A Creative Life – interview with an artist
Dancer, choreographer, painter and now sculptor, Remi Wörtmeyer is one of Australia’s most successful international artists. Crediting his formal dance training as starting at the Terry Simpson Studios in Adelaide, he went on to be Dux of his Australian Ballet School year, followed by the offer of a contract with The Australian Ballet where he danced for 8 years.
Ever eager to explore new territory he took flight, both literally and metaphorically, to challenge himself, moving outside his comfort zone, and has for the last 10 years resided in Amsterdam, Netherlands – now with his husband – on contract as a Principal Artist (Eerste Soloist) with Dutch National Ballet.
A multi award winning dancer, Remi is revered across Europe for his performances, recently named 15th in Dance Europe’s, World’s Top 100 Dancers and beloved of many of the world’s most influential choreographers. Now an accomplished choreographer himself, he is also increasingly forging a name in artistic circles outside of dance with his paintings which are regularly exhibited in galleries in his home city of Amsterdam. Adding to his growing list of artistic accomplishments, in this last year as Covid 19 restricted performances, Remi adapted and turned his creative focus to sculpture and is currently enjoying his first featured displays at Gallery Viola Winokan, Amsterdam and at Michael Reid Gallery in Berlin.
I sat down with Remi via Zoom to talk about creativity; what it means, why it’s important to him, to culture more broadly and discuss the transferability of the artistic process: what are those elements that cross over mediums, what’s similar and what’s unique to each.
Remi recalls that he was initially thrown into a dance class by his Nanna at about 2 ½ years of age. She was living with them after the death of her husband – and Remi’s Grandfather – and because both his parents worked, she’d care for him during the day. As Remi laughs describing it, life on his street was a little like the beloved Aussie TV Soap Neighbours, with the new mothers gathering together in the street to have coffee and share in the care of their children each day.
When a dance class was offered by the local school connected to the church – offering free coffee! – everyone jumped at the opportunity. I remarked that it’s relatively unusual for a parent, or Grandparent, to let a boy partake in a dance class to which he replied that there was a performing arts background in the family. While very artistically inclined with painting and an interest in interior design, when she was younger his Mum was also a National champion in Calisthenics, crowned “Most Graceful Girl” four years running, and his Grandfather was famous for winning the Grand National horse race. Though Remi recalls screaming during his first class, on subsequent visits he saw the other kids galloping around the studio and remembers a Chorus Line-like feeling of, “I can do that!”.
And so, his journey began.
In time, dance and expression more generally became an obsession. Indeed, talking with Remi for over an hour and a half I got the sense that there’s a near inexhaustible well of emotion and creative response he’s mining, and an almost desperate sense of duty that drives him. So much so that he needs to keep pouring out material into the world or he might explode with the frustration and guilt of living with less than he could be. As evidence of his drive and dedication he recounted the story of how his Mum once took him – near forced him – to a party on a weekend with his peers while he was at The Australian Ballet school and, virtually kicking him out of the car, instructed him that he needed to spend at least an hour there. It wasn’t that Remi was lonely for friends, or insular in the sense of being shy, but simply that his focus at that time was all-consuming to the point that he struggled to allow himself a moment to let go and relax.
This is an area of Remi’s personality that resurfaces often during our conversation. Later he told me another story of how, before a significant international competition, he practiced his solo over and over with the lights turned off, in the dark, in order to better tune to the inner feelings of the movement to ward off being thrown by the spotlights; essentially feeling confident he could literally perform the dance with his eyes shut. This obsessive quality now means there are only three instances in Remi’s entire career that he’s prepared to point to and say, “that was a great performance”, defined as a performance that he’s happy to walk away from and not pick apart, find some hint of fault with and analyse in order to improve. Though no performance can ever be considered “perfect” in the philosophical sense, he believes there was something about those three performances that stand out as feeling as though all the many elements came together; the preparation, the energy, the artistry, the emotional quality, perhaps even the time and the audience and for a brief period over the course of those evenings, made them feel perfect.
As a former performer I understood what he meant, and yet it left me feeling torn. I couldn’t help but wonder if there is something a little sad that there are only three times, out of the potentially thousands of performances he’s given, that he can point to and say he felt that. And yet, perhaps I should instead marvel and consider him incredibly lucky that he got to touch and experience such greatness, a glimpse of the gods, such perfection at all, as most mere mortals perhaps never do.
