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Interview Susanna Rose McAlpine

When did you first have dance classes?

I started when I was about five, I think. It was quite good because, as my family had the Dance school I never had to pay for classes, so was free to go whenever I wanted. I started in pre-primary…just learning how to move around really, listening to music. I guess it's quite strange having your own grandmother or mother as a teacher. Everybody knew I was part of the family. It's a bit embarrassing looking back, once I became a teenager, being stroppy or whatever in class in front of every one!

Do you remember your first lesson?

Not really, nothing specific. I remember our first performance, I think. Although, actually, I'm not sure if that memory has just been triggered by looking at video footage afterwards…I feel like I have a really strong memory of that, though!

Because I still have the memory of my first dance project - even if not the first day, just the period.

I sort of remember when I had some of my first few lessons, maybe, but not specifically. Just having classes, getting to know music, learning basic things like, good toes/bad toes, getting into dresses and running around. But I can't remember, you know, arriving at the ballet school and someone saying "yep this is your first class". I'm not quite sure, maybe I should ask my mum but I'm guessing we were all just dancing before we had any formal training, at home around the house and stuff.

Maybe there are some home videos of this?

There probably are some of us. Actually, I know for a fact there are some of me running around, but you'd never look at the video and think anything of it, in terms of ballet or the fact that my family dancing. It's just a child playing around, like all children naturally do, I think. They just love moving.

That's a nice reflection, actually, thinking about where dance has come from. Naturally. It's not like somebody says where is dance, let's try and find it. There is just a movement and finally, we call it dance.

It definitely just comes naturally, especially for our family where music is such a huge part of our lives. Music and dance have really gone hand in hand as we’ve been growing up. As far back as I remember. I can remember going to classes as a really young child with my older sister, Amy, and our mum and dad - it was called 'Colour Strings' or something. We just sang all these simple songs together, before ever learning any instruments. We danced too. That was nothing to do with dance training. It was just expressing yourself, expressing how the music feels to you, which became the most important thing to me when I started doing ballet - feeling the music.

And when did you start to learn the instruments?

Around five, too, I think. We had piano classes every Monday. And she was an amazing teacher, she had two huge pianos. We learnt it all Suzuki method - by ear. She was super strict, but looking back she was probably my favourite piano teacher because she really got you motivated and it was part of her whole life, teaching Piano.

Are you continuing to be a dancer, for the moment.

No, not really. I can't really remember how it happened but I guess it was during GCSE time, I just said no I don't want to go any more. My mum really wanted me to carry on but I decided I wanted to do Art and focus on other things. I've been to a few classes since, but I feel so unfit now, it puts you off. Even little things like bar work, you really feel it. But I love dance so much, just dancing around and going out with friends. Even though it is untrained.

Is there any connection between this period of dancing and your work.

Hmm, well I love performance art. I worked for an artist once who picked up on my body movements and said she wanted to use me in her own art because the movements seemed to come naturally to me. Maybe dance had a bit of an influence on that. But I can't really see its influence in my own work at the moment. I think I'm staying away from it - I'm not sure why.

Its funny, you say you have enjoyed going to classes now and then, not training properly. When we think about other forms, like martial arts or gymnastics, it seems there is a standard way of learning. Do you think there is a standard way of learning performance or dance, or we just share and follow naturally? So we just found it, we notice it, so we try and learn it and share it with other people.

I think movements come naturally to us. But I think training would help get the right mindset to create something creative with their body. Then again, sometimes when someone has had too much ballet training they don't seem so free moving and stuff. Some of my favourite dance has been contemporary. I guess sometimes certain kinds of dance look like anybody could do it, without training, because it looks so crazy.

If anybody could do it, why is it your favourite kind of dance.

Well, because not everybody does it. And you do need strength. I mean anyone has a kind of potential to do it, but you do need strength or confidence. It looks natural because you're falling or something. You're not standing on point so it's more natural.

You showed me some extracts from DVDs of the dance shows. Do you feel any difference recalling in your mind?

Strangely, people say when you're younger you're less self-conscious, but you can see in The Red Shoes, I was wearing my glasses for the whole thing. Why, I don't know! Nobody else is. I don't think I look like I'm dancing in a confident way. But when I turned 15, I look a little more confident. I guess because you're given more freedom and you're not just a Bumble Bee, but you can still see I'm not confident in my skin.

