How do you inspire?

Credit: Maylei Hunt – Carl Tolentino and Thomas Kelly.  “Dark Dream” choreographed by Thomas Kelly, Dance Bites 2013 presented by FORM Dance Projects

It’s official, I’m a mentor. I have attended my first engagement in this new capacity, heard speeches laden with important information about the ingredients of good art and the characteristics needed by a successful artist to produce said art. I have been guided through and attempted to craft  a manifesto for strategies to move forward, with texta poised, to fervently scribble on a piece of customary butcher’s paper, only to realise my competitive instinct to jot as many items down with a suitably poetic/witty turn of phrase, while sparing just a fleeting glimpse at the half-filled columns of my frustrated compadre as an after thought, meant I have a lot to learn in this new position.  Now a JUMP mentor affiliated with the Next Wave festival, funded annually through the Australia Council for the Arts, offered across all art forms and designed to address a myriad of aspects specific to individual needs, from identifying and developing a business strategy to crafting an artistic practice, I have entered into a year-long relationship dedicated to shaping the career of a very promising choreographer.

How do you inspire? How do you encourage an emerging artist to be the best at being themselves when you are still forging your own meagre existence and have only yourself and your accumulating experience to share? Most importantly how do you know when to back off and when to push?

As a teacher in a room of up to thirty I rarely get the opportunity to ask those questions of myself. I create a lesson plan and I deliver. I give encouragement, drive and push, but there are 29 other bodies to focus on, to buffer. I expect that half of the information I pass on will be dismissed, only to return to the recipient in the form of a semi-life-changing epiphany that is not attributed to me in any way, shape, or form.

I have hit that age and time in my  career when I am considered knowledgeable enough to pass on the secrets to my success, to my continued presence in a field where most people my age have moved on ages ago, be it retirement, disillusionment or just run out of steam. When my friends and family have gone from asking when I’m going to be famous and/or get a real job to, ‘Are you still dancing?’ This accompanied by an incredulous response detected by a lid-widening stare and none-too-subtle up and down appraisal.

Paul Capsis, celebrated charismatic thespian and torch singer, was one of the keynote speakers. He held us in thrall with his hardships; his ‘big nose, wog face, tiny body and too camp’ presence, and his slow climb, as opposed to meteoric rise, to acclaim, a man not immediately considered for treading the boards of our most revered landmark theatres.  He spoke of his relationship with his mentors as being real and imagined, both living and deceased, from Janis Joplin to his grandmother. He didn’t have to speak  to his mentors to learn from them, it was enough to emulate them and read their memoirs.

This had me thinking about learning and leadership in my indigenous context, about sitting and watching as opposed to asking questions and entering into debate. When on remote cultural residency it was considered rude to initiate interogatory conversation. Who knows what information was for general consumption and for those wisened with life experience?

I once put in an application for individual research and was asked how I would engage with the community. I said that I would make myself available, and sit, and wait. Apparently this was not a favourable response, hence I was unsuccessful.

So I ponder how to proceed. I take comfort in the knowledge that my mentee and I have similar artistic interests and will acknowledge that this process, as with my work, will be a process of creating systems to acknowledge the contemporary idiom while honouring the traditions that underpin it. I must also acknowledge that I am in unchartered territory and will take on board any advice that comes my way.

I am fortunate I have an eager body in my mentee, matched in curiosity and daring, to work with. The challenge is half complete.

By Vicki Van Hout