new niches, new dance audiences

martin del amo: contemporary dance in western sydney

Jannawi Dance Theatre, Megamaras, film, Blacktown Arts Centre

Jannawi Dance Theatre, Megamaras, film, Blacktown Arts Centre

Jannawi Dance Theatre, Megamaras, film, Blacktown Arts Centre


It is true that artists such as Anandavalli (Lingalayam Dance Company) and Annalouise Paul have been presenting contemporary culturally diverse dance at venues like Riverside Parramatta for quite some time. And yet, there is no denying that in recent years a growing number of NSW-based independent dance artists have switched their attention to Western Sydney, where a variety of arts organisations and presenters offer ample opportunity to both develop and present new work. So what is the reason for this sudden boom.

According to Kim Spinks, who formerly managed state funding for theatre and dance and is currently Manager Capacity and Development at Arts NSW, there are several factors. One is the implementation of Arts NSW’s Western Sydney Arts Strategy, a long-range initiative drawn up and put into effect in 1999. It had a substantial funding program attached to it ($37m 2001-2010) and targeted all artforms. However, as Spinks points out, at the time the University of Western Sydney (UWS) offered the only tertiary dance degree in New South Wales which became a factor for organisations such as Ausdance NSW to invest in dance in Western Sydney and attempt to build an infrastructure around it. Ironically, the dance course at UWS folded after a few years but, by then, the rise of dance development in the area was well on its way.

Another great shift occurred through a major capital commitment of over $20m from the Carr government in the mid-2000s and a combined spend of over $55 Million from state and local governments. It affected the arts centres in Campbelltown, Blacktown and Casula and involved turning visual arts spaces into multi-art centres. As a result several of these organisations incorporated dance into their programming. So let’s have a look at some of the key players:

form dance projects

FORM Dance Projects, known until recently as Western Sydney Dance Action (WSDA), was founded in 2002, evolving from an outreach initiative Ausdance NSW set up in response to the Western Sydney Arts Strategy in the late 1990s. Since its inception, the organisation’s most important partnership has been with Riverside Theatres under the directorship of Robert Love. Initially an auspiced project, FORM now operates independently from Riverside but presents work in partnership with them. The cornerstone of its presentation program continues to be the long-running Dance Bites series. Initiated by WSDA’s inaugural director Kathy Baykitch in 2003, Dance Bites has gathered momentum in the last couple of years with highly successful productions such as Narelle Benjamin’s and Francis Ring’s Forseen, Craig Bary’s and Lisa Griffith’s Side to One (see interview, RT105) and most recently Anton’s SuperModern Dance of Distraction (see p4). Later in the year, Tess de Quincey will present Framed, a new instalment in her acclaimed “embrace” series.

In spite of the increasing number of high calibre artists seeking out FORM as presenting partner, the fragility of the organisation’s funding situation is an ongoing concern for its current director, Annette McLernon. She explains: “FORM’s core funding is very secure. We have just received triennial funding (2012-2014) from Arts NSW and Riverside Theatres is a key partner. However, the project funding for the Dance Bites presentations is less certain as the producers or individual independent choreographers are still very dependent on successful funding to develop and present their works.”

However, FORM does not only present work, it also offers a significant education program. Its various initiatives include master classes for young choreographers from Western Sydney and the popular Learn the Repertoire, See the Show series, as part of which presenting artists teach workshops and offer post show discussions.

