Bespoke: Q&A with choreographer, Katina Olsen

Written by Cassandra Houghton

Bespoke: Q&A with choreographer, Katina Olsen

​In 2002, a hopeful 14-year-old dance student from Rockhampton walked into the Thomas Dixon Centre to ask about auditions for the Queensland Dance School of Excellence (QDSE). 20 years later with a flourishing career, Katina Olsen is one of three acclaimed choreographers creating a new work for our 2024 Bespoke season.

Inspired by yarns, conversations, and the stark beauty of Country, the Wakka Wakka Kombumerri dancer and choreographer, who began her professional career with Bangarra Dance Theatre, is in the process of gathering ideas for movement and storytelling, collaborating with the dancers themselves to create a premiere First Nations work.

Here, Katina shares insight into how she artfully and respectfully interweaves Cultural stories with the art form of dance.

You went from a small Rockhampton dance school to the Queensland Dance School of Excellence. How did this journey transpire?

I started ballet lessons at three years of age at The Beverley Prange Dance Centre in Rockhampton, and grew up studying ballet, tap, jazz contemporary and character dance. My parents split up when I was 12, and I used to visit my dad on the school holidays. He lived in Cooroy. On one of those visits, I was interested in the QDSE so he drove me to the Thomas Dixon Centre. I walked in and someone who worked there asked me if I wanted to audition.

I was only there to get some information for the following year, but she suggested I audition for that year. My mum flew my leotard and tights down and I auditioned and I got in. I think this happened on a Thursday and they wanted me to start the following Tuesday!

Where did this training lead you?

There was a point where I realised I was getting serious about making a career out of dance. I auditioned for QUT and completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Dance) there, and I discovered that contemporary dance was where I felt most like myself. I was really interested in the possibilities it offered. My Aunty Vi – my Wakka Wakka great grandfather’s sister – took me to see Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Boomerang and that’s when I was like, wow, that’s amazing that we can celebrate Culture onstage like that, and I want to do something just like it. I auditioned at the end of my third year at QUT, and that was the beginning of my professional career. I was at Bangarra for four years. It’s those moments when you’re young that have such an effect; seeing Bangarra helped me realise that I could celebrate my Culture through my love of contemporary dance.

Tell us about the collective you co-founded: Dance Makers Collective.

I left Bangarra at the end of 2010 and began working independently with a number of different choreographers and small to medium companies. In Sydney, I was invited by some friends to chat about starting a collective. In 2012, we formed 10 independent artists together to create Dance Makers Collective. We were all emerging artists who decided to apply for arts funding together to help support our choreographic processes.

The industry is so competitive and we all believe that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, so that by combining our skills together we’d have a better chance of finding support for our emerging choreographic practices. It worked, and now we’re celebrating 10 years of our Collective. We’re really proud of what we have created and how much we can now extend that support to a number of other independent dance artists.

What is involved in your choreographic process?

In and outside the Collective, I started to gain a real curiosity; there were a lot of stories I wanted to share through dance, and that journey has been parallel to my research of my Wakka Wakka and Kombumerri Culture, specifically my own family’s songs, language and Cultural dances that have been impacted through colonisation. I’ve been developing my voice as a choreographer since 2012, and these processes of choreographic research and Cultural learnings are often intertwined.

My choreographic process starts before I step into a studio. Throughout most of my career, my dance making has involved stories or themes from Wakka Wakka or Kombumerri Country. Before I even begin, (if I have the means to) I spend time on Country yarning with my Elders and community. It’s imperative that Cultural protocol is upheld and respected – I always check that it’s okay to tell a story a certain way or at all – it’s one of the most important steps in the process. Once I have a clear idea and permission from my Elders, I spend a lot of time in improvisation gathering ideas for movement. I fill my mind and my body with these stories, yarns and all that Cultural information, then allow that to come through my body as I create dance.

Later in the process, I lean into a number of different tasking methods as well; I really enjoy working with dancers to find this together. As well as sharing my style and aesthetic, I think it’s really beautiful for movement to come from collaboration with the dancers. Throughout the process, I’m very much ‘in a creative cave’, not many people will hear from me when I’m deep in creation!

What are your hobbies outside of dance?

I love surfing! I’m not amazing, but I do love a clean two to three-foot wave – that’s always really fun. I’m fussy though, if the surf is a little choppy then I won’t even paddle out! I also really enjoy film photography. I’m a bit obsessed with collecting old film cameras – I’ve got about eight box brownies on my bookshelf. I like taking photos of life, friends, family, nature, and have a lot of photos of the bush and the ocean. I love how you have to wait for the images to be developed and I find the flaws in analogue photography really romantic.

Don’t miss Bespoke at the Talbot Theatre, Thomas Dixon Centre, from July 25 – 3 August 2024.

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We acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we work and perform. Long before we performed on this land, it played host to the dance expression of our First Peoples. We pay our respects to their Elders — past, present and emerging — and acknowledge the valuable contribution they have made and continue to make to the cultural landscape of this country.

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