So, Richard James Allen.
Richard James Allen!
You’re an interesting guy – you’ve got a lot going on in many different places.
Yeah, I do, I do. There’s a lot going on.
In your life and qualifications it seems you cover a lot of different fields – you’re a real Renaissance Man.
It's funny, this idea of the Renaissance Man – I heard a lot about that when I was growing up, but I never say anything like that, because sounds way too pretentious – “Me and Leonardo, we're like this, you know!” [He crosses his index and middle finger.] But sometimes people have said that about me. I’m very interested in the breadth of the human condition. I’m interested in exploring that on different levels – whether that’s artistically, or spiritually, or physically – and of course those things are not mutually exclusive.
OK, so let’s start at the beginning - where we you born? Are you Australian? American? Even your accent is sort of kind of mixed up and Renaissance-like.
Here’s the thing. A lot of people are concerned to have everything in specific boxes and within set boundaries. And for some reason, I will see the blurring of those boundaries, and they always soften. All membranes are permeable as far as I’m concerned. And that may come back to my own body which is super-flexible. It’s just naturally hyper-flexible.
Our photos are a proof of that.
Yes, I seem to have a mind-body which is naturally predisposed to seeing things very stretchily, shall we say, very laterally – without rigidity in it. And so that has meant that, over time, I’ve always tended to look on both sides of questions, and not to align myself with one political camp or another, but to see that each has something really valuable to offer – whether that’s in the yoga world or the dance world, or film or poetry.
It probably hasn’t helped me politically because it’s politically more smart to align yourself with one group and hate the others! But I don’t hate anybody, I love everybody ... well, I appreciate everybody, let’s put it that way!
I think that’s come into my work as well, because it’s very hard sometimes in world that wants you to be defined to be someone who crosses so many forms, and still to be taken seriously. But I have pursued my major areas of interest – poetry, dance, filmmaking, yoga – with a great deal of depth and with many years of focus to try to get to a very sophisticated level with each of them.
Also I’m interested in how the boundaries between all those things blur. And in fact, more and more, I’m really interested in the idea of making art works that are yogic, and making my yoga teaching artistic. That’s just one example. And I have a long of history of mixing poetry and dance and film and so on.
Which came first to you, which was your first love? I imagine dance, because it’s so natural and primary.
Actually they really started quite early on together because I was in Japan … actually to answer your earlier question, I was born in Kempsey, in northern New South Wales, in Australia. I’m a country boy at heart. You’d never believe that would you?!
Aha! I can put you in a box now!
Yes, my Mum was born in Kempsey, and my father spent a lot of time in Kempsey, his mother’s family came from that area, I think they even met in Kempsey. I wasn’t intentionally born in Kempsey, but my mother discovered she was pregnant when my family arrived in Australia from England before moving to a new posting in Saigon. She had to stay in Australia for my birth because she has a rare blood type and so couldn’t follow my father on to Vietnam until after I had been born.
So I was born in Kempsey, but I actually lived the first four years in my life in Vietnam, and then the next six in Japan. I have very strong memories of Buddhist temples and Zen and that kind of thing. I think that really permeated my consciousness very early on at a very deep level. And I started doing Judo when I was there, and people were always amazed at how flexible I was right from the beginning.
And then, when I came back to Australia, I took up ice dancing with my Dad who loved it. I didn’t really know about ballet classes or anything at that time. If I had, I mean, I might have wanted to go. We did go to see the ballet, but it never occurred to me that I could do it. However, ice dancing was very technical, so that was a good foundation, I studied figure skating – it’s like ballet on the ice – and I did that for several years. And then I went into Karate and then Tai Chi and then I finally found Contemporary Dance and Ballet in my teens.
But I also started doing yoga with my mother when I was about 10. We used to watch Swami Sarasvati on the TV, and my mum used to do the Swami’s classes. So I started it quite early practising with her.
And writing came really early for me too, because I was writing diaries when I was kid, about 10 years old. And gradually, those diaries became less about what I was doing, and more about thoughts about the day, and then more abstracted thoughts, and then actual poems. So I’ve done that from the age of 10 as well.
