Shadow boxing?

Philipa Rothfield, MAP Symposium

One of the arguments rehearsed during Melbourne’s MAP Symposium concerned the place of ballet in relation to contemporary dance practice. According to Libby Dempster, the dominance of ballet is such that all modern dance in Australia is conceived in relation to ballet. In other words, ballet ‘others’ the rest of contemporary dance. Dempster further argued that no significant counter-tradition exists in Australia.

The view is that ballet is identified with dance (ballet = dance), and anything else is necessarily other to that identity. There are those who took issue with this position. For example, Amanda Card gave a brief history of a dancer, Sonia Revid, in the 1930s whose contributions have never been acknowledged. The implication is that there are subjugated histories of non-hegemonic practices—the trouble is that they are not written and, more critically, have no inheritors.

From the point of view of history, this is fair enough. Theory often skates over the historical in order to make its claims. But what do we say today? Is ballet the controlling term in the governing imaginary of all contemporary dance in Australia? If one were to look to money as the criterion of dominance, then one would have to say, yes. Who else is funded to have a 60-strong company, a school and a secure audience around the country? As regards education, one would need to look at all the institutions across the land in order to ascertain how they stand in relation to ballet. What about the practitioners themselves? A number of performers who had trained in ballet were asked about the influences felt from such a training. Given the histories of those consulted, it was not possible to conceive of a practice which did not in one way or another emerge from ballet. And then there is the question of the audience.

To compare ballet with contemporary dance is to raise matters of power. So, also, is the question of whether there are other dance traditions which significantly contest that ascendancy. What fuels the view that there are no challengers is the fact that we lack the genealogies of British or American dance, a lack which can never be “made up.” Given that there are alternative practices (if not traditions), how influential do they need to be to challenge the singular dominance of ballet? What does it take to challenge? Is a challenge only a challenge if it actually topples a given order of power? Did the resistance expressed in the recent waterfront dispute challenge the new/old Right’s attempt to disempower unionism?

Finally, what of the hegemonies of contemporary dance in Australia? Russell Dumas’ name came up a lot in relation to personal histories and the undoing of ballet training. What is Dumas’ place in the topography of Australian influence? In terms of political economy, what of companies such as Chunky Move (Gideon Obarzanek), Sydney Dance Company (Graeme Murphy), Expressions (Maggie Sietsma), Dance Works (Sandra Parker), Meryl Tankard’s Australian Dance Theatre and others. And I haven’t begun to speak of Indigenous dance in Australia, or of the place of heterosexism and other sexualities (a matter which seems to come up more in contemporary performance).

Questions of power are complex. They involve overlapping histories of domination, recognised histories and unspoken viewpoints. Perhaps I could finish with a position which completely contradicts the foregoing. Susan Manning defines postmodern dance as a break with one (or both) of two conditions of modernism, (1) “the reflexive rationalisation of movement” and (2) “the dual practice of modern dance and modern ballet” (The Drama Review, vol 4, 1988). In a break with the dichotomy between modern dance and ballet, as in Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room, what happens to the domination of ballet form? Does it inevitably re-emerge or is it transformed? And where would we look for an answer?

MAP Symposium, The Bagging Room, C.U.B. Malthouse, Melbourne, July 25 – 26

RealTime issue #27 Oct-Nov 1998 pg. 9

© Philipa Rothfield; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 1998