Loose Canons: Lara Liew
Loose Canons is a series where we invite artists we love to share five things that have informed their work. Meet the rest of our Loose Canons here.
Lara Liew is a dance teacher, actor, choreographer and theatre-maker. She’s the choreographer for contemporary water ballet company, The Wet Hot Beauties, and is one half of the creative brain behind the comedy dance troupe, Dynamotion, which she started with Thomas Sainsbury in 2012. The pair are currently rehearsing an ensemble of twelve dancers in the company's fifth full-length work, Dynamotion presents Mia Blonde in 'Ice Dagger', which premieres at the Basement Theatre on the 2nd August.
60s Bond Films
James Bond was an ever-present character in the lives of my brother and I when we were young. In my memory, he’s like someone my parents knew who would sometimes come over for dinner in a sharp tuxedo and charm us all over martinis and milo. My brother and I were rapt with the villains, the glamorous women and the dangerous situations that my dad would weave into James Bond-themed bedtime stories. To this day, the storylines and characters of the actual films still merge together in my brain – such was the effect of my dad's liberal and inventive approach to an oral history in Bond.
The films themselves are a feast of retro glamour, and the plotlines are as epic and ludicrous as they come. I still love the theme tunes, the villains, the chases and escapes, the one-liners - the deaths! The films were so big, exciting, ridiculous and theatrical – which is what makes them ideal fodder for a tribute by Dynamotion.
Bob Fosse was an American dancer, musical theatre choreographer, film director and actor. His work has style, humour and innovation, and it appeals to me on so many levels.
I attended a Fosse workshop/masterclass when I was in my early 20s here in Auckland. I was already teaching dance, but never in a million years would have considered the possibility of performing dance onstage again.
I can't remember the name of the visiting instructor, but two things he talked to us about really stuck with me and helped change my relationship with dance. The ages in the class ranged from about 11 to a few women who were possibly about 40. I remember arriving feeling extremely nervous and was already mentally comparing myself to every other dancer in the room. Half way through the day, we had a bit of a sit-down with the tutor and he talked about Bob and his philosophy. The first thing he told us was that Fosse wasn't interested in casting dancers who were technically perfect but rather looked for the ones who had something going on inside – that industrial sewing machine needle kind of x-factor humming away right under the ribs. The second thing he said (we were learning the choreography for 'I Gotcha') was that even though you could get the steps right, "You can't dance this properly until you're at least in your 30's – you have to dance it with your life and at 11 or 15 or 23 you just don't know enough about sex or life or any of it to actually fulfil the whole story – but thank you for coming, you're all doing great."
Now, I'm probably paraphrasing the above, and it may not even be that accurate, but these two ideas were kind of revolutionary to me:
- I didn't need to be technically perfect at ballet or have a perfect ballet body to be a great dancer
- I could use my own life and experience to become a better dancer
It seems outrageously obvious. But for a long time I approached everything 'dance' as a failed ballerina - and that's a very narrow view of both my own ability and of dance in general. To my brain at the time, dance = ballet and ballet = failure. I had spent a long, long time trying really hard not to fail at it – so I guess shaking that idea has taken time. I was an adept modern dancer, too, and had been successful through to Advanced level, but that was still overshadowed by failing one ballet exam three times.
In a way, you could look at my recent work as a response to letting go of that. Dynamotion was created purely out of a shared love of dance and a penchant for the ridiculous, but it’s become a way of claiming and celebrating dance no matter what ability or shape you possess. It's nice after all this time to make the connection between the kind of dance work we make with a kind of personal revolution that perhaps started with that workshop. What's more, even with old injuries catching up and in possession of a 'mum bod', I think I’m a much more engaging dancer at 35 than I was at the height of my training.
Hot Lunch Jam - Fame
This scene depicts exactly what I wanted from my life at 6 or 7 years old. From the styling and choreography to the kiss from sweatband guy and the skinny ballerina in the mint-green leotard, this scene spoke to my soul. How I wanted to live in a world where we wore leotards in all sorts of wonderful colours, and jammed out songs and dances at lunchtime and really lived to dance.
I guess what I must have loved about this scene was the joy. What I knew from my own experience of dance (even at that age) and despite the trials and tribulations the characters faced in the rest of the film, that scene was just them all having fun. Like, you want to be part of it, right? I'm still drawn to the idea of manifesting joy through performance. And leg-warmers, I love leg-warmers... to this day I still rock the over-the-heel woollen variety in class.
On a good day, the Paso Doble can still move me to tears but some of the other performances in that scene are just so brilliant. The slow clap at 3:13? The disgruntled dancers? The officials losing their shit? I love those big performances. Australians are very good at it – playing what are essentially character tropes with real conviction and depth. It's the same heightened but totally committed performance that has become a Dynamotion hallmark. In part, that's where the comedy comes from – believability and total commitment to a totally ridiculous given circumstance.
There are several dance films I remember from my childhood - Fame, Flashdance... Strictly Ballroom (believe it or not I didn't actually see Dirty Dancing until I was 21) and they all totally drew me in – a life punctuated by dance numbers just makes sense to me. Strictly Ballroom just tickled my fancy though – the right amount of earnest and funny – and the Paso Doble. The Paso Doble was the thing. I think Dynamotion has referenced that dance several times over the years – I still go back to it for inspiration from time to time.
Moving in unison
It's a simple idea, but one thing that brings Tom and I so much joy is watching people move in unison. It's part of the reason for our ever-expanding cast (we started with 6 and we now have 12, although the entire Dynamotion family is probably close to 20).
My first season with the Wet Hot Beauties in 2012 got me thinking much bigger in terms of the possibilities of a very large cast. It's more than just visual satisfaction when you see a whole bunch of people moving together in unison – I think you get a sense of the collective energy too. There is a certain amount of connectedness happening – alongside precision and hours of practice.
There's this Japanese synchronised walking video on YouTube and they are so spot on with their group movement and timing. Even the everyday act of walking can be transformed into something extraordinary, and to me that's inspiring. It's also interesting to choreograph for large groups – especially when you’re working with diverse body types, ages and abilities – sometimes things just don't work like you imagined them and some things can look incredible straight away. When you hit the gold it's goose-bumpingly brilliant.
I've gotten better at visualising and translating those moments over the past four years, but it's still a work in progress. I do have a special type of glee in my belly that bubbles up when the really connected moments emerge in rehearsal. It's like when you've got a really, really great gift for someone and you just can't wait to give it to them.
Dynamotion Presents: Mia Blonde in "Ice Dagger"
Cover image: Westside 2, photo: Aidee Walker