Philip Channells | Dance

Posh Sauvage | Earth Issue


Keeping his feet firmly on the ground while leading dance to new heights

Interview with

Philip Channells

Dance Integrated Australia

A little background...

Philip Channells began training in 1998 at The Con in Lismore before joining the CPA (Adelaide College of the Arts) and Link Dance Company (2003) at WAPPA. Enmeshed in this training has been a commitment to developing disability arts, which he’s dedicated 15 years. He spent the first eight years of his career in Australia, gaining an understanding of community cultural development and disability cultural practice, before moving to the UK in 2007. Philip worked with Candoco, StopGAP and Corali dance companies, Scottish Dance Theatre and East London Dance. In Australia he’s worked with Elizabeth Cameron-Dalman, Kay Armstrong, Dean Walsh, Michael Whaites, Ingrid Voorendt and Marc Brew, No Strings Attached Theatre of Disability, Tutti Arts and dFaces of Youth. He spent 10 years working with Restless Dance Theatre where he was the Artistic Director (2009 – 2012). He directed ‘Next of Kin’ for the Youth Ensemble and mentored Andrew Pandos in ‘Debut 3 – the dancers direct’. He was one of eight choreographers at the Australian Youth Dance Festival 2012 and showed inPerspective #1 at ADT’s ‘Rough Draft’ and Ausdance SA’s ‘Choreolab’. He’s presented at the National Dance Forum, Dance Your Heart Out, Arts Activated Conference, Don’t DIS my ABILITY, Dance Symposium NSW, Global daCi/WDA Dance Summit Taipei, World Alliance for Arts Education Global Summit Norway, Australia Week Celebrations Port Moresby and has recently mentored DirtyFeet and Studio Aperio in NSW. Philip is fiercely committed to developing disability arts through redefining an artistic practice that integrates people from diverse backgrounds.

Hello Philip, Thank you for taking the time to share your passion and life’s experience in integrated dance with Posh Sauvage! When did you begin to be interested in dance?

PC: As a young adult, I loved dancing but never imagined I could make a career out of it. I had never even contemplated it as a possibility. I grew up in the country in a small coastal town in northern NSW, Australia. My dad was a bus driver and my mum did a lot of administrative work, so in terms of having a role model that steered me in this direction, I didn’t really get that from my parents.

I worked in restaurants and bars in my 20’s in Australia as well as around the world and often people would ask me if I was a dancer, but I never really took much notice. I had jobs as a jungle guide in Thailand, a horse trail riding guide and a nanny in Italy, a cleaner in London and I even peeled bark off logs in Canada. So I’ve done many other things before I really seriously considered dance as a profession.

I didn’t take a serious interest in dance until I was in my late 20’s. I knew nothing about the industry. From the age of 20 to 24, I traveled around the world before I returned to Australia and then I took time out (another 2 years) to just sit still and contemplate life. My experience of traveling and living in different cultures changed me a lot and I had grown in a way I never imagined.

Then, while living on a commune in NSW, which was more a biodynamic farm more than it was a place for seriously alternative life stylers (sometimes known as hippies), I had a car accident, which really tested my sense of invincibility. But it wasn’t until a customer in a café I was working in said to me, “what are you doing here?” that I really started to take notice. That conversation sparked a whole new possibility for my future, and although at the time, I didn’t understand, looking back now I realize it was the question I had to ask of myself.

Through my rehabilitation from the accident, I began dancing once a week for a couple of hours with a group of men in Memorial Hall, Bellingen which was about a 40 minute drive from Bishops Creek, where I lived at the time. In the classes we improvised to structured scores and discussed our experience in the moment, both as a dancer and as an observer watching each other dance. The experience ignited something in me that I couldn’t explain at the time, and now I know its purpose.  It was a really precious defining moment and I am so grateful that I found something that gave me purpose in life. I had shifted so much of my emotional baggage through moving my body and listening to what was happening inside, that I began to learn more about myself. I began to trust that this lifestyle of dancing was worth exploring more, and I became truly hungry for it.

PS: What has been your greatest challenge?

PC: If I look back at my career and think about the journey I’ve been on, I’d probably say my biggest challenge would have been starting out so late. I sometimes think, “if only I had started dancing when I was a kid, I’d be in a different place now.” I believe there is a lesson in everything and that I can’t really compare myself to anyone in the industry. Not really… I’m not a swan, a prince charming, or a tap dog.

When I started my dance training at 28 at the Lismore Conservatorium of the Arts I was in a group where the age range was between 15 and 40, so I seemed to fit in quite nicely in terms of age, but I struggled with technique because it was so foreign to me. I began working with people with a disability outside of my tuition (ballet, contemporary, jazz and butoh) and I knew this integrated dance was the direction I wanted to focus on in my career. I’d met Sally Chance, who was the founding artistic director of Restless Dance Theatre, and worked with Kat Worth who ran a project-based company in Lismore called Company CHAOS. They were really my first introductions to the kind of work I still do today, although I think I have drawn from their knowledge and developed my own voice since.

