Mature, independent dancers seek context

Eleanor Brickhill talks with Wendy Morrow

SLEEP 2002, Trevor Patrick and Wendy Morrow, <BR /> video image by Dean Golja

SLEEP 2002, Trevor Patrick and Wendy Morrow,
video image by Dean Golja

Dance artist Wendy Morrow’s career spans 30 years and includes work with Monte Carlo Ballet, Scottish Ballet, Sydney Dance Company and DanceWorks. She has worked as a dancer, choreographer and teacher in professional companies and tertiary institutions throughout Australia. She has studied dance and improvisation in New York, Europe and London. Morrow has a strong history in creating innovative models for arts learning, and was recently awarded an Australia Council Fellowship to create new professional development models.

Motives

What are the motives for the models of practice you are initiating?

The Australian independent dance field is small with clusters of artists generally seen to be aligned through shared practice, histories or aesthetics. In the last 10 years or so there have been enormous developments in opportunities created for younger ‘emerging’ dance artists. I believe we now need to balance that with the other end of the spectrum, appropriate professional development models primarily for mid-career and mature artists. I’m interested in the work and thinking of my peers who have established a practice and knowledge-base, but who have become isolated and uncertain about finding a context for their work.

People’s lives are complex; as a maturing artist a kind of relentlessness and fatigue can set in as you try to balance art-making and life. There seems to be a loneliness and isolation that’s chronic throughout the field, that gets stronger as you get older, and becomes a significant contributor to people not engaging. To support mature artists in sustainable practices, we need structures and programs that respect their independence of practice, and can assist to clarify and galvanise their real experiences, while maximising the economic and artistic resources being made available to them, otherwise as a culture, we face the risk of losing valuable people, historic insights and industry expertise.

Strategies

The models I’m developing—Mature Artists Programs (MAP) and Artistic Risk Management (ARM)—are in response to a perceived desire of mature artists to rekindle communities of practice. ARM is a program of facilitated project management to assist generally younger artists to develop frameworks to structure and consolidate their artistic experiences. Artistic development and investigations can be unwieldy, lack structure and have no relevant evaluation processes. Projects where the overall artistic experience is unfulfilling pose real risks to an artist’s future motivation to engage in further artistic research.

MAP comprises a portfolio of projects and initiatives centred around teaching, facilitation and learning. Conceptually it’s a big-picture thing, but for more experienced artists. The idea is to work in small artist-driven clusters to strengthen professional communities. Possibilities include one-to-one facilitation, creative laboratories, structured forums, presentations, professional dialogue, residencies, or something much larger that might take several years. The communication and support provided by these networks goes way beyond practical advice. It aims to establish and maintain relationships among these artists, and addresses issues of sustainability and artistic isolation, and to enable relevant issues to become visible to the field. MAP is concerned with how we can, as experienced artists, enrich and contribute to a broader dance culture.

Two kinds of MAP structures formed the initial pilot study in Canberra, in September 2004, and MAP-Practice at Dancehouse in Melbourne in August 2005. What was your thinking about those?

The pilot for MAP last year explored one model of professional development in a structured framework where the participants determined the content of the program. There was a formal structure which required a fair amount of preparation by participants who were asked to consider an issue within their practice for discussion, and make a 20-minute presentation. Aims were to provide a platform for individuals to identify issues within their practice; utilise the expertise within the cluster to gain insights and clarification about problematic issues through dialogue; develop a stronger community with peers to promote individual and varied practices; and introduce alternative ways of thinking, and circulate knowledge that develops the collaborative nature of professional development.

For the MAP-practice residency at Dancehouse, there was no agenda for people to present themselves in any particular way. It was very personal. Five people with overlapping histories met for 5 days. The point for me was about the conversations which developed during that time; about recognising who these people were now, what they did, what affected them, and how removed they might feel from something that was considered current mainstream practice.

Conversations

Were these conversations held within a dance context, or art practice, or completely outside of these?

The conversations were about ideas on art, and the relationships we have to art in our lives. They were like a continuous improvisation over 5 days. I know these people in a strongly artistic way and their artistic integrity is undoubted, so the conversation moved me into a much wider perception of what professional development might be. It didn’t have to be about skill development, although there was a lot of teaching and learning from each other. It was about people feeling that they’re worthwhile, that their aesthetic is worthwhile, and that there’s a natural respectfulness and belief in art-making that goes way beyond the practice or production of art and which needs recognition. This MAP-practice model is really the centre-pin for my work.

Identity and context

What came out of the MAP-practice group is quite complex, and might be reserved for another conversation. But primarily what we talked about is mature artists determining what they need for their own professional development. When people talk about artistic practice, they often seem to think it’s something you can go and shop for, and you come away with a practice. But it’s just not like that, it’s something integral to the person you are, evidenced by the way that you think, or speak or do things. What seems almost like a guiding principle behind working is, how you can even think about making work when you don’t actually have a basic sense of where you are, and what’s important to you now. That’s what we need to find and reaffirm—our identities and context. If you lack that vital context, you can’t make work regardless of how many opportunities and how much funding is around.

The idea of a creative laboratory for me is that, if you get the right people, the natural hothouse trajectory is really profound, and it doesn’t need justification beyond that. It stirs things up in people, and affirms that they and their ideas are worth something, and they will therefore naturally develop, and move into making work or to produce an outcome of some sort. It’s about actually recognising what art does for people in their lives, rather than have them feel like a machine that has to make art, and have someone come and pick it up and circulate it. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in what happens when we fall away from the product. Not that you don’t want to make and create something, but neither do you necessarily want to try and fit it into an alien framework, because then you’re beholden to many other things that don’t fit your life, things you’re not attracted to or interested in. So what’s happening to these people? Are we losing them, are they choosing to go elsewhere because the context of working in Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney or Perth is not really an attractive one for them?

Communities

It’s not a question of ‘wanting’ to be an artist—you just are, and you can’t help it, because what’s important is the kind of sensibilities with which you engage with the world. For many people the flow is up and down, intermittent; you can’t rely on a financial support system. You have to develop your communities, and that means connecting and then re-connecting to those links that are significant for you, and learning from each other. Sometimes the issue of money is a distraction because it prevents people from making communities. It creates a blaming mentality where you can sit back and complain, and that kind of engagement is counter-productive. If you look outside the realm of the arts, people everywhere are talking about changing the nature of their society, to create different social structures and systems that are more useful in managing their lives. They are not dropping out. They live firmly within the social and cultural milieu, and for them it’s about finding alternatives to the prevailing structures with which they are at odds.

At the age we are now, ideas often require different time scales. Development may not occur within this year’s funding round. We know that underneath the visible there’s a multitude of other things, potentialities we need to give heart to, because if it isn’t in people’s consciousness and allowed to have a life, we will never experience all the viewpoints that individuals and art can offer.

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 39

© Eleanor Brickhill; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2005
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