Michael Smith, dance artist, Cowboy at Brisbane Festival
It’s a test of presence, a test of empathetic exchange, which allows for each interaction to be extremely different and personal ...
When we think of the Wild West, a few vivid images come to mind – breathtaking landscapes scorched by the high noon sun, the clink of dusty spurs on saloon floors, grizzled prospectors searching for fortune in the soil, bandits wearing black hats and sheriffs wearing white ones (both packing six shooters), barroom brawls and pistol duels. Although Hollywood has extensively catalogued the Wild West over the years, Brisbane Festival’s 2020 program features an intriguing show that reimagines the classic Western through the art of dance. Cowboy is the brainchild of Brisbane-based dance-theatre artist and choreographer Michael Smith, whose interactive solo show tackles the gritty existence on the American frontier and re-contextualises it through the lens of his experience growing up in regional Queensland. Michael will undertake a series of performances of Cowboy from September 4–6 at the brand-new Metro Arts, using his body to communicate yarns of the Wild West while also examining topics such as masculinity, fantasy and connection. Ahead of his appearance at Brisbane Festival, Michael shared some insight into Cowboy and what audiences can expect from the performance.
Howdy Michael! To start, we’d love to know what first drew you to the world of dance! Can you remember the point in your life when busting a move became more than just a fun pastime?
I guess dance was the first major thing I became entirely obsessed with. My pursuit started with rigorous training and the refining of skill and technique, which lead to the opening of an entirely different world. I’ve always been interested in transformation, balancing absurdity and reality, embodying the imagined and for me dance offered a way into all of this.
Much of your work aims to create meaning through the body. What is singular and unique about dance in terms of what you can convey compared to other artistic mediums?
For me, dance offers an experience to tune into our most intuitive selves. It has a unique ability, as an art form, to connect us beyond our chosen identities, as bodies watching bodies. It’s then up to us how to present and perceive that body – that’s where the fun begins. Dance is felt, it is (often) live and it is powerfully human because it has to be, because the material, the medium, the substance and the source all stem from the body.
Your Brisbane Festival show Cowboy sounds and looks like a rootin’ tootin’ good time! What inspired you to base a show around the Wild West?
I became fixated on the idea of becoming something I am not … and I am definitely not what you’d call a quintessential cowboy (though I have definitely taken on the persona). My aim was to have a complete, genuine and meaningful experience as an imagined self, which could have been anything, but I was drawn to both the lone figure of the cowboy and the history of the Western genre.
When we think of classic Westerns, our minds often conjure images of bow-legged sauntering, whip cracks, lassoing bandits, fast-draw duels, the odd saloon bar fight and an inevitable ride into the sunset. Without giving too much away, what aspects of the Old West lifestyle have you incorporated into Cowboy?
To be honest, as much as I possibly could! The piece is structured around the classic Western narrative/formula with homages to many films – there’s horse taming, surfing rooftops of trains, saloon brawls, a slippage of vulnerability around the fire, awkwardly long eye-contact preluding epic shootouts, a little bit of romance and a whole lot of honky-tonk hootenannies.
When it comes to conveying meaning, is there a particular message or overarching narrative that you’re aiming to communicate through the performance?
The narrative is somewhat autobiographical in nature, drawing from my experience of growing up queer in regional Queensland with questions of what it means to be ‘a man’. Ultimately, instead of me being the only awkward one trying to figure out how to manage my way through the Cowboy narrative, we (the audience) all do it together, falling in and out of fantasy, sitting uncomfortably in our roles, until the fiction breaks and we arrive in very real moments of connection.
Ben Ely of Regurgitator has composed the score that you’re performing to – how did the creative partnership come about and did you give Ben any direction or inspirational touchstones for him to work off?
Ben Ely is also part of The Farm and has been collaborating with Gavin Webber, who mentored me through Cowboy, since his days at Dance North – therefore we have worked on shows together in the past. Ben is a cowboy at heart and has a plethora of knowledge when it comes to busting out Western tracks. We would literally have one conversation about a scene or concept and within the day Ben would have created a rockin’ masterpiece! The man knows his stuff.
From the glimpses of previous performances that we’ve seen so far, it seems like Cowboy is a whole-body workout. How do you manage the taxing physical requirements for a run of performances like these?
It’s quite a wild ride. For me, the best way to prepare for the piece is by simply running it over and over again, even without a test audience present. This can be quite difficult as so much of the piece relies heavily on interaction with others. Though the fantasy of becoming and embodying the cowboy has become a rigorous training regime of its own, which can be taxing but it’s also a whole lot of fun.
Your own choreographed performances often blur the line between dance-theatre and performance art, with specific attention paid to audience participation. What are the biggest benefits of making audiences active participants in your work?
By asking audience members to become active participants, I am aiming to shift our expectations and perceptions of how we can experience dance while also attempting to break down barriers of connectivity between strangers. As a performer, the biggest benefits are simply that you can’t fake anything when you’re dealing with people in such close proximity. It’s a test of presence, a test of empathetic exchange, which allows for each interaction to be extremely different and personal.
Finally, with everything happening in the world right now we find it crucial to remain inspired and engaged – what is something you’re currently finding inspiring in the world around you?
In a very immediate sense, I am incredibly inspired by the persistence of artists, producers, presenters, arts companies and venues right now who are so generously and wholeheartedly pushing to ensure we sustain the arts and performance communities we have built. Currently, I am incredible inspired by the presence of change in the world and the prospect of this moment being a real turning point.
Those lucky enough to have already scored a ticket will be able to catch Michael Smith performing Cowboy as part of Brisbane Festival at Metro Arts’ New Benner Theatre on September 4–6. Unfortunately the show has sold out, but keep your eyes peeled for any last-minute ticket availabilities closer to the performance.
Image: Gasbag Studio