How about your choice for the movements. Thinking about you as a Bumble Bee. If you were to dance now, would you keep something from your past experience?

I actually feel a lot more confident now. Even though I have lost all my training and fitness. I think I would do something that was more natural for me, and I'd feel more confident with that. I do get a thrill from being on stage, and I think I'd actually perform better now, because it wouldn't be so awkward. My memory has probably also gone. Somehow I think I wouldn't be able to remember a ballet routine now.

I don't doubt that. You definitely grow confident with more experience. But also to go against that, you might look unprofessional. Like we were saying before, a child has no inhibitions, dancing around the house.

Yeah I'd definitely get nervous. Self-conscious with everybody looking at me. It's difficult to tell. Maybe I should try it out.

We could try in Leeds. It's interesting, cos when we're taught to dance in the public, we should always stay in a formal way, not freely. But I think people get nervous, not from the beginning, not when you wake up. You get it from the people around you. Probably if you are around people who are like you, dressed the same, you would get a different feeling from a group of other people. Like a mass of tourist. Being natural, being you, what does it mean? Could being nervous be part of that.

I think sometimes being nervous is being yourself. You feel nervous when you feel like there are consequences to everybody judging you. If you're never going to see them again, who cares. But if it's your close friends they will see you the next day and know, wow, she just flopped on stage!

That's interesting to think, about different audiences. That's why filming it can change things.


So what is your current project?

I'm to create a narrative that can be made into a non-linear installation. Giving the viewer clues into what it might all be about. Challenging them to confront their own imaginative potential.

Where did this come from?

Where did it come from? The Narrative… it must be about eight months ago. I wanted to create another world. I was going to present it as scientific information. Then I had the idea to focus on the explorers. Presenting their findings and asking the viewer to question whether they ever went. I have always been interested in how people conjure up their own ideas, and how important telling the truth is, or whether we can trust each other, or our own minds.

Why? Is telling the truth important to you?

There is a lot of art that lays important on the truth of how they were made, the process. You have to trust that. Its interesting to me how complex the mind is. When you think back on a memory you warp it, so you don't know what the truth really is.

What is your core motivation?

Leaving your own reality and exploring things other than you see on a day to day basis. A way of escaping.

Reality and escaping. Those are very special words. You don't use them every day.

That's why I think it's more natural to create installations. It's not like a book, from beginning to end. You can dip in and out, and everybody has their own version of reality. They're the focus, everybody else is like an 'extra'. You have you imagine somebody else as the lead protagonist, you're just an outsider looking in. Escapism is liberating, you're not yourself anymore. I become this explorer, I put his shoes on when I create his memoirs. Sometimes it takes over a bit. If you spend hours one end, when you leave you don't really know who exits in reality.

Is this character your original creation, or did he exist? Like I could be Sherlock Holmes for a few hours.

No, I made him up. Nobody sees me doing this, well there might be one person in the room, but I play him for hours becoming immersed. When I play him it doesn't feel like he's my creation. If I'm fully involved, sometimes I zone out of that.

Why is he a man?

Don't you think there's something in that. You can't help but have a particular view on the whole thing, once he becomes a man. I had at one point thought the whole land he discovers would be populated entirely by women. All his documentation would be completely loaded then. But mainly I think it just helps me distance myself more from the character. It's separate. If it were another woman, I don't know, I might start to use too much of myself.

Ok now I understand more. Did you think up this character a long time ago?

I started documenting it properly about 8 months ago but I had been thinking about it for a while. Since the end of my first year really. Now I'm near the end of my second year.

It's interesting because one of the projects I am working on at the moment is called Shifting Identities. You can get a clue from the name. So what I am focussing on is that fact that it is still you, Susie. Susie could be different when she is in the house, out or in Leeds. Or like we said about context of friends. Do you think when you go to other places, you are still you, or are you always affected by context?

It really depends on my mood because, well, don't you ever have those days when you just want to go and get on with whatever you have to do, and just block everybody out? You've got your backpack on, walking pretty fast, and you're going where you've gotta go. I'll go to the studio, do my work, go home, and that'll be a day when I haven't really been anybody for anyone other than myself. But say, if you're invited to dinner, you have to choose your outfit, you have to choose who you're going to be that day. Because my wardrobe is varied. I think different people from my life have different perceptions of me. But no matter what I'm wearing or anything, I like to think I'm really the same person. Well, sometimes I'm shy. Uh, it's difficult, I don't know what it is that could make me 'me'. But I don't drastically change my personality. Mmm difficult sometimes you can't help it.

