“My first memories of dance are probably the trauma of watching Thriller when it came out,” Antony Hamilton laughs. “It’s well documented that it was one of Michael Jackson’s great regrets as an artist that he scared millions of children around the world who tuned in.”

The artistic director of top Melbourne contemporary dance company Chunky Move also cites popular ’80s breakdancing movies like Breakin’ and Beat Street as pivotal moments sparking his dance interest as a child.

It’s what Hamilton refers to as his “pre-formal training” at the age of six, trying to copy dancers he saw on VHS tapes, before starting classical ballet at the age of 10; studying at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts post-high school; and a brief stint in New York.

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(Manhattan is where Hamilton recalls running into legendary contemporary dancer Merce Cunningham in an elevator – another moment to add to a series of formative events.)

The two-time Helpmann Award-winning choreographer’s resume speaks for itself. Before landing the role of artistic director at Chunky Move in 2019, Hamilton created national and international commissions for the Sydney Dance Company and the Lyon Opera Ballet, just to name a few.

But it was the years he spent cutting his teeth as an ensemble dancer at Aussie contemporary dance companies, including Lucy Guerin and Chunky Move, that taught him how to collaborate and coordinate a show. “I felt like I was doing undercover work on my future while I was in the performer seat.”

These days, Hamilton’s time is a balancing act between artistic creation and strategic vision. It’s a big and complex part to play – one with plenty of logistical gymnastics involved. “On one hand you’re charged with the role of experimenting, testing boundaries and taking risks with creative works in the studio,” he explains.

“On the flip side, I’m working with the back-of-house team, producing team, marketing, and have to have a clear purpose that reflects an understanding of the landscape that you’re in and who your stakeholders are, from audiences all the way through to major funders and the federal and state government.”

Much of Hamilton’s experimental and hybrid choreography is a melding of those early influences and a child-like sense of play. “I’m not a traditionalist. I’m not trying to uphold some legacy of a particular dance style,” he says. “I find the passing of time really interesting in how it leaves a deep impression on your body and that becomes your style.”

Aside from his personal experience, Hamilton draws from science fiction cinema, retro toys, religion, mythology and dialogues around technology’s relationship to the natural world, which have all become recurring themes.

His latest Chunky Move work, You, Beauty, premieres as part of Melbourne’s new art festival Rising. A shift from the choreographer’s typical dystopian tropes, the show explores the intimate dream-like experience of first love through a duet between two dancers. And it’s set inside a giant inflatable that expands and contracts.

“It’s basically a room that dances and has its own body. It breathes and rolls and … it’s fun for us to play with its rhythm and timing,” Hamilton says. On a practical level, dancing inside a ginormous sculpture is a technical exercise in physics as much as it is about pushing the creative boundaries of movement.

Paradoxically, Hamilton’s knack for finding new modes and material for dance comes from “not thinking about dance”, he says. “I’m thinking more about imaginative space and what’s possible in controlling an experience for people.”

There’s also another common thread looping through his shining credentials: steering away from the “celebrity” of it all. It’s a grounding quality that quietly speaks volumes through his work.

“I’ve always been quite hesitant about being too forward-facing. The work is really important and it involves many people, many faces … so it feels more collective than it feels driven individually.”

You, Beauty premieres as part of Rising from May 31 to June 16.

This article first appeared in Domain Review, in partnership with Broadsheet.