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Penelope Mullen

Choreographer and dance teacher Penelope Mullen doesn’t dance for just self-satisfaction. She was introduced to dance by her mother, who was a dance teacher, and she knew from a young age that it was her calling. Now 46, Penelope admits her perspective has shifted from when she was younger, and she now gets her greatest joy from sharing dance with others through her roles as a dance teacher in Brazil, and as head of dance at the Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts. Her latest piece is Danse Noir, at Judith Wright Centre from April 26.

My childhood dream … was to dance, without a doubt. I was exposed to it – my mother taught ballet and she taught dance at the Tivoli Theatre in Sydney in the fifties and sixties. Actually, she really didn’t want me to dance because she knew it was a difficult profession – both emotionally and financially – but there was no question in
my mind at all. It was just a feeling for dance that I had from when I was such a tiny girl and I never questioned it.

I did ballet until I was about 17 … and around 18 I realised I probably wasn’t cut out emotionally or academically for a ballet company, and I felt I needed to see and be a part of the world a little bit more. So I started taking contemporary and jazz classes. Classical is such a rigorous and wonderful discipline, but there’s no room for self-discovery – I find it’s chasing perfection and I’m not sure that that’s what my goal is. There weren’t a lot of great contemporary teachers out there when I was training, so I went and experimented in Italy and London and did various classes and found my own style.

I was starting to find work in the late eighties … and there was so much judgment around body shape. I am quite tall – I’m five foot eight – and I often wouldn’t get jobs because of my height. If you had any fat on you whatsoever that wasn’t acceptable, so it was quite a judgmental period. I actually found that coming to terms with the image that you needed to project went quite against my personal grain.

I love to dance … and many people tried to talk me out of continuing in that profession, but there was never any question in my mind. I would just keep taking classes and getting stronger, and I was just very, very determined and very passionate as well. There was just a calling.

I don’t think I ever decided to be a choreographer … it just evolved. I broke my back – it was on my 30th birthday actually – and I had surgery and went through six months of rehab. I found I could dance again but I had lost a lot of my flexibility and knew that it was never going to come back. It really wasn’t a conscious decision, but I continued to teach, which led to choreographic opportunities.

Working at the Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts and in Brazil … there is sense of the joy in dance. Often in my training it’s been about the pain of dance, so it was quite a beautiful epiphany for me to be able to go ‘well, not all dance has to be torturous’.

Danse Noir is inspired by … the people I work with. I wanted to create a piece that really reflected the relationships that happen behind the scenes of the theatre world – the triumphs and the complexities and insecurities, and then the facade that is also projected. I find it quite fascinating how we find the strength to be judged constantly and still walk on stage and face appraisal the whole time, be it positive or negative. It’s a predominately indigenous cast, and I find that the journey a lot of the cast members have made – to find dance in their lives and pursue it as a career – is quite extraordinary. So I am really honouring that as well.

Through my work I would like to achieve … understanding. I think we are all striving to be understood. I am really hoping that, through performance, humans just understand each other a little. That really is a passion of mine.

I’ve been going through cancer … but I joke with my doctors that if I keep moving really fast in the studio, the disease can never catch me, so that’s kind of how I look at it. I am pretty clear of everything now, so it’s all kind of a good-news story, but obviously there are issues that I deal with every day. I just have to keep going because I really want to be in the studio.

My greatest achievement has been … my teaching and inspiring others to find another level in their dance that goes a little deeper than the flesh and bones and the technique.

Intelligence inspires me … People who think outside the square – and I don’t mean that in the sense of innovation or radicalness – people who just have a grasp of the bigger picture and who question a lot. They inspire me.

My advice to others is … to question everything and use that knowledge to further yourself and find empathy for others.