At the age of 14, I decided I wanted to be a poet. I started writing poems seriously and getting those published in various school magazines. I think my first officially published poem was written when I was 16. That was in an anthology for young writers. And then it went on from there to professional magazine and at 19 or 20 I won a national writing competition.
So the various strands all started out quite early together, and I think it’s because I was always interested in the idea of a fully rich life. It goes back to the Ancient Greeks – this idea of balancing the Vita Activa and the Vita Contemplativa. In a way, I can’t really say which came first because the impulse to be able to live in both the physical world and the contemplative world were really balanced for me right from beginning.
It doesn’t sound like there’s ever been much doubt for you that you would live a creative life.
I guess not, I guess it’s always been pretty clear! In that way, I’ve been lucky. I mean, it’s not an easy life for anyone in terms of knowing what your path is. I know a lot of people who’ve been running around, trying a million different things. For some people there is always this kind of impulse to jump on things – “Oh, I’m going to become a fisherman!” – and then finding them unsatisfying. In a way, I’ve been lucky because I was always knew what I wanted to do. I have never had the desire to suddenly take up fishing or some other thing because while I’m happy to new learn things and I quite enjoy learning new things, I don’t find it satisfying to be distracted. So, yeah, I’ve been always pretty clear about that. But it can be a challenging life. Even if you know what you want to do, finding the way forward is not always easy.
I have a lot of respect for creative people because I think it’s a really hard life. It’s the shame that something that’s such a direct gift of who you are to the world is such a hard life to live and so poorly rewarded.
Well, I don’t like whingeing, but I was saying someone the other day that we don’t really have all of our values especially well-aligned. If we look back on past eras, we say, “Oh, wasn’t that an amazing era, the age of the Romantics, look at the great poems of Wordsworth or the music of Beethoven!” Or, “Look at the Baroque era, how extraordinary! I love Bach”. So how do we define the past? We define it by great artists.
By the mountain tops.
By the mountain tops of the great artists! But at the time, did we treat our artists well?
Look at Keats.
Exactly, possibly the greatest poet, certainly one of the most best-loved poets. He was so poor he couldn’t afford to go to Italy fast enough to get a health cure, so he died. He did finally get there because his friends gathered some money together, but by that point he was already deeply into his consumption. That’s all shown in the film Bright Star by Jane Campion.
The gravestone of Keats has the inscription “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”. He felt his life had come to nothing.
Yeah, tragic is an understatement. He was an amazing poet but he was dead poor. Imagine what he might have written had he lived. Look at Maya Deren, who is the godmother of dance film – there was a documentary about her arguing that she pretty much died of starvation. She’s the one that inspired everyone – she certainly inspired me so I can make dance films – and yet she died of starvation in an apartment in New York.
I don’t know if there is anything I can do about the way artists are taken for granted – but I was recently thinking about it. I was wondering if it would make any difference to make some public statements on the matter. Maybe this is the chance! [smiles]
But the thing is – and it’s really hard to avoid this becoming a massive cliché, and I’m not trying to attack anyone in particular’s lives or their values – but I think we undervalue things that we can’t see, and that we can’t buy and sell. And yet, when someone is about to die, they’re not thinking about, “Thank God I’ve got all those stocks in my portfolio,” or “Thank God I’ve still own those five companies.” No – instead they are thinking, “Oh, thank God someone loved me,” or “I was able to love someone”, or “I had a family”. Or maybe it’s, “I found God”, or, “I made something beautiful”, or, “I finally went to Florence and saw the Botticelli Venus” – that’s going to be what they remember. And yet, somehow along the way, we don’t remember to remember that. And I think that’s a shame. How do we progress as a species if we don’t value what it is that we ultimately really value?
That said, I’ve been very blessed. Over the years, I’ve been involved in making over 30 works for the stage – some of them short performance works, others larger scale productions, some for the big stage, some for the small. And I’ve been involved in over 40 film projects, again of different sizes and shapes and themes – some of them films I have directed, some of films I have produced and/or performed or been interviewed in, some of them films or music videos I have choreographed. And 9 books – mostly poetry and performance texts, but also a work of fiction and an anthology.
