"Are you in a hurry?" asks Nanette Hassall, the head of dance at the WA Academy of Performing Arts. I'm not, so we dash to a studio where a student is preparing for an upcoming performance. The young choreographer is keen for feedback from Hassall but looks nervous — as well she might. After all, she is asking for critical appraisal from the recipient of the 2012 Australian Dance Award for Lifetime Achievement.
The prestigious award will be presented to Hassall at the Australian Dance Awards on Saturday night. It's the first time the event has been presented in Perth, so it's particularly exciting that the winner of the top-billing award should be a West Australian.
Or at least someone who has been here since 1995 when Sydney-born Hassall was seduced by WAAPA and poached from Melbourne.
"A polka changed my life," Hassall says of her childhood growing up in Sydney. "As a child I read all the time. My mother determined that I should do something else so she arranged for me to watch a ballet class. I remember watching the barre work, thinking 'This is outrageous; this is so boring'. Then they did a polka across the room and I was completely besotted. I was nine."
On leaving school, however, Hassall didn't pursue dance full-time. "At that time, if you didn't get into the Australian Ballet School, the only possibility to do full-time training was at a private dance school. My mother was utterly opposed to any such idea and insisted that I had tertiary education first," she says. "So it wasn't until I had graduated from university as a teacher that I felt free to make those decisions."
Hassall's break came when she won the first Ballet Australia choreographic award in 1969. The cash prize helped her travel to the US where she was accepted into New York's Juilliard School to study contemporary dance.
"It was wonderful," she recalls. "Choreography was taught by the famous Antony Tudor. Jose Limon was still alive and teaching his technique. Balanchine was just down the hallway. People like Jerome Robbins used to walk down the corridor."
Hassall's professional career took off just before she completed her degree, in 1971, when she joined the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. "There were some extraordinary dancers there and it was a good time for the company," she recalls. "We toured Europe and America — the company was seen to be very significant in terms of making changes in the way that we understand and make dance."
And then there was Cunningham himself, master of contemporary dance. Hassall's favourite Merce memories? "In one Cunningham work, there's a whole lot of very beautiful events happening in the foreground of the stage. Up the back, Merce runs in time, and as he runs he makes a complete change of clothing," she giggles. "He'd slip his pants off and he'd be hopping in time on the other leg. He completely upstaged anything he had created in the foreground."
A performance at the Piazza San Marco in Venice is another standout memory. "It was choreographed for the whole space, so Merce swept the audience out of the way with this enormous broom to create space for us," Hassall chuckles.
Imagine Hassall in 1975. From Cunningham she has gone on to spend several years in the UK working with the likes of Ballet Rambert. What would draw a young artist back to Australia? "I didn't have visa problems and certainly there was a lot of work but I wanted to make a contribution to my own art form in my own country," she says.
And contribute she did. Hassall's return to Australia saw her dancing, choreographing and founding dance companies, including Melbourne-based Dance Works which she directed from 1983 to 1989.
"Dance Works was significant in that it recognised that providing choreographers with time, space and dancers was an important thing to do," she says.
Hassall also was supporting the next generation by teaching at tertiary institutions such as Deakin University and the Victorian College of the Arts. "Teaching was something that was part of who I was,” she says. "So the opportunity to come to WA was just wonderful."
Since her 1995 appointment at WAAPA, Hassall hasn't looked back. When Sydney Dance Company performed in Perth last year, six of its 15 dancers were WAAPA graduates, suggesting WAAPA punches above its weight on the national dance stage. Hassall, however, thinks beyond Australia. She's worked hard to ensure that students have opportunities to travel and perform alongside their overseas counterparts.
"Meeting international benchmarks is particularly significant in Perth because it is so isolated," she says.
Hassall's career in Australia is characterised by selfless dedication to dance. It's unsurprising, then, that she describes her proudest achievement in terms of others. "Some of the students we have turned out from WAAPA are so special," she says with feeling. "I am so proud that we have been a part of their lives."