Skip to main content

Main navigation

Transcript: Dancing in Digital Dimensions: Next gen choreography with Harrison Hall

Up Next: Ep 11 - Harrison Hall

Courtney Ammenhauser: The Sydney Opera House acknowledges the Gadigal People, traditional custodians of Tubowgule, the land on which the Opera House stands. We honour the long Gadigal history of `gathering and storytelling and acknowledge the strength and resilience of First Nations people and communities past and present. 




Harrison Hall: I think the power of dance is in its sensations, is in its feelings, its ideas and its imagery. So it's okay to not understand. Just being okay, to sit and experience those things and maybe be open to where that will take you thinking, there's a gateway there. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Hey, I'm Courtney Ammenhauser, and this is Up Next -- your ticket to the most exciting artists and performers coming through the Sydney Opera House doors. Join me backstage where I'm going to be chatting to a spectacular lineup of artists; up and comers who are making waves on one of the most iconic stages in the world. The Opera House is celebrating its first 50 years. So, in every episode of this podcast, we showcase someone exciting who we think will transform the next 50 years of arts and culture. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Harrison Hall is a dancer and choreographer but I think it's fair to say his work is a bit strange, which is a compliment, because he pushes the boundary of what those artforms mean. Think: drones filming dancers in motion capture body suits. Think: live performance transposed into video game avatars for people watching on the other side of the world. Think: dancers that don't all look like ballerinas. On July 13, a showcase of Harrison's work will feature in the Opera House's Digital Festival Outlines, alongside a lineup of artists and technologists who are rethinking the future of performance. Harrison will present screenings of two performances and discuss his approach to experimental dance. Speaking of which, that's what this episode of Up Next is all about. Let's get into it. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Harrison, I want to start our chat back at the beginning. When you were a kid, because you had a lot of energy to burn, right? 

Harrison Hall: Yep. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Your mum thought maybe a trampoline will fix it. Maybe that'll, you know, get it out. 

Harrison Hall: Yeah. She threw me on a trampoline and then the next stage was she took me to martial arts and she was like, "This would be a great bit of discipline," you know? And next door to the martial arts place, there was a dance school. And I just loved kind of leaving that martial arts place, and I'd just be like, peering through the windows and, yeah, getting drawn to music and dance. And then, yeah, then I got sucked up into that world. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: So what was the first type of dance that you started doing? 

Harrison Hall: So, I was doing a lot of funk and then, you know, a bit of like, tap as well. You know, the classic kind of forms that you do in a rural town, I guess. And then, yeah, the teachers, as usual, this is quite a common thing in dance, they'll say, "Oh, this is great, you're getting rhythm, you're getting movement, but you need technique." 

Courtney Ammenhauser: And what does that mean?  

Harrison Hall: That means ballet. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Ballet, baby! 

Harrison Hall: Yeah, yeah. So then I was on the ballet train. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: You then went on to a performing arts high school, and then you kept studying ballet as well. 

Harrison Hall: Yeah. I got into this performing arts high school and this was VCAS, this really amazing school in Melbourne where it’s half-day dance half-day school, so yeah, really great for dancers. And it’s quite broad. And then I got wrapped into, you know, a big ballet school – I went to the Australian Ballet School – which is, you know, an amazing but intense place. And I think in that time, I think in my second year, third year, I was already starting to contact contemporary companies and start to think or start to question what more could I experience in this dance journey. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Totally. 

Harrison Hall: I think it’s pretty clear that ballet is the pursuit of perfection. It’s an amazing form but for a lot of people like myself and many other people – only a very few select people are close to this ideal and have what seems to be a fulfilling and rewarding time in that industry. So yeah, I thought I don’t really see myself in this. And then secondly I started to have more chats with people who were in ballet and I really worried that, you know, the creative things I was interested in or the open more abstract ideas or narratives that I was seeing in my world weren’t really represented in that form. I think it was pretty clear that ballet is the pursuit of perfection. And, you know, it's an amazing thing and it captures what, you know, a whole lot of people think is valuable in the same way that Usain Bolt may have, you know, by being faster, harder, stronger, you know, by running in a 100 metres sprint. But yeah, I think for me, I was ready for something new, something more. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah. 

