Nice work if you can get it

Eleanor Brickhill

Kevin Privett, Dance QUT, Faculty of Creative Industries

Kevin Privett, Dance QUT, Faculty of Creative Industries

Kevin Privett, Dance QUT, Faculty of Creative Industries

The last few years have seen a depletion of university resources resulting in fewer staff, an increase in student numbers, fewer places to put them while they’re on campus and no particular place for them to go after they’ve graduated, and all this within what seems like a constant review process necessitating radical restructuring of whole departments, and a rethinking of their function within and relationship to the communities they seek to be part of. Speaking to representatives of institutions teaching full-time dance courses, I detected a very determined positive stance about these changes with notes of distress filtering through.

Practice: new frameworks

Don Asker, Senior Lecturer and Post Graduate Coordinator at the Victorian College of the Arts is aware of the increasing rate of revision and evolution of courses generally. “A decade ago, there was a sense that a course was what it was, you could immerse yourself in it, and the field itself was quite tangible. But that was rather fanciful, and we are actually in a world that is dynamic and evolving at such a fast rate that there’s no real justification for perpetuating some programs…some institutes are better able to find a foundational core which enables the flexibility for dealing with rapid change and emerging needs. If you’re not in such a place, then you’re constantly involved in setting up new infrastructures and new resources.”

Kathy Driscoll, Senior Lecturer in Dance, University of Western Sydney, discussed the hilariously named “harmonisation process”, a university-wide restructure in which Dance, Acting and Theatre-making have been coerced into a new Bachelor of Performance, Theory and Practice. This was in addition to a simultaneous and thorough departmental review where people were invited to make submissions and students were surveyed extensively. She was concerned about the fragility of the wider tertiary system to support arts practice: “We’re facing this cut in dance, but the whole school—music, visual arts, all areas of contemporary arts at this university—is looking at cuts in staff, about a 30% reduction. That’s so significant.”

Ronne Arnold, Course Coordinator, National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association, comments: “Right now, I’m looking at an assessment report which suggests that a field trip is not an integral part of the course. But really, the field trip is the crucial element. Students get acquainted with the dances here first, and once they have an idea and know the elders who come to teach them, it’s easier for them to go into the community, because they have developed a relationship. Otherwise they’d never go.”

Development of specific cultural identity aside, the push is definitely global, and some institutions have been more successful in attracting a diverse range of students, from those interested in conservative approaches to dance and performance to those who desire more conceptually based collaboratively conceived, multidisciplinary work. Queensland University of Technology epitomises these strategies in its new Faculty of Creative Industries, and exhibits all the buzz words on its website: “QUT’s Creative Industries initiative is driven by changes in the international economic and social environment…The vision is to take the best of what we already offer in the performing and visual arts, computer and communication design, and media and journalism, and co-locate them in an interdisciplinary cluster dedicated to the creative aspects of the new economy…emphasising partnerships, networking, project-based innovation, and flexible working patterns.”

Cheryl Stock, Head of Dance, Queensland University of Technology, discusses the new configuration. “We have 6 different degrees, with 5 core units across all the degrees: Introduction to Creative Industries, Transforming Cultures, Creativity, Writing for Creative Industries and Introduction to Digital Multimedia, and no matter what discipline you’re in, you have to take 4 out of 5 of these components. We have 2 performance degrees (Bachelor of Fine Arts and the Associate Degree); the professional degree (Bachelor of Creative Industries, Dance) where students major in dance but take pathways through various subjects; and a double degree in Education Then there’s the new one, the Bachelor of Creative Industries (Interdisciplinary Degree) where people don’t belong to any particular discipline.

“Dance is fairly dominated by the digital environment. It’s definitely a valued component, but we have to keep reminding people not to forget about live work as well as mediated work. And that creates a problem for dance. With live dance forms, we have students working in the studio, so of course we still have huge contact hours.”

Elizabeth Dempster, School of Human Movement, Recreation and Performance, Victoria University, comments: “There’s a tension between the concern about experiential learning and its value, and the rather economic rationalist view that says wouldn’t it be good if everything was on-line, and funds could be diverted to other areas, away from studios and teachers. In fact some institutions would be under more pressure than we are because they’re even more practice-based. We haven’t chopped the experientially-based work but contact hours are less, due to funding restrictions.”

The VCA (University of Melbourne) and the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (Edith Cowan University) are 2 such practice-based institutions. VCA’s website states that the philosophical underpinnings still lie in studio practice, with classes in ballet and contemporary dance closely interrelated with composition and performance, and increased time in performance workshops. Performance and practice are also central to the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) philosophy, with daily technique classes, choreographic development and regular performance opportunities in a variety of venues. So is nurturing of strong links with professional organisations, companies and other artists, both locally and internationally. Both the Advanced Diploma stream and the BA program have a common year in first year and a core of ballet, contemporary, performance and choreography. While the Advanced Diploma is directed more towards mainstream dance with add-ons like pas de deux, pointe, repertoire, variations, the BA is more diverse and less defining, having been redesigned so that students can pursue individual goals as dance artists, choreographers, teachers or researchers. In the Honours course, students can choose either a research/performance project or audition for the Link Performance Dance Company. The MA in Creative Arts offers students the opportunity to refocus education in one particular art form and expose it to others.

