Aesthetic positionings

Marketing, audiences and reviewing in dance rich Perth trouble Sarah Miller

Every cloud has a silver lining as the saying goes and the sad demise of the Chrissie Parrott Dance Company in early 1997 has meant that Perth has benefited enormously from the flowering of a range of independent dance practitioners. There are of course the usual problems: the small audience base, the lack of profile for such practitioners and the rather more intangible sense of lack—we don’t have a real dance company. Yet aside from the obvious financial problems suffered by the Chrissie Parrott Dance Company, there has been little or no discussion of the ramifications of one company playing to the same, tiny population year in and year out; the undisputed pressures on a single full time artistic director/choreographer and subsequently, what other models might develop, should they be given the opportunity to do so without the constant pressure to perform, to market and to present a commercially viable product.

Aah yes—to market to market—and therein lies a sorry tale. When will the powers that be recognise that, in order to market, there has to be somewhere—if not something—to market (or even just publicise) into, if you want that audience reach.

Yet on the far side, there may never have been more opportunities to engage with contemporary dance in its many manifestations than at the present time. These productions have run the gamut, from project-based dance companies such as David Prudham and Dancers—whose aesthetic and repertoire bears a strong resemblance to the Sydney Dance Company for whom he worked for many years—to the techno pop aesthetic of skadada and the rather more ambient performances of Fieldworks as well as a number of emerging and mature independent practitioners.

You could say that dance in Perth is thriving. In fact, given the paucity of contemporary performance work at the moment, it is dance that has provided the most interesting experiences of the past few months and frankly, the longer that Perth resists the pressure to lock itself into one company, the better. Not unless a lot more money becomes available than seems likely at the moment…

The trick of course is to get audiences to see this work. Audiences are small for dance at the best of times. Yet one of the major problems confronting local dance artists—as is no doubt the case in other states—is the lack of a reliable, regular and affordable vehicle through which to publicise work widely. The West Australian newspaper carries no daily or even weekly listing. They apparently believe that a daily performance listing would mean losing income from display advertising so they prefer to exclude smaller companies and individuals altogether. On top of which, the standard of reviewing in The West is awful—dull, badly written, not interested and ill-informed. This is justified—as elsewhere—by that favourite newspaper response: their reviewers represent the views of the broader community. Oh really!

So you have the experience of a respected company like Danceworks from Melbourne performing in absentia recently and the best the reviewer can come up with is that it’s one line short of a narrative. The lighting, by national and international award winning designer Margie Medlin, is dismissed as “too bright” or “too dark” (the lighting and projections were fabulous). That this particular reviewer clearly knows nothing about dance or its histories, that she is clearly incapable of distinguishing between work that is polished and work that is not, that the fine performances by all the dancers are completely ignored, that she has no ability to address the sound composition by young composer Amelia Barden etc etc, just has to be endured. There is no choice. I don’t give a flying !*@? whether a reviewer likes a work or not. There are differing views, different tastes and many aesthetic positions. As someone who is paid to reflect on work in public, I expect a certain degree of responsibility, consideration and information. I expect a reviewer to have the nous to admit when they’re out of their depth or it’s not to their taste or they’ve had a bad day and look beyond to what is happening in the work.

Perhaps skadada had the right idea when they screened their first short narrative video at PICA. It was free. I didn’t see any review at all. They had a full house and people loved it. Auto Auto is a bright piece of urban pop featuring Claudia Alessi, her big red cadillac and a car wash, on her way—endlessly sidetracked—to a job interview as a dental assistant. Very cute.

Paul O’Sullivan’s Hanging in There was an equally charming piece of work that explored such questions as why aliens never kidnap intelligent people; the relationship between yoga and classical ballet; lapsed Catholicism and the effects of sleep deprivation (a new baby) on the independent practitioner. There’s a kind of paradox for me in this friendly piece of work which addresses life’s endless frustrations with such patience and admirable good humour, but then maybe that’s because I’m the grumpy type. Paul, on the other hand, uses the simplest means to create a modest but engaging performance that should have had broad audience appeal but, sadly, only attracted very small houses.

Danielle Michich and Natasha Rolfe are two of the brighter young dancers currently ‘emerging’ as choreographers. Danielle (or Dank as she’s known) presented the outcome of a recent creative development period at the Blue Room Theatre in collaboration with Natasha. On Contact was an exploration of—you’ve guessed it—contact inspired movement. It was both skillful and engaging but for me, didn’t have quite the edge that their respective performance works for PICA’s Putting on an Act had earlier in the year. Their works for that season were far more streetwise and witty, but then they were ‘performances’ as opposed to an exploration in movement.

I’ve only mentioned a few of the projects that have taken place over the past 3 months. Maybe Spring has sprung, but I for one find the fact that there is so much going on great cause for pleasure. Given the opportunity, these artists will continue to develop in both range and maturity. If, however, the level and calibre of movement-based activities continues to go unacknowledged by local media and audiences, we’ll be left to wonder, yet again, where all the birdies flew off to.

in absentia, Danceworks, PICA, August 9 – 23; Auto Auto, skadada, PICA, July 19; Hanging in There, Paul O’Sullivan, PICA, August 5 – 16; On Contact, Blue Room Theatre, August 23

RealTime issue #27 Oct-Nov 1998 pg. 12

© Sarah Miller; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 1998
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