New dance dramas

Eleanor Brickhill discusses new dance company strategies with Janet Robertson and Mark Gordon

Looking at developments at the One Extra Dance Company and the emergence of The Choreographic Centre in Canberra, Eleanor Brickhill interviews the new non-choreographing directors and queries each company’s new structure.

Comparison of comments in the Dance Committee Assessment Reports on funding and policy in the last few years reveals that in 1994, particular interest was given to “developments involving dance and other media”; in 1995, the aim was “to maintain its commitment to independent artists and a range of work practices”; in 1996, the newly named Fund focused on “innovation, artistic vision, and a diversity of cultures and artistic practices, more than on the maintenance of particular structures or forms”.

Symptomatic of changing emphases, small company artistic directors being compelled to reconsider basic organisational structures, may well have felt unable to continue working without support for what they believed essential to maintaining artistic standards. The resulting resignations (for instance, Sue Healey, Graeme Watson, Julie-Anne Long, Chrissie Parrott, Cheryl Stock, Jenny Kinder) seemed to demonstrate extreme protest.

No doubt company boards began tearing their hair trying to construct new answers to the small company ‘problem’, of late perceived as economically non-viable, not pulling in big enough audiences to warrant maintenance of full-time financial support or to attract sufficient sponsorship. Janet Robertson, the new executive producer of One Extra Dance Company, acknowledges that for the next two years at least, there is a bottom line which requires an increase in audiences if that company is to continue to exist at all.

Meanwhile the boards of both Dance Works in Melbourne and One Extra remain committed to a ‘company’ structure, although having an artistic director who’s committed to creating their own work is the choice only of Dance Works.

Both Janet Robertson and Mark Gordon (director of TCC) are deeply aware of the histories of the institutions into which they are entering, wanting to assure people that their new enterprises stand on the shoulders of the old. Both are also aware of the streams of opposition to the loss of existing small company structures within the dance community, and while they have been profoundly concerned about not dismantling the “good bits”, what they are actually building continues to be debated.

Can their assurances assuage fears that losing artistic directors will mean a terminal loss in the development of dance as an independent art form; that the potential depths for dance innovation and development will be confined to the role of theatrical adjunct? Might not the means of developing independent dance aesthetics be simply negated in a drive towards a different set of performative notions, in which language based ideas set the ground rules?

What does a choreographer as artistic director do? It sounds bland to say one loses vital links with a unique body of work once a preferred means of support disappears. But at best, dance artists as collaborators share a deep physical relationship, a profound personal culture, an ethical, even spiritual stance on their bodies, as the basis of their aesthetics, which flourishes in that hothouse. Dancers within this culture literally embody work, and copies made outside that culture are to its detriment. Development of that culture needs more intense hands-on effort than is ever available in a stop/start environment such as freelancing requires. Time is required not so much to ‘make steps’ but to enter that intimacy.

Janet Robertson, executive producer, One Extra Dance Company

Janet Robertson has modelled her role of executive producer more on film tradition, as someone who puts people together, listens to ideas, responds to them, negotiates, and also has a very strong creative role. For her, while the clarity of her vision needs to be maintained, holding fast to specific ideas can muddy the artistic waters. As she understands it, “executive producer” is not just a fancy name for an artistic director, a person single-minded in their commitment to making their own steps, but is someone who makes decisions about what is seen.

Janet spoke about an evident lack of ‘performative notions’ expressed within dance works, separate from the technique, about a need for getting past the dance ‘show’. Her job as executive producer is to demand that a choreographer’s ideas become cohesive, and her talent as company dramaturg, in which capacity she will work on the floor with choreographers, is to be able to get choreographers and dancers to ask themselves just what it is they are doing.

Way back in 1960, Susan Sontag said, “The best criticism dissolves considerations of content into those of form”. Remember Balanchine’s maddening ideas which insist that “the movement is the meaning”. If these ideas still hold true, it is by means of the movement itself, the physical ideas that a dance conveys, that some “secret truth” (Acocella, 1990) of a dance is found. Separating the content of a dance from something called “technique” seems to me highly problematic. If a dance work suffers from a lack of performative skill, perhaps the lack is the technique, not separate from it. Without relevant things to say, technique can make dancing grossly inappropriate and banal, and needs to be dealt with head on, rather than being treated as separate from notions of ‘performance’.

