Some Iso-Inspiration from Australia’s Queen of Choreography
And Why Performers Need to Embrace this Time of Quietness
Interview by Chris Duncan
In early-March this year, Kelley Abbey was working as creative director/choreographer on Channel Ten’s Dancing With The Stars when the COVID-19 virus directly affected one of the contestants and dramatically altered production schedules, leaving Kelley in isolation for 10 days in Melbourne, and seeing the final episodes brought forward without a live audience and Kelley working on it via Facetime. Like almost everyone in the entertainment world, Kelley’s world was brought to a sudden halt as work was cancelled and we all retreated to the safety of our homes.
Forward several weeks and the world has changed – if not forever, then hopefully for the better. In Kelley’s eyes this forced ‘time out’ is a chance for artists to improve themselves from within with self-reflection and personal skill development. In fact, she believes performers should consider this time no different than when they are out of work due to injury or are between gigs as this industry is always based on uncertainty and self-belief – now more than ever.
In our next instalment of conversations with key dance figures, Chris Duncan spoke to Australia’s queen of choreography, Kelley Abbey, to see what she is getting up to while in home isolation and seeks her advice for how artists should be using this unprecedented time of quiet.
Q: So how are you coping during isolation and what do you think about it affecting our industry?
I think I’m okay with isolation, because I actually know uncertainty; I’ve lived a life of uncertainty in this business. You never know what’s next. I hate to think what it’s like for normal people who get their pay packet every week and turn up at the same office. It must be just the biggest shock. So, to me, I think I’m just between gigs. And I am, because the work will come again. We don’t know how long it will take, but I plan to be so busy with my iso time that when work comes, it might kind of be an interruption!
Well, I’ve been asking for time out on a deep level for quite a long time, so I’m like, “This is actually great!” (Laughter) But I’m very sad things like our entertainment world has actually completely stopped, and everyone’s unemployed … how do we all survive? And I don’t think it’s going to come back for a long time … like theatre is not going to come back any time soon. Just having the funds to put the wheels in motion again and having that many people in one space again will take time.
I think theatre is going to be the last thing back. Probably TV and film are going to be back earlier because we need those things … like one of the best things to come after the Great Depression in the 1930s was the MGM musical. So there can be positives.
But I’m just looking at this time on an energetic level, that it’s a chance for ‘time out’ for people… to go within ourselves, to clear and sort out and to do things another way … a chance to really listen and watch our lives in the world… I’m unemployed, but I’m loving it!
Q: What are your thoughts about everything moving online now? And are you doing any online tutorials or teaching?
Yes I am. Just last week I posted on Instagram that I am doing online lectures and classes on a whole lot of topics that people can pick what topics they want to hit. And I think there will be lots of people that can now get a lecture in person online and they don’t even have to pay for the airfare or accommodation. So, actually, now everybody is realising the benefits of this… “Oh my God, I can actually do a Steps on Broadway class online now!!”
It’s just changed everything, and so rapidly.
Q: Many businesses will discover new ways of operating that are going to be time and cost saving… do you think that will stick?
Totally. I think our world will be changed forever. Of course, it is never going to replace having people live in a class in front of you… That’s the thing; I actually refuse to take a dance class online, because I don’t need to. But all the young ones are doing it, now because they have no choice. But I actually like coaching people; I don’t like just laying choreography at them. That’s not really what I am interested in doing, so I’d just rather do the lectures and allow people to get more that way from me.
And then, I’m going to do some of my mentoring stuff online as well… the one-on-one stuff … I might even do a bit of a lottery thing to giveaway a free one every couple of weeks!
Q: So, what are you enjoying most about being in lockdown? What advice do you have for people now?
I’m actually loving the opportunity to go ‘within’. Actually, you can liken this period as a really valuable lesson for everyone in our industry when we’re in a situation where we can be at a standstill due to being unemployed between jobs or due to injury. The skills that we need to develop in coping with those things in this industry are the skills that are going to be sharpened right now during lockdown.
I always say to people when they have an injury, “It’s time to go within, it’s time to develop other creative skills that you have to get more strings to your bow and to open yourself up more.” And it’s not what they want to hear when they have an injury… they want to just get back at it.
It’s fruitful to approach it with that mentality, and go, “Okay, this is the space for me to not only cleanse maybe my apartment, but also my mind, body and spirit and detox and declutter.” It’s also a time to listen to your heart and practice skills that you don’t usually get time to be so much better in our industry.
Skills like how to handle stress and anxiety, how to get better at meditation, how to get better at yoga, at affirmations and visualisations, and how to use these tools in our lives and get the most out of them. And the only way to get better at them is at practice. I always have people say to me, “Oh, what do I do on the day of the audition? Should I meditate?” And I say, “Well, it’s too late if you haven’t been doing it already.” You can’t just ask it to happen at the eleventh hour and expect your stress level to go down 10 notches, it’s not going to, it takes just as much practice as learning how to channel a lift and do a triple turn. It takes just as much dedication and time and focus.
So, this is the perfect time to do work on those things. For example, it’s the time to go back and learn iMovie properly or do a course or maybe shoot something and cut it together and by the end of this process become a little filmmaker! … It’s about expanding and opening your blinkered eyes to more creativity in your life.
Q: And specifically for dancers?
No one wants to hear it, but dance is a short-lived career. And if you’re fortunate to go on the other side and be a client or a director, then you have to have other creative skills up your sleeve. But if you’ve chosen to be a dancer, you are a creative artist, and so you need to open yourself up to other ways of using your creativity by expanding and evolving.
Now, having said that, this is also a time for gaining online experience and being able to do classes anywhere in the world, like on Broadway, without being there is such an eye-opening thing. And for full timers, the other thing that comes to mind is that what you don’t learn in full time courses is how to self-motivate… And now is the time to learn how to self-motivate. This is all the stuff that I talk a lot about in my mentoring programme. And it seems like now the space has been created for people to really take it on board.
And don’t forget reading! I think about when I ask students what inspires them, and sometimes it’s a very short list. This is a great time to research, to read, to look at online performances or just to find out more about what they’re doing and where it comes from and how the industry was built. Example, when did jazz actually start? It’s the time to do it.
Q: You mentioned yoga, meditation, and affirmations… is there anything else in your toolbox that you like to use to keep yourself motivated?
I still go for my walk every day, keeping my 1.5 metres around me. But I feel like walking in nature for me is a really important thing… the energy of it keeps me very aligned and grounded. And I do visualisations, like grounding meditation kind of visualisations standing on the earth and surrounding myself. I did that before this happened, I was doing that every day, anyway. At the moment I do a yoga meditation with a group of people online every Tuesday and I do a transcendental meditation and Performance Based Meditation online too.
But the other things I’m doing are drawing, painting, writing, doing all baking! But you know, it’s fun doing these things, it’s quality time and it’s quality time with your loved ones. I’ve actually spoken to more friends during this time than I have when I was busy working.
I actually can’t wait to see what people do creatively, productively after this time… to see what people have developed of themselves or what kind of healing happens them in this time. And I do think that if you know anyone that’s in trouble, that you put your hand out to help. Or include them in things online because there’s some people that won’t know what to do with this time and will suffer.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our audience?
I guess in an industry that always struggles with confidence; it’s ironic that we’re helping their lives enough to have such self-belief. And it’s just concerning that the self-belief is a practice too and can be developed without any pressure in this time… there’s not the pressure to get the next job… But it is the time to heal without all the pressure.
So, it’s a good time to cleanse, to heal, to really find who you are and really believe in yourself, without all the obstacles and the distractions. Because this industry is based on self-belief, and ironically, we’re pretty much the worst at it.