talking australian dance internationally

virginia baxter: ausdance, international dance massive delegation day

INTERVIEWED IN REALTIME 89, ARTS HOUSE CEO STEVEN RICHARDSON COMMENTED THAT THE INAUGURAL DANCE MASSIVE WAS REGRETTABLY SHORT ON CONTEMPORARY INDIGENOUS AND INTERCULTURAL WORKS, IDENTIFYING THESE TWO AS “AREAS OF STRENGTH IN AUSTRALIAN DANCE AND DEFINITELY ON THE AGENDA” FOR PHASE TWO OF WHAT’S PLANNED AS A THREE STAGE BIENNIAL PROJECT.

Along with the intercultural collaborations featured in 180 Seconds in (Disco) Heaven or Hell, a forum hosted by Ausdance Victoria at Fitzroy Town Hall helped to correct the imbalance, throwing open the floor to a range of Australian dance artists to talk about and show examples of their work to an audience which included the international producers invited to Melbourne for Dance Massive.

context

In a contextualising session, historian and reviewer Jordan Beth Vincent gave a speedy history of dance in Australia from the 1930s emphasising the importance of Middle-European, often Jewish, influence and the rejection of it in favour of a more national ethos in the 1970s. Peggy Van Praagh ran a series of influential summer schools at the University of New England from 1967 to 1976. Vincent sees the workshops of 1974 and 76 as a critical juncture, where first time local choreographers, including Ian Spink and Graeme Murphy, were encouraged to make works for each other to perform. At the same time, more and more Australian dancers were making their own way to Europe and Asia, choosing their own influences to create brilliant hybrids.

The current scene, said Vincent, covers everything from minimalist “pure physicality to loud extroversion.” Dancers still look abroad for inspiration, but these days “collaboration is the name of the game”; all part of what Vincent terms “the democratisation of dance” where the work of individual contributing dancers is as important as the all-seeing eye of the choreographer (who often label themselves both directors and co-choreographers). Further, the very strong sense of collaboration (designers, media, sound and visual artists) can be “richer than movement.” Nevertheless, Vincent pointed out that collaboration of this order had also been important in the 30s. Likewise the phenomenon, now so marked in Melbourne, of key individual dancers contributing to work across a range of companies, could be found in the (presumably American) dance history of the 1940s.

Indigenous choreographer and administrator Marilyn Miller gave an impassioned address about the serious lack of Indigenous dance programmed in current Australian arts festivals and, further, the meagre representation of forms of dance in what is a multifarious culture. In a country where there are 200 Aboriginal language groups and their respective dance forms and stories, only one is truly represented (Bangarra Dance Company’s interpretation of Yirrkala culture). Miller contrasted this with the training of Aboriginal dancers at NAISDA which combines traditional dance with a variety of other forms—Graham, Limon, African dance and popular forms such as jazz and tap.

Speakers shimmied around the awkward topic of form and content in contemporary Australian dance (an interesting take on this issue can be found in Carl Nilsson-Polias' review of Lucy Guerin Inc's Untrained, pointing out just how literally Guerin titles and conceptualises but then makes complex her stated content). Theatre critic Alison Croggan admitted to a growing interest in dance, a form she approaches from her perspective as a poet. In dance she sees a refreshing renewal of interest in the audience-performer relationship, for example in works such as Simon Ellis and Shannon Bott’s Inert where an audience of two encounter one each of the two performers. The audience, Croggan said, was on the one hand deprived of its normal relationship with the performer, on the other “incredibly privileged.” In other recent works such as Lucy Guerin Inc’s Corridor and Chunky Move’s Two Faced Bastard, similar renegotiations are made possible.

David Tyndall former dancer and now director of Dancehouse talked about the independent dance scene in terms of the trend in Australia away from large ensembles. He saw the cost to dancers’ continued employment opportunities as balanced by the growth of a very strong independent dance community.

international visitors

In the following session, we were introduced to the international guests invited by the Dance Massive organisers to experience the festival and, potentially, begin negotiations for future collaborations and co-productions. The most interesting of the programs described were the most idiosyncratic.

Martin Wollesen is the Director of the University Events Office at University of California, San Diego, guiding a huge multi-presenter program in dance, music, spoken word and film, including the new ArtPower! series of interactive films and The Loft, a performance lounge and wine bar “where emerging art and pop culture collide” four to six nights a week. His international contemporary dance program partners with “dance innovators to create projects that embrace and reflect the university’s commitment to interdisciplinary investigation.” In 2009 Wollesen inaugurated the Innovator-in-Residence Project with Wayne McGregor of the UK's Random Dance in a three-week residency “that explored choreographic cognition and creativity with UCSD cognitive science researchers.”

Audience development was a key theme for presenters from Spain and Brazil, Former dancer and choreographer Marc Olivé has worked since 2005 as a programmer at Teatre Mercat de les Flors in Barcelona, which in 2007 became The Centre for Movement Arts with an exclusive focus on dance. Here attention is given to developing works as well as providing workshops for the public to contextualise them, in a program Olivé translated as “Pedagogical Baggage.”

