Instinct means a lot to Australian choreographer Penelope Mullen. It was instinct that took her on a life-changing trip to Brazil a decade ago, a snap decision to jump on a plane to any destination as a way to deal with a debilitating illness. Her time in a remote Brazilian village led her to re-engage with her dance career and refocus her work with young indigenous dancers.

It is instinct which drives Mullen's approach to creating dance, a process she claims is often over-thought to the detriment of audience satisfaction.

Penelope Mullen and Tyrel Dulvarie at Ochre Contemporary Dance Company. Picture: Simon Cowling

"I think movement and dance are from a spiritual space and when it is over-intellectualised somehow we lose the essence of what we are trying to convey," Mullen says.

The Brisbane choreographer has found kindred spirits at Perth's Ochre Contemporary Dance Company, where she has returned to produce new work after co-creating Dreamtide with Simon Stewart last year.

Ochre, which is adapting the words of WA novelists Kim Scott and Stephen Scourfield to the stage this week, shares Mullen's commitment to use dance to find the emotional truth and tell stories for people not normally disposed towards dance, Mullen says.

Ochre brings indigenous and other dancers together to express Australian culture on stage, she says.

Analysis of dance is essential for the art form's development. But Mullen fears tertiary dance training is hostage to a double-edged sword of academic theory and benchmarks established to meet funding criteria.

"I feel in some ways the artistry has been replaced by an intellectual imperative," she says.

"I understand because growth comes from analysis but the risk is that it comes at the expense of alienating audiences. My concern in Australia is that we are dancing for ourselves, our dance community."

The daughter of a former Tivoli dancer and teacher in Sydney, Mullen trained in classical dance at the NSW College of Dance and has worked in musicals, TV, contemporary dance and dance theatre since the 1980s.

On her 30th birthday, she broke her back and after six months of rehab she struggled to recapture her flexibility and immersed herself more into her teaching and choreography.

She has run the dance department at the Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts and taught in Brazil and Italy. Other recent credits include She Unfurls for Ochre, Blaque Bordello for the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, The Firebird Suite for Queensland Symphony Orchestra and Stolen, directed by Leah Purcell.

Speaking at the old Masonic hall in Nedlands, where Ochre is company-in-residence at the University of WA Cultural Precinct, Mullen returns to the topic of instinct and says she is attracted to the idea of "unaccountable hours" articulated by Scourfield in his three-novella 2012 collection of the same name.

Mullen says our unaccountable hours - where our instincts, passion and beliefs can consume our time free from schedules and commitments - are increasingly elusive in our fast-paced world.

"For me it is in the shower," Mullen says. "I don't know whether it is the water or the steam or being in a confined space and all other senses are locked out but that's when my mind is at its most fertile and I can sometimes lose myself."

Mullen, NT dance maker Gary Lang and several young Ochre choreographers have interpreted excerpts from Scourfield's Unaccountable Hours and his novel As the Rivers Run, along with Scott's Miles Franklin-winning That Deadman Dance.

Two Articulating Landscapes public workshop performances at the Masonic Hall last week will be followed this week by a dinner performance at the University Club where Scourfield, travel editor with The West Australian, will read passages that will then take physical form in dance.

Mullen says it has been a daunting challenge to find ways to do the text justice and honour its depth of expression in an entirely different art form.

"How do you translate in the body such specificity that correlates to the text? What we hope to do is take the feel and the emotion of the text and relate it."

Working from gut instinct, Mullen says she tailors the creation of her work according to who is in the room. "I don't see dancers purely as a soulless blank canvas for me to have my way with. I feel it is a partnership in spirit."

Dancescapes: Stories Through Dance is at the University Club Banquet Hall on July 30. Articulating Landscapes is performed again at All Saints College, Bull Creek, on July 31. Details: ochredance.org.au.

The West Australian

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