Saturday, August 1, 2009

Interview // Adam Wheeler - Dancer & Choreographer

If you dream of working in a cramped office where the most exciting thing to happen all day is running out of staples, don’t become a dancer. If you want to travel the world dancing for one of Australia’s premiere troupes, go crazy on amazing music video’s for Architecture in Helsinki and work with interesting and creative people then jot down some of these notes. Adam Wheeler has done all of the above minus the boring stapler part. We had a chat in his office/studio, an ex-night club!

My Favorite Note – Hi Adam, What have you been up to today?

Adam Wheeler – I had a production meeting for a new project that I can’t actually tell you about. It’s a secret.

My Favorite Note – A secret project!

Adam Wheeler – I’m under embargo.

MFN – Is the dance industry so cutthroat you can’t spill the beans?

AW – Ha ha no one can know what I’m doing! No. We are being commissioned by the Launceston City Council and they’ve instructed us to keep it quite. It’s my first work as Artistic Associate with Stompin.

MFN – Artistic Associate! Cool title but what do you do?

AW – I’ll be choreographing lots of the work, if we get a guest choreographer I’ll look after them. I manage dancers and run the programs and weekly classes. There are two of us here, myself and the amazing Becky Hilton. She’s our artistic curator.

MFN – Did you want to be Billy Elliot when you were young?

AW – I didn’t start dancing until I was 18. I wanted to be an actor first of all. I really enjoyed doing comedy, taking the piss. When it came to any sensible emotion, it never felt real for me. Which is funny because then when I’m making dance or performing something very sensitive, deep or angry I can really dive into that and feel comfortable. I never felt awkward with the dancing so I thought this was probably a better place for me to go.

MFN – After realizing that dance was the way to go what did you do next?

AW – I took a year off, started training in ballet and then auditioned for VCA and didn’t get in. So I took another year off and formed my own dance troop and put some work on. Then I moved to Melbourne. I had no choice if I wanted to continue as a dancer but to leave.

MFN – Why didn’t you have a choice?

AW – There’s no training here.

MFN – How important is training for a professional dancer?

AW – It’s essential really. If you want to dance with the worlds best you need formulised training. You need to understand how the body works and have that strength and co-ordination. It’s possible to start later on and a little bit easier for boys than girls.

Whenever I get a young dancer who says this is what they want to do I will try to get them into ballet classes as fast as I can. Not because I want them to become ballet dancers, but that initial body strength training is vital.

MFN – What would you have done differently looking back on how you started?

AW – Taking University seriously. My first year of VCA was exciting and hard and I went every day. My second year I kind of got caught up in meeting people in Melbourne and going to parties and working in cool bars.

MFN – That’s part of Uni though.

AW – At VCA where your there from 8:30 till 6 ever day, having a big party life is quite hard. That part of my life influences a lot of the choices I make as an artist now and what I’m interested in. I see a lot of amazing dancers who dedicate their complete life to dancing but have no social skills or person skills to be able to get to work or function properly.

MFN – Did you get a job straight out of University?

AW – I was super lucky. Gideon Orbanic, the director of Chunky Move, was making a new piece about men and men dancing. He wanted an all male cast. He had just seen me perform, liked what he saw and said, “I want to give you a contract”. So in the 3rd year of uni I would do morning class at school, rehearse with the company during the day then go back to uni at night to catch up on everything. It was full on at times but totally awesome as well. Even though the training had been essential I still wanted that piece of paper.

MFN – You started off as a dancer for Chunky Move.

AW – We made this new work called “I want to dance better at parties” and that’s the only new work I’ve made with them but we toured that work for five years.

MFN – Where did you tour it?

AW – We premiered in Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide , Sydney (at the opera house). New York, Chicago, San Diego, Santa Barbara , Santa Cruz, Jacobs Pillow (A dance festival in Massachusetts) Vancouver, Christchurch, Vermont and Boston.

MFN – Roadtrip! What’s it like touring with a dance company?

AW – Touring is one of the best things I’ve ever done. Your get paid to dance and your flights and accommodation and daily spending allowance is paid for. The places you go to treat you like gods because you’re this big dance company from the other side of the world. So they throw you parties and people want to meet you. Touring with Chunky Move are some of the best moments I’ve ever had. I teach a lot when I go on tour. Generally part of the deal is for the company to teach workshops along the way.

MFN – How important is networking for a dancer?

AW – It’s all about networking. I’ve seen a lot of people who have burned their careers because they try to network too hard and I’ve seen a lot of people never get of the ground because they can’t talk or meet people. Its like any performing art, If your going to spend 9-6 with somebody every day you want to not only have a close professional working environment, you want to be able to get along with his person and feel comfortable so you can start sharing and growing and building.

MFN – How do you network as a dancer? Go to parties and talking to the right people?

