Grown and Growing: James O’Hara and Michelle, age 17

We are vitally interested in the conversation and exchange provoked by a creative process shared between artists and young people of all ages. In the magazine we publish a feature called Grown and Growing in which we share insights from both artists and children across art forms, and inspired by some recent connections and collaborations we will now share some side by side portraits here on the blog.
Michelle Aitken is 17 and a senior member of STEPS Youth Dance Company based in Perth, WA, she goes to school at John Curtin College of the Arts and is a two time Tim Winton Award recipient who hopes to never stop discovering. James O’Hara is also from WA and works internationally as a dance teacher, choreographer and performer for the likes of Ballet Junior de Geneve, Ballet Preljocaj, Ohad Naharin/Cedar Lake, The Australian Ballet/Gideon Obarzanek  and most extensively with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet.

Recently James and Michelle shared time in a dance studio together during the development of “Scratch the Surface”, a work co-created by STEPS artistic director Alice Lee Holland and James O’Hara, and assisted by Isabella Stone as part of a tripple bill called THREEFOLD recently performed at the State Theatre of Western Australia.

Michelle:
Having such incredible opportunities has hugely influenced how I engage with the arts, and dance. It’s inspiring to see people who have gone through what I’m experiencing, and have reached a place where they have the skills and the connections to do what they need to. It motivates me to keep working and to take in as much as I can from everyone who teaches us. To be around so many artists supporting us, and each other, is a really special experience. It makes me determined to stick through school when I know everything is bringing me closer to where I want to be. At the same time, knowing what’s out there beyond six subjects, six hours a day, eat when you’re told to, makes me impatient. It’s scary, feeling trapped, but uncertain as to whether I’ll actually be able to make a career for myself.

Being in a studio with James has been an invaluable experience. I’ve looked up to him since seeing Faun on YouTube quite a long time ago. His classes always leave me endlessly fascinated with the ways a body can move, and I find that if I recall that experience when I’m making movement, it flows easily and softly, and between unfurling and recoiling, and moving the space with your entire surface, I could dance (or talk about it…) forever. What I take from James is a ‘fire in the belly’ feeling.

Did working on the project spark any new ideas of your own?  Well, having text so central to Scratch the Surface really caught my interest, so I’ve decided to write more, and try to find ways to connect performance and poetry. But I always have so many things I’m saving up. I always think; I want to do a thing about… And then I remember I’m 17 and unemployed with no professional training. But that said, I’ve been interested in Strange Loops, especially the Ouroboros as an image and a kind of feeling of completion from within, which has definitely stemmed from my experience of Scratch.

Why is an involvement with the arts so important to you at age 17?  I guess I’ve always used creative pursuits as a way to keep my brain occupied, but as I’ve got older I’ve found that there’s no better place for me than where it’s ok to want to experience and explore everything, and I get to respond to that in exciting and intuitive ways.

Bravery is… Being able to put all of your eggs in your favourite basket.
Imagination is... Always finding new ways to see the mundane.
Generosity is… Giving of yourself honestly to others, and appreciating their offers in response.
Michelle centre stage in Scratch the Surface' at the State Theatre Centre of WA

Michelle centre stage in Scratch the Surface’ at the State Theatre Centre of WA Photo: Ashleigh dePrazer

Screen Shot 2013-08-13 at 9.01.59 PM

James O’Hara in ‘Faun’ by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui                                                                               Photo: Diego Franssens

James: I love working with young people and dance. I’m still discovering this, both working with them and how much I love it. I enjoy the exchange, the sharing, the communication that comes from being in the studio together. Also selfishly, I feel very free. They question allot, are very curious but never with too much judgment. I find their excitement, passion and curiosity contagious. This passion that is so inherent in them, but so hard to articulate on, is also why I was my self a member of STEPS, young and dancing 15 years ago. It’s simply refreshing to re-visit this feeling now and remember the essence of why dancing was so inexplicably important to me back then.

Does your process shift depending on the age group? Actually no. Surprisingly. I suppose what shifts most are certain themes or discussions we have together, but the process I go through with them to create material doesn’t change to accommodate for their age or experience. I’m interested in their approaches and the results of their approaches to tasks that they might of never experienced before. Especially through improvisation or quick, honest response tasks. I feel like I get to meet them more thoroughly this way, their personalities and who they are as individuals really shine through, which is essentially what I’m interested in, working with them as young people who love to move.

Through working with young people, my passion for making, for being on the ‘other’ side of the studio has been re-ignited and fueled. I feel hungry for more. I’m encouraged by their passion and commitment and even at times when I know we don’t fully understand what we are making, their trust, is inspiring. At moments when I throw something vague at them or even something I’m still developing in my own thoughts, I’m pushed to articulate more thoroughly what I’m thinking to them in order for them to have a clearer understanding. I’m still learning how to better process and articulate visceral sensations, or links between mental and physical ideas, so through trying to explain these to them I’m pushed into a thought process, a reflection that I’m not used to when working on my own.

Bravery is… honesty

Imagination is…  pervasive

Generosity is… sharing the last piece of chocolate

STEPS engages Arts professionals to inspire, mentor and work with young company members (9-25) to develop performance skills, increase confidence and engage the creative energy of dancers and audiences alike exposing them to the transformative power of dance. STEPS will be celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2014. 

on Aug 23, 2013

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