The once and future Ausdance NSW

Eleanor Brickhill interviews Gregory Nash

Gregory Nash, Debra Hurford-Brown

Gregory Nash, Debra Hurford-Brown

With a 17-year career as a dance artist in the UK, an MA in Arts Management, 2 years as Program Manager at the London Dance Umbrella Festival, and then 3 working in theatre and dance at The British Council, Gregory Nash needed to keep moving. In January 2001 he took up the position as Director of Ausdance NSW.

Overseas, Ausdance is perceived as a very sophisticated organism, a dynamic network of professional service organisations working hand-in-hand with the profession. On arriving I found that it’s not so well integrated and in fact there is quite a lot of variation in management style and programs between offices. Ausdance is a pretty unique organisation nonetheless. The NSW office is the largest in the network and the best funded ($150, 000 from the NSW Ministry for the Arts in 2001). When I arrived there was a full-time staff of 4 great people and a very diverse portfolio of projects: a regional outreach program, the Dancers etc employment scheme, publications, and conferences.

But it became quickly apparent that we were in major financial trouble, so much so that we looked likely to close on May 31. The board and I needed to work quickly on a survival strategy and to convince the Ministry that we could continue to deliver a service, but within more pragmatic parameters. The Ministry awarded us a one-off stabilisation grant on condition that we restructure. I spent most of 2001 dealing with the implications of that —and with all of the instability and lack of security that comes with that process.

Since July 2001 we have had to make 2 staff members redundant, one of whom was the manager of outreach projects. In doing so we needed to communicate that the outreach work hasn’t stopped. Our 2 principal outreach projects in Western Sydney and Northern Rivers are now at the stage where they can be locally managed. Meanwhile Broken Hill Arts has made an application for funds to take on the project begun in the Far West by Jeff Meiners and Virginia Ferris and an Ausdance team last year.

Once I had a chance to really look at the organisation’s work the biggest surprise was that the independent dance sector didn’t really interface with Ausdance NSW—other than the ones employed by Dancers etc—and perceived it to be an organisation for teachers. The Ministry funds Ausdance to be a service provider for dance in the broadest sense. It is not an education organisation and, if it were, it should surely be funded by the Department of Education and Training. The difficulty is that it began as an association of dance educators and the stated aims and the national constitution are still largely biased towards education. Given that the Ministry for the Arts is the largest stakeholder in what we do, and its expectations are in relation to artistic activity, it’s time to revisit the mission and do some work on perceptions.

I always understood education as participation in artistic projects across the entire community spectrum, not specifically schools, although I never got a good feel for where Ausdance’s focus was.

That’s a classic Ausdance scenario: what does it do and who does it include? The answer so far has been anything, anywhere and anybody. It was clear to me that we could not sustain that financially, and an organisation without focus cannot realistically deliver against objectives. How can we possibly focus our work and aim to demonstrate integrity, thoroughness and rigour if our program is just a free-for-all?

One of the ways we have developed in the last year is by bringing on new board members. The board of 12 is elected from and by the membership every year and provide skills (legal, financial, strategic) that complement the existing dance expertise. At the July AGM last we had 30 members turn up—more than 3 times the attendance in 2000. They had a lot to say, which is great. I have no problem with being challenged and find this level of discussion and confrontation a very stimulating process. Out of that meeting has come some new connections, ideas and directions for the organisation.

I’ve heard people say that you’re a very talented, personable man in the wrong job.

I guess that’s a kind of compliment. Curious that no-one says any of this stuff to me! I spent my first few months here asking for feedback to what we were doing, creating consultation. The people in the dance community that I hear are upset with the directions we’re taking don’t tend to call or write. They seem to gather to mumble in corners. We had a series of consultations in May last year and the best attended—and with the most feisty interactions—was the one targeted at independent artists. I suspect that my biggest critics are the people who have sat on the sofa for years moaning about this or that but never really doing anything pro-active themselves. These people are not a dynamic force in the organisation or in the constituency and I am an advocate of action not rhetoric. Interesting that there’s a perception that the directorship of Ausdance NSW is not a job for a talented or personable man…

You’re quoted as saying that independent dance is a priority for you. How do Sydney Dance Company and the Opera House fit in to the picture.

