Samara Cunningham is a Community Arts Practitioner, Choreographer, and Performer. Her career has focused on creating accessible and equitable arts experiences for participants and audiences in Australian cities and regional areas. Samara believes that arts experiences are integral to enriching the lives of individuals and the communities of which they are a part.
All About Me
When dancer and community artist Samara Cunningham was in her late teens, she discovered a world of dance 'outside the lines' of theatres and ballet shoes.
Born and raised in Tasmania, she recalls a former teacher converting an old woolshed in Launceston's
industrial estate into a repurposed "cutting edge" performance space. "I thought; dance can be this," the now 44-year-old says from her home in Fish Creek.
"There was an element of putting yourself on show, allowing people to see you differently – just not the traditional way. It gave a young person a feeling that anything is possible." This potentiality of dance, and its capacity to be enjoyed and practised anywhere and by anyone, has driven Samara to create a rich, inclusive performing arts scene in South Gippsland.
Dance and movement have no boundaries in Samara's home and professional life. At home, you'll find her dropping the beat to retro hip hop in the kitchen with her three kids, whirling pirouettes on the backyard trampoline or scheming the next flash mob in town. For her husband's 40th birthday, she managed to talk the town, including the postmaster, to dance to the 70s disco hit, My Boogie Shoes, in the main street. "I had lots of parents, shopkeepers et cetera, meeting for secret rehearsals," Samara says. "I put on the sound
system, and everyone came together."
Beyond the fun of seeing Fish Creek groove in public, it's an example of Samara's commitment to shifting clichés of dance and performance as an exclusive, high-brow practice for city dwellers and professionally trained artists. "Since living regionally [in South Gippsland], I've been trying to break down stereotypes of
who can dance," Samara says. "I work with disabled people, and I work with regional boys who don't think they can dance in school workshops...I show them my son, who performed in a ballet concert last year," she
While Samara believes some stereotypes remain, the local community has responded to her tenacious drive to provide cultural experiences that don't require a Melbourne trip. Her determination has led to a regular radio spot on ABC Gippsland each Thursday morning, spruiking upcoming shows and events from the outskirts of Melbourne, the Bass Strait to the south and the eastern towns of Bairnsdale and Orbost. "What I've observed in the nine years of living in South Gippsland is an openness to get involved and do things," the artist says. "But you've got to put out the offer and make it clear that this is for everyone. Everyone can participate in dance, and everyone has a story to share."
In her early 20s, Samara received a BA in Performing Arts at the Western Australian Academy of Arts in contemporary dance. After that, she decided to meet the limitations of competitive professional dance scene in Australia head on, by working against the norms to create opportunities for inclusive, community-based dance and arts projects. Her journey led her to Melbourne in an administrative role at Knox Community Arts Centre in Melbourne's eastern suburbs. The position developed her arts marketing skills, community arts program facilitation and a network of Melbourne artists that she would later call upon to enrich the South Gippsland art scene. A stint as a high school teacher in Caulfield forged teaching skills that proved instrumental to workshop facilitation and artistic direction.
Today, Samara is artistic director of (it's no) drama, a Leongatha-based theatre company with founder Emily Ardley. Since 2015, this inclusive physical theatre ensemble has provided an environment for people with disability to develop professional experiences and industry recognition in the arts. Samara speaks of the (it’s no) drama crew with deep respect and fondness – noting their courage and humour as people embracing disability as part of their identity.
Performer Steve, from Leongatha, who also works at Leongatha Woolworths in the fruit and veggie section, is an "amazing" dancer and comedian. Murray from Warragul entertains with his passion for black and white theatre, shadow puppetry and "impeccable" ability to mimic train announcements. "Our performers are open and curious by nature," she beams. "I come away from every session so upbeat and positive about life; they are all so funny, great to be around and committed to the artistic process." But it's not just working with performers with a disability. Samara creates opportunities for the local community to experience professional-level arts experiences.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, she choreographed a participant-inspired performance with community members to express how they filled the void during repeated state-wide lockdowns. It was a project that allowed her to develop a performance inspired by participants' interests and experiences while teaching them some of the movement and acting techniques normally inaccessible outside contemporary dance studios.
"I have a deep sense of social justice and equality; it's about every person having something
to contribute," she says.
This month, Samara has invited the community to engage in a project at Fish Creek's quintessential country grandma 'Tea Cosy' festival from the 14th to the 22nd of May. The Action Station free workshop series invited the community to attend dance, sound and film workshops over ten sessions in the Fish Creek Hall to develop movement, theatre and performance skills that will go on show at the Tea Cosy Festival on 21 May 2022.
"What more could you need [in life]?" Samara quips on the workshop series Facebook event. "It's great for an audience to see a work, but it's about inspiring the performer in some way and creating opportunities to explore their creativity." Whatever the format or modality of a performing arts event, Samara is a conduit, injecting the world of performance into the region's everyday reality.
"There's a whole thought process of dance but it's also just fun," she says.