How to build a dance company

Despite the global recession and tight arts budgets, Shaun Parker turned his dream of launching a dance company into a quirky troupe that’s turning heads. 

Shaun Parker decided to establish his own company at the turn of the millennium. It took a further 10 years, and hundreds of funding applications, to make that dream a reality. Across an almost 20-year career, the dancer (and actor) has performed for some of the world’s leading choreographers – among them Sasha Waltz in Berlin and Meredith Monk in New York. But he says building his own organisation from the ground up was one of the most arduous, yet rewarding, challenges he’s ever faced.

‘Even though I was well known as a dancer, you still have to prove yourself as a choreographer,’ Parker says, speaking on the phone from New York. ‘You have to constantly keep applying for funding. Money is very tight.’

‘There’s an element of insanity that one embodies to keep going,’ he adds with a laugh. ‘But things are starting to bubble along now, and I’m getting a bit of momentum – we’ve received funding from the Australia Council for the Arts. It took a very long time, and a lot of hard work, but I’m very glad I’ve arrived where I am now.’

Since its official launch in 2011, the Sydney-based Shaun Parker & Company has performed in cities across the world, and in the coming months will tour to Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne, Belgrade, Linz, Beirut, Jordan, Oman and Ramala.

The troupe, which engages up to 30 dancers on a project basis, has grown a small but formidable repertoire of its artistic director’s idiosyncratic creations. Full of light and colour, the set design, music and narrative complement his choreography to provide an immersive experience. Where does Parker begin?

‘When I create a work, I always start with the concept first, and everything else forms from there,’ he says. ‘For example, Happy as Larry is about the notion of human happiness, while AM I looks at who we are, as a global tribe.’

AM I had its world premiere at Sydney Festival last month, and will be staged at APAM in Brisbane on 18 February. It’s set in the near future, where seven people are charged with establishing a new civilisation. Big questions of identity and social belonging permeate the show.

‘I begin with these ideas, and the rest all spawns from there: the design, dancers, music,’ continues Parker. ‘I suppose the strongest link is between the dance and the music.’

The choreographer has worked with Australian composer Nick Wales on all his productions; for AM I, Wales created an unsettling score of world music and cult-like singing. Linking soundscapes and visual language to the thematic concepts in his work is crucial to Parker’s choreographic process.

Happy as Larry has a box that had chalk drawings and hieroglyphics scribbled across it, which spun during the show,’ he explains. ‘And AM I has a series of 1,000 light globes, little bulbs that emanate this golden glow.’

Certainly there’s plenty of abstract thought at play here, but there’s also a good amount of logic informing Parker’s storytelling. When developing AM I, for instance, the choreographer went to meet professors at The University of Sydney.

‘We discussed anthropology, cosmology and the evolution of biology. I showed them my choreography and they gave me their insight into what they saw. That was amazing, to get additional information about the subject matter.’

If Parker creates an entire visual and musical world for each of his productions, does that mean that his choreography has more scope to vary? ‘Yes, the choreographic vocabulary shifts from show to show,’ he says. ‘But I think now that some people have seen all my works, they do find some similarities. I suppose they always say that it’s very humanist work. And also humour. I always have a bit of quirky humour in the shows; I can’t help it, it always finds its way in.’

Of course, the dance itself is incredibly varied – everything from classical ballet to street dance to breakdancing finds its place in Parker’s shows. This is demanding for his dancers, but it seems they’re more than capable. ‘They have all the abilities: classical, contemporary, they can all lock and pop. The dancers of 2014 are incredibly ver- satile, perhaps because they see so much on YouTube. When I was growing up we only had Flashdance, Dirty Dancing and Footloose! Now they see so much more and it goes straight into their bodies.’

‘Every year I hold auditions around Australia. And the dancers I seem to connect with are the ones who are almost artists in their own right. I’m very attracted to thinking dancers. In my auditions I do tests to see how clever they are, and if I present a challenge or an idea, whether they balk, or take hold of it and run with it.’

Building an audience more or less from scratch with a minimal budget has meant that Parker relies on an organic approach to engagement: ‘authentic connection’ is a phrase he repeats often. Parker often visits a city several weeks ahead of a scheduled show in order to lead community dance workshops. By the time the dancers arrive to perform, there’s already a following for the company.

‘What that does is engage the community,’ Parker says. ‘It is a slow burn, particularly when you’re a small company. Large troupes just whack AUD100,000 (€65,500) at a campaign and it’s on every bus stop. But as a small company, we have to go grassroots, and it’s about making an authentic connection.’

Sometimes this strategy can have unexpected results. ‘Recently I did a show in Australia called Spill. It’s an outdoor work for children, set in playgrounds, so it’s meant to really bring dance into the community. In Sydney there were 400 kids at each show, and of course all the kids bring their parents – so now we’ve got a new audience.’

One of these parents was an advertising executive who called Parker after seeing Spill to request he choreograph a new TV commercial (a lucrative gig, Parker points out). Another parent took contacted Parker after seeing Happy as Larry to find out about becoming a donor. ‘So it’s really about having a presence,’ he says. ‘There’s this knock-on effect of having diverse, carefully chosen and vital projects, but also creating visibility.’