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March 28, 2022

Meet Charlie Wilkins: The man doing more than you in 24 hours

Olympic swimmer and renowned dancer Charlie Wilkins manages his two professional strengths with grace and determination. He lets CityMag into his world for one remarkable rehearsal.

  • Words and pictures: Angela Skujins

There was a magic moment during a Restless Dance Theatre rehearsal that makes CityMag believe – for a brief moment – all major conflicts can be dissolved with the right amount of care.


6 – 9 April
Space Theatre
Adelaide Festival Centre
North Terrace, Adelaide 5000
More info and tix here.

As dancer Alexis Luke, playing the anti-hero of this performance, races irritably around the room to escape the cloying hands of the troupe’s other seven performers, the work’s protagonist, performed by Charlie Wilkins, precisely pirouettes to will the pair back together.

Like magnets, they enter an embrace that no amount of wedging can separate. Over time, Charlie untangles himself from the hug and dresses Alexis in his discarded shirt, clothing his friend in fraternal love.

After the rehearsal, we ask Charlie – Restless Dance Theatre’s lead performer for the company’s latest production, Exposed, which runs 6—9 April at the Adelaide Festival Centre – what that scintillating scene is about.

“If your friend has her bad days or sad days, or having a lonely time, just give him a hug,” the dancer, who has Down syndrome, says.

“If you have no person with you or no friend with you, just do a duet by yourself. Without your friend.”

We’re joined by Restless Dance Theatre’s artistic director Michelle Ryan, who says the work was inspired by a personal moment that left her feeling vulnerable.

Dancer and artistic director Michelle Ryan


Michelle turned this feeling into a creative springboard to explore risk and uncertainty.

“There’s a sense of community and we look out for each other. But sometimes you might feel like you’re by yourself, and you’re alone in the world, but there’s this sense of community around you,” says Michelle, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair.

“It’s just exploring that when you’re vulnerable, and when you’ve got the strength of the group that will support you in times that when you feel like something is too hard to deal with, that’s the feeling.

“So how do you work together?”

“I want to be the best dancer I can be,” Charlie Wilkins says.

CityMag has previously reported on Restless Dance Theatres’ struggle with funding cuts. In 2020, the company was told it would would not receive its multi-year Australia Council funding.

Hopes were buoyed, though, when the theatre and dance company received a specific grant from the Office of the Arts to stage Exposed. The organisation also explored other ways of generating revenue, resulting in a successful fundraising campaign generating $230,000 matched funding.

Charlie spends a fair chunk of his time on stage. After Exposed wraps up, he starts rehearsal with Patch Theatre Company for Home, a one-man show.

He will then travel to Melbourne for a development opportunity with the Chunky Move dance organisation, and later in the year will perform as part of Rising Festival.

Charlie’s then off to Brisbane with his colleagues to perform in Guttered, which Restless put on in last year’s Adelaide Festival.

“After that, he goes to the UK for Rewards for the Tribe and then back here to do another development for the show for next year,” Michelle says.

“Between January and the end of October, he’s only got one week off.”

Charlie also spends a gruelling number of hours in the pool. He trains with the Onkaparinga Swim Club, and travelled to Abu Dhabi in 2019 for the Special Olympics World Games. More recently, we’re told Charlie beat five personal bests.

“My mum let me eat KFC that day,” he says, smiling.

Michelle jokes that she doesn’t want to hear about her dancers eating junk food, covering her ears.

When we ask Charlie what he gets out of devoting so many hours into these two very physical and demanding passions, he says it’s “fun”.

“Dancing is very good, and with Restless I’m getting paid. I’m so happy to get paid because I’m a very good dancer,” he says.

“I want to be the best dancer I can be.”

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