Harrison Hall: I grew my hair. I went in, basically attached myself to this Butoh performer, Yumi Umiumare. She became my mentor. We toured Japan and I just did like a whole lot of weird shit, honestly, for like a year and a bit. And then, you know, started to find where I kind of sat more in the middle of those. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah. Can you run me through some of the experimental ways you've put on a dance performance? 

Harrison Hall: Yeah. So I've made a parkour and bike show for dance. I've made an underground rave style dance that featured the Gabber dance to, like, obviously rave music. I've spent a lot of time in the kind of like 3D animation world, you know, like very kind of dismantled experiences of yeah, dancing, music, performance and integrative technology. We'll have dancers with motion capture who are being streamed into a live online game while there's a band elsewhere that's being streamed into that space and an online game. I've made performances with people with different abilities, people with wheelchairs and yeah, move them on crazy journeys through theatres. I've made shows that had live bands from Taiwan join and motion capture dances and projection and a whole lot of technologies. Yeah, a lot of stuff. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: So good. 

Harrison Hall: And also some of the most amazing and profound experiences I've had working with people have been people who live with disability. And I remember there was a blind dancer who wanted to understand the movement more. So he came and put his hands on me and we kind of went for a ride and we danced and moved together. And just to watch the kind of elation and, that reciprocity, that feeling that we kind of shared together was like, yeah, incredible. Like, those are the memories that I'll really, like, hold onto in my career I think. Particularly around technology, actually, people living with disabilities have more experience and expertise than, you know, than I have actually. I did this work running machine with a bunch of amazing creatives from Australia and Japan and Hiwa Kazuhiko, they're an amazing performer who experiences life through a wheelchair. And yeah, we kind of started to really just collaborate and think about how these types of understandings of works could actually feed into the experiences for all audiences. I did a bit of research recently and we're working with a person that's vision impaired and you know, I try to explain them, "Oh yeah, so my works like, you know, making motion capture and doing dancing" and like, like highly visual things and then, you know. Essentially it was like, "Oh, but how can people with vision impairment access this work?" So we're actually going into a bit of research where we're now working out ways that we can send motion capture dancers information into software and it can output a sound. So you can actually create these really creative, interesting ways and think about reconceptualize the way that you make art or the kinds of experiences that are possible from those, yeah, those experiences. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Amazing. I'm keen to talk to you about BONANZA! 

Harrison Hall: Oh, yeah. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: I was pretty mesmerised when I was watching the trailer for it on YouTube. Your head kind of is bouncing around all over the place. There's limbs everywhere. It was also filmed by a drone, right? 

Harrison Hall: Yeah. So this is a complex project, but I'll try and explain it. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Please. 

Harrison Hall: Essentially, it starts off with a video work where I'm dancing and then I'm wearing different greenscreen suits, so different parts of my body are kind of moving around. That's the first section. Then it goes into a second section where I'm cut out. So the background is greenscreen and I'm in a digital world, and then in the next world it's back to this original space that we filmed in, but they're 3D avatars of me in that space doing like impossible choreography, flying around, you know, breaking limbs and doing just like a whole bunch of stuff in the form of like a K-Pop music video. So, yeah. What's it all about? Great question. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Took the words right out of my mouth.

Harrison Hall: Yeah. For that, like, you know, that was totally like a meditation in the depths of lockdowns, a lot of people were stuck at home able to see this, you know? Like, made people think that, like, good quality artistic work could be made digitally in lockdown. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah. And you want to make art that feels real when you consume it from home. And I love that. 

