Energetiks Talks With Stephen Tannos
Stephen Tannos is no stranger to the spotlight. Discovering a knack for dance at the age of ten, by thirteen the Sydney-born performer was training at Brent Street School of performing arts. Learning and adapting to every style of dance available to him and then progressing to singing and acting, Tannos solidified himself as the type of triple threat performer any dancer hopes not to come up against in an audition. In 2009 his public profile escalated with his memorable appearance on the Australian series of So You Think You Can Dance, where he progressed all the way to the Top 20. Tannos also starred in musicals such as Cats and Fame, and danced with artists like Sam Sparro, The Presets, Ricky Martin, Natalie Bassingthwaite, Jess Mauboy and Ricki Lee. Yet in spite of his obvious success as a performer, Tannos is always hasty to state that his dancing is inferior in many technical capacities to his peers, although it's almost unfathomable to reach the same conclusions as an audience after watching him perform.
It was after becoming interested in the works of artists such as Wade Robson, and growing increasingly interested in choreography and the risks that were being explored with the artform that In 2011 he teamed up with fellow Australian dancer Morgan Choice, and the duo created Tannos & Choice, a remarkable and innovative show featuring ten talented dancers and produced by Marko Panzic, that invigorated audiences, thrilled critics and galvanised dancers across all disciplines. This accomplishment earned both dancers notability as choreographers, despite their relative inexperience. After this Tannos found himself gravitating more and more towards the role of choreographer and less towards the role of performer. This apparent withdrawal from the spotlight had no impact on Stephen's public profile though, he had never been more visible in the dance world, and six years after appearing on SYTYCD, he was invited to return as a choreographer for the show, flawing audiences with his fearlessly unique style and dynamic routines. Since then he has gone from strength to strength, teaming up once again this year with good friend Marko Panzic to co-direct and choreograph 'Genesis' the debut production for new Australian commercial dance company The Dream Dance Company (founded by Panzic).
Tannos admits his style can be "just plain strange", and therein lies much of the value. His work is a force of nature; uninhibited by rules or conventions, Tannos' choreography is pure liberated movement. His disinterest with conforming to boundaries of genre opens up a whole new playing field of choreographic possibilities and Tannos is the evident pioneer. His autonomy as an artist isn't just limited to manifestations of choreography however, last year Stephen expanded his creative repertoire to include the role of director with the production of Run Boy Run, a short film which he also choreographed. This dual director/choreographer title is something Stephen plans to continue in the future, and this year's addition is even more impressive. His latest film, a visual spectacular called The Process is not only directed and choreographed by Tannos, but he also acted as producer and features in the film as well. In The Process Tannos demonstrates as much fearlessness as a director as he is renowned for as a choreographer, and the film has already gained much praise and attention since it's release a mere two and a half weeks ago. Stephen took some time away from rehearsals to chat with Energetiks about The Process, what inspires him, and advice for other aspiring creatives. Watch Stephen's film The Process and see the interview below;
E: Hi Stephen, you’ve just recently released ‘The Process’, which you Choreographed, Directed and Produced, where did the concept for this piece begin, and how long has it taken to create?
ST: The concept actually came to me when I was sitting in a Café in Japan and I saw this painting on the wall. It was this really beautiful painting with all these colours and textures. It was just a hair-brain idea that came to me really, because I was fascinated with the way the paint moved across the canvas, and then I started to picture in my head what that would look like if a live version was happening in front of that - almost as if the paint was creating the movement. That was all the way back in May this year, just after I’d finished working on Genesis. It started as a concept of me doing it all in the one room in one studio, with a lot of artwork and a bunch of dancers and it was just going to be a very simple one-day project that I was going to shoot with one scene. But then when I got back [home] about a month later I thought of the idea again and started thinking maybe I could make a few different scenes, so it was a progression from there. It ended up turning into 6 different scenes and taking 4 months to put together, and just became this massive thing! But yeah, it all came from being fascinated by this correlation between paint and human movement, and the more I got into it the further I delved in to the concept and it just kept growing, which is always a good thing …but it became a really massive project!
E: It’s such a visually and conceptually ambitious piece, what was the biggest challenge you faced in terms of realizing that initial vision?
