Visual artist Dean Cross… "These days I’m dancing only in my head.”

WHEN I catch up with one of Canberra’s genuine arts stars, Dean Cross, he's working on a construction site in Redfern, painting a large-scale mural that has been commissioned for a new building.

His upcoming art show, “Icarus, My Son”, opens at Goulburn Regional Art Gallery on July 2. 

Of Worimi descent, he was born and schooled in the ACT and initially trained in dance at QL2 alongside Daniel Riley, the new director of the Australian Dance Theatre. Both went on to Queensland University of Technology and both danced with Bangarra Dance Theatre and on the world stage.

But Cross soon tired of the bright lights.

“You think performing at the Opera House is the epitome of success, but then you realise it’s just another place to perform and the whole structure comes crashing down around you,” he tells me. 

“I’m semi-retired from dance and really, these days I’m dancing only in my head.”

Cross wasted no time in changing professions, re-training at Sydney College of the Arts and the ANU School of Art and Design, where he gained first-class honours.

He became artist-in-residence at the Canberra Contemporary Art Space, was selected to be a part of the 4A Studio Residency Program in Beijing. In 2019 he undertook the inaugural Canberra/Wellington Indigenous Artist exchange.

He started to think about what it means to be a regional artist. In 2020, when qualifying as an artist born and raised in the region, he was announced as the inaugural winner of Goulburn’s “The Good Initiative” and received $20,000 for a major commission. He decided to examine the experience of rural and regional people who must leave in search of opportunities not available to them.

“As a young dancer, I knew I was going to have to leave Canberra… ambition was an inbuilt expectation, a ‘noble’ trait in young men, but it’s inauthentic, it takes people away from their families, their homes, their country,” he says.

“Many young people find that success comes at a cost… I’ve been away for so long, but now I’m married and starting my own family so I want to come home, and it makes me ask why I left in the first place.”

Funnily enough, when he got to Sydney, he encountered the perception that Australia itself is provincial and you can only go so far in Oz – “surely Australia is not a vacuum”, he says.

Good regional art galleries such as the one in Goulburn, he believes, are well-placed to challenge the expectations that artists will leave.

And there’s a nice reversal, because, while “Icarus, My Son” will open at Goulburn Regional Art Gallery, it will move to the Carriageworks in Sydney in November as part of a partnership between the venues.

“Normally, exhibitions are shown first in the metropolitan areas and then the regional places get a watered-down version,” he says.

He’s not giving away too much about the new work, except that it is definitely not performance and has a strong video element. The famous Susan Boyle clip of “I Dreamed a Dream” will be bookended with a clip of African-American legend Paul Robeson singing “Ol’ Man River” to the workers at Sydney Opera House.

“Icarus, My Son”, Goulburn Regional Art Gallery, July 2-August 28.

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Ian Meikle, editor