So it’s quite a lot of stuff, but I never feel much like I’ve achieved anything, to tell you the truth. It’s pretty much like Keats – it feels like your name’s written in water and you’re just trying to do something worthwhile in the next moment. I don’t spend a lot of time sitting on any laurels – I don’t know if there even are any laurels! I said once to somebody, “Oh, it’s all feathers and no hat.” If you don’t have a hat, there’s no place for the feathers, so they just fall on the ground!
But anyway, that sounds like I’m starting to whinge. [In full Aussie accent] I don’t want to whinge! I’m an Aussie mate, we don’t whinge!
So tell me, where did you pick up this American accent of yours?
Well, my American accent is a tricky one. When I was in Japan, I went to a Canadian-American International school, so that was a pretty much an American-accent, or more specifically a Canadian-Bostonian kind of accent. And then, after I came back to Australia, where I grew up and did basically high school and university, I went to Holland for a year and joined a theatre company. And then I went to New York and lived there for 10 years, during which time I met my partner, Karen Pearlman, who is American. So it’s been quite hard for me to get out of the American accent thing.
When I first came back to Australia on my first tour back from the States, my publisher said, “Oh my God, you speak with a terrible American accent! This is appalling!” And, I don’t know, I’ve been kinda busy, I’m still having a hard time trying to change it. But I think it’s sort of softened gradually over time. It’s not as bad as it was. It doesn’t help you in Australia to have an American accent. I probably, I should have made a strategic decision to get rid of it. [In Aussie twang] I should have made a strategic decision to get rid of the bloody thing, mate!
How did you find coming back to Australia after being in New York?
There were many good things about Australia and we were very lucky with those, in particular in the filmmaking area. Because when we were in America, we were making lots of live shows and touring them all around the world. We were based in New York and travelled to a hundred venues on three continents. That was a lot.
Was this the dance company?
Yeah. My partner, Karen, and I had a company called “That Was Fast.” And we toured all around the world. It was a duet company but we often collaborated with other people. The package that we toured was just the two of us, but then we might collaborate on the soundtrack and design and everything else. Eventually, however, we got a bit tired of touring because there was just such a lot of carrying bags around. I mean, it was exciting – it was a huge opportunity which I don’t know if you could even have today – because a lot of companies find it really hard to tour that much. So we did a lot of touring and we were grateful for it.
But we wanted to start making films, because it felt like a lot of our finely honed performances were just disappearing into the ether. We wanted to start making something that was more permanent, so we started making dance films. It was actually really hard in America. There had been a bit of a flourishing of dance for television with a series called “Alive from Off Centre” on WGBH and other public broadcasters. But it was just really hard to get support after that, and we kept almost getting support. But when we came back to Australia, we, in quick succession, made films with ABC and SBS, and that helped us cement creating dance films here. And then we became Artistic Directors of Tasdance, which is the state dance company in Tasmania, and we made more. And then we came back to Sydney and set up a dedicated company, The Physical TV Company, which up to now has focused on dance film and dance in new media and that sort of thing. So even though Australia has some conservative aspects, there are opportunities to do things that you don’t necessarily have in other places.
Plus of course Australia is my home and also the home of my poetry community. I very much identify as an Australian poet and it was an honour recently when most of my earlier books were republished online as part of an amazing new initiative – the Australian Poetry Library.
The projects you had when you came back were State or Government funded. Is that something that arts benefits from here, but doesn’t in America?
In America, it’s a very different funding system, with much more philanthropy. When we were there, we had grants from many, many different sources: corporations, foundations, government arts funding, fund-raising drives, sponsorships and so on. Whereas over here, when we came back, there was pretty much none of that. You either got federal or state funding or you didn’t get any funding at all. So, you were either on the inside or on the outside. That’s a really different kind of game. Even really big dance companies in the US had ridiculously small amounts of funding compared to what a company over here would get, which might have nothing like that level of international reputation.
So they are different systems, and there are good things and bad things about both. It’s not a simple case of saying one’s great and the other is not. They each have their own ecosystems, and it’s really a question of finding out how to survive within a particular ecosystem.
Well, that’s the thing. You’ve got an American partner and you’re familiar with America yourself, but here you both are living in Australia, surviving and prospering here in Sydney.