A radical approach to audience development, especially in areas of social disadvantage, was described by Brazil's Nayse Lopez, a cultural journalist, dance critic and creator of the country's first professional website for contemporary dance (www.idanca.net). She's one of the curators for Panorama Rioarte Dance Festival in Rio de Janeiro where programming focuses on experimental and multidisciplinary work. She says she watches audiences for difficult experimental work and thinks: “Oh, well, there goes that 500!” In an increasingly wealthy Brazil, one-third of the population remains illiterate and deprived of the arts while a highly sophisticated audience attends mainstream theatres. Nayse is involved in a scheme to take progressive mainstream work to a poorer city in the country's west, performing in old, under-used theatres, and with tickets costing one to three dollars. A number of companies are funded to commit to one week a year performing for such audiences.

Other speakers included Agnes Henry of extrapole, Paris, who emphasised the importance of creative dialogue as exemplified in IETM, the 'informal European theatre network', which is now reaching out to Australia. Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, artistic director and choreographer from Khmer Arts in Cambodia combines classical, “indigenous” Khmer dance with collaborating composers from Asia and America. A recent work involved a partnership with New York avant-garde composer John Zorn and his musicians.

Niels Gamm runs the Department of Dance and Physical Theatre at the Konzertdirektion Landgraf, Germany. This private company produces 80 works per season in 1800 performances, including theatre, musicals, classical dance and especially non-verbal theatre, physical theatre and dance, focusing on the receiving regional theatre market in Germany, Austria, Switzerland as well as Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg. Gamm spoke highly of a very successful recent tour by Brisbane's Circa, but worried about the lack of a reciprocal taxation agreement between Australia and Germany that could inhibit touring.

australian artist

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A range of independent artists then spoke about their work, representing a fascinating slice of Australia’s vibrant contemporary dance culture. All had extensive experience both within and often outside Australia, whether in their training years or in touring works internationally. Again, we were reminded of the importance of the small-medium sector in the creation of Australia’s international cultural profile.

Sydney-based Shaun Parker combines his passion for mediaeval music (he sings counter-tenor) with a dance background that included working with Meryl Tankard, Sasha Waltz and Meredith Monk. His very detailed, European inspired works reflect these multiple perspectives. Parker showed excerpts from his very successful This Show Is About People along with intriguing work-in-progress images from a new piece entitled Happiness.

Natalie Cursio lives in Melbourne and as well as creating solo works has curated a number of collaborations within the Melbourne independent dance community. Her interest is in subverting cultural clichés and addressing the human/nature interface (including endangered species). The video images she showed of her choreography with Korean dancers were particularly striking. She's also worked in Japan and, from meeting Asian artists through the Little Asia Dance Program, formed the Homeless Dance Group, an informal collaborative venture with artists in Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Vicki Van Hout gave a vivid presentation of Indigenous dance moves and video images from her striking works. She's an Indigenous Australia who explores her heritage by learning dances from people steeped in tradition across the country. While concerned about the wrongs perpetrated on Aboriginal people, she said of her work that she's “not so interested in sadness; we're already sad.” What she wants to know is how Aboriginal culture infiltrates the rest of Australia.

Brisbane's Polytoxic arrived “marinaded in carnie” from a 3am bump out at the Adelaide Fringe. Two of the company are Samoan-born (Fez Fa'anana, Lisa Fa’alafi) but grew up in Ipswich; one is white Australian (Leah Shelton). As well as Samoan culture and Shelton's “Suzuki crazy world”, Polytoxic calls on Australian Indigenous culture (which, they say, influenced them considerably when looking for ways to perform beyond South Pacific cabaret culture) and hip-hop to “widen the language of social change and commentary around ideas of interrogating identity and cultural stereotyping.”

After performing extensively in Europe Gabrielle Nankivell has returned to Australia where her rural upbringing had instilled, she said, a sense of space and of living in the presence of animals: “a sense of physical power and instinct.” She characterised her training, including the VCA, as the accumulation of a mix of experiences. Consequently, she enjoys working collectively and showed us an excerpt from a work created in Europe with two male dancers performed on a stage with a striking graphic backdrop, a red thread stretching at an angle across the stage. Nankivell has a show coming up at Dancehouse in July this year to do with struggle and survival.

Phillip Adams' BalletLab is currently enjoying considerable success, working in New York and soon touring to Copenhagen and Oslo. Melbourne born, Adams grew up in Papua New Guinea, was VCA trained and “danced with everyone” in New York. He described the essences of his vision as “curiosity, intrigue, queer… an onslaught of ideas which an audience experiences for a short time.” He said he creates baroque dance works, and is increasingly interested in the visual arts and the architectural language he can find within it, while testing his dancers’ endurance. He showed excerpts from Brindabella and Axeman Lullaby and described a new, pared back work about trance in US religious cults, Miracle, due to premiere mid-2009. Surrounded by 40 loudspeakers, the audience sit in a circle in which the dancers perform.

The rich conversation about Australian dance in an international context continued over and well after a sun-drenched, outdoor lunch. This Ausdance contribution to Dance Massive offered not simply market opportunities but the more important creative dialogues that might, in the long term, offer inspiration, collaboration and co-production.

12 March 2009
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