ST: I think to me the most natural thing is the creative side, the actual conceptualisation and choreography, that comes really easily to me. The challenge was more the producing side of things, I funded the project myself, so that was stressful. Then also organising everything – I had six different locations to manage, and then you’re pulling in favours from friends and worrying about lighting and the production of the music, and scheduling the forty dancers to make sure they get rehearsals together. We also styled everything, so all of the clothes you see the dancers wearing, that’s all stuff that my girlfriend and I sourced. So just trying to make it happen and get everything together in the same place at the same time to then be able to be creative.
E: Do you prefer working with a few dancers or creating larger group pieces?
ST: The main thing I love is variety. I love having a variety of dancers. So for example, that final scene in The Process had thirty dancers in it, and they were all the different dancers from the different scenes dancing together, and there’s nothing more exciting than being able to work with a room full of dancers where there’s seven or eight different disciplines happening. Because I think the minute you get stuck into a certain way of doing things as a choreographer and develop a one-track mind that’s when you close yourself off to a much bigger world of opportunity. So the more the merrier for me! It does obviously depend on what you’re doing though, I love working with a smaller group for a certain piece, but I think the more variety you have the better. I enjoy working with a contemporary dancer and a break-dancer and a tap dancer, that’s stimulating to me.
E: What part of the creative process do you most enjoy?
ST: They all have their different rewards I think, but the part I’ve always embraced the most and yearned for is that original moment when the idea first hits me. And The Process explores that idea as well; the moment when you think of something, and then following that process all the way up until it’s final stages. I think the creative process of getting it from that original idea in my head and transitioning it into something else – that in between time is the most exciting. Because that’s when everything changes, the minute you put it on it’s feet that’s exciting because you can see what you had in your head come to life right in front of you. Seeing other dancers executing your vision and committing to it one hundred percent, like it’s their own baby, that’s super rewarding. And having it standing there right in front of you, living and breathing; as an artist there’s nothing more exciting than that.
E: What do you look for and value in dancers that you’re working with?
ST: There’s definitely a group of dancers within this piece; Cat Santos, Lauren Seymour, Michael Dameski, people like that, that I’ve always been affiliated with and attached myself to to work with. I think the thing about all the dancers I use is that they’re all really committed individuals and they all want to create something different. So the most important thing for me is finding dancers who won’t just stand there waiting to have orders barked at them, but who can actually collaborate with me and help me get my ideas onto their bodies even better. That’s something that really excites me. The ideas are always initiated by me, but when a dancer can help me roll forward with those and say ‘Well this actually feels better on my body' then you’re limitless. Those dancers are really important to me, and they’re all people that I’ve cherry-picked throughout the years as people that I love. And I love them the most when they’re in an environment where they can be creative as well, because every dancer has an element of creativity to them, some people just aren’t afraid to really access it.
E: It’s fantastic that you allow that dialogue between yourself and the dancers. Some choreographers have much more of a one-way relationship with their dancers -
ST: Yeah I think that’s important! You have two types of choreographers and neither is wrong or right, but I tend to gravitate more towards the collaborative side. You have the one type of choreographer that will say ‘This is exactly how it is and this is exactly how it needs to be. And if it looks any different then it’s wrong.’ And there’s nothing the matter with that; some of the most brilliant choreographers of our generation and generations before were very particular about what they wanted. But that’s just not the way I like to approach things. Because I’m not a beautiful technician, I’m not the greatest dancer, I’m not a tap dancer, I’m not a female – actually I’m like the least feminine dancer in the world - but I know how to pull that out of people and facilitate getting them to their strongest point. That’s something I’ve always enjoyed doing and will continue to enjoy doing, even when I’m unable to walk! I’m good with my words, and I think that that’s an asset to a choreographer; they should know how to inspire and set somebody up to realise their strongest potential.
E: When and what first inspired you to transition more into a choreographic/directorial role as opposed to just performing?
ST: That’s funny actually, I remember being about fifteen or sixteen years old when I was training at Brent Street, and saying to a friend ‘I never want to be a choreographer. I never want to be behind the scenes. I want to always be on stage and get to have the limelight on me. I don’t want to be in charge of what’s happening, I just want to be told what to do.’ And then it was almost immediately after that that I started slowly, naturally gravitating away from everyone else and their styles. Without even realising it. I think it came from not being as strong technically as the others, so all I had was my brain and my ability to make myself look as good as I possibly could. So I just started drifting away, and getting a bit more left, and left, and left. Then eventually I started watching So You Think You Can Dance in America, and Wade Robson, who really inspired me to create something different because he has such a uniquely individual mind. So through watching his work I decided that maybe I could make some of my own. Initially I was really just mimicking what he was doing. It was straight up plagiarism really. I was simply copying his movement and putting that on myself, but then as I went on it started to become completely my own thing, and I began to have some people really getting behind what I was doing. Then when I was twenty years old I put on my first piece at Fox Studios (Brent Street). It was a piece that was inspired by video games, like Mario Brothers. And it received an amazing response, and just getting that instant gratification from people; that feeling and encouragement, I think that’s always been something that fuels me. So the minute I felt that for the first time I was like ‘Ok, I’m going to pursue this.’ …and the rest is history!