Yeah, well, sometimes I feel like going to back to New York and I still love that city, but we also had kids and we thought it would be nicer for them to grow up here than in New York. I guess we’ve found our way to survive and hopefully succeed. Physical TV’s made quite a raft of projects which have done really well – they’ve been broadcast regularly on television and won lots of awards and screened at hundreds of festivals all around the world.
Yeah, I was watching TV earlier this year and a dance film came on, and it was you. It was a guy with dancing through the city, and it started in a park… That was you in that film, wasn’t it?
Yeah, that’s me. It’s me with red hair – long, wild, red hair. That’s a fun one, Entanglement Theory.
So we’ve been really lucky that way. We’ve had four projects screened multiple times on ABC, and they are just in the process of acquiring a new one, Monk: Reloaded. And of course there’s SBS, which was our first film broadcast – What To Name Your Baby.
I would like to hear about your yoga and what that brings to a mix. Because I can see with dance, there’s a commercial aspect to it which kind of justifies putting time into in terms of making a livelihood, and putting something out there into the public discourse. With yoga, it’s such an immediate, experiential thing. What does it bring to the whole endeavour? Why do it?
Just a couple of small questions, right? I wrote a whole doctoral thesis on around this topic, called “Out Of The Labyrinth Of The Mind: Manifesting A Spiritual Art Beyond Dualism”!
That sounds very much like a student’s thesis!
It is a thesis! You can view the abstract online.
Basically, I’ve been interested in spirituality I think my whole life. I remember reading Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse when I was about 18, and it totally blew my mind. I thought, “That’s it, I don’t need to do anything else. I’ve seen it all now.” But then I thought, “Well, what am I going to do with the rest of my life?” So I had to kind of dive back into the fray because it didn’t seem very useful just to sit there my entire life.
I really have strong images of standing in Buddhist temples and other churches as a kid, just standing and meditating in those places. So I think an affinity for the spiritual has always been there. In fact, when I was growing up, I had this image that what I really wanted to do was play an organ in a church. I would learn the organ and I would live my whole life in the church, playing soaringly beautiful organ music – and that would be it! But I wasn’t doing it for an audience in my mind’s eye - I just was being in that place. And that’s a bit like what yoga’s like, in a way, it’s not a performance - it’s like playing the organ with your body and mind to try to reach the spirit.
About halfway through my dancing career I was looking for a class to do on a Sunday, and there weren’t any ballet classes that I wanted to take on a Sunday in New York. And Karen said, “Why don’t we go to that weird purple yoga place on the corner we’ve passed so many times on 2nd Avenue?” And we went in, and we took a Jivamukti class. And amazingly enough, that was with Sharon Gannon, who’s like the Goddess of Yoga. And she’s been my teacher ever since.
I just felt like I had slipped into a warm bath or I’d come home. It was just so beautiful. When I was in New York in the 80s, we were making all these dances and it was a very cool time to be making dance. There was some fantastic dance going on. But at the same time it was super-ironic, especially in the first half of the 80s before the AIDS crisis hit. There was no room for meaning and content; it was all about flash and surface. And I was really not so interested in that. I was trying, right from the beginning, to bring meaning back into dance. That’s why I wanted to bring my poetry and dance together – to try to bring content and meaning into the performance experience.
Was Jivamukti a kind of a reaction against that style?
Jivamukti Yoga was started in 1984. The founders, Sharon Gannon and David Life, were actually dancers and artists – but while it emphasised creativity and included aspects of dance, it was not really about performance. (You can read about all this in their beautiful book, Jivamukti Yoga.) But I think it was definitely the case that people were looking for meaning and a spiritual refuge in the violent and garish city that New York was at that time.
New York in the ’80s was a pretty rough place.
It was a very, very rough place. I remember … that was the era that Ronald Reagan deregulated so many things and stopped funding social support and mental health programs. So many, many homeless people and people with mental problems were poured out onto the streets. I would find around that time, I would probably pass 50 people begging on the street between the time I left our apartment and arrived at our studio. And I’d have to choose, “How many of these people can I give money to today? OK, I’ve got enough for one person today.” I would have to pick very carefully my one person I could afford to give some money to that day.
