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Lilian and the Siren

Originating from Melbourne, Lilian Steiner recently relocated to Stockholm to join Cullberg as a dancer. Meanwhile, for the recent 2024 edition of STHLM Dans, she revisited her solo piece Siren Dance and impressed us significantly. "With Siren Dance, I’ve attempted to interrogate the audience-performer relationship, playing with who sits in the position of ‘victim’, at which moments and in what way.", she shares.

Lilian Steiner, Siren Dance. Photo: Gregory Lorenzutti

C-P: Siren Dance bears a narrative of entrapment through fraudulence and deceptive seduction. Going back to the time of its making; does it connect to personal experiences, or what might have been occurrences on a more universal lens impacting its making?

L.S: It feels strange to confess this in writing, but Siren Dance was born from a very personal moment in my life where I experienced a big pull towards someone in a way that I knew was risky. I was going through the taboo turmoil of finding someone, and the idea of becoming close to them, completely overwhelming. I could tell that if I was to follow my desires I would leave a pretty ugly trail of destruction in my path, yet somehow, it felt impossible to resist desire, or perhaps more accurately, by the time I was able to acknowledge the situation I was in, I had been sucked too far into it and was already falling towards some kind of personal doom.

One day when I was out walking, the siren mythology popped into my mind and I quickly became obsessed with dualities like beauty and ugliness, ecstasy and pain, floating and crashing and temptation and fear. As well as going through this personal drama, I started making Siren Dance just after a very busy period, where I was performing in three different works, including one of my own, across a two-week period for Dance Massive (a biennial dance festival that was based in Melbourne, but unfortunately no longer running due to lack of government funding). I was struck by how much joy I found in shape-shifting through stepping into and out of so many environments, choreographies, performative personas and dancerly embodiments. I was exhausted yet exhilarated by meeting different aspects of myself and being met by audiences in these multiple situations.

So, through making Siren Dance, I also began to consider the relationship between dances/specific choreographies and the dancers that dance them; how we activate or ignite each other, how a certain kind of magic is created when an audience observes a dancer stepping inside a dance, and how the theatre transforms reality and creates new worlds with new logics. I became interested in this theatrical, dramatic fraudulence.

Lilian Steiner. Photo: Patrick Hamilton

C-P: I really like the beginning, you take your time to build the narrative, without resorting to bland repetition which is something I've been noticing a lot lately going to see productions in Stockholm. You traverse and tiptoe across the stage without facing the audience for a good while, establishing the push-and-pull of seduction with the audience, and that works really well. If you had to divide the piece and its story into "literary" chapters; what would you arrive at?

L.S: Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it and didn’t get bored! The overall structure of Siren Dance is something like: a prologue, followed by two main chapters and a shorter, final epilogue-ish section. Across these sections the audience meets three different lead personas/protagonists, who inhabit parallel universes.

When I started making Siren Dance, I realised that I was imagining the work itself as a kind of siren, that a key desire of the work was to lure the audience. Siren Dance would have to hold the audience’s attention from the dancer’s first breath on stage to her last, whatever form she might take.

As you mention, this very first section (the prologue), offers a lot of repetition, but with variation. I wanted to offer an experience similar to looking out at the ocean waves, where there’s a soothing, repetitive rhythm, yet always new details to observe. One can get lost in the seduction of the repetition or sharpen their senses and catch every detail, or, ideally, a combination of both where hypnotisation occurs and the observer is somehow soothed and mesmerised yet alert. 

So, with this as the beginning, I hoped to set up the idea of infinite chapters within chapters, where the main thing that’s happening is going on and on, but inside of the repetition endless change keeps taking place. This happens throughout the piece. Sometimes the changes are subtle transformations and other times are more elaborate jumps or comments on what’s already taken place. My intention with the construction of Siren Dance is that nothing is ever static, that transformation is always happening, and that before the observer can fully understand where they are, they have already been taken somewhere else. 

A sidenote is that as an Australian, the presence of the open ocean is a very strong experience/sensation. It’s all around us and it’s deep in the subconscious that the next land mass is really far away. Australian waves, rip tides and ocean creatures can be wild and unforgiving. These qualities are at once insanely beautiful and terrifying.