What I realized was people with a disability weren’t afforded the same opportunities in dance as others, so I took it on as a personal endeavor to change that. I knew dance was a universal language but I had a lot to learn and catch up on. I thought, “if I learn how to dance; learn the language and immerse myself in the culture, then I could open doorways for people with a disability to dance as a profession.” Dance had given me a new purpose in life, and I wanted to share that with others who were excluded from it, so I knew I had a very long journey ahead of me.

Although, it wasn’t until I moved to Adelaide that I realized I was relatively ‘old’. Most of the dancers in my year had started at a very young age and were straight out of high school. In fact, for my application I lied about my age to Jillian Rae-Millard, the Head of Dance at the Centre for the Performing Arts, because somewhere I had heard that by the time a dancer reached 30, their career was over. So I knocked off 5 years of my age and thankfully got away with it… until she asked me to see her in her office. Jill was one of the founding dancers of the Australian Dance Theatre. She often accessorized with fake fur (leopard usually) - bags, hats, and scarves, that kind of thing and she drove a little red sports car. I arrived a month late to start my training because I had spent four weeks working with Elizabeth Cameron-Dalman (the founding Artistic Director or the Australian Dance Theatre).

I remember standing in front of Jillian stretching my calves as I was propped up against her desk and she asked me how I was going with the course. I was very frank with her and told her that I felt I was out of my depth and that I really didn’t have much in common with the other dancers. That’s when she asked me, “How old are you Philip?” I confessed and told her I really wanted to dance and that if she knew how old I was, I would never have been given the opportunity to at least try. I remained on probation for the entire three years of my training, which meant I didn’t waste a minute. I just focused on why I was there and eventually things began to shift for me. I’m one of the few dancers in my year that have continued to work in the industry after we graduated.

The challenge for me now, fifteen years into my profession, is to pluralize dance and continue to work within the realms of social justice. By this I mean it’s difficult to avoid the distinction between a trained and non-trained dancer, especially if the non-trained dancer has a visible medical condition, which labels them as ‘disabled’. I’m interested in opening doorways for people from within diverse communities who’ve not ever thought it possible to express themselves through dance. Whether this is through devising and piloting formal training dance education programs or by offering hands on experience and working alongside peers within a professional context, there is a real need to change our attitudes and break down the barriers between ‘us’ and ‘them’. And it goes both ways. I like to encourage people without a disability to use their dance knowledge and skills and share those within an inclusive environment. I think this is an enormous challenge. I know it’s not for everyone, but we all have the right to be expressive.

PS: Where do you draw your inspiration as a dancer?

PC: When I’m working as a director or choreographer, my inspiration mostly comes from the people I work with. I’ll often start with an initial idea or a theme I’d like to explore but I never ever know what will happen in the initial stages of the research. I don’t create the movement and teach it to them, the dancers create all the original ideas, which they respond to through a series of set tasks. I select what’s interesting to me and then together we try to bring the ideas together so it makes sense… hopefully.

What’s great about working this way is it is a collaborative process and everyone involved gets a sense of ownership, which I think is empowering to the dancer, especially because they understand what it is they’re trying to say with their body, so for the audience that reads differently. It has more depth and meaning, and even in an abstract work, the commitment to the process that the dancer undergoes allows them to be fully present in the moment and this is why dance can be so powerful. The dancer embodies a lived experience on stage and powerfully connects to the audience through some kind of other worldliness.

Often ideas come from dancers that completely shift where you were thinking the direction of the work was going, and that’s really exciting. When you don’t prescribe the movement from the onset of the research period, many more possibilities exist to generate new ideas. New movement vocabulary arises, original text can be generated from improvising around the ideas, and obscure combinations of things can be woven together. It’s so much fun, a lot of hard work, but so rewarding in the end, especially when you witness such incredible growth in an individual.

I’ve worked with people that have really challenged me to try working differently. Just as soon as you put a plan together, you’ve got to be ready to let go of that structure, because structure doesn’t work for everyone. It’s great to have it there in the back of your mind to refer to, but sometimes the most unexpected things happen. My aunty says, “Life’s like the wind in the trees, you just have to go with it.” As much as I sometimes want to stay on the predetermined pathway to creative enlightenment, I think it’s really important to be open to new ideas and new ways of working. I guess that’s why I love working so much with people who are ‘different’, because I learn so much about life, about others and when I get a chance to reflect on what has just happened, about myself too.

PS: What is your most satisfying moment during a production?

