Romance has taught Anne O’Keeffe to survive the unexpected, writes Alison Barclay

When Anne O’Keeffe learned she couldn’t have children, she felt life had cruelly plotted against her. Her marriage fell apart; she was alone.

Was her husband miserable too? “Completely,” says O’Keeffe with a sigh. He wanted to be a father so badly.”

That was five years ago, and O’Keeffe has slowly come to terms with the loss of her dearest wish.

In letting that pain feed her creative work – specifically a piece of theatre called Sex and Death – she has also given that worst of times the best realistic outcome. Note the word realistic. Like many romantics shocked out of their brainwashing, O’Keeffe has no illusions any more.

“I think it is a very common experience for human beings, and especially women, later in their lives, to have that whole naive notion of romanticism challenged and to have to re-­analyse what love is beyond that sentimentality.” she says.

“I’m not sure where it has come from, but the whole culture encourages women, in particular, to have romantic ideals which they then superimpose on the world around them, and on their relationships.

“With that naivety comes a series of expectations that aren’t always met. And when in the real world the romantic illusion cannot be fulfilled, you have to look at what life really is -and life is about a series of painful and joyful experiences. Once that wisdom comes, you have a clearer idea about what love really is.”

O’Keeffe chose the title Sex and Death for pure visceral impact. “Love and fear are the only two emotions, according to Michael Leunig,” she smiles.

Unnerving. But O’Keeffe, a small, muscly blonde with sweet brown eyes and rosebuds on her dress, is calm. Perhaps all the tears have been wept out of her; perhaps the discipline of a 20-year career in dance commands her to be poised. Or could it be Buddhism that gives her an air of tranquillity?

“Buddha tells you a lot about letting go, not grasping; letting go of attachment to find something else,” she says.

“You have to celebrate other things when you can’t have the things you imagine. For me, it’s valuing my family and friends, and going more deeply into my creative life.”

O’Keeffe trained in dance at Rusden in the early ‘80s, studied acting and singing, then in 1998 formed her own company, Sirensong Dance and Theatre. Sirensong’s first production, Walk on Water, was performed at Melbourne City Baths in 2000.

Sex and Death had its premiere in October at the Melbourne Fringe Festival, and sold out. Heartened, O’Keeffe is giving the work a return season. Not that it’s success makes it any easier to perform.

“ The first time I look at the audience I enter a moment of nakedness. I tell them things that you would never tell a stranger.

“We all have moments when everything falls in a heap. Something comes at us sideways and we think, ‘How did that happen? That wasn’t meant to happen!’ Yet the older you get, the more it happens… life can flip at any moment.

“I still have some degree of romantic optimism,” she adds.

“That can’t be crushed out of me; I think it is embedded in my personality. But I am more realistic about what relationships can bring.”

Herald Sun, January 8, 2003

Photography by Romeo Viglino