Vertical Shadows: an interview with Stephen Agisilaou
It is a common story in the independent arts scene: a new company rises to attention with one or two acclaimed shows, exciting critics and promising to set the country on fire. Then, just as quickly, they vanish. It’s all too common and too much of a heartbreak to performers and audiences alike. Thankfully, Vertical Shadows Dance Company, still young enough to be exciting but old enough to have serious cred, don’t look like they will be visiting that graveyard anytime soon.
Since its inception in 2009 the company has blossomed with productions as versatile as On The Rocks, Home, Crimson among many others, the company has built up a strong reputation for fiery and dramatic choreography, putting a indelible stamp on the Melbourne and national dance scenes. The driving force behind the company’s success is outspoken and charismatic Artistic Director Stephen Agisilaou who, among other praise, has been labeled the enfant terrible. He has also lent his diverse talents to pieces such as Spring Awakening: A New Musical, Broadway Bound, Blood Brothers, Trybe: An Opera in Paint and Teleny.
Agisialou’s production last year of The White Prince, was perhaps the most adventurous piece undertaken by the VSDC. An ambitious and much darker production than his previous works, this piece was set in the imagination using animation, unique visual effects and carefully chosen music to propel the drama. The production had a wide and diverse audience and garnered extremely mixed reviews and opinions.
Sitting down with him, Agisilaou seems a strange paradox: both laid back and comfortable and energized by every idea that passes through his ever fertile mind. I asked him about Prince’s origins.
“The origins come from listening to music, it may not necessarily end up what’s in the show, but it’s how I get to the show. It gives me a feel for the show. I had little ideas, it didn’t feel like a big ensemble piece nor like a character piece.”
Although he always works organically, it was an especially serendipitous moment that finally formed the piece in Agisilaou’s head, when he found an old copy of The Black Prince, a book for boys, an 18th Century children’s book.
“The week I decided it would be a cast of five, two young boys, two older gentlemen and a female lead, I was in an antique store where I found this book. It had an inscription: ‘From your mother, Happy Birthday 3/12/1898’. That’s my birthday!
“So I purchased this book, but what struck me was the title, The Black Prince, a book for boys. I thought this show has this underlying youth feel to it. The funny thing is I read the first page of the book and the story didn’t really speak to me but the feel and style of the illustrations did. From there I created my own original story and named it The White Prince.”
Tantalisingly vague when describing the synopsis, Agisilaou eschews the term “dance piece” describing The White Prince as rather a “theatrical event” – cooking up an amalgamation of styles and influences to create a mosaic of ideas rather than a traditional three act narrative. It works as a visceral experience, aiming to cut to the primitive impulses of the audience.
“It’s a show about a thought and a bond between two people and what happens when this thought becomes a reality…we want to take audiences into the mind of this thought.”
If the inception of the show reads like a relatively painless birth, casting and initial workshop intensives called for patience, with the auditioning of about 18 boys before settling on the final two, (Riley Fitzgerald and Joshua Hunt), a year before the production could be confirmed.
“We originally planned to have it on stage August 2013 but in the development process the show had became such a spectacle…we realised if we were going to put it on, it had to be done correctly and more time was needed. We had to email the boys and tell them: sorry guys, we can’t produce it until 2014. I think the parents were more disappointed than the kids. But it worked in the end, as I’ve got them full time for two weeks at a time…they have great juxtaposition in terms of look. Riley has got these incredible, hooded eyes while Josh is of German descent.”
Adding to the anticipation is the return to the stage of the beloved Marc Cassidy (Ex-Senior Artist of The Australian Ballet) together with Damien Welch (former Principal, also of The Australian Ballet) to the stage, a rare treat for any follower of Australian dance.
“They had been recommended them by a friend of mine, who was helping me cast the show, saying in their time they were the dancers….basically we pitched them the show by saying: “Do you want to dance with Damien?” and: “Do you want to dance with Marc?” which was lucky as it is a extremely hard piece to describe. It is always a good sign when they ask lots of questions.”
Also featured was the renowned Teagan Lowe, formerly of Sydney Dance Company as well as Tasmanian Classical Ballet Company and Australian Ballet Company, who played what Agisilaou describes as: “many versions of a female: mother, guardian, the future, she’s a representation of a spirit or a goddess.”
Although dripping with outstanding talent both onstage and off, The White Prince was operated entirely independently, without support from any government funding bodies. Given the credentials of the show, it seems inexplicable that such a high-caliber without official backing, something that Agisilaou doesn’t seem perturbed by.
“We weren’t successful with funding,” he says with a smirk. “For all my VSDC shows I have had zero dollars and haven’t been able to pay the entire cast and production team in full through the support of our ticket holders. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, you can’t buy talent and the creation of art. I feel there is no greater achievement then watching audiences escape into a world and allowing them to leave the theatre feeling more fulfilled.”
Award-winning director/producer ROBERT CHUTER is not a person prone to making conventional theatre/films & his acclaimed works have earned him a reputation as a distinctive director. He is a director who is constantly testing his audience. Chuter’s unique style has given audiences over 250+ complex, controversial & visually stunning productions in both theatre & films.