Courses and communities

The social functioning within tertiary dance institutions and the relationship to the communities they are part of can sometimes be a complex weave of mainstream arts practices and non-dominant social values. VU, NAISDA and The Wesley Institute of Ministry & the Arts (WIMA) are 3 such institutions whose inceptions 20–30 years ago deviated considerably from what mainstream dance practice might have dictated. Still most important at NAISDA is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. “The component that the students come here for is the Indigenous—that’s primary, but we have a twofold program. Some of our students have never had the benefit of mainstream training so our institution fills that gap; a lot of students who come here also have no connection to their traditional culture, and they want to acquire that knowledge.” Similarly, WIMA offers courses which integrate dance training within a Christian framework. Evelyn Defina (Head of Dance, Wesley Insititute of Ministry & the Arts) comments: “Because of the nature of the college, there’s no competitiveness, no bitchiness. It’s more an atmosphere of encouragement and support, helping students to reach their potential. We offer a lot of one-to-one counselling, which we can do because we are small. That’s part of our brief.”

Elizabeth Dempster describes how the course at the Victorian University was initiated in response to a field of practice which didn’t have much institutional representation, being conceived of as “a platform for dance practices that were situated in cross-disciplinary or visual arts contexts and didn’t come out of conservative dance institutions. It was also giving ‘knowledge about’ and ‘experience of’, rather than expecting people to pop out of the course and be fully fledged artists. Now, it’s hard to decide what that community might be, it’s changed so radically over the last five years.”

Nanette Hassall says of WAAPA’s current environment: “We operate within a number of different communities. The most basic is the small group of independent artists who work in Perth. I spend two-thirds of my sessional budget, which is something like $40,000, on supporting that community. Artists are invited to make work with the students…When I came here, I found Perth very factionalised, and I think what we’ve done has helped to bring them more together, with more recognition of each other’s skills. We’re a kind of meeting place.”

Institutions also addressed questions about their skills base differently, but often discussed a similar convergent core of body-based work functioning alongside a diverse eclectic mix of other work which depended almost entirely on visiting and local artists. VU’s project-based work—8 hours a week—is determined by the visiting artists teaching it. Dempster says, “Strictly speaking it may not be a choreographic or dance approach. It may be a writing or visual arts project. The community of artists we draw on would rarely be from mainstream companies; they’re more the independent artists. And the sessional teachers are artists who have evolved and established their own practices in some way or other. These people are very diverse.

“The course is broad-based, and strong conceptually. Students get really excited by it, but they don’t get 2 technique classes a day. They have to find resources outside to build up the skills base if they want them…I still harbour the idea that you need a body practice in which to ground work, but for various reasons, the body-based work is about a third of the program. We do experiential anatomy, ideokinesis and improvisation, and these function as resources for students whose work may not evolve into a movement or dance-based form.”

At QUT there are rigorous classical or contemporary classes 4 days a week “because choreographers and directors still expect highly trained and virtuosic dancers…Mostly the contemporary styles are release-based because that’s what people teach, and are manifested quite differently with each teacher. All students are assessed similarly in alignment—which is fundamental in first year in both ballet and contemporary. We’re looking at generic attributes of styles, but we like the diversity that casual staff bring.”.

Getting work

Another concern has traditionally been about what students can achieve on leaving tertiary training. David Spurgeon, Faculty of Theatre, Film and Dance, University of New South Wales, has no qualms: “The immediate end is that students are going to be high school teachers of dance. Technique is fine, but we all know there aren’t jobs for dancers. What I’m promoting has a real goal in front of it. Everybody who graduates, who wants to teach and is prepared to travel, has a job. If you don’t want to teach full time, you can do casual teaching 2 days a week, which is better than waitressing, and you can make work.”

Nanette Hassall comments: “There’s no work in Perth, so it’s really important to get them out. But we can’t afford to turn their attention back to the eastern states because there’s no work there either…We encourage students to do overseas exchange programs which include places like Julliard in the US, the University of North Carolina, primarily for students who are very interested in teaching…There’s a lot of international benchmarking, taking the students to perform internationally. This year we’re performing in Dusseldorf at the Global Dance Festival. We’ve been to Korea twice, Malaysia 3 times…We’re also trying to invite at least one guest artist from Asia each year to make a work. Last year Shih Gee Tze came from Taiwan, and he also invited our students to perform with his company.”

Don Asker finds the contemporary VCA culture empowering: “We are getting a broader range of people and we can satisfy a broader range of desires. Within that, we’re making it possible for people to see that performance is changing. There are people working for companies like Chunky Move and Sydney Dance Company, but there are also a number of people seeking work in project environments that sometimes become extremely highly profiled. In the past we tended to have a more hierarchical perception of what was good achievement, but now we’re noticing that vocational pathways are much more complex. People move across them. Goals and aspirations are changing.”

RealTime issue #50 Aug-Sept 2002 pg. 30-

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

1 August 2002