Arcing our conversation back towards choreography I was curious to when and where that phase started for him. Remi recalls that as a young child of 10 or so that he would create dancers, whole ballets, encouraging all those from his street to become characters in his stories. He further recounts that he rarely watched TV in his house – as the TV was situated in the “good room” where you couldn’t eat or put your feet up – and that during any spare time he was always playing with the kind of toys that developed his building and making skills. Later, once more established as a dancer, he became more formally drawn to choreography in order to take increasing charge of the creative impulse; to have more control of that first spark. While he continues to love and revel in the creative collaborative process that he gets from being a choreographers Muse and interpreting their vision, or as he describes it, “to work on someone else’s canvas”, he was also increasingly pulled to want to explore his own creativity from the stand point of initiating that first impulse. Here the word “control” came up quite a bit and given Remi’s tendency towards obsession it would be easy to understand why this might prove alluring.
With seemingly so much on his plate as both an in-demand Principal Artist and choreographer, I was curious about what drove him to explore painting and, more recently expand into sculpture.
Remi explained that he originally took up painting as a way to turn off or refocus all the bubbling energy; all the seemingly endless thoughts and feelings that would keep him awake or not let him wind down. To paint, became a form of solo, quiet meditation. He described how dance and choreography are both very collaborative artforms; in one you’re constantly working to better understand and embody the vision of someone else and in the other, trying to communicate and transpose your vision. While part of the challenge of that constant exchange is undoubtedly engaging, it can also be exhausting. Yet through painting, he found an outlet that was quieter, perhaps more selfish or at least self-reliant and self-reflective; that wasn’t encumbered by the limitations of time, space or necessity for other people. If it takes him a day, a week, a month or a year to explore an idea on the canvas then he has the leisure of taking that necessary time; something that is almost never possible in dance where the demand and time pressure to create more quickly, more economically, only ever seem to increase.
As Remi mused on his love of painting, again our talk journeyed back to his mother. While Remi mentioned a successful artist friend that he lived with when he first came to Amsterdam and perhaps established a seed in him, it would appear his painting was also inspired by, and forms a deep connective thread between Remi and his mother. Though she was not a professional artist herself – she was engaged as a Merchandiser – stories of his mother’s innate creativity surface regularly during our chat. She passed away only last year after a 15-year struggle with emphysema during which time she was often in and out of hospital with life threatening conditions. I found myself wondering if part of Remi’s seemingly relentless drive to get the most out of all he is, to push and constantly find new ways to create, to express, is in part due to a deep and growing sense of his own mortality; not necessarily a fear of death, but an acute awareness that life is short and precious. He certainly gives off a powerful and magnetic energy suggesting he’s propelled by a blend of fascinating inner magic wedded to complex personal demons.
When asked about how he balances each of his artistic pursuits his answer is simple yet forceful; they each feed the other, and as he sees it, all come back to the dance. Whether it’s the play and movement of colour choreography across a canvas, understanding how the shapes relate to the borders of the canvas like dancers making entrances and exits on a stage, or the tactile attraction of working with clay, molding something until form and presence are revealed, for Remi it is all dance. Indeed, he says that painting has become that gentle, quiet place where he often starts to play with an idea which later finds an organic evolution into dance, and he discloses that some his greatest artistic inspirations are people such as Picasso and Chanel, artists who seemingly crossed mediums effortlessly, ever in the stream of following their creative impulses and muse.
For all his delving into diverse artistic areas, be it painting, sculpture or costume design, it is dance that is clearly felt deeply through every part of his being; as though it is the prism through which he sees, understands and feels the flow and pulse of the world. Perhaps that is what it takes to be so great an artist; an obsessive, almost compulsive personality, pulled, almost carried along in a flow of aesthetics and an ever-growing love of a craft that is endlessly branching, reaching into new territory, yet also pushed forward at times by the ghosts that haunt us; the demons of guilt, duty and responsibility to our own potential and the potential others perceive in us. Remi’s energy seems to be most alive in some fine balance between the two. What that existence is for him I can’t say. But for those of us watching him dance or marveling at the expressive quality of his paintings and now sculpture, it is to witness greatness ever unfolding.
Article by Josef Brown