What happens when a sex worker and a choreographer join forces?

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In a North Melbourne rehearsal room, Amrita Hepi and Tilly Lawless are playing with their erotic power.

Hepi, at 34 a well-established choreographer, has been asking Lawless, a 30-year-old writer in her first outing as a dancer, which particular movements she makes in particular intimate scenarios, drawing upon Lawless’s experiences over the past decade as a sex worker, based in Sydney.

Tilly Lawless and Amrita Hepi have collaborated to create The Read.Credit: Justin McManus

“I’ll show you something that’s hard for me,” Lawless told Hepi at one point, whipping out a set of stripper heels and proceeding to proficiently jump rope wearing these “pleasers”.

The idea for the dance work, The Read, part of a triple dance bill under Lucy Guerin’s annual artist development program Pieces, was sown in 2019, when Hepi reached out to tell Lawless she admired her articulate online writing and her ethos in fighting the stigma faced by sex workers.

“There’s definitely this idea of control, power, how you locate that in the body, how you perform that,” says Amrita Hepi.Credit: Justin McManus

The pair became firm friends. “We’re both strong personalities, sure of ourselves,” says Lawless. “Both overthinkers.”

In 2020, during lockdown, they spoke as part of Chunky Move’s Activators conversation series: “The more I’ve done sex work,” Lawless told Hepi, “the more I’ve also appreciated it as an art form, because what I do really is a performance with an audience of one or sometimes two.

“I’ve grown to understand the way I can use my body more to get a certain response from other people.”

The pair’s starting point for The Read was that just about everybody dances, and just about everybody has sex – but those who dance or have sex for a job land somewhere “between being a vehicle of desire and a vehicle of expression”, says Hepi, with various “slippages” between the professions.

Thus arose their question for audience and client alike: What is it you want me to be?

So the piece is about bodily autonomy? “There’s definitely this idea of control, power, how you locate that in the body, how you perform that,” says Hepi, “but then also how it’s asserted in certain moments.”

“The more I’ve done sex work, the more I’ve also appreciated it as an art form.”

“I feel like the whole piece is about power,” says Lawless. “Who’s guiding the performance – is it the performer, or is it the audience? There are moments when we try to make the audience think about how complicit they are.”

Hepi adds: “[But] less in like a ‘gotcha’ moment, and more that, even just in the act of witnessing something, it changes the autonomy: how much you watch and where I tell you to watch.”

Hepi and Lawless each speak as well as dance in the 20-minute piece, using Daniel Jenatsch’s baroque sound design as a framing device. Lawless, required to speak the most, says she has kept her dance moves within her capability.

“It probably helps that I’m not in the contemporary dance scene, so I don’t overthink it,” says Tilly Lawless.Credit: Justin McManus

Hepi turns to her collaborator and begs to differ: “You’re quite a comfortable and confident performer, and contemporary dance in Melbourne is quite broad and experimental, and there are some things you didn’t think you could do that now you’re doing.”

“Totally,” Lawless agrees. “It probably helps that I’m not in the contemporary dance scene, so I don’t overthink it … I feel freed from people’s expectations.” Nonetheless, Lawless has enjoyed the “accelerated inside look” at the dance world.

For her part, Hepi’s desire has been quenched, though not entirely sated; she envisages ultimately making The Read full length, lasting 60 minutes.

Pieces will be on at The Substation, Newport, from December 6 to 9.

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