activist and sometimes I feel like I don’t do enough. But I can’t give up dancing, otherwise I’d be useless to the world, so I think what I’m trying to do—where I’ve gone lately, and what the power of performing is—is to disarm people. It puts them in a place where they are receptive. Then you just put a little bit in and maybe it goes a long way. I have noticed that with people. People will cry during the show. The woman who started the Tipping Point organisation, she was here last Saturday, and she was just beside herself, and so I think it can have an effect like that. But I don’t know. I don’t think it fixes everything. But everybody has to do their bit, play the role, and, you know, because my sister, Louise Crisp, is so active, she’s an activist and a writer, and also Lisa Roberts, of Friends of Bats and Habitat Gippsland, who takes a lot of my photographs. I think, “Oh, I don’t do as much as them.” And sometimes I support them, go with them, or write to the local newspaper and spotlight different species. I got completely vilified by the local newspaper. They put big one-page ads in about how they were going to take me to court. And it is a small town. So I retreated for a while. But I started writing again under a different name. So, what can I do?! I like writing letters, and sometimes I can’t get to sleep because where we live, it’s so anti the forest. 

And so close to something that is so beautiful.

Earlier in the year, the pink cockatoo, diamond firetail and hooded robin were added to the Threatened Species list, while the status of the red goshawk and the painted button-quail were ‘up-listed’ from Vulnerable to Endangered. We know that habitat destruction pushes these species closer to extinction and ensures more species sadly sidle closer to being added to the list. In the face of species decline, habitat destruction, and Australia’s shameful record of extinction, what can dance communicate? What action can it spark? (Either for you, personally, or that you hope will be conveyed to and felt by your audience?) Is dance enough? Or am I asking too much of dance in a case of opportunistic misdirection and momentarily playing the role of a fossil fuel company reproaching a household, “If you’d only recycle more, we wouldn’t be in this mess!”?

Especially after the fires, nobody was going to say anything, and those with chainsaws and big four-wheel drives were kings. It was a really, really hard time. You see what’s just under the surface in white Australia, and in those situations it really comes out. And art can touch people. And maybe it can help you to just feel and to be more aware. And it can get people to take whatever action they can. Art makes a contribution! 

And anyway, I can’t stop dancing, so I have to make the dance pick up that work.

When I was in the western district for a residency in a gallery in Warrnambool, there were no trees anywhere, except for that little bit of the Grampians. You come back to East Gippsland, where I live, and you go, “Oh, thank God, some trees.” I think they live in amongst it, they don’t even realise. And I think people don’t realise the value of it. That “Oh, there’s plenty more bush out there” mentality, and I say, “No, there’s not. There’s a whole lot of trees, but they’re a monocrop. There’s nothing living in it.” Even quite aware friends in the city come out here and say “There’s plenty of trees’, and it’s like, “No, it’s all Silvertop. It has been replanted.” But they just see treetops. So I made this work with DIRt, “DIRtywork,” and it was actually about telling people in the city what’s going on. And, you know, with humor and with beauty. But with this show, “The real time it takes…”, I’m trying to hold back on the environment stuff, so they don’t feel badgered by it.

Louise Jennison: Yes, it’s a very fine line.

Yeah, so there’s some room for it. And some space for them to come towards it. Rather than me whipping them with it.

Yeah, they’ll just run away.

Yeah, so that’s very interesting, I think. I feel like things shift all the time, and I felt like I went away from the environment a bit for it to come into my dancing again and, well, I never know where I’m going, I just know that I’m going there. I’m led by my dancing, not by the planet, but they have kind of become indivisible in a way. Also the thing that happened to me was when I was working outside, I stopped sort of doing so much, but it also made me value sensations more. The things that you just feel. You know, because that’s how things move and when it is all black and there’s just a tiny little ant, like, it’s just kind of enormous, these sort of shifts of scale, and again, it all comes back to “What is dance?” 

I spent years undoing dance because dance was all this and that, and I know it’s that as well, but it’s all these things that we are not. The details of what is changing in the body, this has been really supported and opened by working in the bush, in ruined places. It has been folded back into the dance and then in a way, I started to feel I don’t have to talk exactly about what’s happening, maybe it is actually occurring in my body, in between our bodies, so if I am available in that way, in that fragility and that intimacy, and that clarity, and that attention, then maybe people will become more attentive and that’s part of what needs to happen. It’s kind of like a long bow, and perhaps I’m just making excuses to keep dancing.

Rosalind Crisp's DIRt at Cape Conran. Photograph by Lisa Roberts

Gracia: It’s your most powerful tool.

It is; it is. 

Louise: It’s your way of communicating. You’ve got all of these extraordinary skills. So you’re bringing that to the environmental movement, which no one else can, so it is like this whole other way of getting through to people. 

Rosalind: Yeah, and I’m not trying to get through with the message. I’m trying to actually make a gap where they come through themselves. 

