Arts & Culture People

Michael Parmenter: Resistance and Influence

Image: Helen Mitchell
Sarah Murphy
Written by Sarah Murphy

As a choreographer and dancer, Michael Parmenter is rather a legend, having spent the past 30 years creating work that pushes the boundaries of theatre and dance.

Known for creating work on a large scale with sizeable casts and in big theatres, his is “epic theatre”.

Those who remember the heyday of the Hero Festival will no doubt remember Michael’s work of epic proportions. Those were days of flying apparatus, handmade harnesses, and no safety nets.

In fact, GALS only came to life because Michael wanted to have a group of live singers in his Hero piece.

Now, with political and aesthetic concerns aligning, he gears up for his first full-length piece in ten years; OrphEus.

“I’m responding a little bit to the climate at the moment,” Michael says. “The return back to the right and these sort of powerful voices which are promising people a nostalgic return to the way it used to be.”

Orpheus is not usually associated with politics and in fact, is known more as a tragic love story. 

“One of the things about Orpheus is this power to influence people and nature,” says Michael, “It’s about moving people…

“As a figure who moves people, for me Orpheus is a bit like the archetypal choreographer, he’s usually put up as the musician and the poet, but someone who moves people is a choreographer.”

He recently attended festival productions where he noticed the power of music and dance led people to accept things that he thinks they should be questioning.

“It reminded me that the same kind of thing is happening in politics at the moment, these people who can tap into a feeling of discontent, possibly demystify discontent, and turn it into this desire to go back to when it was white, and male, and Christian.

“I’m not treating Orpheus as a divine figure who isn’t real, he’s a human figure who made mistakes and raises the question of how we have a conversation about things other than just seducing people to follow our path.”

Finding that disconnect between the music and dance is key in guiding the audience to question what’s going on.

Michael tells me that he has always had a passion to do a piece from this particular period of French baroque music, which he adores.

It is music that was established for the court ritual, “It was already used politically but now I want to turn it around and critique that worldview of a set hierarchy. If one takes music that was created to support one political structure, and then puts it together with images of something else, then there’s a little bit of dissidence and people become a little bit more engaged politically rather than just emotionally.

“There has to be the possibility that we can resist this music or political voices,” he says.

“I think dance can be used to engage the mind as well as just the feeling states and body.”

At primary school, Michael was a gymnast but when he got to high school his parents forbid him from putting time into sports and the arts as he needed to focus on his academic work.

It was in his early twenties that he took up dance and hasn’t looked back since.

The later start has “definitely has had an influence”, he tells me.

It’s something he sees in his students at Unitec, the drive that’s built up when dancers start later, making them incredibly focused dancers.

“As I get older as a dancer, it becomes harder for me to create movement of my own body, younger dancers are much more capable of doing things than I can even imagine, so I’ve developed different ways of getting them to move, in ways that fascinate me that might be different for them but make a vocabulary of movement.”

Michael undergoes a two or three-year process of researching before creating a piece and over the years he has done a large amount of research into movement, creating his own particular vocabulary of movement.

We are taught that dance comes from the inside and is an expression, but Michael explores dance as coming from the outside – we dance in response to the influences on the body from the outside.

“I’ve taken this quite literally and developed two partnering forms, one called piloting and one called tactics.

“It’s a way of being danced, rather than expressing your own feelings,” he says.

“I feel the individual expression has been prioritised in contemporary dance to the detriment of the relationship of the body to the outside world. Whether it’s the natural world, or to sound, or other dancers and so I’m very much using these themes in this piece about Orpheus, because it’s about being moved.”

“There were times when I was a younger person where I literally felt like I was a dried leaf just being blown around by the wind.

“Then through various experiences, not the least being HIV and cancer and all the various dramas I’ve had in my life, personal ones and family, I’ve developed a certain resilience and a certain tenacity to respond to those circumstances and not accept the influences around me as a fait accompli.”

He says the issue of influence from the outside and our resistance against it is one that fascinates him both philosophically and bodily.

“It’s a sort of resistance, a fighting back…”

Michael Parmenter’s OrphEus – A Dance Opera shows during the Auckland Arts Festival from March 9 – 11.

Tickets are available from Ticketmaster.

About the author

Sarah Murphy

Sarah Murphy

Sarah is a journalist and creative writer who has written extensively about sexuality and gender minority communities over the past five years.

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