E: What environment makes you most creative and productive?
ST: Well every day is different, but I think the main thing is that you have to be in the right headspace. I’ve never been too concerned with places or the environment or Feng Shui or anything like that, because I think you can be creative anywhere. Though I definitely tend to be more creative in the later hours of the night and earlier hours of the morning, but I think the most important part is creating that headspace; your mind has to be clear of all the nonsense, because the minute that doubt starts creeping in you’re done for the day. It’s the one thing that you can’t force, and I’ve learned that over the years. If you haven’t got that headspace then you can stand in front of the mirror for ten hours and just end up frustrated at yourself. Being around the right people is also great too. Finding like-minded people who are also creative is important. I’ve always loved collaboration. Whether it be with dancers, or with Frace Luke Mercado (of FLUKEMEDIA), who was the Director of Photography/Editor for The Process, or the guy who does my music, Aaron Lee, I’m always around creative people.
E: You also recently opened up about how artists and creative people do have that tendency to fall into these darker headspaces and your own experiences with feelings of depression and anxiety. What has enabled you to deal with that in your life?
ST: That’s a really tricky one, because it’s something for me that has always been there. And I think if you do have that in your nature then it is always going to be there. Those feelings of anxiety and depression and ‘nothingness’, because our industry is completely about highs and lows. There’s no middle ground and – I hate to use the rollercoaster analogy because it’s so cliché! – but the entire time you’re riding this rollercoaster and it’s always going right to the top and then right to the bottom again and again. I think the only way you can equip yourself for that is to know that a low is coming and be able to manage that whilst you’re in it. I don’t think it’s possible to change that side of yourself, you just have to learn to facilitate those periods and learn to manage it the best way possible. For me I know that whenever I’m doing something great, something that’s getting a lot of praise, Genesis this year for example, or releasing this video, I know that a week after that’s all finished I’m going to be in the dumps for a bit. Because there’s no way you can replicate that feeling when there’s suddenly nothing happening. So the best way artists can equip themselves for that is to know that it’s coming and to kind of anticipate it a little bit. Just try not to let it in too much. But it is very difficult, and I think all artists experience it to some degree, I just happen to be particularly prone to it.
It can be also be a great thing though I think, those dark moments provide inspiration for some of the greatest works. A lot of my works that I’ve loved of my own have been inspired from a dark place or time or relationship, so I think there’s also beauty in all of it too.
- E: It does seem that a lot of great work is generated in those darker periods that artists experience doesn’t it –
ST: Oh absolutely. If you look at the most prominent artists of their time a lot of them were completely mental! And all of their works were inspired by these incredibly dark things, but they could put this light on it and make it relatable and then you have this timeless work of art.
I think art is only timeless when it’s inspired by a feeling. Because feelings don’t evolve through the years. We’re all human. Technology is evolving, dancing and dance styles are evolving, but our emotions never evolve. They stay the same, so if a work is inspired by a feeling it remains timeless.
E: How do creative ideas normally arise for you, did you ever dream up a piece like in The Process?
ST: Well I had this idea in the shower the other day and I just had to jump out and tell my girlfriend about it! (laughs) - But it’s often when I’m driving or something, and I’ll just have to pull over and write it down. Because I have so many ideas every single day, and most of them just vanish into the catacombs of my brain, but the way I test out if an idea is really solid; if in a month’s time I still remember that idea and I keep coming back to it then I know there’s something there to explore. And that’s what I did with The Process. I thought about it in Japan, I had a conversation with my girlfriend Emily about it, she thought it was great and then I was in Japan for another month. Then I came home, and about another month after that I still couldn’t stop thinking about it so I was like ‘I’m going to do this’. But inspiration always tends to be at the weirdest times, and inspired by the weirdest things! I’m always inspired by real life as well, there’s a fair bit of fiction in the whole process but it’s always inspired by my life and the life of my friends. I’ve had so many people thank me, and just say thank you for putting something up there that’s so honest, but putting it up in a way that’s palatable. Because you’re watching this dark thing, but whilst the undertone might be sombre, it’s put in such a shiny light that there’s moments of comedy to it as well. There’s varying emotions, which I think everything should have.
