Somewhereto_Profiles: Abbie Madden
The Australian-born choreographer on what sets dance apart, taking away the fear of expressive movement and relocating to Belfast for her biggest adventure yet
Each month Culture NI is teaming up Big Lottery-funded social enterprise somewhereto_, to spotlight emerging young talents it has helped access free physical or digital space to explore their creative pursuits in Northern Ireland.
If you're aged 16-25 and need hooked up with free space to make your ideas happen then get in touch with somewhereto_NI. Contact Joe at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you come to be in Belfast and how long have you lived there?
I’m from Adelaide, South Australia where I’ve lived my whole life until now. My dance training has all been in Australia so far, the highlight of which was being selected for the Australian Dance Theatre Youth Ensemble, which I was part of for a year.
As I'm only 20 and this being my first time living away from home, it's my biggest adventure so far and I've really landed on my feet finding more opportunity on this side of the world. I'll have been here for a year in December thanks to the wonderful, brilliant, amazing Ponydance Theatre Company.
I fell in love with them after seeing their show Anybody Waitin’? in Adelaide in 2013 and got in contact as I just had to work with them. In December last year I came over to perform in Pony Panto. Dream come true.
When did you first take an interest in dance?
I first took up dance when I was forced into a class at the age of three as most girls were. At that point it was not a loving relationship, I kept being forced into lessons until about five when I decided no more. It was later at about eight that I began to enjoy it again and have been dancing ever since.
My main ‘dance’ training and performance comes from a type of dance that is only in Australia. Its called Calisthenics and is a mix up of ballet, rhythmic gymnastics, figure marching and a few other things, it’s hard to describe – best to YouTube it!
It was only when I was 13 and got into the High School dance program that I realised there were other types of dance besides Calisthenics. I fell in love with contemporary dance with my favourite contemporary dance company being Australian Dance Theatre.
Did you immediately have an appreciation for it as an art form? What made you want to pursue it yourself?
Yes, instantly. For me it’s the extreme physicality of it, you are literally just using you body to create art and movement in unique ways. I have always been fascinated by tricks and things such as Cirque du Soleil that demand a high level of skill.
Dance gives you the ability to push your body to physical limits, create amazing shapes and do cool tricks while maintaining artistic integrity as you are in charge of how you move, perform, and create those shapes.
Did dancing come naturally to you or did you encounter many difficulties or setbacks? Where/how did you learn?
I think so? I’m not really sure, I’ve always enjoyed it, which is all I cared about. I could very well have been the very uncoordinated kid in the back of the class. I know I’m not anymore but that’s taken years of practice to be certain.
In everyday life I am so unbelievably uncoordinated and clumsy, it’s a miracle I’ve survived this long. I think dancing has helped; having discipline and technique as well as overall strength means it has always been easy for me to learn and practice.
I learnt mainly through Calisthenics, it is entirely about precision and counting, as everyone has to be uniform. That was great training for getting used to watching people and staying in time. It also helped with flexibility and performance as its very theatrical in the way it’s performed. I learnt other styles of dance including contemporary, ballet, jazz and hip hop when I started in my High School dance program.
Finishing school I went straight to full time training at a private studio in Adelaide then at Adelaide College of the Arts. Through all those years I was also in physical theatre performance groups and then I got into the Australian Dance Theatre Youth ensemble which was/is one of the highlights so far.
Would you say it's your primary passion in life? What is it about it that makes it so?
Moving, being active and being creative, making things! That’s why dancing is so good, it keeps me moving. Ask anyone I honestly can’t sit still at all. I also have such a short attention span, I’m constantly thinking of the next idea, daydreaming about some other cool project I could do.
It’s a natural curiosity for everything, before dancing I was also very much into science. Working out in the field volunteering on people’s PhDs, always working with native Australian animals and being outside.
Have you a preferred style or has it evolved through the years? How would you describe it?
Contemporary dance is definitely my favourite, it has so much freedom. It can encompass anything, it also draws from a lot of the other styles which is nice. Hip-hop is also great for performance and entertainment. I enjoy watching hip-hop.
What kind of things inspire your performances? Does Belfast play a part?