It's like struggling. Someone might be more adaptable, or more resistant. Like you say, you try to be yourself. But during that process, if somebody else is acting stronger, you already changed a little bit your tempo, your shape. You can't not make a choice. It's always a choice.

Depending on the other person, you come out of your shell in a different way. If somebody else is new to a group, you could be like the hero, trying to welcome them in. But if everybody is really open I might shut down. When do you speak? Sometimes the moment is gone and you can't even get your point in.

Do you have a message for the future you?

Oh gosh, um, just, you're still young? Yeah, cos I think I might be thinking when I'm 26 I've gotta have some amazing career, but actually that's fine, I can still be looking for what I'm doing. Otherwise, I'll be looking for a strict route. If I do that I'm gonna limit myself.

What about backwards, what could you say to your past self?

I would say.. learn a language. Because I didn't and now I'm finding it really hard to learn Italian. I want to study there for a year next year. Wow, I could've been really prepared.

What is your message for 15 years in the future.

This is getting scary. I don't think that far forward. I would say, try and stay good, kind, nice. I hope I'm not broken by then.

What is your ideal place for being, or working at an artist.

Mmm, if I had the money, and contacts, I think I would rather be secluded and let somebody else do the marketing. Actually I love being by the sea, so I don't know. I don't want to be cut off, but I think ideally by the sea. What about you?

Me? My ideal place is not connected to the place, but the people. Like for example the seaside, it wouldn't be the same going on your own.

Yeah ideally I would have all my friends.

Ok the final question, what would you ask your sister.

Actually that's difficult, she seems so reluctant to come! Wait, am I going to be asking her the questions. She's not gonna want to respond properly to that, it's too informal.

No I will ask it from you.

Oh I guess I would want to know how she thinks dance has influenced her as a person. She never speaks about that. She can be very confident, so maybe she might think performing has had an influence on that.

How about your mum?

Um, is she disappointed that I didn't carry on ballet?

Your grandad?

Is he proud. Actually, of course he will say yes. Actually, I want to know, what is he most proud of.

Interesting, why do you pick out the feeling of pride?

We make so many choices, you always worry whether it was the right one. It feels good to know when someone's proud of you. Actually, my family always talks about how we're proud of each other.

Actually, this is a very hard question. Like you said, they could just say yes they are proud, generally.

Yeah I don't just want a general question.

Anything else you want to ask?

No, I think you're good at thinking up good questions. You've already asked good questions to my family.

Like what?

Like when you asked my step-dad, what do you do when you stop playing the Cello.

Yeah the question, what do you do during the break, when you're not performing. You are there, but can you just be transported in your mind, or go and have a coffee. This is idle time, but we are not machines we can't just cut off.

Yeah, cos in choir I can't cut off when it's not my part. When it's not your part, you're kind of in the audience listening to beautiful music.

During the idle time, you think you become part of the audience?

You can if you want to, but I guess if it were your career, you might just blank out if you've heard the piece 100 times.

Right, is there any of this idle time during dance or performance. Sometimes I have so many things on my mind. I think please just let it be my go. Have you ever done any competitions for dance?

No but some have been organised since I left the dance school. During performances though, you still do get that idle time, but I like to watch the other dances.

Like you said, even during parties and conversations, it's kind of a competition. Well, not a competition but its about timing. And who controls it? I'm not sure. Like in Superwalk - who is really leading this?

Yeah, you think there might be one confident person, but actually sometimes the group decides, they sort of nominate who they want to follow. Although sometimes you can just jump out of nowhere. Have you ever been in a group when there are too many confident people and it's just exhausting.

Like what is the motivation behind this. So eager to talk. Like how we have talked about how when more and more people come into a conversation, the conversation is not like a straight line, it becomes confusing.

And you don't want to leave anyone out.

And eye contact. Where to look. That's the thing about sunglasses.

Yeah you don't know what they're thinking.

OK two o'clock, let's put this aside and get some pictures.


Anything more to say?

Thank you for having me!

Interview, Image: Zejun Yao
London, UK, 2015.