Talking Piece

21 August 2012 | 7:15 am | Dave Drayton

“It’s a different world, the dance world, they spend an hour every morning learning some form of dance or exercise, as opposed to us actors who just turn up!”

Established in 2002, choreographer and director Lucy Guerin's eponymous company strives to create new, original, contemporary dance and performance works. Her current production, Conversation Piece, sees a cast of three actors and three dancers take to the stage each night and engage in an eight-minute conversation. What happens from there, as these two forms of performance encounter and engage one another, well, it's anyone's guess.

The conversation, the springboard for the rest of the show, is unscripted. “When you have to talk for eight minutes to the same people every day, it's amazing how many skills you realise you have in just having a normal conversation and how good you get at just talking, at babbling on,” says Matthew Whittet, one of three actors in the show and, to his credit, a rather charming conversationalist. By his own admission his dance skills, however, still need a little work. “I did a development with Chunky Move eight or nine years ago on a show,” says Whittet, alluding to a previous work he did under Guerin's direction, Tense Dave, for the company then under Gideon Obarzanek's direction.

“So I've spent a month or so rehearsing with dancers before but it's amazing, it's a completely different way of working to what you normally do as actors. They have classes,” he says in awe, and repeats himself with even more admiration, “they have classes! These guys with Lucy Guerin, they have three dance classes a week, so someone comes and teaches something that has nothing to do with the show, so they're constantly training, while you're rehearsing, which is quite amazing. These guys respond so immediately from their body that you have total dance envy. I reckon heaps of actors do as well, heaps of actors go, 'Aw, I wish I could dance!'

“It's a different world, the dance world, they spend an hour every morning learning some form of dance or exercise, as opposed to us actors who just turn up!” Whittet laughingly concedes. “We try to do the classes, we're not usually successful at doing them, but we try! It's fantastic because it is such a cross-fertilisation, we're getting in there and moving as well. It's a really interesting piece in the way it blurs the lines between and examines the differences between acting – and what the voice is – and what dance and movement is.”

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The cast have been running the performance in full every day of rehearsal and while the conversations inspiring each run may be simple – “You could have an incredibly funny show one night and you could have an incredibly serious show the next, all depending on how the dancers are feeling and whether they decide to talk about what they've eaten, or very large philosophical matters, or just whatever takes their fancy, really,” says Whittet – the focus on the subtext, what bubbles beneath the surface of these interactions, is teaching Whittet to listen in a brand new way.

“It's a great thing, we just have to learn to listen and just be really sharp with our listening, which is such a great exercise for an actor to have to do. With a text you know what it is, you practice it; the danger is you actually stop listening to everyone else, you just kind of say words. The way in which you communicate with everyone then kind of becomes the work.”

Conversation Piece runs from Saturday 25 August to Sunday 16 September, Belvoir Upstairs Theatre.