Shake it or break it

Tony Osborne looks at Western Australian independent dance works and issues

Dancers in Perth who work outside the company systems often feel isolated from one another as well as from the dance bureaucracies, which do little to reduce the atmosphere of heap-scrabbling competition. Independent New Choreographers (INC), a bi-annual project funded by the WA Department for the Arts, is attempting to redress the balance. INC’s administrator, Gillian Edmeades, convenes programs by inviting available dancers to participate in a six week workshop process which culminates in the showing of works-in-progress to a paying audience. The latest offering from INC was shown in the performance space at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA) in July.

In their respective dances for INC, choreographers Bill Handley and Sasha Myler both chose to construct a movement ‘score’ which drew the performers’ attention to particular body parts. This created in Handley’s Miss Understanding a meditative pace which brought new meaning to dancerly athleticism. Sasha Myler’s duet, An Exploration, A Relationship employed contact improvisation and spoken text. It subtly evoked for me the questions about cruelty, obsession, intimacy and passion which surround heterosexual liaisons.

These two explorations of body intelligence were complemented by the louder energy of Billie Athena Cook’s Turn Me On and her superbly executed acrobatic duet Shake It, Break It with Setefano Tele and Angela McDonald-Booth. McDonald-Booth choreographed a synchronised ‘techno’ trio This Is Contagious and the material in Tele’s self-devised solo Last pre-empted the trio Play It By Ear which he directed as the closing dance of the evening. This piece brought together the disparate energies of the group to finish with a humorously thoughtful impro-based experiment which ruminated on the implications for the individual of sensory/mobility deprivation.

The program juxtaposed young bodies flying in unison to a techno accompaniment against body-practice investigations of motion, creating a dialogue over the evening which was both strange and enriching.

INC provides an on-going forum for dancers to try out raw ideas on an audience even though much of the material is only at the beginning of its evolutionary path. The fact that dancers in such a vulnerable forum perhaps lose sight of this was manifested in the INC project by some of the rather self-conscious program notes.

Retaining confidence in one’s skills is, for any independent artist, part of the on-going challenge of participating in and producing art works. Dancers who generate their own creative work invariably supplement it with teaching or unrelated employment. Dancers Bill Handley and Sasha Myler, for instance, told me that they balance their performance passions with a teaching career in dance. They feel fortunate that their ‘day jobs’ are not completely disconnected from the business of creating art and find that the two activities inform each other very well.

In a dance community which rarely seems to publicly celebrate difference, projects like INC are important to the development of dance in WA because they bring together its disparate strands.

Mainstream dance discourses dictate that dancers and dance-makers subscribe to a putative universal standard of physicality which promotes an image of the dancer as young and supremely athletic. Consequently a dance mythology has evolved which discounts anything other than the extremely aerobic forms of motion. A mythology like this not only reduces the status of older practicing dancers and their valuable contribution to the dance community (the wider arts community does not seem to have this problem) but also devalues work which is motivated by a different intelligence from that of the conventional forms.

Many dancers believe that if the dwindling support for those working in the margins continues to spiral downwards, then less innovation will occur. And if the unmarked vitality which the independents bring to the practice is absent, then the mainstream dance body will also atrophy.

To invoke the rhetoric of the economic rationalists, “no business survives without creating new interest in its activities”, and if performance dance is to continue, then new audiences must be constantly generated. One way is to break down long-held stigmas, which for many are attached to traditional venues, by staging dance outside of the theatre.

PICA, in part, performs this function and bridges gaps for independent dancers with development opportunities for work such as Putting On An Act and its (inaugural) dance festival in November.

The eternal frustration for independent performers, however, is that the value to, and influence on, the mainstream that their work has is rarely acknowledged. Many independent dancers therefore must form their peer support group amongst the practitioners of other art disciplines. Without these liaisons, life for many independent dance artists would be very lonely.

RealTime issue #8 Aug-Sept 1995 pg. 33

© Tony Osborne; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 1995