But my sister helped me, so I want to help people, too. I think it took me awhile to be like, “Yeah, it’s about helping people.” It’s not like “You dickheads who don’t know.” But people don’t know in the city, often, and people don’t want to know. People have not been engaged with the environment, with nature, in Australia. Even farmers. They’re disconnected.

Am I answering the questions?

Gracia: Yes, absolutely, and then some. When you open yourself up to such sensitivity (though this is a loaded word, ripe for the misreading), can you turn it off when you are not on stage or performing or working on a piece, in order that it does not weigh you down in your day-to-day? Is there a way to handle or live with such alertness? And also with such sadness (for the more we observe, beauty cannot be seen without the sorrow)? 

Yeah, so this other thing happens. I think about these three modes of time. I’ll start with the middle one, the time it takes a garden to grow: this kind of patient time where stuff emerges. And then one of them is this emergency time, which we’re in now; where everything we do is all connected. And then the other one is this eons time, and I sometimes feel such a relief when I read about or listen to someone talking about the last Ice Age, or before humans where here, and it is a sort of a psychological, therapeutic relief, really, to know that if we do fuck it up, which we are, then something else will come through. 

I mean, the thing that makes me sad is the birds: the loss of the birds. The gang-gang cockatoos only came back one day this year. Only two of them. And I notice things disappearing. Years ago, I recorded—because my sister and I inherited part of the farm and we turned it into a conservation covenant and it is 200 hectares of white box grassy woodland near Omeo—at dawn a cacophony of birds. It was October, in spring, and it was so loud. And I have never heard that ever since.

I mean, there’s birds there and people come up, we have a residency space for artists to come, and they are like “There’s so many birds,” and I’m like, “That’s because you’re young.” You think this is a lot of birds. This is the last remnants. This is hardly anything.

Louise: Bev Brown and Paul Smith, of Bat Rescue Bayside, who we are foster-carers for, talk about this. Paul says “You don’t know what you haven’t seen.” And he doesn’t know what his generation missed, and that’s why it’s important to talk intergenerational, so that you can tell people. Because they think this is plentiful. And this is not plentiful. It’s barren. It’s desolate.

Yeah, it’s the last bit. That’s really sad, isn’t it? That loss. That memory of it. And that shifting baseline.

You’ve got to act.

Gracia: And giving people the chance to find their way, as you were saying earlier, because it’s going to require all sorts of different people in all sorts of different areas.

Yeah, different processes.

And there’ll be someone who will be “I can’t do this, but I can do that,” and if they find their own way they’re probably more likely to stick to it or find some other thing that is needed.

You have to work on all fronts. Just do everything you can. 

Louise: We look at so many people making work about the environment, but sometimes it is like, is it not taking again?

Eco porn! I know! Exploited in another way.

They’re like, “It’s beautiful, nature,” and profiting off it, again, like it’s a resource. So, for us, it’s a question of “Do you just love being in nature, but not actually doing something to help protect nature?” It’s about learning to reciprocate.

Practical things.

I grew up in the bush, and it’s all gone. It used to feel endless.

Gracia: What we responded to in your work was the honesty and when you said that the really big thing you learnt this season was about love. And how ‘You’ve got to love the audience, because if I don’t love the audience, it’s really hard to be generous and move on. And it is very intimate, because [you’re] quite exposed, and [the audience] are too, in a sense.”

Well, you see, I grew up in the bush, and it’s all gone. It used to feel endless. I always thought, “Oh, if it doesn’t work out dancing, I’ll just go bush.” I could always just get away from the pressure of it or the competition of it or the fear of failure. But you can’t now. This is it now. And that’s very interesting, isn’t it? This is it. There is nowhere to escape to. Wow! That’s a big responsibility. It’s about time. 

I suppose that’s come back to performing, for me. It is to create that two-way space where people can come into it. So, therefore, I feel like I’m giving something to it. 

Louise: What’s it like to dance in the ashes?

It’s amazing on the soles of the feet. I went down to West Cape near Cape Conran. We were going there daily, regularly, for a couple of months. And the thing that was so sad was one of the fires was coming down through the logging coups where it burns really fast, because it was regrowth. So, wind tunnels. Shorter trees with a lot of sap. It was coming down, and they were expecting it would come towards Bemm River. The Fire Chief lit a fire to protect the town, and there was an easterly wind, as there often is, and the easterly wind blew the fire towards Marlo. So they went out and put another fire in, to try to stop it. And the fire burnt through it because there was still an easterly wind. They did that three times. It burnt through the cabins at Cape Conway, through all the beautiful wetlands, stuff that had never been burnt, right down to the water’s edge. And it nearly got to Marlo when the wind changed. The whole sort of reality, the emotional feeling of being in there: it was so black. So hot. It was so hot. All the silver banksias were dead, and even the seedbed was burnt. There was no seed. It was so hot it had just incinerated the seedbed, so no recovery. It’s still all awful. It was powerful to be there. And my partner, Andrew Morrish, would come and sit the camera down and I’d come in and out and work. And he might move the camera but not very often. It was just sort of more like documenting it in a way. We weren’t trying to make anything of it. It was just a practice to go there. And Lisa would come and take photos.

