H: Why are you drawing and painting dance and how did it all start?
J: I have always been fascinated with dance, but have no more dancing skills than everybody else who likes moving to music.
But with pen in hand, dance is a different ball game. While drawing, I analyse the experienced movement, becoming more aware of body and space.
I came to Rarotonga in 1986 as an illustrator for schoolbooks on a United Nations project, saw Cook Islands dancing and I was blown away. I started out sketching, but soon realised that I needed to work closely with dancers. Fortunately I soon met Cook Islands dancer and choreographer Jackie Tuara. She came to the studio for years and years to model and work with me, and she still is my Cook Islands dance advisor. She guided me through the basics of Cook Island dance, modeled in minute-long poses through whole dance sequences. Parallel to drawing dance, I was studying anatomy because I felt I needed to gain more freedom to “move on paper”.
After two years of weekly sessions Jackie said: “I’m going to join a dance group again, why don’t you come to our rehearsals. Then you can see the whole thing live.” I never liked to work from photographs and learned a technique to draw dancers in action. I don’t have to work fast, the trick is that you have to achieve a state of mind so you can ‘see’and memorise. It helps to watch very good dancers who can give a strong impression.
I focus, and when I feel I have “it”, I close my eyes, or look down. This is important so that the impression isn’t superimposed by then next gesture. And then I draw – not fast, but because I miss watching more dance while I’m drawing, I usually keep my drawings very simple.
I studied Cook Islands dance for about 8 years before I had an exhibition in 1998 at the National Museum. Jackie and her dance group Ta’akoka performed at the opening. The dance group scene here is very competitive, I wasn’t allowed to go sketch at another group’s rehearsals, because they were worried the swapping of ideas from one group to another. But I invited the other dance groups to the opening of my exhibition, and was very nervous. After all, I was a foreigner interpreting my host culture, and was aware that some people might not like that. But I had overwhelming support from almost everybody, there were a few critics too, there always are. The dance community was very supportive and I had received great feedback. They could appreciate that I was really serious, and I think it was good for the dancers to see that someone takes serious what they are so passionate about.
H: You live in the Cook Islands, when and how did you start working with other dance forms?
J: As I continued with Cook Islands dance, I also realised that I can’t really understand in-depth what is happening unless I start to study other dance forms as well. So I went to San Francisco, and found dance studios who allowed me to sit in a corner and sketch. I drew at rehearsals of ODC and Alonzo King’s Lines, a contemporary ballet . Alonzo turned out to be very influential for me because he built a lot of bridges of kinship between his work and my work. For example, when I said that I felt often isolated, he told me: “Don’t complain, you don’t know how it is if every step you do, every thought, every trial is immediately public domain and gets criticised. Enjoy your isolation! It’s an artistic freedom that I envy!” Exchanges like this were important, and in a way, dancers have been better artistic allies than fellow painters, because there is no direct comparison and jealousy issues.
H: Do you make “dancer portraits”?
J: I never aim to draw a particular dancer, but ‘the ultimate dancer’. Maybe what I’m doing is a bit like dancing for yourself, practicing without an audience. I work without ambition to please, avoid prettiness, and try to draw without self-consciousness, what I remember and feel. I do not want the control required for portraits. To do portraits of dancers, I would have to work from photographs, which is a very different approach.
I’m focused on seeing the whole movement, feet, knees, hips, arms, shoulders and head – everything – in a dynamic harmony. It’s this coherence that I can relate to. Dance is a different art form to drawing/painting, and I live in a different culture. But – if I dig deep enough, we can share human ideas and feelings. I hope to overcome personal and cultural gaps and drama, and communicate the physical feeling of dance – or rugby.
I’m now also drawing sport moves like tennis and rugby. First I thought that I definitely won’t work on rugby longer than just a few studies, but it turned out to be a journey of discovery. The rugby movements are all so purposeful and straight-forward, and I worked out that dance is more like this than I assumed!
I never forget a class I managed to sketch in Paul Taylor’s Dance Company in New York City. There were about 80 people in the room, it was packed. Already during warm-ups my eyes were continually flicking to a particular dancer. He was an older dancer between 50 and 60 and there was something special about every move he did – I could ‘see’ the whole body in every gesture he did, because there was a strong coherence and harmony. Then later I found out he was one of the founding members of Paul Taylor’s Dance Company. Here I am untrained in dance, but could spot and relate to a really good dancer – which was not my achievement, but the dancer’s! This is what I mean by art that is capable of communicating above local context and culture.
H: How do you work, what is the medium that you use?
J: The sketches from life are either pencil, marker or something I can use without paying attention to the tool. The sketches are unpolished, and although there is often a grace in rough drawings, I never sell my sketches, because I want to guard my spontaneity. I pin the sketches up in my studio, sit back and try to feel and relate to the movements, feel them in my own body, dance, rugby, female, male.
H: But you have a bodily sense of it?
J: Yes. There’s a word for it – kinetics. I’ve found it in a book by an art teacher for the Disney studios. So when this is happening, I draw either with ink, acrylics, watercolour, pastels, basically everything but oils.
H: And how long will it take you to do a painting?
J: I don’t work very long on one painting. Of course paintings with more than one figure take a lot longer, as there are more options for composition, design and the need to re-work. When people ask: “How long did it take you?” I say 4 hours and 20 years. I work spontaneous and about 90% goes in the waste basket. So it is a bit like a performance, I give it a go, again and again until I get it or lose it. My mind really needs to be on its toes and in high gear to have the required energy and swing. It is maybe like the difference between ‘marking’ and ‘dancing’, when a bit of adrenalin is required?