Harrison Hall: Yeah. Awesome. Yeah, I totally agree. So the screen is not the best place for the body, or for dance generally. It's definitely good live, but working out how we could kind of give an audience more access to the body through this certain environment. So that was the challenge. That was the thing we chipped away at lots, if that makes sense. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Do you think about dance differently now than when you started out? 

Harrison Hall: Yeah, when I first started it was a bit more self focussed, I guess. It was about needing to get good to be able to have a career. So it was very, yeah, very competition based focussed on going forward and getting better and rising and you know, competing with other people to get the role. Whereas yeah, the works that I make now are much more focussed on collaboration and working together, often hiding myself in digital material or as the choreographer so I can, you know, have other dancers rise up because these days I feel like watching myself or thinking of myself dancing as much is just like a cringe. So creative ways I hide myself in the digital. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Sneaky. 

Harrison Hall: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think the things that were interesting to me were building community and collaborating with people and yeah, working as a team to make amazing things happen. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Harrison, when you look back over your career, what do you think will make you proud? 

Harrison Hall: Hmm. It's definitely changed over the years. When I was younger, when I was like, maybe like I'd say up to like my mid, early, mid twenties, it would have been like, you know, accolades I got in terms of like, awards or whatever this is. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Yeah. 

Harrison Hall: But I think, I think, yeah, as I've gone on the most amazing moments that I've had when, you know, young people come up and say, "Wow, that was amazing. You know, I'm so inspired, I want to go and do something like this," or, you know, yeah. For people that have come up and said, "Wow, that was really magic, I was just like in awe," or "I felt wonder." I don't know. I think just creating senses of wonder, making people feel like the impossible is real. I think those things and as you know, as kind of baseline as that is and all the nuance, sophisticated ways that we go, the laborious, crazy ways we go to do that, those are the kind of things that like, I aspire. And yeah, I'm sure as I get older that will increase, it'll be more about legacy and not in that my name needs to be anywhere and more so that, you know, these types of forms will continue to grow, and these types of interests, you know, the values of dance and embodiment are still in the artistic sphere in a really strong and potent way. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: They say, "Do the thing you love and you'll never work a day in your life," right? It's not always true, though. And sometimes we turn to the thing that we love in our profession, and then our passion can fade away. I'm interested to know, do you like getting on a dance floor at a party? 

Harrison Hall: Oh, yeah, I love that, because it's really different to what I do on a day to day basis. But you know, realistically, as an artist working in today's society, my job is not just dancing around in a room, closing my eyes. It is doing heaps of emails. It's, you know, being on the phone to heaps of people, and yeah. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: I think some people are afraid to see contemporary dance because they think that there's something that they're perhaps not getting. 

Harrison Hall: Mmm. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Or they might think that there's some kind of meaning that's clear to more sophisticated audiences and not them, maybe. What would you say to those people? 

Harrison Hall: I think it's okay to not understand. It's okay to just sit in sensation. It's great to just be awash with feelings, images, ideas. It can be polarising, and that's often the artist's point. So maybe if they put that on, you know, one day in primary school in year six as part of personal development, then maybe that stigma would be gone. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Can you give me a guide like what to watch for? Or should we be trying to connect dots or process meaning at some point? 

Harrison Hall: I think the best and first thing is just remove meaning. No story. And just kind of sit. Watch. Maybe let your resistance drop. And try not to be too worried about not getting it or understanding. I think the power of dance is in its sensations, is in its feelings, its ideas and its imagery. So just being okay to sit and experience those things. And maybe be open to where that will take your thinking. There's a gateway there. And, you know, the people I work with, we really try and bring a lot of art forms together and try and open up that accessibility bandwidth, if it makes sense. And that's why, yeah, we'll bring in like live music and people might not have rocked up for the dance show, right? They'll be rocking up for the live game engine streaming that we're doing or the music. And then what the hope is that they'll be like, "Wow, Oh my God, dance. I've never seen it before, but I had all these great experiences and that was really cool." Or is being like, "Wow, gaming, that's sick."

