Mapping the in-between

Erin Brannigan, MAP Symposium

As well as giving us a meticulous and enlightening survey of footwear at the MAP Symposium (I almost wore my gold glittery tap shoes), the RealTime-hosted closing session demonstrated how very close to the beginning of discourse and debate this ‘dance community’ that had gathered in Melbourne was. Trajectories beyond the weekend were signposted by this session, along with questions from the floor throughout the weekend that fizzled before they could be bounced around and discussions at the bar that had no place in the ‘public’ body of the event.

As the curators of the symposium, Vicki Fairfax and I were asked to present a “legend” that would facilitate a reading of the current “topography” of dance practice nationally. With an emphasis on “new choreography” and “cross-form development”, the forum was to draw on the associated performance program to develop this map.

The inclusiveness inherent in MAP’s agenda can be traced back to the spirit of Greenmill, the annual dance festival whose impetus MAP was expected to build upon, and the Project Control Group set up after the demise of that event. This group represented a real will within the Melbourne dance community to maintain a discourse across genres and included Josephine Ridge from the Australian Ballet, Angharad Wynne-Jones from Chunky Move, Hellen Sky and Sylvia Staehli from Dancehouse and Paul Summers from Dance Works.

Coming from Sydney, I was struck by the determined insistence in Melbourne upon a notion of dance community, something that remained problematic for me throughout the project. As Eleanor Brickhill said to me, butchers and bakers perhaps have more in common than some of the dance practitioners involved in MAP. What they do have in common is movement and performance, and even so, the “Performance Space” session certainly gave the idea of movement and spectatorship a good going over. A community, by definition, involves some kind of agreement and people’s attendance at the weekend was proof of this. But what actually constitutes this ‘agreement’ still bears investigating.

Given that we were mapping a community, where were the parameters set? We were asked where the Indigenous content was by an audience member during the closing session. But where indeed was the Indian and the Spanish dance which are now negotiating cultural and disciplinary boundaries in an Australian context? The speakers in the “Asian Connection” session were proof of the enlightenment non-Western practices can provide. In Yumi Umiumare’s description of her creative process—in the dark moving towards the light, the process as the art—I was reminded of Sue-ellen Kohler’s struggle with the competing histories within her body. And Tony Yap’s description of ecstatic religious mediums from his childhood was a perfect illustration of William McClure’s body in “the moment of dispossession.”

Bound as we were to the performance program it became, in fact, a welcome framework. Our decision to include as many practitioners as possible was based on the program’s richness and a belief in the value of the artists’ dialogue in accessing the true state of the art. This strategy also provided a means of overcoming binaries by not conflating the individual with the institution, looking at the ‘grey area’ of particular cases rather than the black and white of theoretical and exclusive ideals. Talks by Lucy Guerin, Yumi Umiumare and Shelley Lasica, just to name a few, were invaluable and I cannot believe students did not flock to hear these people speak.

This raises the issue of who this event was for. For the dance community? For the arts community at large? For students? What about all those people interstate who couldn’t make it? In terms of attendance, there was a tension between answering the needs of the practitioners and advocacy issues. DJ/composer Jad McAdam told me a good story. He was telling his friends in Sydney that he was going to Melbourne to talk about popular culture at a dance forum and they said, “Oh, are they trying to make dance more popular?” Incidentally, the session that McAdam participated in, along with Gideon Obarzanek, Lucy Guerin and director Michael Kantor had the highest attendance outside the film session.

The big question for us was—how can you maintain an inclusive agenda without jeopardising the rigour of the discussions? What ‘common ground’ could offer us a means of getting beyond niceties? Space, technologies, training, cultural cross-referencing—these topics allowed for discussion across disparate practices. There was also an idea to open the forum up beyond the dance community in order to broaden perspectives. People like Michael Kantor, McAdam and philosophers William McClure and Duncan Fairfax provided an ‘outside eye’ within sessions.

Another problem was overcoming the binary which we decided to deal with up front in a session on classical and contemporary dance practice (“Ballet and its Other”). Interestingly, as a few people pointed out, it was the contemporary practitioners who attended the sessions with some degree of commitment and there was a general impression that the ballet ‘knows its place’ well enough not to require much further discussion. In regard to “new choreography”, perhaps there were issues that could have been raised had Stephen Baynes been available to attend. The scarcity of choreographers working in this idiom was one of the realities that surfaced throughout the process, a fact that perhaps should be addressed directly.