PC: There are so many facets involved in a production, which require a lot of research, planning and attention to detail and as much as I love the entire process and enjoy seeing dancers challenge themselves to ‘rise to the occasion’, I rarely feel the work is complete. You work with a collection of collaborators who are experts in their own right, whether its lighting, design or live composition or peers who view the work in process and offer their ideas. We all contribute to the bigger picture and work towards opening night fine tuning the show.

It is satisfying for me when the audience is in and the curtains open (so to speak). A show changes when there’s an audience viewing your work and you see it from a different perspective. Their responses are different to yours, they laugh at different things or squirm in places you didn’t think were possible. For every person that views art, there has to be that many different responses because we all think independently. I try to remind myself what it is that I want the audience to experience and through the process of creating the work, I need to have that conversation with the performers and the other collaborators so that we’re all tuning in to one another and understanding each other as much as we can. As a director, you have to trust that everything will fall into place and that you can then, after all the ‘tweaking’ is complete, hand it over to your performers to make it their own. It’s a fascinating process, which I love.

In Australia particularly, the success of any dance project is often determined by the constraints of time and economics as to how far you can lead the performers and audience into your work. Then there are the reviewers, the critics and the audience’s response to contend with once the show is up and running. I try to listen to what the audience is saying. What I’m seeing on their faces during the performance and how they respond after the show helps determine whether my intentions have come to fruition. As an artist I often ask myself, “What’s my responsibility and what do I want to do with this?” Because I often work with people who have different life experience, I keep coming back to that one thing, ‘change is inevitable’. Creating possibilities for people to change; either changing their life direction, changing their perception of others or even changing how things are viewed and acted upon are all part of the process I’ve gone through in my life. So I continue to remind myself that this is why I do what I do.

PS: Tell me about the evolution of your work, what are you doing now?

PC: It’s interesting because my dance training in Adelaide and Perth was really centered around becoming a professional dancer, and although I had this other string to my bow (working with people with a disability), there was a time I thought I really wanted to go down that pathway of a contemporary dancer, dancing with companies and peers on really fantastic independent projects around the country. I think that was really my ego-self talking. It was really interesting shifting back and forth there for a little while before I took hold of and reminded myself what ‘this’ is all about. But just as soon as I envisaged an international career, doors opened and I left Australia. It wasn’t until months later that I found myself one day reflecting on my career and the hard work that I’d put in to arrive where I was at that particular time thinking, “I asked for this.”

I checked in with the reasons why I chose to dance and what I wanted to do with it to bring myself back to reality. I must admit, there is something temporarily satisfying about being an elite athlete, where you become a finely tuned human machine, a vehicle for other artists to creatively manipulate you on stage. You’re photographed (if you’re lucky) and people talk about how fabulous you are in the media and there’s a general feeling of exhilaration when you achieve the physically impossible, and to top it off, the audience loves you like no one else does. I think dancers are egomaniacs - we have to want that and are inspired by that physical virtuosity to really want that kind of attention in our lives. Maybe there’s an element of truly understanding what self-love is all about that our dance teachers don’t pass on so we search for it in other ways. I may be wrong, but I think truly ‘understanding’ oneself takes a lifetime.

I have personally evolved away from that sense of ego in the earlier years of my career, realizing that there is potential to be creative in many different ways and when I regained a sense of my purpose and direction, I knew that I needed to put my ego-self to the side to enable others to explore their life purpose through a creative journey. Having spent time working in dance in the UK, I feel really inspired by what has existed there for decades. Everyone is dancing, young and young at heart.

My focus now is to continue to develop my vision for dance, which is to generate high quality artistic outcomes and develop exciting opportunities for artists to excel in dance. This will enable me the flexibility to continue working internationally through engaging in projects that have a real sense of purpose. These include collaborating on projects with people with a disability, people of different age groups, and people from different cultural backgrounds.

I’m currently in the process of mentoring young emerging artists and fledgling dance companies and developing the dance sector in Australia through skills development workshops and creative projects that have a process and outcome focus. I’ve established Philip Channells // Dance Integrated Australia ( about 6 months ago to enable myself and other associate artists to work together to develop the dance sector. It’s also a platform to develop my dance writing, interviews and reviews to support other independent artists. I’m also developing new relationships abroad (Europe and Asia) with organizations that have expressed interest in my work. I hope to return to Scandinavia next year to work with some pretty amazing artists and there are several opportunities here in Australia, which are currently in negotiation. Australia is in the process of developing a national curriculum, which will mean every young child will have the opportunity to dance, so I’m developing a program for teachers working with students with a disability, which is quite exciting. There is quite a lot of opportunity on the horizon; I just trust the universe to take me where I’m most needed.   ~ Thank you!