In 2010, Shaun Parker decided to form his own dance company, which quickly made its mark with its first production Happy as Larry. Set to an electro/acoustic score, Happy as Larry explored the elusive nature of human happiness using a mix of ballet, break-dance, roller-skating and highly physical contemporary dance, and a cast of characters developed from a psychological system called the Enneagram

Since then Parker has developed another six shows, exploring themes from bullying to masculinity. His latest production, In the Zone, fuses hip-hop dance with a warning about the dangers of excessive gaming, and uses the ground-breaking technology AirSticks that creates sound from movement.

Over the last decade, Shaun Parker & Company has toured to 21 countries. With international travel currently off the agenda due to restrictions around the coronavirus pandemic, In the Zone will be performed at the Seymour Centre this Friday and Saturday and live streamed on Friday morning – the first time the company has ever streamed a production. “Live streaming is something that we will do for every show going forwards,” says Parker.

Shaun Parker. Photograph supplied

Parker began his dance training as a boy at the Mildura & District Ballet Guild in country Victoria on the Murray River. “I grew up on a grape-growing property, so doing ballet was definitely not expected from a country-boy, and more to the point, it was even frowned upon,” he says.

“However, my rebellious nature rose to the fore, and I wouldn’t allow myself to be bullied out of doing dance. I was also a boy soprano singing a lot of classical repertoire such as Armstrong Gibbs’ Five Eyes and I got picked on for that because I sounded like a girl, but I kept singing too no matter what.”

After studying Science at Monash University, he went to the Victorian College of the Arts to complete his dance training, and after graduating was invited to join Meryl Tankard’s Australian Dance Theatre, where he stayed for almost seven years.

“I would say that this time with Meryl had a huge influence on my growth as a dancer, and as an artist, and it was a gift to be a part of Meryl’s vision, as we toured the world with her incredible dance-theatre works,” says Parker.

He went on to sing with Meredith Monk in New York, and danced with other companies in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. However, when he turned 35 he began to question the dramaturgy of the work he was dancing in, and decided that it was time to start creating his own work.

“I actually didn’t really want to start choreography so young, and I had always wanted to keep performing until later in life, but it seemed that I had no choice. Choreography chose me!” he says.

After making work as an independent freelance choreographer for five or six years, he decided to centralise his work under an umbrella company in order to keep up with the national and international touring demand, and Shaun Parker & Company was born.

His work has been anchored by humanist themes. “It is always aiming to excavate, interrogate, and celebrate the fragility of our humanity. Humans are quite insane when you think about it! So I am compelled and drawn towards investigating all of this – and there are so many contradictions. Sometimes I think that the more contradictions you have, the closer you may get to the truth,” says Parker.

“I feel that life in our modern world is sweeping us along so fast that we sometimes forget what happiness means to us. Does the preoccupation with money, success, career, real estate, keeping up with digital media communications, and keeping up in general, take up all of our time so that we have no time to be happy anymore? Has quality time with family, friends, colleagues and even with ourselves been put on the back burner? I was really feeling that perhaps we don’t know how to be happy anymore.”

“For my work Happy as Larry, I researched the Enneagram, which is a personality model of nine fundamental personality traits. My dancers and I studied it extensively and physicalised various behavioural and emotional concerns of the different personality types. This was a process that informed us about how different people experience, process, and search for happiness. It also investigated how our own personality or ego structure shapes, drives and confines our individual perception of happiness.”

Shaun Parker & Company’s production KING. Photograph © Prudence Upton

For his work KING, which premiered in 2019, he says he was “drawn to investigate both the micro and macro effects of the XY chromosome, inspired by a heady nod to the tyranny of Trump, and the struggle of masculine dependencies both inflicted by society, but also through a million years of evolution.”

His youth work The Yard, which premiered in 2011, was developed with non-professional teenage dancers from Western Sydney and explored bullying by using their own street dance language and modes of physical storytelling. “It has been so very rewarding to perform this work to over 100,000 children across Australia, and also to see that following taking part in the program, 91 percent of those children who had identified themselves as bullies, said that they would not bully again. It seemed that once they witnessed the impact of bullying from the outside, that they could really see how damaging it was, and began to build a real empathy to those inflicted,” says Parker.

His latest work In the Zone is structured as if you are entering a video game. “I wanted to highlight the experience of young people with video game addiction and their changing relationship with the natural world,” says Parker.

“When I grew up, we seemed to do so much more outdoors such as hobbies, sport and simply hanging out in nature. The reality is that teenagers will always be playing on the computer and be involved in gaming, so I thought that rather than try to stop them doing it, why not try to get creative in the way that it is used such that their imagination is stimulated.”

“One of the themes of In the Zone is the notion of emotional resilience. The work gives the insight that we are much more in control of our own emotional responses, than we think they are, and the playful, musical and movement processes of the AirSticks are an ideal methodology to explore this. Emotions can be observed, reflected upon, and redirected, much like the action in a video game.”

“During our research we found that over three million people are living with anxiety or depression in Australia, so there really is a need to equip young people with emotional resilience to help curb any devastating effects that may arise in the future, in terms of their mental health and well-being. I am really interested how interactive music, dance, theatre and creativity can help this.”

Libby Montilla in a promotional image for In the Zone. Photograph supplied

Asked to explain what AirSticks are, he says they are “hand-held gaming remote controls co-designed by Alon Ilsar (PhD), which allow the user to trigger sound through movement. Each remote control has several buttons and triggers that can activate sound.”

For In the Zone, Parker and his team have created multiple sound worlds, which are activated and controlled by hip-hop dancer Libby Montilla. “Libby also dances at the same time to express the music and storyline for each sound world using his incredible street dance skills such as locking, popping, body waving, tutting, krump and body animation. Libby was the perfect choice for this role because of his command of his own body to communicate the live conceptual elements, as well as his innate ability to work with the musical soundscapes and the gaming controls. He is one of a kind!” says Parker.