E: You’ve had some incredible highlights in your career so far, what have been the stand-outs for you?
ST: I was part of the choreography duo Tannos and Choice a couple of years ago, which Marko (Panzic) actually funded, which is amazing. And that was the first time I really realised I could put what I do onstage, make an hour-long show out of it and people will stay and watch it, and really enjoy it. So that was very encouraging.
Obviously, The Dream Dance Company and Genesis, that first production – being a part of the start of something in this country was very exciting to me, and watching them evolve now and seeing what Marko is going to do with the next show. It’s great to know I was a part of the beginning of that, so that was a big moment.
Choreographing on So You Think You Can Dance Australia. I had a really great ride on that, I ended up doing seven routines, and a group routine as well. Even being on there as a contestant, as a dancer, that was a big moment for me where I realized that the public actually responded to my uniqueness and it wasn’t just weird, it was actually entertaining. There’s so many things though. I think every moment in your life contributes to something, whether it was a bad moment or a good moment but those will definitely be some of the moments that help me traject forward into where I want to go now.
E: And what are you planning, going forward from here?
ST: I think for me now it’s that I’ve always either been in partnership with somebody or had someone produce for me – my relationship with Marko for example is brilliant and it will continue to be brilliant – but just working from him twice now for two different shows I’ve learned so much about the other side of things, how to actually put a show together. Not the creative side but the more arduous things. So through what I’ve learned from Marko it’s all about me going out there and creating something that’s one hundred percent mine now. And he fully supports that too now, which is amazing. There is something that I’m working on right now but I don’t want to give too much of that away at the moment because it’s going to be a long process. It’ll probably take a few years so I don’t want to go into that just yet. But I’d also love to get into the directing side of things too. I’d love to eventually direct film, in ten years time or something that would be my end-game.
E: Judging by your work on The Process that’s a totally viable option! –
ST: Thank you, well that was really my first attempt at anything, and I’ve learned so much from it. I definitely want to evolve in that direction as it’s still very new to me. I’ve been choreographing for eight years now, and I’m still learning things every single day so I’ve still got many years ahead of me for learning and being inspired with directing. I want to be able to soak in a wide array of art-forms, but it’s always going to be partnered with dance in some way.
E: Do you have a favourite word?
ST: Process! - E: Good answer! - Well, I mean since making this film I can’t say that word without just pausing for a second. The process of creating something is the best and most amazing time of anything. It wasn’t until I created this film that I realised how much I and everyone else uses this word. It’s a part of everyone’s life, everyone has a process. Whether you’re an accountant or a dancer or a bricklayer, there’s a process to everything. So yeah, that word just resonates with me now and every time I say it I just have to pause and go ‘wow - that’s such a significant word for me’. - E: That’s so true, and I think people often end up focusing on the outcome and forget how important and rewarding the process that precedes that is - ST: Yeah, it’s the most important thing. The end result is like the tip of the iceberg. Everything else that’s underneath it is what you went through to get to that point. And the people at the end might only get to see that little tip, but what I’ve always enjoyed the most about my favourite choreographers, and working with Kelly Abbey and Jason Gilkison and so-on is seeing how they work. Seeing their process. Obviously the end result is phenomenal, but being in the room with them and seeing them deliberate over something and re-arranging things is just so exciting to me, because that’s when things are in there most vulnerable form and I love that so much.
E: Do you have any advice for other young or aspiring choreographers?
ST: You know what, the best advice I ever got was from Daniel "Cloud" Campos, he’s a break-dancer from America who’s now an amazing film-maker, and when I embarked on this journey I reached out to him through a mutual friend and asked him that very question ‘Do you have any advice you could give?’ and he said something that really resonated with me. He said “The best advice I could give you is to give you no advice at all.” He explained that when he was coming up he found that any time people tried to give him advice it would confuse his vision and his journey, because he would try to replicate what that person did. But at the end of the day we’re all our own unique individuals, and the only thing we can do is believe in our own vision and move forward in our own direction. So I really think that the best advice I can ‘give’ is what Cloud gave me, which is to give no advice at all. Because the options of what we can do now are completely limitless. There’s so much technology and social media, so many different artforms! So just get up every day and know what you want to do. Commit yourself to it and don’t be lazy. That’s all you can do.