a constrained dance of words

maggi phillips: world dance alliance global summit

left - Leah Shelton, Polytoxic, right - Vou Dance Company

left – Leah Shelton, Polytoxic, right – Vou Dance Company

THE TOWERING SOUNDSCAPES OF BABEL INVARIABLY HAUNT EVENTS THAT ASPIRE TO A LARGE-SCALE EXCHANGE OF HUMAN IDEAS. AS AN ANTIDOTE TO ANTICIPATED COMMUNICATION MELTDOWN, 21ST CENTURY MANAGEMENT EMPLOYS TACTICS LIKE OBEISANCE TO THE FAIR PLAY OF RHETORIC TO DEFLECT CONTROVERSY AND CHAOS WHICH CAN, UNINTENTIONALLY, GENERATE PASSIVE LISTENING RATHER THAN EXCHANGE. THIS UNINTENTIONAL PARADOX IS OF THE SAME ORDER AS THAT POSED BY CULTURAL COMMENTATOR, RUSTOM BHARUCHA’S PROVOCATION: “DO THE IDEAS OF THE LIBERAL THINKER IN OUR SOCIETIES NEED TO BE QUESTIONED?”

In some respects, Bharucha’s question was a throwaway line, dropped like a pebble in the hushed auditorium of the Cremorne Theatre to prick the indignation of Babel, but it fell that night without so much as a splash. Where was the rabble-raising such a question was crafted to sting? Admittedly, it was a relief that war was staved. But what about the dialogues, conversations between opposing ideas, exchanges in diversity?

Such musings arise not in criticism of the mighty effort from Associate Professor Cheryl Stock and Janelle Christofis (Ausdance Queensland) and the extraordinary team of associates and volunteers who made the event sparkle, but to wonder why the dialogues at the heart of the World Dance Alliance Global Summit and its vision of “Conversations across cultures, artforms and practices” sometimes faltered.

The World Dance Alliance was born from Carl Woltz’s belief in the capacity of dance artists, educators and scholars to transcend difference and present a richly varied and united front to the world. Hatched in the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, Woltz’s idealism spread through the Asia Pacific region, the Americas and Europe, forming a loose coalition of like-minded people who wished to promote the significance of dance in human affairs. Annual meetings, propelled by the key training organisations’ desire to share their physical achievements, gave way to greater visions of what dance on the world stage might mean. Cutting a complex history short, that is where Brisbane stepped in to host the 2008 Global Summit, proposing an institutional ‘coming-of-age’ which privileged the ‘voicing’ of artists, educators, scholars, administrators, producers and critics’ practices.

Dialogues, embodied and verbal, thus guided the event’s unfolding. From an Australian perspective, the targeting of debate was politically proactive, straining against the nation’s habitual avoidance of incisive art form commentaries. Such reticence has been attributed to the fragile state of funding, but there are also strains of the laconic Aussie temperament in the mix which signal acceptance and equality but can be misinterpreted by outsiders as a lack of interest.

At the same time, “she’ll be right mate” nonchalance, if underpinned with tight, organisational control, can strike just the right notes for a thoroughly embracing and bracing hospitality. Such was the relaxed pitch of excitement at the opening night’s party in the QPAC courtyard. Dialogues were unleashed in encounters, inevitably incomplete and side-tracked against the resonant welcome to country from artists of Treading Pathways and their Fijian counterparts. The interplay between dijeridu and drum, together with the volume of the milling crowd, intimated the vibrancy of exchange ahead.

In large conferences, delegates can be assured of finding abundant stimulation for their particular bent, even if all sessions focus on crossing, shifting and interrogating cultures in one way or another. Culture is notoriously or fortuitously indeterminable in contexts such as dance. Be it queer or techno, post-humanist or ethnic, culture incubates interpretations and consequently facilitates diversity, resulting in choice overload. If you latched onto what ‘bele’ might mean for Pan Caribbean identity, you were bound to forego insights into who frames the writing and performing of Odissi in India; the impact of managerial cultural policies of dance in the UK; methodological and theoretical issues of clinical practice research; educational strategies on culture in the classroom and a poetic invitation to “Boundaries … dreams …beyond.” More pertinent to the desired outcome of dialogue, each session seemed time-constrained which, though indicative of the smooth-running of the event, tended to disable exchange at the point of its critical engagement. Is it the nature of conferences that rhetoric outstrips the conditions possible for considered reflection? As one idea is conceived, the next topic whizzes off on alternative conceptual tangents.

Another innovation of the event aimed to raise the level of discussion by embracing eminent practitioners within the Australian environment. The Cremorne venue and celebrated guests of the afternoon Dance Dialogues certainly contributed prestige but presentation styles and the stage/auditorium separation inhibited the flow of spontaneous debate. Professor Susan Street’s Dame Peggy Van Praagh Memorial Address raised questions about the dance community’s possible failure to exploit the educational and political potential of creativity in an age poised to respond to “conceptual and emergent experiences.” Such a far-reaching issue cannot be resolved through an immediate barrage of questions and opinions but, by the same token, participation can underline the significance of these matters by infusing the political with the personal.

Undoubtedly dialogues did continue in multiple fragments through dinner engagements that generated their own momentum, however, shared moments to tackle pressing challenges did not eventuate from the dialogue series in spite of valuable probing and reflection from an impressive array of guest speakers. It seems that the interrogative practices of the dance community need sharpening.

That said, “Dialogue Five: Re-thinking the way we make dance”, the Summit’s closing exchange highlighting the Choreolab that took place in parallel to the week-long talk-fest, did ignite an odd fiery crackle. The Choreolab provided four mid-career choreographers with the opportunity to work on the all-important writing of bodies through time-space with a selected group of dancers under the mentorship of two masters, Lloyd Newson (UK) and Boi Sakti (Indonesia). Here, dialogue was reduced to monologue, initially by the decision not to show any transitory outcome of the week’s explorations which the assembly accepted with good-will, but then by an ill-informed attack on the very core of the organisation’s belief in diversity. Though protesting against intolerable persecution of a certain social group, the latter speaker’s inflexible ‘righteousness’ overstepped the boundaries of tolerance and, ironically, united delegates in multi-directional debate. Injustice, as the ensuing discussions acknowledged, comes in many morally-complex forms.

World Dance Alliance Global Summit, Brisbane, July 13-18

RealTime issue #87 Oct-Nov 2008 pg. 39

© Maggi Phillips; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2008
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