Lilian Steiner, Siren Dance. Photo: Patrick Hamilton

C-P: I was thinking a lot about cinema and about the punishing, gendered notion of how the immoral woman is treated, and how immorality of women rarely is let off the hook. I can only think of few films, like the noir The Last Seduction with Linda Fiorentino where the protagonist gets away with her immorality. What were your thoughts on the fate of the Siren; the seductress?

L.S: In The Odyssey, the Siren comes to her own deathly fate when Odysseus instructs his sailors to plug their ears with wax. Doing so, they manage to steer their ship safely past the Sirens, while Odysseus is himself strapped to the front of the ship, ears unplugged and able to hear the Sirens’ seductive song. When the ship passes safely and these ‘mere mortals’ manage to avoid a fate of crashing to death on the rocks, the Sirens, who lure through song because they fear loneliness, are devastated. Following their failure, the Sirens fling themselves into the sea and drown.

It’s dramatic, but speaks well to the manipulative nature of seduction and desire, the push and pull of what is ‘moral’ vs. ‘immoral’ and the slippery nature of victimhood. As with many things in life, how one sees is dependent on from what vantage point one looks… and it’s not so unusual for us to convince ourselves that we see what it is that we want to see. With Siren Dance I’ve attempted to interrogate the audience-performer relationship, playing with who sits in the position of ‘victim’, at which moments and in what way.

To give two examples from the work;

The use of pointe shoes is a simple ploy from the get go, it’s recognised as a direct reference to classical ballet and carries references of beauty, elegance and a quality of hovering above ground. Being en pointe is alluring. It’s magical and otherworldly, a treat for the observing eye. Any audience member would share certain expectations because of historical reference. In Siren Dance, I subvert this common reference point in order to destabilise what the audience thinks they know as truth. But another truth is that it’s also a piece of footwear that easily causes discomfort, or even pain, such as a lost toenail or two to the wearer. She who uses it as a tool to seduce, deals with the consequences.

In Siren Dance there’s an action of eyelash fluttering which I come back to multiple times as part of an evolving choreographic loop. The fluttering of eyelashes are socially read as an endearing, perhaps flirtatious action, but when in Siren Dance it’s prolonged beyond the usual human gesture, it becomes mechanical, scanning the audience with a robot or alien-like feel. The charming becomes uncanny and intimidating. The voyeur will quickly realise that first impressions are not as they seem, and become victim to an unsettling situation. However, stuck within this action, which as I mentioned repeats multiple times, the performer too is trapped within the uncanny.

However; answering your question in another way, I believe that it’s possible for people to imprison themselves through acting immorally, because immoral action can be accompanied by moral guilt. This guilt can be traumatising and debilitating. It’s not written in the mythology, but I wonder if the Sirens had guilty consciences about causing the death of so many sailors and felt relief in the tragedy of their own death for the fact that it would no longer inflict doom on others?

Lilian Steiner, Siren Dance. Photo: Gregory Lorenzutti

C-P: Let's have a word about Geoffrey Watson's beautiful costume design to also highlight his contribution to the piece. What can be said about it?

L.S: I love Geoffrey’s costumes for Siren Dance. I just want to mention that as well as being an amazing costume/fashion designer, who I’ve worked with on a few projects, Geoffrey is an incredible dance artist too. But to talk about the costumes…There are two distinct costumes that I wear and they are quite yin and yang in nature. The first is airy, light and vibrant in colour, with lace, tulle and chiffon. This costume leans into classical beauty. The second costume I wear is hairy, feathery and Grinch-like. After dressing myself in it, I coat myself in water-based lubricant, which makes me slippery-slimy-shiny. It transforms me into something resembling a mermaid that got dragged out of a drain.

One day Geoffrey arrived at dance class carrying a giant hairball. It was one of the most disgusting things I’d ever seen, something that makes you sort of gag when you see it, yet held under one arm, somehow endearing like a pet. Immediately I had this feeling that if I could be like this giant hairball and still make people ‘like’ or be drawn to me, then I would really have achieved the power of the Siren. Stepping into these costumes transform my dancing and my performativity. They allow me to inhabit new personas and logics. These creatures are very fun to become. Thank you Geoffrey! And big thank yous to my other collaborators; Marco Cher-Gibard (composition, feat. Aarti Jadu) and Giovanna Yate-Gonzalez (lighting).

