By Emma Volard, Jake Amy, Ella Clair, Rose Bassett, Kate Oldfield
There is an inexplicable connectedness between music and dance. Mother and child, ecosystem and sunlight, dreams and experiences. An interdependency unparalleled and inextricably biological. Over time, the duality between music and dance has proven itself to be one of these enigmatic forces. Maggie Zhu, a Naarm-based movement artist, is breaking new ground between these artforms. Maggie talks on how her art has been moulded by internal and external factors that are closely linked to experience and subtleties of life. There’s much to learn from Maggie’s connectedness with self, others, society and her surroundings, and her “take-no-shit” attitude. Here’s an abridged version of our conversation.
In regards to gender inequality, what have you experienced as a female in the arts sector?
I carry myself around in a certain way. People wouldn’t normally fuck with me. I’m pretty fucking tough and I know that of myself: I know how to protect myself. But still, one of the worst experiences with gender violence I have had was with a visual artist who’s really talented. We caught up the first time just to hang and we got along well. When we caught up for a second time they said, “I don’t know if I want to collaborate with you, because I’m under the impression that you won’t follow my instruction”. They wanted to control me. Apparently they had “a certain vision in mind” for our collaboration. I thought collaborations were meant to be mutually beneficial, but really, he just wanted a body to fit into his agenda. So frustrating. But I look back and I’m really happy with the way I dealt with it. Ever since, I’ve pushed myself to maintain creative control, rather than having discussions with arseholes like that.
There’s always dickheads like that floating around and hitting on me. In the weirdest ways. But I don’t let them fuck with me. I feel bad for girls in the freestyle [dance] community who are just starting and entering their first battles - as a woman, it’s fucked. If you want to be in the industry, you’ve got to have really tough skin, because you’ll have to deal with all sorts of gender violence. And it’s shit you just don’t deal with if you’re a guy. It’s still a sad reality.
As a dancer, do you feel that people hyper-sexualise your movement?
Oh, fuck yeah. Don’t even get me started. The style that I perform is quite “feminine”. It’s called waacking and originated 1970s gay club scene in LA. It was more of a club dance about freeing people’s sexuality, and at that time, people just didn't have the opportunity to do stuff like that: moving past the binary and embracing the fact that gender and sexuality is as fluid as you want it to be. From a male gaze, it could definitely be seen as sexual, but expressing my sexuality as a woman does not invite you to have sex with me. That's not a sexual invitation to anyone. I’m just trying to be myself. I understand that it can be misinterpreted, but it’s a shame. I often feel sexually objectified, especially as an Asian woman.
Due to its political/social history, do you feel that waacking impacts your creative performance choices?
Waacking and its culture definitely impacts me as a creative artist. I think the dance is very much about performance, which is political in itself. Dance really encourages me to be sensitive to everyone - everyone has the right to be respected by this dance form - and it pays homage to every individual, no matter who they are.
How did you develop your own unique style of movement?
I’ve been dancing my whole life. I began hardcore ballet training when I was 6. My teacher… god, she was strict. I would literally have nightmares about my classes. Until I started waacking at 15, dance was just more of a hobby that helped me connect with people - moving together and having that sense of unity felt/feels really powerful. But looking back, I’m very grateful that I learnt in this way early on. My teacher gave me the awareness to control my body. Now it’s just part of me - it’s muscle memory. I've been doing freestyle ever since.
For me, dance is about individual expression. I realise now that it’s inseparable with my experience as an individual. I see my experience and my dance as one. It’s just me. And I think that very much shaped my “style”.
What are you inspired by?
Artistic and creative wise, many things come into my mind. What really inspires me is everyday life. And humans. Humans are so interesting. It’s incredible how much inspiration you can get from them - I love people watching. Every little nuanced movement provides me with a new idea.
I’m also constantly listening to podcasts, reading and researching online and finding new artists on social media (who are just mind blowing). [I get] inspiration from my heart, which evolves with time: my want to be in-touch with myself. What is my purpose? What is my intention? Who am I? I'm learning to find stillness and the power within that.
On your Instagram, I noticed that you’ve labelled yourself as a “movement artist” as opposed to a dancer. Why?