campbelltown arts centre

Lizzie Thomson, PANTO

Lizzie Thomson, PANTO

Lizzie Thomson, PANTO

In the wake of the redevelopment of Campbelltown Arts Centre (CAC) into a multi-arts centre, Lisa Havilah, its director 2005-2010, put a five-year strategic plan into action that included dance alongside visual arts, theatre, new music and live art/performance. For the first couple of years, dance at CAC was mainly presented in the form of individual projects. This changed when Emma Saunders was appointed as dance curator in late 2008. She was given the brief to develop a three-year framework for a Contemporary Dance Program and curate artists as part of it. Saunders, a well-respected member of the NSW independent dance community, best known for her work with the irrepressible dance trio The Fondue Set, rose to the challenge and put a multi-strand model in place which combined long-term development projects and residencies for local and international artists with the presentation of new work, both full-length pieces and short work commissions. Saunders says about her curatorial approach, “The CAC Contemporary Dance Program promotes interdisciplinary and intercultural projects. We support artists interested in questions around process, form and community engagement.” As a prime example Saunders cites the work of dance artist Lizzie Thomson who collaborated with an ensemble of community participants drawn from local amateur dance and theatre companies during her 2010 residency and then featured them in the finished work, Panto (see RT105), the following year.

Now in its fourth year, CAC’s 2012 dance program will culminate in a three-day festival project in October titled Oh! I Wanna Dance With Somebody. It will showcase outcomes from the program’s various strands and include 20 Australian and international artists as well as 150 Campbelltown locals across 15 projects, occupying the entire arts centre.

blacktown arts centre

Unlike Campbelltown Arts Centre with its variety of artform specific programs, Blacktown Arts Centre (BAC) runs a multidisciplinary contemporary arts program, of which dance is part. According to Kiri Morecombe, Acting Performing Arts Development Officer until recently, BAC is largely focussed on the development of new work from local and Western Sydney artists. In 2010, for example, Katy Green, a young performance practitioner born and raised in Western Sydney, was awarded a three-week residency as part of BAC’s performing arts program to explore cross-artform collaboration together with composer and sound artist Tom Hogan. A second stage development will take place at BAC in August this year.

Another dance project recently supported by BAC was Megamaras by Indigenous dance artists Peta Strachan and Rayma Johnson, together with media artist Michelle Blakeney. Based on the story of Daringyule (dancing woman), who broke the law, and combining choreography with projected underwater imagery, the work was developed in residence at BAC in late 2011 and pitched at the Australian Performing Arts Market earlier this year. BAC has an Aboriginal Arts Development Officer, Andrea James.

Asked about the future of dance at Blacktown Arts Centre, Director Jenny Bisset, says, “With a stronger emphasis on dance in recent years, we have started to build an audience and expectation for this and will continue to look for new work through our performing arts residency program and our Aboriginal Arts program. We are particularly interested in hybrid work as we continue to build cross-disciplinary programming.”

youMove company

The Parramatta-based youMove Company was founded by dance artist Kay Armstrong in 2008, starting operations at the beginning of 2009. It is designed as a platform for emerging dancers and graduates. Even though strongly supported through a partnership with Western Sydney Dance Action, things didn’t go smoothly for Armstrong and her troupe initially, having missed out on funding during their first year. “The first year was about surviving basically,” Armstrong says. “The focus was on finding platforms for presentation, building our reputation and achieving industry credibility.” Gradually developing a repertoire of short works choreographed by herself and various independent choreographers such as Anton and Ian Colless, Armstrong worked tirelessly in the following years to raise public awareness for the company and create performance opportunities for her dancers. The company’s many gigs have included performances at the 2010 Under the Radar program (Brisbane Festival) and presenting work in a double bill with the Sydney Dance Company in Parramatta Park as part of the 2011 Sydney Festival. It didn’t take long until the company started to attract project funding and the business side of things consolidated. Last year the company incorporated and received program funding for the first time.

YouMove’s activities now comprise three strands: performance, mentorship and education. Of these strands, education is the most recent addition to the company’s program. It includes performance presentations and post-show workshops by the company for students (5-12 years) in Western Sydney schools. It’s an area Armstrong feels especially passionate about: “I’m a huge proponent of the idea of education being a transformative process. So what I’m hoping to do is to create and build future dance audiences. Now, the way to do that is to hit them young, you’ve got to get into the schools when they are at an impressionable age and give them really positive, expansive, unique, imaginative, inspiring dance experiences.”

RealTime issue #109 June-July 2012 pg. 2

© Martin del Amo; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

12 June 2012