It was a very out of control time actually - I saw someone being shot there and someone else waved a gun at me one time. It was pretty full on. You always had to be on your guard.
So within all of those contexts, finding Jivamukti helped me to come back to something that I had within me, that was already layered in there. It helped me articulate it and formalise it and make a practice of it. And it helped me bring spirituality to the rest of my creative work. I would have to say that it’s been one of the fundamental turning points of my life, because without exaggerating it, it just has. Certainly, as an artist, it has, because from that time, each of the artworks I have created has had more and more spiritual themes. They’ve occasionally had yogic postures, but much more subtly the deeper yogic spiritual themes have fed into the work. It’s been a gradual process that has grounded and hopefully made my work more meaningful and resonant and useful for people.
And when I wrote my doctoral thesis, which was submitted in 2004 – a 5-year process – it was as if I ‘came out’ as a spiritual artist. Because up to that time, it was very uncool to be in interested in content and meaning, and extremely uncool to be interested in spirituality in any form. Especially when Karen and I first started back in the mid 1980s. I mean, Jivamukti Yoga really took off but that didn’t mean that anyone was making spiritual artworks. Sharon and David did, but very few other people. I remember one of my friends, the choreographer Melanie Slater, made a dance about angels in New York, which was beautiful. But it was very, very unusual. And this is not to mention that I started in this direction even earlier with my poems like India Song, which I wrote in 1983 in India on my way over from Australia to Europe to join the KISS International Theatre Research Group in Holland as a performer, where in my spare time I wrote the first part of my still ongoing spiritual poetry book cycle, The Way Out At Last.
Even by the time I ‘came out’, 15 or 20 years later, depending where you count from, it still felt like quite a big statement to make. But now, I’m just like, “Well, there it is.” I think that that the spirit is really a truly worthy subject for art, and it’s a very different subject for art than is normally explored. Because it’s about trying to access something deeper and more perennial, not just create something that is innovative and new for its own sake. You know, that whole “shock of the new” approach. Now, I’ve been very interested in all of that too – for example the one you mentioned, Entanglement Theory – which is, I believe, the first ever ‘mixed reality’ dance film, seamlessly blending Second Life and real life dance, a bit of a breakthrough.
But even when we had the chance to do it, I said to Gary Hayes, our collaborator on that – an amazing guy, I’ve worked on a number of projects with him now “Yes, I’d like to do something that’s a world’s first but I don’t really want to do it just because it’s a world’s first. I want to do it because there’s something meaningful to say. And if I can do that and it’s a world’s first, that’s great, that’s a bonus. And maybe that will make the meaningful part be looked at a bit more. And it has gone incredibly well, as far as a dance film can go: over 25 festivals in the last couple of years, which is really extraordinary. But I think the reason why people have liked it so much is that it has these deeper resonances and deeper themes, because it is totally imbued by various yogic ideas about different states of consciousness and the nature of bodies as vehicles for spiritual evolution and so on. So to me, that’s just very rich and profound trajectory and I’m interested in exploring further how those things can come together.
That’s something I always feel is missing from Western art and post-modern art - it's kind of value-neutral, whereas real life is not like that.
And I think postmodernism was a disaster on that front as well, because it’s like, “Oh, it’s all fine, you can just do whatever you like. Go ahead and be a serial killer, that’s fine – that’s your point of view.” I’m like, “Hello?” I mean, I detested postmodernism from the moment it started, I have to say.
I remember, my brother and I grasped the nature of postmodernism in the late 70s, early ’80s (my brother is now the art critic for The Australian). And I did some postmodern works. Some of my poems in my first book, The Way Out At Last & Other Poems are truly postmodern works: they’re cut ups, they’re full of irony and layers of reference. And then I thought, “OK, but do I want to spend the rest of my life referencing things and tearing things down? No!” I was like, “Way too boring!” So after that, I thought, “Let’s not start from a place of naïveté about postmodernism, let’s build back from that point of view. We know we’re living in a fragmented, referential world, where the signifier is loosened from the signified – I am not in the slightest bit naïve about that, I understand all of that. Totally, it’s in my thesis. But let’s see – we’re still creatures that need meaning. So we have to find ways to construct meaning and discover meaning within that, even if it is (and we are) fragmented, decentred and contingent.