Each performance is really different, it completely depends on what the choreographer is asking from you as a performer. The mood, tone, character, facial expressions are usually decided by the choreographer and relate back to what the piece is about.
So it generally depends what the work is about and what it's trying to portray which dictates the performance. But inspiration for works comes from anywhere and everything. For me it’s usually a conversation with someone which triggers an idea, then I have that person to discuss it with and bounce ideas off of.
Belfast has certainly played a part as the people here are so talented. I’ve honestly not been to a city with such a concentrated pool of talented artistic people that are open to sharing and collaborating and helping each other out. It’s great.
Do you have a particular process when working on a routine or a piece?
I will have an idea of what I want the work to be about or what I want to get from the audience or how I want to make them feel. From that I will then work on choreographing movement that goes with the idea and feeling. It can be worked two ways – I’ll get the dancers to move in a way that represents the idea, or I’ll get the dancers to move in a way that gets the feeling of the idea from the audience.
What kind of things have you worked on or been involved with up until this point?
Up until now I’ve been working for ponydance, doing lots of performances and projects with them. I’ve also been working with other local Belfast and Northern Irish choreographers including Bridget Madden and Gary Rowntree. In addition I have been involved in a few local bands music videos, which has been great.
You initially approached Somewhereto_ about space for an individual project. Can you tell us about that?
It's called Blindful and it's about getting dance and movement to people who wouldn’t normally interact with that kind of thing. I want to give people a way into moving without the worry of it being something new.
It can be really intimidating trying something for the first time, especially dancing if it’s not something you’ve done before. The way I’m approaching it is by taking away sight; people are led through a dance sequence, or more a set of instructions, with their eyes closed.
Hopefully it makes people feel safe, having their eyes closed and being led into a sequence rather than having to think of and act on a new skill such as dancing. This is one element of Blindful, I am also looking to work with people with vision impairment and how it changes the way they move and even think about dance.
With the movement sequence project I am looking to get as many people of all demographics involved. At this stage I’m working with a web designer to create an online art installation featuring a video grid of people interpreting a set of instructions into individual sequences.
This part of the project is in conjunction with another in Belfast called To Be Beautiful, led by local musician Katie Richardson who works on promoting positive body image and challenging society's perception of beauty. It aims to offer people a way of gaining self confidence through completing a new experience, making art and hopefully enjoying themselves. In the future I hope to be running workshops based around these principal ideas.
And the group performance you moved to working on more recently?
I’ve been working with a lot of independent choreographers whose pieces I’ve been involved in as a dancer. They have been needing space to develop their works for the future, but as an individual artist and not a big company it is so hard to get space in order to create and develop work.
The most recent project has been with UK-based choreographer Louise Honeybul whom I met in London earlier in the year. She is working on a piece called Deliberately Buried which looks at themes and ideas from the classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
She was looking for space and dancers to be involved in her work, which is where I came in, and brought Neil Hainsworth on board. Neil is also the web designer i’m working with for Blindful. He also designed the flyers provided by Somewhereto_ to promote Deliberately Buried.
How have you benefited from the venues Somewhereto_ has linked you up with?
None of the projects I’ve been involved in would have been possible without Somewhereto_. The venues that have been provided have suited our needs so well and have allowed works to be made and shown and art to be created.
The capacity to print flyers for Deliberately Buried was above and beyond what I expected too. It’s something we as artists would never have had the luxury to afford to do for ourselves so we are incredibly grateful for the budget for that.
As a form of expression what for you sets dance apart from other art forms?
Dance incorporates all of the body and is also completely flexible when it comes to incorporating other art forms. It is completely personal, challenges you to attain a certain physical and mental level, and exposes you to using yourself as the canvas.
What are your hopes as a dancer and where do you plan to go from here?
I’m actually in the process of deciding what to do. I’m looking at possibly pursuing further dance training as an an option along with continuing to work as an independent artist on the projects I have at the moment.
I am also enjoying working with people in Belfast. I want to continue on projects with the choreographers here, and am also enjoying on progressing and working on new skills in Circus. Mainly working, performing and dancing as much as I can!