My work is like music and dance, it takes a lot of practice, it’s a growing process, the idea evolves in the practice of the art. I’m in a different place now than I was 30 years ago. I’m not saying that young people can’t contribute – of course they do. But every young person with a bit of vision will want to think that in 20 years time they will have 20 years more experience to show. You don’t really want to be told “You’re 25 and at your peak right now and you’ll never do anything better ever”.
When I get distraught about the often irrational and almost esoteric hype in the contemporary visual arts, I think of the classical musicians and the dancers of all sorts that devote their whole lives to their art, and nobody knows their names.
Talking about skill, about 1000 years ago artists in China had decided they didn’t want to be skilled, in the same way we are now using skill like a dirty word in visual art. I’m convinced that we learn skill by imagination, and imagination by skill. But much of contemporary art is not so down to earth, often, you can’t understand it, you have to believe in it. Anyway, these Chinese artists declared: “We are not skilled copycats and commission executers, we are poets and paint our message. And to prove that we are not ‘mere craftsmen’, we paint clumsily.” Paradoxically they were the people who developed the incredibly skilled and elegant ink paintings that we now admire so much. Despite their claim, they searched intensely for methods to express their ideas and created a sophisticated, breathtaking and complex art. They dared to work with modest means without colour, just ink and brushes on paper, and by analytical practice they achieved to express the ideas like a performance, doing it over and over with feeling, to create and develop a growing experience.
H: Do you have established painting techniques or are you more experimental?
A few months ago I decided that I’m going to start drawing with my left hand, and of course it was very frustrating at first. I’m now using my left regularly for initial sketching. It’s not that I managed to be equally skilled with my left as with my right. It’s the very fact that I’m not left-handed, that I cannot do what I can do with my right, that facilitates a different approach. I do not believe in the simplified clichées of the rational left and the artistic right-side of the brain. The clumsiness of my left hand is what makes the difference, the fact that I can’t do detail, so I don’t get carried away by drawing, but keep working on the overall impression and feeling.
H: Can you talk more about the differences of Cook Islands and contemporary dance, what you notice?
J: Cook Islands dance follows a tradition. Jackie, being an innovator, is often expanding on that tradition. And then there are dancers like Uirangi Bishop from a dance family in Aitutaki, who is young, agile, fit and innovative. The first time I saw her dance it took my breath away, but some dancers soberly commented: “She’s not very graceful.” And others said that her style really rattles on the roots of Cook Islands dance.
I think Uirangi is absolutely fabulous. If she dances in a group, not a solo or in a competition, she blends in and is very graceful. She can do Cook Islands dance in the traditional way, very smoothly. But when she performs in competitions, like in the Dancer Of The Year (Te Mire Kapa), she’s innovative.
She’s athletic, knows her body well and is creative. She comes up with new gestures and amplifies her moves in a way that reminds me of contemporary dancers. I don’t think she studies contemporary dance, but like modern dancers, she has maybe a more personal approach. Polynesians in general, and dancers, are becoming more individualistic. This global social development doesn’t stop in the Cook Islands, and I think Uirangi realises a new confidence. Her older sister is a fabulous dancer too, and she must know that she has talent and she wants to follow her ideas, which inspires her beyond the strictly traditional.
Cook Islands dance is most of all a group activity. You dance with other dancers, usually in unison, and you’re not to stand out, there is a strong community spirit. Because of this unity, the dance has developed a clear set of gestures, and the female dance form has evolved a very smooth and graceful style. Very graceful and sensual solos are also performed.
Like in every art form, changes take place, and Jackie’s choreography is innovative and pushes old norms. The two big dance competitions, one for groups in August (Te Maeva Nui), and the other for individual dancers in April (Te Mire Kapa), really encourage change, as the dancers have to come up with surprises, new ideas, moves and costumes. But there are always critiques coming from the old guards of culture, usually retired dancers, claiming that the young ones ‘don’t know how to dance properly anymore’.
Contemporary dance doesn’t necessarily contrast with the group spirit. In any dance performance, if an dancer stands out as an individual, it blows the story. I’ve often mulled over where exactly the difference is between traditional dance and contemporary dance, but there aren’t clear borders. In gestures, traditional dance has a given structure, whereas modern dance is wide open to any body language. But both are physical human talk, some solo, some narrative, some aesthetic, some experimental. Modern dance is exploring aspects of body language that are not used in traditional dances like Cook Islands dance with its typical choreography, or in a ballet like Swan Lake when a story is told. In all three dance styles you have performers and spaces between them. But modern dancers can shift focus in ways that makes different physical aspects visible, something I like to explore by drawing.
By drawing, I like to explore what I can’t say in words. If I can say exactly what I want to paint, why should I paint it? If you could tell me exactly what you’re dancing, then why would you be a dancer?
Isn’t it the pride of our art forms and the very attraction of art, that we can explore things which cannot be explored in any other way? I can approach dance in a way that a dancer can’t. And of course, I can’t do the dancer’s real time and real movement, etc. But exactly these limitations make it possible to shift focus to different perceptions. It’s like drawing with a left hand, by putting a handicap on one perspective, another aspect comes into focus.
CLICK HERE to COMMENT.