In 2017, at the peak of his impressive international performance career, renowned Australian dancer Richard Cilli was quite certain he was soon going to hang up his dance shoes. Being the curious person that he is, however, he found something new - Countertechnique. Since meeting Anouk van Dijk at Chunky Move, Richard has become one of Countertechnique’s newest recruits. He now teaches Countertechnique internationally and is featured this week in the remount of Anouk van Dijk’s critically acclaimed duet Common Ground, as part of Melbourne’s Dance Massive festival.

Tell me a little about how you started dancing.
I grew up in Perth, Western Australia, and started out doing gymnastics at a young age. I didn’t come across dance until I was 11 years old. It was then that I saw STEPS Youth Dance Company perform for the first time, a wonderful contemporary youth dance company. I was so impressed that soon I was enrolled in their program. It was a safe place where I could really express myself.

When I left high school, I first went with the secure option and went to university to study law and politics. Then after a while I stepped back and realised that I really wanted to give dance a go, so I applied and received a position at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA). I deferred my law degree and decided to go for it. I’ve never looked back.

How was the university dance education different from your experience at STEPS?
The emphasis at STEPS was very much on dancing for the enjoyment and performing, I hadn’t done any traditional classical or modern dance training until I arrived at WAAPA. There, I had to learn the importance of technical training, and teachers had to gently remind me of that. I was most often the worst in the class, in a technical sense. However, I think this gave me an advantage because it made me work that much harder to catch up, and it gave me a greater appetite for learning. I developed a lot of resilience.

How did you get to know Countertechnique?
I danced for six amazing years at Sydney Dance Company, but then I knew I needed to look further to expand my skill set, to give something back to my body and continue with my own research and investigation. I was curious about what was happening in Melbourne, so I contacted Anouk van Dijk at Chunky Move and went to observe the dancers in rehearsal. I was amazed. There was something that they were doing that I didn’t understand, that was enabling them to move in an incredible way. I wanted that! I joined the One Body One Career intensive in 2017 and it really changed how I danced and why, as well as shifted my understanding of what my body was. I realised I had placed mental limitations on my body and on dance over the years in order to survive a career. Countertechnique offered a refreshing removal of all these barriers. This is interesting because although the technique is very structured, it still gives you so much freedom. It is really about cleaning up your thinking and your doing.

You discovered Countertechnique well-on into your career, so how did it influence your approach to dance and performance after already having formed such an established practice? How did this feel?
Yes I was in my 30’s when I decided to give Countertechnique a go. I’m a naturally curious person, so I put myself into situations where I don’t know exactly what to expect. This means that I have to be vulnerable, and that can be scary. With Countertechnique, the scariest thing I had to confront was choice: that actually there isn’t someone else telling you how to do it. You can make choices at any time and have so much agency.

This element of choice can be quite contradictory to the more powerful paradigm of a dancer, where you’re often the vehicle for someone else’s vision. But with Countertechnique you’re only doing it right if you’re authentically in the process of applying tools or being aware of what tools you’re choosing to apply, moment by moment. That was quite confronting at first, but soon it became very liberating.

Why did you decide to become a teacher so quickly?
I never go half-heartedly into something that interests me - I want to go all the way. They say that if you want to learn more about dancing, you should learn how to teach it! This has been so true for me and I feel that I learn so much everyday through teaching. Countertechnique is a system that I fully believe in, that I can get behind ideologically and physically and I have a passion for sharing that. Plus, I think it creates amazing dancers. Watching different pennies drop around the room every day in the studio is magical.

How has the experience been so far?
I’ve been teaching Countertechnique six months now and it has been so much fun. You hit and miss - I immediately wanted to fix everyone’s problems and explain it all in one go, but I soon learned that I can’t. The real wisdom comes from understanding that you’re not going to change anyone’s life in one class and you just have to put the right energy out in the room and, because it is about the agency of the dancer, you have to give them the tools to do their own changing, and that takes experience.

You teach both pre-professionals as well as professional company class. What are some frequent questions or observations?
Younger dancers often ask me ‘how should I be doing this, is this right?’. I explain that it is about meeting the exercises today and approaching them with playful curiosity, rather than judging whether or not you are ‘right’. In company class, they often express gratitude for how great they feel after a class. They often comment that they feel more free, open and aligned, as well as happy for the good boogie! It’s a hard-pressure job and they work really hard, so I understand my role there is to give them a lighter touch and to give them more freedom in what they do and feeling of choice.

How has your performance experience changed since adopting Countertechnique?
I see that a big shift has happened. I think applying tools is like driving a manual car and it’s a skill you improve over time with practice, and now I’m more able to apply that in performance and it’s meant that I can move in more nuance ways. I had always thought that doing more will always be more, and even in the smaller and more subtle movements I felt I needed to put greater energy into them because I felt like they needed more attention. But now I have the ability to allow things to happen, rather than make things happen. It’s made big changes to how I perform and how I think about performing.

Being a part of Common Ground, a duet with Tara-Jade Samaya, as my first creation with Anouk van Dijk was massive. In a way it was a baptism of fire. Anouk and Tara have had a long working relationship together and really understood what they were doing. I was there to understand their perspective but also bring my own. That meant that I really learnt from the source and I had a lot of one on one time and coaching from both of them. The skills and information that I learnt were the biggest gift and have meant that my career will go on for many more years to come! Before I met Anouk, I was pretty sure that I would stop dancing in the next year or so. Now I want to dance until I am 70!

What do you wish you had known 5 years ago?
I wish I knew what the trunk (or torso) of the body was because the whole area was a big mystery to me until not long ago. Now I can let it be what it is, and I can let it take up the space that it’s allowed to. Generally, I now allow myself to occupy the space that I should occupy, rather than making myself smaller or making myself fit. There is a lot of tension that can be released which can allow movement to happen, both literally and metaphorically. This has meant that not only my trunk is more mobile, but my mind as well.

Richard performs in Chunky Move’s Common Ground by Anouk van Dijk from 13-17 March during Dance Massive in Melbourne. From 20-22 March, he also performs in Recital, a work he conceived together with co-performer Claire Edwardes, directed by Gideon Obarzanek. https://dancemassive.com.au

Find out here where Richard is teaching next.

The Countertechnique Teacher Profile Interview Series is a monthly publication, initiated in October 2017. Madeline Harms is an Australian dancer and writer, currently based in Mainz, Germany. Learn more about Madeline on her blog Travelling Dancers.