When I was saying that it was hard to be an artist that would make meaning, I mean that people would look at you like you were some kind of throwback, like you didn't understand what we’ve just been through as a culture; but that’s not the case at all. Since that time my work was always post-postmodern; it wasn't ignoring postmodernism. For me, it was like, “OK, I’ve got it – but now I'm going to move on.” And I think that I did that way early – pretty much at the beginning of the 1980s, because it just felt to me that postmodernism was not a long term proposition. And course, there have been some amazing postmodern works. But I guess I feel in the long run that I'm more interested in meaning, and also engagement; and I think that postmodernism let a lot of people off the hook in terms of moral irresponsibility.
Now to be clear: I'm not saying I am perfect or anything like that, but I do feel like we have to try to stand up for things we believe in, and try our best to follow through on what we believe in. And be continually self-critical because we'll probably never succeed - we'll fall over, we make mistakes, but at least we can try. But that said, I'm really not into being holier than thou and setting myself up as someone who knows something someone else doesn't know. I am not claiming the high moral or aesthetic ground. I just try to do things that I believe are meaningful and worthwhile, as best I can.
Is that where yoga comes into it for you?
Yoga helps me find a deep level of balance and calm, and access to a more fundamental level of meaning beneath all the surface.
Is it a grounding thing for you?
Yeah, but grounding on a deep level, on the being level! It's not just on a physical level.
Yoga has saved my life on a number of occasions. I've been through some mind-bogglingly stressful, horrible situations. Yoga really has kept me sane and healthy, and seeing my own and others’ fluctuations of the mind. And at the risk of repeating myself, I think it's really important not to set yourself up as holier than thou. That's just not happening as far as I'm concerned. I'm interested in the struggle to do your best. I'm not ever saying that I'm enlightened and I’ve achieved it. But there are some amazing tools that the Yoga tradition provides which can help us with the challenges and vicissitudes of the human state.
I've written this book, The Kamikaze Mind, which is a wry and playful fictional study of the fluctuations of the mind. And it's pretty full on: I was wondering if I should even sell it in Yoga centers because it's got all this sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, and Oh My God! And it's got a totally wild, out there, experimental structure - it’s structured as a dictionary. But I was really pleased because recently Sharon Gannon said a beautiful thing to me about how wonderful it was, and I thought, “Ok, it must be alright.”
I don't ever want even to be set up or to set myself up with the expectation as somehow impossibly perfect. On the contrary, I think it is actually more interesting and valuable to be really honest about the full range of our humanity. And then, in the artworks and in other communications on these subjects, we can say, “This is where we want to go. We're working towards that. We’re working towards the light, away from the dark.” I found with some of the works I've created, for example the poetry book, the live performance work and the film of Thursday’s Fictions, that they go to dark places but also filled with light. The Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky spoke about that – he said in his book Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema, that the great spiritual artworks are works that go from the mud to the heavens, that “hideousness and beauty are contained within each other”. And the Irish poet W.B. Yeats wrote something similar in his poem, The Circus Animal’s Desertion, “Now that my ladder's gone,/ I must lie down where all the ladders start/ In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.”
So to me that's more honest, you know, because I don’t enjoy pretence. I'm trying to make art to try to help move myself and anyone else who is interested towards our best selves, “the better angels of our nature”, as Abraham Lincoln put it his First Inaugural Address. There’s a very beautiful thing that Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati says in his book, The Textbook of Yoga Psychology, about the nature of chittam or mindstuff, which is that “Identity is the power of chittam.” It identifies with what you focus on. It can either be very destructive, with all the fluctuations of the mind, or it can all come together into harmony. So we each have within us this capacity to go from complete distraction, disorientation and fragmentation to wholeness, unity and peace. And I always feel that my job as a yoga teacher is to help bring people from fragmentation to wholeness; and I guess that's kind of what I'm trying to do with my artwork now as well, to go from the fragmentation, displacement and disconnection to union, calmness, and connection.