Courtney Ammenhauser: The Opera House is a classic venue for contemporary dance, but when you put on a show here, you did something this place has never seen before. Can you tell me about your show DOKU with Lu Yang?

Harrison Hall: Yeah. So it was simultaneously split between Sydney Opera House, the Utzon room, with a beautiful view over the water and the West Kowloon Space in Hong Kong. So we had a dancer in Sydney and a dancer in Hong Kong that were in a virtual game space dancing with each other. So an audience in each could experience a live dancer, but then you're also getting this collaborative idea, this kind of like, stream dancing video game, like, hyper world. Yeah, it was, it's pretty, pretty amazing. Pretty. Yeah. Tight visuals. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Hell yeah. That sounds so cool. And you're about to take part in Outlines, The Opera House's digital performance season. Can you give me a taste of what you'll be talking about? 

Harrison Hall: For Outlines I'm presenting a work, or a few things actually. It's a bit of like a suite is a work called Maelstrom, it's a collaboration between me and Luca Dante, and this is really like wild kind of physics simulations on these digital bodies that are like breaking them apart and melting them and creating all this, like, beautiful skin choreography, essentially. And then there's another work in there called Flesh Cache, which is kind of like a game ride through, a fly through of the Body Crysis series of works that we've been doing. So that's all, yeah, it's a collaboration with Sam Mcgilp and NAXS in Taiwan, and it's all the avatars and digital materials, but like in this gamified way through this performance. And then at the end is going to be a really great interview where, yeah, I'll be chatting to Matt Cornell who's another digital dance person and we'll be doing some really fun, real time avatar streaming stuff. So that's going to be really fun and probably a little bit unhinged and fruity. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Fruity, I like it. 

Harrison Hall: Yeah, yeah. But no, yeah, it's going to be great. I'm really looking forward to it. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: On this podcast, we like to ask guests who they think is going to be someone really big in their field, someone that you might have your eye on, or maybe not just in your field as well, just someone who you think is a star on the rise. Is there anyone that comes to mind for you? 

Harrison Hall: It depends what scale, But I mean, you know, like Bhenji Ra is an amazing performer, Vogue, Voguer in the scene that's going to do, you know, is doing amazing things is already huge but is only going to get bigger. Taiga Kita-leong, who performed in the Sydney Opera House, is an amazing, amazing dancer that is going to blow up on so many levels. Yeah. So that's on the, like, kind of dance space. I think, yeah, in terms of 3D animation, if you haven't seen them already, Luca Dante and Henry Lai-Pyne are amazing, amazing 3D digital artists that I absolutely adore and think are incredible. Yeah, they're just a few. I mean, there's heaps. The beauty about my job is that I'm just surrounded and awestruck by, like, so many talented people, like, all the time. So, yeah, it's kind of been blown away all the time and then having to, like, calm that down, to be functional, to work with them. That's the issue. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: You're like "Oh my God I love your work."

Harrison Hall: Yeah just like, Oh, God, stop. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: Well, thank you for sharing those. Definitely some people to keep an eye on. 

Harrison Hall: Sure. 

Courtney Ammenhauser: And thanks for coming on the podcast today Harrison. It's been great to have you here. 

Harrison Hall: Thanks for being here in this warm studio.

Courtney Ammenhauser: I know, it's steamy. 

Harrison Hall: Cheers.  

Courtney Ammenhauser: That was dancer/choreographer Harrison Hall. You can catch Harrison on July 13 at Outlines the Opera Houses’ digital performance season. 


I'm Courtney Ammenhauser and this has been Up Next, a podcast from the Sydney Opera House. 


From Audiocraft the show is produced by Marcus Costello. 


From Sydney Opera House, Head of Digital Programming is Stuart Buchanan. And the Digital Programming coordinator is Georgia D'Sousa. 


The Up Next music is by Milan Ring. 


Subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.