Well firstly, the support of infrastructural development for independent dance is Ausdance NSW board policy in 2002, not my private whim, although it does sit well with me given my background. The independent dance sector in the UK is politicised, organised and well regarded by the mainstream.

I have worked at our relationship with Sydney Dance Company (SDC) because they too are members of Ausdance and have equal rights to attention as anybody else. The company is an important and influential player in the NSW and international dance community. And I don’t believe that independence needs to equal isolation. It’s surely time to move on from the separatist politics of the 80s. I have worked at building a rapport with companies like SDC, Bangarra and the Australian Ballet because their disengagement from Ausdance ultimately works against the development of new and independent work. SDC has partnered with us on a 2 week choreographic development workshop for professionals in December and will support this substantially by giving 4 studios rent free. This collaboration is as much about their wish to interact with the wider dance community and to nurture the development of talent within the company’s ranks, as our wish to provide a great professional development experience in an ideal setting.

Similarly, I have been talking to the Opera House about dance programming. Any time I appear to be ‘sleeping with the enemy’ I’ve actually got an eye to the rewards we will all reap from greater collaboration. I suppose there’s the fear that this will become so apparently glamorous that our work will only align with what one of our members wittily described as ‘consecrated artists.’ But I think there has to be a certain amount of that, because you need the people who get public attention to in turn bring attention to the artform or the work of the organisation.

Have you noticed any significant differences between dance in Australia and the UK?

The area of policy-making for dance just isn’t as advanced. Ausdance, for example, has aims and objectives that were written 25 years ago which have never been reviewed. We’re formulating a dance policy for Ausdance NSW which will hopefully inform a dance policy for NSW and I see Ausdance NSW as a principal conduit between artists and the funding agencies. Dance UK, a kind of sister organisation to Ausdance, is frequently contacted by the Arts Council, the regional arts bodies and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, to consult on policy. It feels confident in doing so because the membership of Dance UK is the artistic community of the UK—although it too has to represent too many different constituencies. I think that sort of role has been seen as being too audacious for Ausdance and there is a tendency here to keep your head down and not make too much noise in case it’s perceived as vulgar and pushy.

What about new projects?

In 2002 the Ministry funding will support a minimal staffing structure—me and 2 part-time admin staff. Money that’s released from full-time posts will be used as seeding for 5 specific projects. Thankfully there’s no let up in people coming to us with ideas, but not all of those ideas can work—our projects this year have to be clearly focused on agreed objectives and have tangible outcomes. We get a lot of requests to organise one-off workshops. I turn these down as the time and resources they consume do not justify the poor take-up. But if, for instance, somebody came with an idea for a performance project over a 3-month period, targeted, say, at carers of small children, and the long-term aim is to set up a performing company of parents and children, that’s interesting because it has longevity, legacy and develops a specific area of practice.

In 2002 we’re running a series of twice-monthly admin training workshops for dance artists looking at budgeting, basic employment law, contracts etc. We’re also presenting a monthly seminar called Talking Dance (March 7, Spreading the Word with Karilyn Brown Director/Audience and Market Development, Australia Council) where key figures in the arts will talk about policy and current issues. We have to make sure there’s a regular platform for artists to learn, contribute, discuss and develop. We have turned the newspaper from a bitty community bulletin into a bi-monthly magazine which is informative and promotes the concept of networking regionally, nationally and internationally. The feedback has been really good and advertising has doubled, so clearly more people are seeing it as a way of getting their message across. Responses from some key cultural providers, like Sydney Festival or the Opera House, has been particularly good as this is a new engagement. I get emails from presenters and artists overseas saying they had no idea this really interesting stuff was going on in NSW.

I talk about creativity being the central spine of our work, and then the spine radiates these other wonderful things like community participation, educational interface and audience development. We’re working for and with a broad constituency of theatre-based dance artists, community-based dance artists, innovative teachers and others who, if they are moving their work forward, are carrying the whole constituency forward. By doing so they provide access and opportunities for everyone along the route, and that has to be a good thing.

Ausdance NSW, Pier 4 The Wharf, Hickson Road, Walsh Bay, 2000,
tel 02 9241 4022 fax (02) 9241 1331

RealTime issue #47 Feb-March 2002 pg. 13

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

1 February 2002
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