The video that Matthew Bergan and I made, Arrival and Departure, grew out of the necessity to create a bridge between classical and current practice. To this end, it focused on the fact that nearly all of our dancer-choreographers began their training with classical dance. If Libby Dempster was asking why we have no “significant counter-culture” to ballet in this country, then here we had the answer—an homogeneous form of dance training dished out across geographic and cultural borders (and shores as well if we consider Butoh artist Umiumare’s initial classical training in Japan). There was some idea about looking honestly at the current state of affairs in order to move ahead; confronting our demons if you like. The ‘Utility’ section of the film sign-posted a negotiation process that some practitioners are undergoing—attempts to deal directly and thoughtfully with their personal histories. One way or another, this area ‘between’ is where our current map is most dense and it is an area that is offering solutions as well as problems.

As Keith Gallasch pointed out in the final session, the binarisms articulated in Libby Dempster’s opening paper did prefigure a whole series of other oppositions. (Dempster couldn’t believe we were still talking about them when she returned for the last session). These included Eleanor Brickhill’s rhetorical “ideals” in regard to performance space—the proscenium space and the studio space, pop culture and counter-culture, the ungrounded body of technology and the grounded body of the dancer. In retrospect, the agenda of the weekend perhaps created a need to describe or reiterate these relationships before proceeding. If, in an ethics of discourse, “we are obligated, through our mutual adherence to the logic of the discussion, to be open to the possibility of the other”, as Duncan Fairfax has said, then perhaps there is still a need to establish who the other is via these binaries.

Taking this possibility into account, the MAP weekend in fact did what it set out to do. It ‘mapped’ the current state of dance practice by mapping the discourse across forms, and the issues this raised, demonstrating in the process ‘where we are at’—collectively. How useful this is in terms of particular practitioners is uncertain, but what it does reveal is the willingness of some to question their position, the choice of others not to do so, and all the struggle that lies in between. There is a danger, I believe, that we could have a repetition of the type of hierarchy that has stymied dance in this country, with new forms taking an intellectual position where ballet had enjoyed a cultural one. What MAP did was to uncover this difficult terrain. What is important now is to move forward and keep accumulating the knowledges shared at these events so that we don’t have to spend forever on introductions.

What MAP didn’t do, to some degree, was allow room for more explicit and penetrating investigation. One of my greatest regrets of the weekend was the disappearance of issues raised by participants such as Trevor Patrick. When someone asked during the closing session if technique is a technology, I wondered whether there had been a lack of desire to listen, or an ability to hear amongst so much detail. For me, the “Ungrounded Bodies” session pivoted around the practice described by Patrick in relation to his film, Nine Cauldrons. Cinematic technology and movement technique became equal partners in this alchemical fusion of forms, the technology of the moving body challenging the technology of the camera to meet its demands. Here was rich ground for the case of overcoming binaries in the form of practical evidence, ground that fell away through a desire to cover more—quickly, rather than less—thoroughly. This problem was perhaps symptomatic of the brevity of the event.

With interstate participants strictly limited due to the budget and myself drawing on contacts in Sydney, participants from that city almost equalled those from the host city, Melbourne. (Chrissie Parrott from Perth and Natalie Weir from Brisbane were the exceptions.) Rachel Fensham’s comment at the end of the weekend that she could see MAP becoming a festival focusing on new movement practice, overlooked antistatic in Sydney which was inaugurated in April 1997 and will return next year under the curatorial direction of Sue-ellen Kohler, Rosalind Crisp and Zane Trow. antistatic focused solely on the dense area of dance research and, given time to develop, should give that sector of the community an effective forum. There was a conscious attempt to make links to antistatic at MAP in the hope of building on issues covered there, and I imagine that two such events could work together in future to provide rich ground for discussing dance and its related issues.

MAP Symposium, The Bagging Room, C.U.B. Malthouse, Melbourne, July 25 – 26

RealTime issue #27 Oct-Nov 1998 pg. 8-9

© Erin Brannigan; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 1998
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