Another perceived problem is that within the current economic climate, dancers and choreographers are forced to work independently, required to continue to produce new work constantly in six-week rehearsal blocks. Artistic directors of a company develop a body of work, perhaps a repertoire. Independents are forced to throw out work and be constantly making new material, rather than redeveloping it. Janet’s concern is with the difficulty of questioning one’s artistic motives when box office is always of prime consideration.

The idea that independent artists are people who throw out their work is problematic too, and an important distinction made between freelance and independent artists still seems valid. Capable of making work in almost any structure, freelance artists tend to work within a kind of generic aesthetic. But independence inherently involves an individual artistic need to work outside of established artistic structures, and doesn’t usually centre on financial necessity. Ideally, evolving one’s own structure in which to work seems a logical and necessary career move for independent choreographers.

The legacy of Kai Tai Chan’s One Extra, working as a huge melting pot for ideas, where people could come and work, while still responding to his central vision, provides an important basis for the new company. There needs to be a core aim to produce work with a particular kind of production value, a ‘house style’, and independents will be asked to respond to that vision when producing work for One Extra. Meanwhile, there is potential for the natural development of teams over time, or an artistic director to take over, to redevelop and reshape the company vision.

The first aspect of the company program for 1997 is the development of relationships with an audience via three seasons of work by proven and established choreographers. Sue Healey has been invited to re-develop an older work, to take the opportunity to have it really critically pulled apart and re-examined. Importantly, an ongoing two-year commitment to any commissioned program provides the means by which independent artists need no longer throw away work just to maintain box office success.

The second program, a double bill with Lucy Guerin and Garry Stewart, with their vastly different profiles, may invite complaints of eclecticism, and begs questions about the constituents of identity and ‘house style’. Neither a dancer nor choreographer on the floor “making steps”, Janet is still a practicing artist, and remains committed to the idea that a cohesive philosophical base forms a strong company identity.

An affiliate artists program starts in January, and the six artists invited to participate include choreographers, designers, dancers, musicians and technicians. There is no fixed ensemble, but several dancers have been invited to become affiliate artists. While entirely free to choose their preferred dancers, choreographers will be encouraged to consider working with the affiliate artists. One Extra will provide a place to discuss work, office facilities, rehearsal and forum space. To a certain extent the work evolving under this scheme will be motivated by the artists themselves, and is not expected to be produced within the company context or vision, although they will receive acknowledgment as working artists in all One Extra publicity.

A third aspect of the company structure concerns creative development through a mentor program. One Extra hopes to provide a strong context in which established artists might work with dancers of their choice, simply exploring their working processes. With no performance outcome necessarily expected, a serious kind of play becomes much more central than usual.

Fourthly, direct educational and community activity will further promote the company’s ongoing relationship with the University of Western Sydney, Nepean, by setting up performance workshops for people whose interest is in physical performance, but who might want to explore text based material.

Mark Gordon, director, The Choreographic Centre

The Choreographic Centre is the most recent incarnation in organising the development of professional dance practice in Canberra, and like One Extra, its history contains the seeds of this current manifestation. By almost a series of accidents Don Asker took up an ANU fellowship in 1980, resulting in the formation of Human Veins Dance Company, and it is important for Mark Gordon, as the new director, that this history is known. Between the old and the new lies Meryl Tankard’s Dance Company, and more recently Sue Healey’s Vis-a-Vis, but the board itself and its long-term commitment to professional dance practice in the ACT, has remained fairly stable. The studios too, in Gorman House, are the same ones that Don Asker used, but now, 16 years later, that whole complex is a rich, busy environment.