That’s a purposeful decision that actually goes back to what we were talking about earlier… from that shitty conversation with the visual artist. That moment was a turning point for me in establishing myself as an artist, rather than a dancer. I never want to be an accessory in somebody else’s project. I love collaborating but not in a manipulative context. So, for that reason, I changed my title. I think that’s essentially what I’m working to be. With that being said, I don't think there’s anything wrong with being called a “dancer”, but I do think it’s important to be consistent with what you believe in and your values as a human. I’m very much into the nuances: I want to make sure that I’m sending out the messages I want to convey.
Could you touch on what being a multidisciplinary artist entails?
I’ve always been really interested in art in general, and I think “art” is a very general term. I’m so fascinated in seeing what kinds of collaborations result in combining different genres together. In a way, artistic crossover doesn’t even necessarily have to be art-based disciplinaries. It could be interdisciplinary experiments. What would a creative and a scientist come up with? I think my recent practice has resolved around that.
How are you coping with lockdown?
At the start of the first lockdown, I was actually a bit relieved. I thought, “I can actually take a break”. I’d been working like a machine, burning myself. I think lockdown has given us more opportunities to collaborate with artists across the world, as we are all in the same boat. I was quite excited about technology’s role in COVID-19. There’s no distance in cyberspace. Communication is so quick and efficient. That being said, I think that live streams and other online gigs will never replace a physical performance. As much as you can try to (re)create an atmosphere online, with set design etc., you can never really experience that full vibration you get with people when you’re together in a physical space. In general, I feel that creatives in Victoria are all a bit scattered at the moment, because of this. I definitely feel quite uncertain and stagnant in terms of my own creativity. As an artist, I think I always have purpose, and that’s closely associated with who I am and where I’m at in my life. I think it’s good that we can break and explore different ways of creating, but I don't want to lie to myself - I miss being around people and their energy in the physical sphere.
How does movement and improvised dance affect the visceral experience of live music?
In live music, movement and dance definitely create more visual stimulation. For me, it’s about the interaction of the visuals with the audience and how human and non-human elements combine.
What does “performing” mean to you?
Honouring my being in that moment. If you think about it, performing is quite spiritual because there’s nothing quite like the experience of being in that moment. It’s a beautiful space where you let everything else go. You can do as many rehearsals as you like beforehand, but in that moment, it really doesn’t matter how prepared you are.
E: How much of your performance is composed beforehand?
I can do choreography, but it’s not really my thing. I'm a freestyle dancer. Pretty much everything I do is improvised on the spot.
E: Is it reactionary to what you hear?
Yes, there’s definitely a lot of interaction between sound and movement. But at the same time, there’s so much more than just reacting to each other. I feel that it’s more a chemical interaction on stage: feeling each other’s presence, creating an aura, being. And that’s between all the different artforms involved.
"There’s always dickheads floating around but I don’t let them fuck with me."
Are there any particular qualities you look for in an individual before you collaborate with them?
Yes, there are. For me, I guess it’s not so much about what they do, it’s about how they do it. With collaborators, I’m really looking for truthful, honest people. As individuals, I think that’s something that we intuitively feel. It's about the vibe.
In today’s day and age, how important is it to have dance at a live music event?
As artists, we should all have the freedom to do what we want. I don’t really believe that having dance at a live gig is 100% necessary. It’s up to the artists - the music and its intention. At the end of the day, every artform should be respected equally, no matter what decisions are made.
Any advice for emerging movement and multidisciplinary artists?
It will sound a bit cliché, but I'm going to say it anyway: just keep doing you. It’s going to be a beautiful journey. You will have a lot of shitty times. But you will find those loved ones who will support you and your vision. At the end of the day, it’s your journey… yours and yours only. You’re the only one who should make the decisions and know where you’re heading. Keep believing it, even in the darkest days. The dark days will come (especially this year - they're coming quite often).
Anything lined up for the near future?
I am such a workaholic - I always have something lined up. Right now, I have a pretty chill schedule comparatively to “normal”, (which I am learning how to moderate). I’m constantly putting up material on Instagram.
Keep up to date with Maggie here
We would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognise their continuing connection in our community. We would like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present of the Kulin Nation and extend that respect to other Indigenous Australians who have read this article.