Parker often commissions new music for his works. “It seems that singing as a boy soprano instigated within me a deep and absolute love of music. When I rediscovered that I could still sing as a countertenor in my early twenties, I took to it again like a duck to water,” he says.

“Meryl Tankard asked me to sing a duet with the beautiful Rachael Woods, a Wongutha and Badu Island woman, and her mezzo-soprano and my countertenor were a resonant combination. We toured this work to Hamburg which was an incredible experience. I was also lucky enough to make contact with Lesley Lewis from Adelaide Baroque, where I was asked to sing a range of early music. I also collaborated with one of Lesley Lewis’ alumni Joanna Dudley on the music/dance theatre work My Little Garden which was commissioned for the Barossa International Music Festival, which saw my countertenor vocals layered with medieval recorders, cello, metallic set design instruments, a washer board, and a spoon orchestra.”

“I also got invited to New York to sing with the formidable Meredith Monk, before heading to Europe to sing in Berlin, Austria and Switzerland. When I returned to Sydney to make my works, I hooked up again with Mara & Llew Kiek, with whom I sang the Bulgarian repertoire in the Meryl Tankard seminal work Songs With Mara.”

His own production The Show is About People featured Bulgarian throat singing, medieval countertenor and gospel songs of hope. For Happy as Larry he worked with Nick Wales and Bree van Reyk, with whom he had collaborated on a piece for Sydney Dance Company.

“They created a beautiful electro-acoustic score which featured piano, violin, harp, marimba and stunningly crafted electronica for Happy as Larry. Nick went on to compose the award-winning score for my next major work Am I with live musicians including Jessica O’Donoghue, Jason Noble, Tunji Beier, Jess Green, Bree van Reyk, Alyx Dennison and Nick Wales himself, and which featured South East Asian clay-pot, African drums, jaws harp, marimba, violin, harmonium, bells, bass guitar, brass and toy pianos. And for KING, I worked with gender-fluid vocalist Ivo Dimchev, whose honey-esque voice soared to operatic heights, yet tantalised the audience with deconstructed cabaret interludes born from the texts of Emily Dickinson. Michael Jackson’s daughter Paris recently took him under her wing at his concert in Los Angeles, and Dimchev is surely bound to manifest the score for a future David Lynch filmic undertaking!”

Shaun Parker & Company’s Am I. Photograph © Prudence Upton

“I love music as much as dance, and I believe it should be honoured as a vital element of a dance production.  I see music and dance as being a part of the ‘whole’ and I have been honoured to have worked with such incredible musicians,” says Parker.

In the Zone will be live streamed from the Seymour Centre. Almost 100 schools from across Australia have already booked. “We gave all regional NSW schools access to the program free of charge as our way of giving back to the community, particularly those who were affected by the bushfires. I love the thought of taking art to the people, especially in regional and remote areas, so it’s very exciting indeed,” says Parker.

When COVID-19 hit, Parker’s company pivoted quickly, launching a series of online dance workshops, which feature an array of dance styles from hip-hop to Afro, yoga to contemporary. They are also holding electro-pop workshops in which the participants learn a sequence of ’80s and ’90s dance moves that will be performed outdoors next year in a flash mob.

Meanwhile, all the company’s international touring has been moved to the end of 2021 and 2022, with tours to Germany, France, UK, Serbia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Russia and Singapore organised – as long as it is safe to travel.

Several of the dancers who performed with Parker when he formed the company a decade ago are still working with him. “It has been one of my greatest joys to see them develop, expand and improve. I am very proud of them,” he says. “Marnie Palomares, Josh Mu and Libby Montilla are three of my principal dancers, and they have grown into outstanding dance artists. Marnie also teaches yoga, pilates and movement at NIDA for the actors, and Josh is a brilliant software designer to complement his dance work, and Libby also works for Indigenous dance company Karul Projects, as well as creating his own hip-hop and rap musical tracks and accompanying music videos. The way that they have embraced my direction over the years is so rewarding. They have also taken on my work ethic and motto ‘Work hard, do it with love, and never stop learning’. I do feel like a proud parent with them, but probably more like a proud older brother!”

As for highlights and lowlights from Shaun Parker & Company’s first decade, Parker says: “I think the lowlight was coming to the realisation that there has been very little change in terms of Government investment in the small arts sector over the past ten years, despite its outstanding output and innovation.  Like a dog with a bone, I shall keep lobbying to shift this. It is so very important for our community.”

Young performers from The Yard. Photograph supplied

“In terms of highlights, I think it has been having the opportunity to work with my amazing dancers over all of our different productions. Each new work is its own organic, artistic beast, and the dancers are the limbs and body parts of that beast. Without them, the beast could not move. [Another highlight has been working with] incredible composer Nick Wales, who has composed for most of my works over the years. Something happens when Nick and I collaborate: his music is stunningly beautiful, drawing on both electronic and acoustic genres, which brings the sonic canvas into a necessary contemporary context. And the humanist themes in my choreography rise, ricochet and retreat in response to his music,” says Parker.

“I also loved touring to Palestine last year and presenting our work KING (Little Big Man) to their community. The work was quite controversial within a Middle East context, however that only meant that the rewards were even greater. We went on to tour KING to Jordan, Lebanon and Austria and we were so proud to see the audience and critical acclaim. We had a seven-minute standing ovation. I could see the sense of joy and pride rise in my dancers onstage. A very proud moment indeed.”

In the Zone will be performed at the Seymour Centre on September 18 and 19, and live streamed on September 18 at 10am