The art & ideas behind an award

Keith Gallasch, interview Phillip Keir, Keir Choreographic Award

Phillip Keir

Phillip Keir

Phillip Keir

Phillip Keir’s done beginners’ dance classes at the Merce Cunningham Studio in New York, read scripts and directed youth theatre for the Royal Court in London, learned German in order to study Regietheater (directors’ theatre) in Cologne, directed and translated plays for four years at the Sydney Theatre Company, published the Australian Rolling Stone music magazine for 20 years, in 2004 formed the Keir Foundation with Sarah Benjamin, to principally support visual arts and dance ventures, and in 2013 established the Keir Choreographic Award, first given in 2014. The semi-finals and finals of the 2016 Award are fast approaching.

Arts benefactors are not often arts practitioners (there are notable exceptions of course, like Margaret Olley). They variously come to benefaction through curiosity, invitation, board appointment or simply keen amateur interest in connecting closely with an artform. Keir’s early art experiences have shaped the vision he has for his foundation and the dance award. His passion is not simply for dance, but for cross-artform collaborations, high/low cultural morphing and the bringing together of organisations, including his foundation, as co-commissioners, for the sharing of visions and the making of works between cities (he has no time for the Sydney-Melbourne schism) and internationally.

Jump this paragraph if you already know about the award. The announcement of the founding of the Keir Choreographic Award—a collaboration between the Keir Foundation, Melbourne’s Dancehouse and Sydney’s Carriageworks—was enthusiastically welcomed by Australian independent contemporary dance choreographers and their supporters. While visual artists, writers and playwrights have long benefited, if to varying degrees, from awards and commissions, there’s been little if any private support for independent dance makers and certainly not an award like this. Atlanta Eke received the first award and Jane McKernan the public prize. Now in its second round, the KCA funds the development of eight 20-minute works, selected by the judges from submissions. These are staged in semi-finals at Dancehouse. The four winning works are then presented at Carriageworks where the jury winner [$30,000] and the people’s choice award winner [$10,000] are announced. These are significant amounts that doubtless generate choreographer confidence, aspiration and recognition.

Keir is a straight talker, fluent, amiable, eye contact unwavering. He speaks with a sense of certainty about where he’s been and what’s made him, but is open about how long it’s taken to become an effective benefactor. We meet at his home, seated at a very long dining table, framed by large contemporary art works and visited by a fine cat with a penchant for conversation.

Atlanta Eke, winner KCA 2014

Atlanta Eke, winner KCA 2014

Atlanta Eke, winner KCA 2014


Your connection with art, was it something you were born with, or did it come with your family or experience or…?
It very much came out of experience. I was born in Wollongong and I don’t think I went to the theatre for the first time till I was 16. We moved to Sydney when I was about 14. Art was something I very much discovered for myself. It was something outside my family experience. At the age of 16, I got very interested in popular music and also used to go along to the early Nimrod plays. I ranged across music, film and theatre—I even went to some dance events. Then I went off to Sydney University as one did at the time and began studying philosophy. I did the usual thing of getting involved in SUDS and so on. And then I had a kind of epiphany or a break-down… I decided I didn’t find it interesting enough or compelling enough so I decided to go to the UK but via the US.



I ended up in New York intending to stay for a week but I found the whole place so exciting I actually stayed for a year. I’d seen the Merce Cunningham Dance Company at the Sydney Opera House, when the company toured to Australia. So I wound up at the Merce Cunningham Dance School, taking a class there. I’d arrived with 100 dollars in cash and no job, no contacts really. The school very generously got me a student visa which allowed me to stay. So I became part of that Downtown Manhattan scene—well, the scene I aspired to I guess. I was about 20 at this stage. I worked in restaurants and bars and composed my own education in the arts. At the time, there was a very interesting course being run by New York University’s Experimental Theatre Wing. I had no money to do the course. American universities, as you know, are quite expensive but I’d ring up each of the workshop groups and ask, “Could I join the session because I’d be very interested to be part of it.” I did some work with what became the Wooster Group. In fact, it was the year they became The Wooster Group so it was very early days. As payment for the course, I did technical work, assisting with the set and lights and so on. I worked on their first production called Rumstick Road, written by Spalding Gray. I guess I got lucky in one sense. I was in the right place at the right time.

And it was a time when New York was bankrupt. You could live there for almost nothing. It’s what allowed that whole Downtown scene to really grow because there were lots of people from different persuasions in art who worked together. I performed at The Kitchen in 1976. There were interesting mixes. Laurie Anderson was there, Talking Heads had played their first gigs the year before in a bar. There were visual arts people. I remember meeting Cindy Sherman because she was part of that set. I guess it gave me a grounding in art across a whole lot of things but dance was actually the most generous—there is a kind of fundamental humanity about the way dance works. I always had an interest in contemporary dance. The Merce Cunningham School itself had that sense of combining John Cage’s music with movement and the work of Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. So it was always multi-art form.