Yeah, just this strong feeling I had in my feet. Of the powdery ash. Wow! And the blackness. It was there for days. I’d worked with Peter Fraser, when we started the DIRt stuff, and that was a deliberate burn that went wrong—after a farmer who wanted to clean up and get rid of some bandicoot habitat—and it burnt through some Trust for Nature places that were protected. We took an audience in there, after we’d worked there for a while. We always kept to the same path so we didn’t stand on anything, and Andrew put some black string up, so the audience could follow it to some black chairs where they could sit and watch me and Peter work. It was really touching, I think, for people. And so that was the first performance, I think, we did outside. About thirty people, locals, came. It was really interesting going out there to that place.

Gracia: That must have really helped people process what had happened and what they were feeling.

Yeah, it did. Just to sit there, and be in it, you know. Silent. I remember there was a Lace Monitor that came through. It was black; it had changed colour; and it just went through. It was incredible. 

It does something else. Because the thing about dancing is it keeps creating itself. It’s a restorative thing, not an ending. Even in that difficulty and that tragedy, it sort of gives life again. There’s life in the body, and I think it does something to other bodies. I think that’s why the body has a role. Maybe that’s one of its roles; it keeps regenerating. So, that’s a good thing. Even if it is not fixing the place, there’s something about regenerating.

Louise: Yes, because everything is completely broken at the moment, so the only solution we have is to make things anew, in a beautiful way that’s, like, actually the solution. We can change our ways. We can reciprocate with nature and, in doing so, we might have healthy topsoil again and clean air again. Biodiversity! What have we got to lose?! 

And clean waterways. Clean rivers.

A safe future, where we are not fighting over a scarcity of resources. We might be able to live lives that are much more meaningful.

Yeah, well we’ll have to. It’s like the Industrial Revolution and things had to change because there was disease and people didn’t have clean water to drink and they were living in abject poverty. It’s sort of like that, isn’t it? In a different picture.

Yeah, we’re “we’ve just used it all up” and we are in crisis mode.

As foster cares for wildlife (either orphaned young or injured adults), specifically grey-headed flying foxes, who, as you are aware, are listed as Vulnerable, have you ever been inspired (directly or indirectly) by the incredible movement range of animals? From nocturnal vision to seeing eucalypts in flower at night and coming in to land? Or what the view looks like from up there? Or how the wind feels on every nerve ending in their wing membrane? How colony animals communicate to one another?

Rosalind: Oh, that’s very interesting. There were a few performances in the gallery in East Gippsland where I was working on this piece called “Fold” for a while. Which I kind of felt was like a little pup. 

[to which Rosalind leapt up and unfolded her right arm at speed.]

Gracia: Yeah! When they quickly unfurl!

Louise: That thumb that comes out of nowhere. 

Gracia: And that confidence they have in their body, and the fluidity. And the ratchet-like locking mechanism which makes it as comfortable for a flying fox to hold on to a tree branch and an effort to let go (the opposite of our human grip, where to hold on takes effort and to let go is our relaxed state).

Everything is just so efficient in animals. They’re amazing to watch. Sometimes I’ll just sit there quietly and a mob of kangaroos will come up. I’ll just watch them, and they don’t waste any energy. They’re just beautiful. I love watching animals in their own environment when they aren’t aware that they’re being watched.

Hope, to me, is a radical engagement with uncertainty, and it requires flying fox flexibility. Doing something for nature, no matter how small, and not being passive. To paraphrase the author Rebecca Solnit, hope is that the ending is not written yet, that it is not too late. Is this, too, how you feel? What gives you hope?

Yeah, I feel that. You’ve got to have hope. And joy; I’d call it joy. Because otherwise it’s just all downhill. I think it’s a responsibility, joy. And the sensation! We’re so fucking lucky to be alive. 

The other thing I find is that there have been a lot of young dancers coming to this show and I find that really interesting and I feel generous towards them, because, you know, it’s very hard to find your way. And I give them the support. So that feels part of it, too. And when people feel supported, they do better things. Maybe they take more care. Take more responsibility.

But yeah, this uncertainty thing. It is all moving, all the time. It is the same with performing and dancing. You can’t fix it. It’s moving. You just have to stay attentive, aware, and awake.

Yeah, that sentence is beautiful. 

It gives you the energy to do positive stuff. While you are here. Which is a short time.

Gracia Haby

Using an armoury of play and poetry as a lure, Gracia Haby is an artist besotted with paper. Her limited edition artists’ books, and other works hard to pin down, are often made collaboratively with fellow artist, Louise Jennison. Their work is in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia and state libraries throughout Australia to the Tate (UK). Gracia Haby is known to collage with words as well as paper.



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