I could not have made this work without them.

C-P: You first premiered Siren Dance in 2022, so it's been a little while. How has Siren Dance "evolved" for you personally since its premiere and with the time that has passed since?

L.S: I actually started making Siren Dance in 2019, and a lot happened between then and the premiere in March 2022. A lot more happened between 2022 and 2024. One major recent thing was that I moved to Stockholm in mid-2023 to begin working as a dancer with Cullberg. So, since the premiere of Siren Dance, I’ve been in many creative processes for other projects (both my own and those of other artists in both Melbourne and Stockholm) and I’ve danced many new dances with many new dance colleagues. A lot of new information has entered my body as a dancer and as a person.

In the process of re-entering the work in 2024 for STHLM DANS, I somehow felt quite far away from the me that I was in 2019 and 2022. But, I feel that the essence of things I’ve created/experienced never leaves me, and that when it comes to dancing, accumulated embodied knowledge surfaces anyway without one asking it to. So, I decided to consciously acknowledge my attempt to re-inhabit the essence of the work, and to subconsciously let things sort themselves out.

For me, a lot of the joy of revisiting a piece is that I get to experience the work through a new lens that comes with the passing of time. I get to find out what exactly the work itself is, what it isn’t, and who I am in relation to it at that given moment.

Lilian Steiner, Siren Dance. Photo: Patrick Hamilton

C-P: You mentioned joining Cullberg. I'm curious about the experience of navigating a new dance scene and joining a renowned troupe?

L.S: It’s been such a joy to join Cullberg and enter a new dance scene here in Stockholm. My colleagues at Cullberg are incredible. They’re all so skilled and in such varying ways. Every day I learn so much from each of them, not only from their physical approaches to dancing, but from the unique performativity and presences they each exude, from how they support each other’s uniqueness and from the ways they dialogue about the things it is that we become occupied with in each process we enter.

I’m from Melbourne and I absolutely adore the local scene there as well as the broader Australian dance community; the people are really talented, smart and generous, and I find the way that people exchange and develop ideas, practices and embodied histories together to be really quite special. I think it has something to do with the isolation from the rest of the world, due to geographical distance. There, we are in this experience together. It’s a really special family, and I miss them a lot. Although I’ve been lucky to travel a lot for work, my professional career was based in Melbourne for 14 years.

At this point in my career it feels really refreshing to be exposed to a new scene with new challenges, questions and knowledge. It’s also quite refreshingly challenging to have to start from scratch, but unlike when I graduated from university, I’m not starting exactly from the beginning. It’s taking me some time though to get to know the independent dance scene more deeply. I’ve never worked full time, and it demands a lot of energy! However, I’m enjoying getting to slowly know the local choreographers and dancers and gaining insight into how they’re thinking about and working with dance.

C-P: What's next for you as a choreographer more specifically?

L.S: I’m in a bit of a slow, chipping away research mode, but there are a few new and ongoing projects that will eventually take a variety of forms, from performances for galleries/non-theatrical spaces to stage shows, physical objects and possibly an album.

A few things that are recent and ongoing; a choreographic-lecture performance called Dance Becomes Her, which so far has been shared in a few iterations, across a variety of non-theatrical settings. I’m eager to keep developing it for more non-theatrical settings, but also a version for the theatre. Over two collaborations, I’ve been working with 3D designer and animator, Patrick Hamilton, to research how motion-capture technology can be used to archive dance in the form of tangible objects/material relics. There’s more we want to find in this collaboration. 

I’ve also begun a collaboration with composer, Matt Laing, on a project involving a quartet of dancers generating a live, choreographic ‘symphony’. While and through our dancing, we play a recorder, a flute, a melodeon and an accordion. Through this collaboration and other, electronic-based projects, I’m interested in the relationship of the live dancing body to the creation of live sonic composition.

It was so special to be able to share my work in Stockholm for STHLM DANS recently. Tthank you to Marie Proffit and the team at Konträr for hosting me! I’m really excited to share more of my work in Stockholm and Sweden, whenever and however it happens, and I look forward to finding some new and local collaborative relationships.

Ashik Zaman


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