So you took classes at the Cunningham School?
I did beginners’ dance classes. I never aspired to be a professional dancer but I just liked the idea. Lessons must have been fairly cheap because I had no money. It’s a thing you could do on a come-and-go basis. They took a very open view as to the kind of students they took. You didn’t have to have done eight years of ballet or six years of ‘modern dance’ as it was called at the time. It had a kind of looseness about it that I found really attractive.



After that year my visa was up so I travelled on to the UK. I had an English grandmother so I didn’t have any problems with visas and so on. I started to pursue a more conventional theatrical process even though I started at the ICA in 1978 which, again, had that multi-art form element to it, though I worked at the theatre end of it. But that’s where I received a lot of my visual arts education because there was always something going on in the gallery.

The ICA was a pretty adventurous place at that time.
People don’t realise because London is now a capital of the visual arts but at the time the ICA was contemporary art. So that was my education in this multi-art form and it’s always interested me. To some extent as an artist I ended up doing more conventional theatre work, with the youth theatre at the Royal Court. I was a script reader and became part of their literary process as well as doing fringe productions and community theatre around the East End.



Towards the end of that period I became quite interested in the European Regietheatre process. I learned German at the Goethe Institut in London and then arranged an internship at Schauspiel Köln in Cologne run by a German director called Jürgen Flimm who’s still active in his 70s. I then came back to Australia, did some student productions around Sydney University and was offered the job at Sydney Theatre Company because, although it’s fairly common these days for Australian theatre directors to have some German experience, at that time there was no-one. I was the only person who’d done it at all.

Richard Wherrett who was running STC at the time was interested in the whole ‘dramaturg’ thing. At that stage we still called that role ‘literary manager,’ the way the British did. Richard wanted to dress everything up so, even though it wasn’t my role, the Literary Advisor became the Dramaturg and all productions had a dramaturg. I spent four years there and directed maybe six or seven plays, some I translated as well. I directed one of the first three plays that opened the Wharf Theatre in 1984, a version of Brecht’s The Bourgeois Wedding, which I translated from German.

Was it a good experience, life at the STC, overall?
It was a very good experience but I became a bit frustrated with the process, the commercial constraints. I would always defend [Wherrett] in the sense that he would always like a new idea, but then sometimes he’d get bored with those ideas. So he decided that this European theatre model was not quite so interesting and we parted ways.



I had a period of freelance work and then oddly enough, the Rolling Stone thing came along and, having been a poor artist for my whole life, I thought wouldn’t it be great to have a little bit of money behind me. I was still under 30 and had been dealing with subscription audiences who were not in my age range. I’d always been interested in popular culture and music in particular. So the idea of actually spending time on something that appealed to people more in my age group was quite attractive. But that said, I thought I’d do it for a couple of years and get back to the theatre but that didn’t transpire.

How long were you with Rolling Stone?
In the end, 20 years.

And in that period did you sustain your art interests?
Rolling Stone was by and large music first, some film and some visual arts. Initially there was a very small staff who did everything, it became more commercial, more commercially viable and ultimately I ended up buying my partners out. We developed a whole lot of other products. We were very good at launching new magazines. Rolling Stone was, obviously, a pre-existing American title that had been published under license prior to us and had fallen on hard times, but we were very lucky to be in the right place at the right time. It was in the late-80s that Australian music broke through from being to some extent a niche to being quite mainstream in terms of charting. At the same time there were quite a few bands that had something to talk about because Rolling Stone always did best with acts that had strong ideas, strong lyrics. Bands like Midnight Oil and to a lesser extent, INXS, Cold Chisel became the staple of that coverage. The ‘Australian-ness’ and the fact that we put in much more local coverage combined to assist the title and it grew very strongly over some years. It was quite exciting to be part of that process. Ultimately we developed a lot of other titles in the popular culture space. We launched the first Computer Games and PC Gaming titles and ended up with 70 staff and 13 full-time titles. So it kind of took me over to some extent.



What did you feel at the end of the Rolling Stone years? Did you leave with a new ambition?
I guess it’d become a commercial thing and I was completely overwhelmed by it. Towards the end, I formed the Foundation and started to fund certain arts projects.

