dance in focus

sophie travers: national dance forum

WHO ON EARTH WOULD WANT TO SPEND AN ENTIRE WEEKEND TALKING ABOUT ‘PRACTICE’? THIS QUESTION WAS ANSWERED WHEN THE NATIONAL DANCE FORUM, DESIGNED TO “REFLECT ON THE STATE OF DANCE PRACTICE IN AUSTRALIA NOW, AND TO CHART A COURSE FOR THE FUTURE,” QUICKLY SOLD OUT. DANCE TYPES, IT SEEMS, NEED LITTLE INCENTIVE TO RUMINATE.

True, there were two weeks of Dance Massive performances book-ending the talkfest in Melbourne in which to see practice in, well, practice. The forum sat neatly within the biennial festival’s program and the foyers of Dancehouse, Malthouse Theatre and Arts House were more than usually clogged on March 19 and 20.

Inspired by the 2010 National Theatre Forum that proved a dynamic meeting place for the theatre sector, Ausdance and the Australia Council supported independent producer Kath Papas to work with a National Advisory Group to create a platform of similar scale for dance. While Australia Council Director of Dance Carin Mistry’s summary of the event published on the Australia Council website emphasised the to-and-fro between dance in Australia and overseas, the forum was focused determinedly on the local. Mistry concluded her article with an aspiration for the debates of the forum to connect to the world stage. While there were two international guest speakers and several artists on panels who work internationally, there was a particular urgency to the discussions about the Australian context.

Three keynote interviews, 12 round tables and a plenary were interspersed with breaks in which the conversations were more hungrily pursued than the meals. Noise levels were high in the underground canteen of North Melbourne Town Hall, suggesting an excitement and energy to the communion that was repeatedly articulated over the weekend. There was a lot of kissing.

While I was unable to attend every round-table due to the simultaneous programming of three groups in each slot, I spoke with participants in each. The general opinion was that the more specific the theme, the better the quality of discussion. Dramaturgy for example, chaired by independent choreographer Brian Lucas with speakers Anne Thompson, Lisa O’Neill and Tang Fu Kuen, provoked a lively discussion of the whys, hows and whos of this discipline. The session on Dance Practice in Communities was equally specialised and energetic. Chaired by Annie Greig of Tasdance, speakers Philip Channells, Annette Carmichael, Jess Devereux and Dalisa Pigrum inspired the full room to contribute their experiences, sparking an upbeat debate that affirmed work that is often excluded from the spotlight. The session on Critical Feedback run by choreographers Becky Hilton and Lucy Guerin was a group exercise in self-analysis, attending to often painful aspects of the dance-making process.

Less successful were the larger panels or those where the topic was less clear. It bears remembering that the most innovative artists are not necessarily the most interesting speakers about their work, or that those who love to talk about their work are often not the most interesting. Young artists became rather bogged down in their personal experiences in a panel that sought to give them an equal voice. Artists expressing their enthusiasm for technology relied too much on said technologies in their presentation and forgot the bodies in the room. A long line of collaborators presented too many perspectives upon collaboration to find a thread and a discussion on practice itself succumbed to the perhaps inevitable navel-gazing its rather abstruse questions set up.

The roundtable entitled “Where are we?” directly addressed the Forum’s overarching theme. Keith Gallasch, Editor of Real Time, Kate Denborough, Artistic Director of KAGE Physical Theatre and Daniel Brine, Artistic Director of Performance Space, offered personal points of view in an optimistic survey of dance in relation to other artforms, other nations and other cultural pursuits. Gallasch, delineating a mock ecology of contemporary Australian dance, worried that elements missing in the system left dance undernourished, while Daniel Brine was curious about what he regarded as unwarranted anxiety about contemporary dance’s achievements. In this session, as in most, there were diverse questions from the floor, considering phenomena from mass-market television dance shows to dance in education.

The role of session Chairs was vital and excellent work was done by representatives of a broad range of organisations that support dance-making in Australia, including Jeff Khan, now at Performance Space, Helen Simondson from ACMI and Erin Brannigan from UNSW. Panels represented the geographical spread of artists and organisations in Australia although some complained of a metropolitan focus. Other complaints concerned the underrepresentation of sectors such as commercial dance although the organisers defended their right to focus upon the subsidised sector, with Ausdance spruiking forthcoming conferences in other areas.

The keynote speeches were a personal highlight. Lee Christofis, the ‘Parkinson of Australian dance,’ coaxed poignant observations of an extraordinary career out of leading Indigenous dance maker, Raymond Blanco. The warmth of this conversation at the start of the first day set the tone of pleasure and celebration that persisted. The first day closed with Chrissy Sharp, Chair of the Australia Council’s Dance Board interviewing choreographer Kate Champion, delivering useful insights for emerging makers in particular. Thai choreographer Pichet Klunchen was interviewed by dramaturg Tang Fu Kuen from Bangkok, assisted by Naree Vachananda’s good humoured translation. Klunchun’s discussion of his status as an artist in Thailand, making contemporary work in reverence of and direct challenge to the traditional Kohn dance style, was fascinating. Fu Kuen struggled to draw out the wider implications of his grappling with Western audiences and responses to his recent production, Nijinsky Siam, but each word Klunchun uttered was sufficiently different from the way in which Australians talk about dance to merit close attention and the room was more hushed than at any other time by this interview.

Forum Facilitator Kristy Edmunds kept us on mission, reminding participants at the start of each day of their responsibilities to contribute. The Forum published rigorous principles: namely to embrace and value diversity, to foster robust debate, to maintain a positive tone, to focus on the future and to challenge each other to delve deeper. Edmunds worked these principles in the final session entitled Artistic Stocktake, in which she broke the plenary into groups and demanded punchy answers to provocative questions. Conversation spilled out onto the footpaths and foyers of Melbourne and continues still.

National Dance Forum, An Australia Council for the Arts and Ausdance National partnership, Arts House, North Melbourne, March 19-20

RealTime issue #103 June-July 2011 pg. 27

© Sophie Travers; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

14 June 2011
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