AW – Yeah and just being friendly. Introduce yourself but don’t get into people’s faces. If there’s somebody you want to meet say hello to them. The funny thing about going from VCA to Chunky Move is that I was suddenly dancing with these people that I saw as gods and suddenly I’m in a studio working with them. You realise that they are still gods, they are still amazing performers and people but they are just like you and I. They like trashy television and eat food.

The dance industry is really a beautiful community. Everyone is supportive; it’s a very critical community about the work you present. People are very quick not to like something instead of like something.

MFN – Is that something you need to consider when you put out a new piece? To be careful with what you present about yourself?

AW – If you spent too much time concerned about how you look instead of the work you personally want to make then your on the wrong course. I don’t think you can get enough advice from anyone.

MFN – How do you get a mentor? Did you go up to them and be like “Hey be my mentor!”

A – No! Don’t try to force those things. You will meet someone you really connect with. Invite them to come to your show or look at your work, let it build from there. If you get too forceful people can get scared back. I watch a lot of young people go OMG your amazing! Will you look after me, will you go see my show! People just can’t handle being around that.

I have a couple of mentors. Becky Hilton who I now run the company with. Its great because we still have that relationship. Even though I’m in a position of running the company and teaching young dancers I still get taught and get feedback from Becky. In terms of my professional development I’m in a really healthy place at the moment.

I had a lecturer called Brett Daffy who’s a very talented dancer and teacher who I used to speak to a lot. It would literally be a catch up over a beer together. Talking about how I’m feeling and how he got through hard times at uni or work.

MFN – Why is a mentor important?

A – When your involved in something its hard to pull yourself away and really examine it. For example Luke will be here in a couple of hours to look at my rehearsal. I’ll say “these are the best ideas ever” and he will say “nah their shit” and by the end of it we will come out with this amazing piece. There is nothing worse than someone saying “Yeah that’s good”. My mum says that and that’s lovely because she’s my mum but that’s not going to make me grow as an artist.

MFN – Should young dancers take every job offered? Or should they be selective?

A – That’s a hard one. I recon early on take anything you can get. Be safe and make sure your not going to be hurt, emotionally or physically. Ask lots of questions; don’t ever be afraid to ask lots of questions about a new project. If a jobs not paid but you think it’s really beneficial for you, do it.

MFN – How important is working for free?

A – I think we have all done it and you do need to do it sometimes. If somebody you admire rang you up and asked you to work on their new project but couldn’t pay you, you would still do it. The personal development would be amazing. Probably after the 3rd of 4th time when they still want you to work for free you should consider it more carefully.

MFN – What’s the point when you should expect to be paid?

A – If your doing something that’s grossly underpaid but benefits you as an artist you should do it. If that’s successful then the next time that person approaches you you’ve proven yourself and you’re in a position to tell them what your worth and what you expect to get paid. Talking money is the hardest thing you have to do as an artist.

MFN – How do you know how much your worth?

A – Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Ask your mentor or ask your friend if you should do it and they will know.

MFN – You choreographed some crazy moves for an Architecture in Helsinki clip. How did you get involved in that?

A – I worked with the production company a few years ago when they sent out an email to Chunky Move, looking for some dancers for a Van-She film clip.

MFN – This is Krozm right?

A – Yeah. They wanted contemporary dancers to be painted complete black in a white room. They spent 2 hours painting me, I was the only paid performer on the project and not paid very much. It was a very low budget clip but I had never done a film clip before, I didn’t mind the band and I was interested in working with the people so I thought I would do it. I did jack shit because I was painted black so I couldn’t touch the ground.

A year later the same production group called me up and said they needed some steps. I said “play me the song and tell me what your ideas are and I’ll get back to you the next day”. Listened to the idea, thought it was completely whacked and gave it a shot. Even thought the pay wasn’t amazing word of mouth is pretty quick and people get to know who you are and that’s good. The directors were really cool guys, Architecture in Helsinki are really nice people so they were fun to hang out with and I got to work with two very close friends and we got paid to be painted and dance around like idiots in stupid costumes. If you can get a film clip do it.

MFN – What’s your advice to up and coming dancers?

A – Train hard and party hard, make sure it’s balanced. Meet people but don’t get in people’s faces. Experience as much as you can, go see everything. Even things you were told were terrible go see and then understand why you think it’s terrible. If you don’t understand why you like something you won’t understand how to make something you like. So see as much as you can and meet as many people as you can.

MFN – And you will be living the dream! What’s the best part of your job?

A – I really enjoy the opening night bow. Particularly working with young people and seeing how happy they are and what they have achieved. When you spend all that time working towards something and its successful that moment for me is really magical. The people you get to meet and work with are really amazing as well. Plus you’re never stuck in little offices.

Words: T

Image: Neon Sunset