Do you remember the moment you decided or the rationale, when you decided to become an arts benefactor?
I guess it had been brewing for a while and it was a way of re-engaging. And also I had all the finances I hadn’t had before, more money than I needed at this stage. It started fairly small in about 2004 and right from the beginning it linked back to where I started, with my interest in visual arts and dance and that’s where the Foundation has gone full-circle, back to the beginning, as in New York in 1976.

And that kinship between the two?
It also worked closely in with the music which at that time was Patti Smith, Talking Heads, The Ramones, who all had a strong visual art element. Velvet Underground, Lou Reed and so on. It’s always one of the things I’ve been interested in as well as the high art/low art schism. I’m interested in things that don’t just sit in what I would call a traditional high art box. I have some knowledge of traditional ballet but I’m interested in what’s contemporary, what’s saying something to people now about what is of now. Dance to me is very much part of that in the local context because it is about a contemporary performance practice which is often quite open. It’s that interest I’ve held throughout. It’s fair to say that if there’s a sweet spot in what the Keir Foundation covers, it’s work that’s multi-disciplinary, that works between areas and sometimes does have a high/low culture kind of [mix].



The Foundation was very much a work in progress. We had no knowledge of how to conduct one and we were probably a little slow initially trying to work out what worked and what didn’t and so it’s taken the best part of 10 years to get a strong definition of what we think is interesting and where a foundation can work. There are many kinds of philanthropy and people give to arts and culture for many different reasons. Sometimes there’s a social dimension. Sometimes there’s an interest in one particular form—all kinds of reasons. It took us a while to work out what exactly we could do best and also in a practical sense. For instance, with large theatre projects the production costs are such that, as a relatively small foundation, we can’t “move the dial” as the Americans say. The attraction with, say, visual arts is that sometimes things can be large in scope but they’re also very modular so you can deal with individual projects and these don’t necessarily cost that much. Dance is a kind of poor man’s craft in one sense; artists often have to work under very tough budgetary constraints. From a pragmatic point of view we can actually make a difference because government funding in some of these areas is very modest.



So your Foundation contributes to the developmental costs of a work or production costs or… Is that the kind of support you’re giving?
Our view is to always work closely with existing institutions, encouraging small to medium organisations to work together. We take the view that sometimes pooling funds from different places helps with the budget in a pragmatic sense, but also that the process of working together is part of what the project is about [as happens] in Germany, the UK and the US. [But then] you come back to Australia and find that there are state arts infrastructures that seem to encourage people not to work together and people live in their bubble in their city in their home state and don’t collaborate very closely with their peers in other states.

Garry Stewart’s ADT has been a stand-out example of a company finding European co-commissioning partners who then also present the work.
Certainly that’s what a lot of the big European performing arts companies do. Not only do you get money to actually make the work but also, you don’t have to go back and sell it to them later because they’ve already to some extent bought in. It means that they have a commitment to that artist’s work. I find arts markets difficult things; the process of commissioning and buy-in has more potential.

The Foundation has a relatively low profile. There are no ‘apply now’ advertisements.
We don’t want to set up an infrastructure and that’s why we don’t have that process of application. By and large if you have an open application you end up with a lot of paper and phone calls and so on. A lot of the money that could go out in the form of a grant winds up in administration. And really, the arts scene in Australia is not that large. If we’re partnering with organisations it’s a matter of having a conversation. That’s often how the commissions come about.

It often comes out of us having an interest in a particular artist and the organisation having a similar interest. A recent example was a film work made by Melbourne-based visual artist Nick Mangan, a co-commission between Chisenhale Gallery in Bow in East London and Artspace in Sydney. The nature of film is that by visual arts standards it’s a relatively expensive medium because you’ve got to go to places and shoot the film and edit it and you usually have quite a few collaborators. The good thing about film is that you don’t have that conventional problem with freight, which is the big killer with visual arts. If you’ve got a big bulky object, you’ve got to get it from one end of the world to the other and most of the budget can be sunk in shipping costs. The project needed extra commission money. It was an innovative work between two institutions of similar size with an Australian artist with an international reputation. One of the things that still really interests me about the visual arts is that it has become the most international of forms. We don’t support scripted theatre because it often has limitations as far as language goes. Watching a two and a half-hour play in German is hard-going if you’re not understanding the text at all. I’ve always been interested in this international question so that’s another reason why dance and visual arts, to me, are the most international forms, and music too.


Jane McKernon, People’s Choice Award, KCA, 2014

Jane McKernon, People’s Choice Award, KCA, 2014

Jane McKernon, People’s Choice Award, KCA, 2014


Is the award something you instituted or were you approached?
I started talking to organisations that I thought would be receptive. Dancehouse in Melbourne is virtually unique in that it’s a centre for dance and it has a full range of outcomes, including performances as well as workshops and rehearsal space and so on. Critical Path in Sydney does some of the same but has some limitations in terms of performance because of a licensing issue.