The board’s response to Sue Healey’s resignation was to engage widely in consultation with local practising dance artists, arts organisations, the ACT Cultural Development Unit and the Australia Council, as to appropriate action, and the notion of a centre for choreographic research and development emerged. The idea of that first fellowship, along with residency opportunities, became an important part of this vision. But the crucial aspect is that of mentorship, where a variety of experienced artists are available to work in creative partnership with a choreographer, to solve problems, to talk through ideas about what is or is not happening within the process of exploration.

Choreographic partnership shapes Mark Gordon’s role as a director whose talents lie in nurturing new ideas, bringing out the best in people. His role is not curatorial in the sense that artists are directly promoted. But the protection of archives, the previous companies’ histories, and continuing documentation of the life of the Centre, what happens, what succeeds and what doesn’t, carries an important curatorial obligation.

The Armidale Conferences of the 1960s remain for many Australian artists a high point in their creative lives, having provided a nurturing and empowering environment, where no special demands for ‘success’ and no sense of value judgement impinged on work done. The Centre’s patron, Shirley McKechnie described such an environment as a creative broth. This idea has provided a formative model for TCC, and one measure of its success will be whether or not choreographers are attracted to Gorman House as a place for exploration.

Fellowships are variously budgeted between $40,000 and $50,000. But needs may vary tremendously and structuring can be as flexible as imagination and practicality allow. Artists are invited to make proposals for the fellowship program, rather than applications, so that the criteria for success is more about project feasibility than popular appeal.

The fellowships essentially buy time, and like One Extra, the Centre is working towards freeing choreographers from the misery of the six weeks production schedule. Funnily enough, unlike Janet Robertson, Mark describes it as a luxury and a freedom for choreographers to discard work. But then the issue is not really whether a simple move needs to be discarded or retained, but where the actual dance work lies. Moving is never simple, being fraught with meaning, and it is deciphering the many guises of human embodied meaning which really provides the work.

Fellowships are targeted at ‘emerging’ choreographers, not necessarily the young. Essentially they can provide special opportunities for people with vision and potential, but estimating potential is difficult. Submissions therefore need to include references attesting to the artist’s capacity to use the experience to best advantage.

Crucial to the 1997 TCC structure is the advisory panel, and a glance at the personnel (Don Asker, Nanette Hassall, Jennifer Barry Knox, Wesley Enoch, Annie Greig, Garry Lester, Sue Street and Graeme Watson) suggests a wide-ranging understanding of dance making and arts practice will be brought to bear on the ranking of submissions for the three fellowships envisaged for 1997.

The residency program, with a lighter financial commitment, offers access to the Centre’s facilities and resources for choreographers to develop work. A highly flexible program allows an almost infinite range of innovative proposals. Matters of duration, financial assistance and personnel are discussed within the partnership, with advice from the advisory panel.

The flipside to both fellowship and residency programs is public outcome. With exploration and research as the primary focus, outcome will be measured not by performance, but a different kind of public access. The local community needs to feel a benefit from the Centre, and opposition can arise when choreographers makes the space so private that no-one can enter, either metaphorically or literally. Fellowship recipients will need to integrate some degree of public access into their schedule, although there are no rules about what form this might take.

By way of sharing ideas and to gently open up dialogue, Mark Gordon envisages choreographic luncheons, where local people might meet choreographers, perhaps see videos, ask questions, to develop perspectives on dance practice. He also wants to set up a writers’ group whose charter is to develop writing about dance outside of criticism. If genuine dialogue between writer and choreographer is just an ideal, the results may still benefit archival documentation.

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These activities seem so closely interwoven as to create of a kind of performance ‘safety net’, and engender confidence in those afraid of falling. But for others whose artistic footing is surer, and who crave danger and isolation, a source of joy may seem stopped. Both Mark and Janet’s undoubted strengths will be welcome and liberating for some, performers and audience alike, even if the singleminded and uncompromising among us find such stimulation more of an irritant.

In many ways, Mark Gordon and Janet Robertson’s visions dove-tail well. Their enterprises seem built for survival, and between the two of them, they may flourish.

RealTime issue #16 Dec-Jan 1996 pg. 8

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

1 December 1996