Three years since its inception, Gold Coast’s first contemporary dance company, The Farm, is putting our city on the cultural map.
When people talk about being dedicated to their craft, they don’t usually mean they’ll spend 49 hours on a sandbar in the middle of an estuary doing an improvisational performance. But The Farm has done it. Twice. That’s how committed they are to their art, their audience and their creative community.
Part installation, part interactive theatre, part dance performance and entirely a test of endurance Tide sees two real estate agents carry out their work in a make shift office in the middle of Currumbin lagoon. The work was one of The Farm’s first public performances when it debuted at *Bleach Festival in 2015. It was a milestone for the company and for the cultural development of our city.
“I think it might be a bit like child birth where you forget the pain,” says The Farm co-artistic director, Gavin Webber, about revisiting the work. “Everyone has such a strong memory of it as a kind of turning point for performance arts on the Coast that we really felt revisiting it for the Festival 2018 was appropriate. We talked ourselves back into it.”
It was met with even more enthusiasm than last time. Locals paddled and swum out the office to interact with the performers and deliver food, coffee and moral support. “There’s just something about Tide,” says Gavin. “It just seems to speak to people and they feel very much a part of the work, which is what I love the most about it. There were already people in our ‘office’ when we arrived this time and constant visitors throughout the 49 hours.”
The Farm has always taken an innovative approach to how they present their artistic offerings. Aware that contemporary dance may not be the most mainstream form of entertainment, they often bring their performances to the audience rather than asking the audience to come to them. When they first formed, they didn’t have anywhere to rehearse. Their solution was to set up a makeshift studio on the beach so they could interact and engage with their new community. It’s an approach that has won them an enthusiastic loyal local fan base.
Grayson Millwood, the other artistic director of the company, says that the way the Gold Coast has claimed The Farm as their own, is hugely encouraging and also an experience that’s unique to this city. “I love the impact we’re having and how much people are really appreciating The Farm on the Gold Coast,” he says.” I think in a bigger city that type of appreciation would take a little longer to achieve. Or you wouldn’t quite achieve it in the same way.”
In their three years of operation, The Farm has been prolific in their creative output, performing numerous works, shows, festivals and workshops. Tide wasn’t their only performance during Festival 2018. Their second contribution was a show called Ninth Wave. Once again, The Farm took their work into the great outdoors and the show was set on Surfers Paradise Beach after dark. In the darkly humorous, apocalyptic piece, the end of the world is nigh but a group of champagne swilling party animals are oblivious to the warning signs. The Ninth Wave unfolds as a journey of consequences and the young hope that always grows from it.
The Farm is renowned for performances that are at once entertaining and challenging – that will make you laugh but also make you think. The Ninth Wave definitely fell under that category and thanks to increased funding from City of Gold Coast and Festival 2018, The Farm were able to be more ambitious in the way they approached the production.
“It was great to realise a piece like that in terms of its scale,” says Gavin. “It was immense in a lot of ways. We had a whole sunken world on the beach. We had these streetlights that we buried in the sand so only the top couple or metres stuck out, half buried cars and a petrol sign. It was quite epic. The concept of The Ninth Wave is very climate driven – this idea of the environment and what’s happening to it. As well as adult performers and eight members of our youth ensemble were involved. We worked with teenagers who will be the next generation who will have to deal with all the mess we’ve made.”
The response was overwhelmingly positive. “We had awesome reactions. I think a lot of the local artists really came home strong during Festival 2108,” Gavin reflects. “I think you could feel our knowledge and investment in where we were, in the Gold Coast itself. We can all be very proud of our contribution to that. There was an amazing international body of work coming in as well and we certainly stood proud in there.”
“I hope that’s what people took away from the Commonwealth Games as well. In amongst this massive sporting event, the cultural life that happens around that is often the thing that engages you and brings it home. Without culture, the life of the whole city feels poorer and often people don’t notice it until it’s not there. You can take it for granted.”
The Farm was one of six arts organisations to receive annual funding from the City of Gold Coast over the last three years and that investment has accelerated their growth considerably. This grant has contributed towards renting their warehouse studio in Miami, the Farm House. Since they moved in, the precinct they’re situated in has become a bit of a cultural hub and the evolution of their studio is a good reflection of the growth. The Walls art space is a few doors down and Gold Coast band, The Hanlon Brothers, have their rehearsal space and music school there too. “We have a space now that is much more alive than when we first got it,” says Grayson. “It’s become a hub, it’s buzzing! There’s a lot more happening and we’re part of a community. It’s a nice feeling to have.”
The funding was also used towards paid part time administrative and managing roles and they invested some of it towards an annual three-day workshop festival The Farm holds each year called Bare Bones. These workshops are run by artists from The Farm and the extra funds allow them to keep it intimate. “There’s a great ratio of teachers to participants. It’s a very strong connection and we want to make it a rich experience for the people who come,” says Grayson.
Outside of developing, producing, performing and touring their numerous shows, workshops like these are the focus of The Farm’s future plans. They want to hold workshops for mature performers over 65 and are also working with the younger contingent as well. “We’re really excited about our youth ensemble,” says Grayson. “It’s an awesome group of kids that we’re really invested in continuing with, but we are in talks to move that process to HOTA. We’re still running and directing it but we’re using the space and the state of the art facilities there.”
The Farm are firm believers in collaboration as a means to make great art and the way they work is integral to their success.“I think we’ve got a really strong reputation,” says Gavin. “Not only for the quality of work but the way we work together. (Brisbane Theatre Company) La Boite invited us in to make a co-production with them and they were adamant they wanted to do it in ‘Farm style’. To know that people see there’s something special about the way we work is very gratifying.”
As someone at the coalface of our cultural development, Gavin sees that the arts are gaining momentum on the Gold Coast. “There’s all this buzz about the Gold Coast on a creative level and people are starting to wake up to the fact that it’s not just glitz and glam and tourists and beaches – that there’s a really creative vibe that’s happening here and it’s not so secret any more. There are fantastic things going on.”
It’s part of The Farm’s ongoing mission to make sure the world knows about it too. They’ve taken their work all over the globe from Italy, Germany and England to Mexico, Canada and Japan. “That was always part of our mandate,” explains Gavin. “As well as producing works for the Gold Coast and our local community, we also wanted to be like the export potential of arts of the Coast and we trumpet it to the world that it’s a great place to live and a great place to make art.”
Postscript: The Farm’s work was recently acknowledged nationally through two nominations for Helpmann Awards. Tide was nominated for Best Visual or Physical Theatre Production and Joshua Thomson, performer in TIDE is nominated for Best Male Dancer in a Ballet, Dance or Physical Theatre Production. The Winners were announced at the awards ceremony in Sydney on 15 and 16 July 2018, where The Farm won Best Visual or Physical Theatre Production.