Creative profile – Dr Melinda Smith OAM

07 July 2023

Dr Melinda Smith is an artist, musician and dancer with cerebral palsy. A Music Works grant recipient in 2022, she uses ‘Air Sticks’ to create music, and presented an innovative new work incorporating music and dance, Conduit Bodies.
woman sitting in wheelchair on a dark stage
Dr Melinda Smith. Image: Nicole Tsourlenes

Tell me a bit about yourself and your previous works.

I am an artist, public speaker and professional mentor, and have many years of lived experience under my hat. Under those titles I have many other things that I do - for example, I lecture at Deakin University with the Disability Inclusion Team, for the masters and post graduate courses. Most of my work has been tailored around my personal experiences, and storytelling methods. I believe this is what people with and without disabilities appreciate from me and my life journey.

What inspired you to create Conduit Bodies?

The inspiration for this work came from a trip I took across the Nullarbor at the age of 18.

The travel changed me, transformed my body and gave me a connection to pursue. Years later, I am an emerging ‘AirDancer’ - my body is an instrument. I have a relationship with natural influences, natural forces and technology. I work with my imagination, body spasms, and the environment – whether that be a structural studio or the natural settings of the unknowns. My work is not all serious and deep. I explore humour and make fun of my unique movements – I explore laughter in everything I do.

How did the process of creating the work happen? 

The AirDancer project under which Conduit Bodies was created, started in 2020. I am lucky enough to be a part of an incredible, multi-disciplinary team of musicians, dramaturgs, composers, academics and even a costume designer. I have to acknowledge the contributions of my partner on this work, composer and inventor of the Airsticks, Dr Alon Ilsar. We spent many many hours together sharing ideas and developing the soundscape.

Behind the scenes we had Sam Trolland working with visuals, Matt Scott as a lighting designer, Zoe Boesen as Dramaturg and Anthea Skinner holding together the academic side of our project.  We also had the support of VCA Costume Designer Anna Cordingley who created the outfit which held the Airsticks and also did the stage design. All of this was done under the support of Professor Carol Brown, Head of Dance at VCA.

You use Airsticks to create sound – how do they work?

I move to create sound, rhythm and shapes. It pushes my thinking. It captures that next spasm perfectly. Another direction opens. I improvise. But then I structure to find a sound, a vision and an emotion – to share my story. Using the Airsticks allows me time, to be at my pace in each and every movement. To focus on moving to feel the next sound, and the sound after, that nothing else in my world is relevant or important.

When and where was the work performed? How was it received?

Conduit Bodies was performed at VCA’s Dance Theatre in February. We also had an audience at the dress rehearsal. It was my best ever performance because it was my own material, and my own dance style. I wasn’t reading lines someone else had written for me or dancing choreography someone else had put together. I think all of the months of hard work paid off – the audience loved it. They particularly congratulated me on my ability to perform a full – length show while keeping the beat!

What did the Music Works funding you received enable you to do?

This funding enabled us to develop the project to its full potential. The grant gave us what I believe to be one of the most important aspects of my work, and that is time. We were able to hire venues in which to rehearse both at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) and at Monash Uni’s Sensilab. We were able to bring in subject matter experts to work on things like choreography and lighting/ stage design. It gave us space and time to make this project as excellent as we knew it could be.

What is your next project?

Conduit Bodies and the AirDancer project live on, and I am currently working on the next iteration of the performance. I am always working on my next performance in development.

What does the future hold for artists like yourself (with disability), with the advent of technology?

As someone who uses assistive technology for a lot of my communication, I say the more technology advances, the better. I am also currently involved in an adaptive instrument project to make sure people with disabilities have opportunities to create music.

Describe Victoria’s creative scene in three words.

Empowerment. Possibility. Potential.