When she was five, Julia Cheng only took a few ballet classes and participated in one Christmas performance. It wasn’t until she was 18, when she took her first street dance class that she realised she wanted to be a dancer. While lack of previous training prevented her from studying dance at university, she found her way through drama theatre & performance studies.
Since then, Julia has trained in Austria, New York & Israel. She commissions works and teaches dance in institutions internationally: she designed outdoor work at the British Council Cairo in Egypt last year, taught workshops in Spain and Hong Kong and is creating performances for the V&A museum in London this Summer.
Julia founded House of Absolute in 2014, a female collective specialising in interdisciplinary performance.
Story photographed by Katy Thomas.
Story filmed by Ned Champain.
You’ve had an active career, but only discovered you wanted to be a dancer when you were 18. What was it about dance that made you realise this is what you wanted to do?
With the first classes I took in Luton we did community performances in shopping centres and retirement homes, from this there was some transference of joy and appreciation from performance that made me dead set on becoming a great dancer. I also loved to go clubbing - to really get down and just have pure fun with my friends and let go with music. I found that dance allowed me to own myself and stand up with confidence. I noticed there was something that I could say in movement that I otherwise could not.
What have been some defining moments in your career?
Meeting my mentor and contemporary dance teacher, Stuart Thomas in 2008; My journey has been unconventional and the gift of having a generous and artisitcally rich teacher has had a profound impact on my life. Stuart is the student and successor of William Louther, a great man and artist who was pivotal in developing modern dance in the UK.
Being invited to talk about my career in universities and at some of the biggest arts institutions in the UK; It is always special when I am welcomed into these institutions, as they had once not accepted me to study dance when I applied.
But, I think that the most defining moments in my career have been more personal collaborative exchanges that I have with artists in the UK and around the world, with those who are not so much in the mainstream but for me are the most inspiring and educative. These experiences are almost invaluable as they give me more fuel to develop the creative ideas in House of Absolute and myself.
Is collaboration is a large part of your work?
Art is powerful and I wholeheartedly believe that collaboration is always necessary to expand and elevate a given idea, so why not experiment across disciplines with masters of other fields to help understand and evolve our own ways of expressing oneself?
I have great artist friends and am grateful to be surrounded by continuous inspiration from those who have disciplines in painting, art, sculpture, film and photography. I am always intrigued and learning from the way someone expresses themselves through a different medium. What nourishes my learning is to understand and experiment further with movement.
With so much inspiration to draw upon, how do you start developing a new piece of work?
If the piece is commissioned for a particular theme or event I will brainstorm ideas from my own observations of things that affect me and subject matters that I feel need to be voiced. I write notes and do research and find components or mediums I would like to explore and approach artists to work with and share ideas. This proceeds to studio time with artists or by myself and the options of creation and presentation develop through this process. But my research can also be quite impulsive in that inspiration may strike whilst mid-sleep, and for me these are deep personal works that I catalogue and draw upon for myself.
We hear you’re particularly drawn to music.
I love music. I like to think I was a musician in my past life, and hence I love to work with musicians and am always keen to work with live sound and composition as well as composed scores specific to a piece of work.
I love different types of sounds and am passionate about being able to respond and to be flexible with any given sound in movement. Like the sound of nature, words & poetry for example. A given drum beat, a strum of a guitar or a note from an erhu. My granddad used to constantly play the erhu as far back as I can remember, he was a master of Chinese musical instruments and I think this is why I love string instruments and alternative sounds.
So you work with live scores. How does this contribute to your performance?
Improvisation in theatre (or freestyling as we say in terms of club dance) is about being in the moment. I have come from a background of dancing to whatever track a DJ plays and having to freestyle on the spot. When I am moving to music in a club there is an defined relationship going on between the dancers on the floor and the DJ.
I think my love of live score stems from the dialogue that people have, from those responding to the sounds or perhaps from the musicians responding to the movers. This is what I find super interesting to explore, the interplay between this exchange, the conversation that takes place and the frequencies that can be changed according to a different emotion, action or effect that is not fixed like pre-recorded sound. This is not to say I don’t use pre-recorded sounds but I aim to explore the levels of sensitivities in connection to one another and audiences, and how these dynamics change.
What new ideas are you currently exploring?
For this past year I have been exploring a lot more within text and reading. I am exploring ideas for a few upcoming performances that look at jazz music, cosmos, fashion, sustainability, the flow of qi, martial arts, philosophy and empowerment through movement and the arts.
Dance is synonymous with physical & mental discipline. How do you prepare your body and mind?
I have lots of different methods: breathing techniques, yoga, meditation, selected Spotify music playlist - the list goes on. It’s a constant strive for balance and self-discipline. I’m learning everyday, ways in which I need to balance both the mental and physical side of training.
Is clothing choice an important part of your performance?
Clothing is an extremely important part of my performances from the visual aesthetic which conveys the themes of the work, to the functionality for performers to move comfortably as well as the garments ability to accentuate movement. It is a large part of the painting. I guess it’s like the colours and forms to an image. Costume and clothing for me is not just important for performances but for me daily as a means of expressing myself and how I feel on a given day. It’s another art form in its own right, a composition and structure that is worn on the body and movable in society, no different from a static sculpture celebrated on a plinth within a museum.
Kowtow is proud to be sponsoring the costume for 'Stardust' a performance by Julia Cheng & House of Absolute, showing at London's V&A Museum from May 28th.