We’d already done some projects with Dancehouse and also I was keen to work with Carriageworks in Sydney so we looked at various ideas, existing commissions they were keen to gain support for. At the same time, I had been aware that in Europe there have been some choreographic prizes. I also did some due diligence and discovered that the visual arts have about 160 prizes each year across Australia. The literary world has probably 110 or 120. The dance sector has none, not a single one. I was interested in developing more of a profile for choreographers and to some extent prizes, in the common imagination, seem to denote value because you can read in the newspaper, “Oh, someone won an award of X dollars.” If there’s no money attached, the conventional press ignore you. It was an effort to give contemporary dance a profile that I thought it wasn’t getting and, at the same time, to have commissions. Just having an award or a prize on its own can appear a bit of a novelty. It becomes about the press and nothing else. [I wanted] to combine a commission series with an award—and just under half the money actually goes to the commissions.

What we’ve tried to do with this most recent Award is to add a third component—public programs [talks, workshops]. Again, this is an idea from the visual arts world—talking about what you do. One of the interesting questions that came out of the last award was that people started to ask, “Is this choreography?” “Is that dance?” [See the review of the 2014 Award, “Was there dancing?”] And what each of the eight individual commissions is doing to some extent is asking those questions. I thought, we have some eminent international jurors here, why not expose them to the broader audience as well as the wider dance community?

Sometimes contemporary dance falls under the radar because it doesn’t have critical mass. That’s one of the things we’re trying to do, to say, well you might not like this piece but there are three other works in the program. You might not agree with that person’s opinion in terms of dance or choreography but there’s a bunch of others on a panel [discussing the works] and another panel the next day. With more of a festival process with lots of things happening, hopefully you get more of a critical mass.

How closely are you involved in the process? You’re one of the judges. Obviously your attitude is not about putting your name up there but also about being a player, a part of the process?
Yes, I’m one of five. The sourcing of the judges is developed by three parties, that’s me and Dancehouse and Carriageworks. We try to seek consensus. I think the exciting thing is that already this jury is quite different from the last one. To some extent this time I’ve sat back more because I know more of the people involved already and I’ve been through the process. [Decision making] must be a huge challenge for government funding bodies—many of these artists have been around for a long time and at the same time, many of the people have been in positions of supervising the process and it has a certain circularity to it. I think it’s often one of the challenges with so-called peer assessment that there are a lot of pre-existing relationships usually between the peers. One of the strengths of the jury process we’ve set up is that new people come in and the internationals, by and large, have not been here before. The work is very much judged on merit. There’s often no preconception. What is presented on the CD [submitted for selection] is all that that jury member knows. We ask for a video. We don’t ask for a text-heavy application.

What are the long-term outcomes do you think? It’s nice that one artist wins a big prize and another receives a smaller prize. Is there a hope that some of the works will become larger ones taking off from their 20-minute origins? And do you hope, given the judges you have, that some international interest might come out of this?
Absolutely. Atlanta Eke’s Body of Work has re-appeared. She applied for funding to do a full-length version of the work, which has just been at the Adelaide Festival. She’s also performed the original length version at Mofo [formerly Mona Foma] within a music context. Shaun Gladwell’s piece was done in a black box format in Melbourne and then I saw it in UNSW gallery re-done in a white box. That’s one of the things contemporary dance artists are exploring at the moment—white box versus black box. It’s now called ‘grey box.’ So we hope that these works go on into lots of other outcomes and even into completely different outcomes. Shaun told me that out of working on his commission he ended up doing a set of prints with the Australian Print Workshop in Melbourne. That’s one of the things that fascinates me about art. You can go back to people like Rauschenberg. There was a very interesting exhibition in the gallery at London’s Barbican not so long ago which took the work of Cunningham—which, of course, I know and adore—and looked at how it affected other things. Rauschenberg is an interesting case in point. He’s maybe a far better known artist than Cunningham; certainly his works sell for stratospheric prices. But it was interesting to see the curator of that show trying to say that Rauschenberg’s interest in dance influenced the look of his work. I guess I’m hoping that the Award will spin things out into different forms, influence other things—culture as a kind of chain.

In answer to your second question, we absolutely hope that Australian artists will become part of an international conversation. For instance, one of the judges in this round, Pierre Bal-Blanc, is a curator for Documenta dealing with its performance program. I think part of his interest in coming here is to see work. He’s already had input into which eight artists have been chosen for the 2016 Award. So he’s already involved in the process and so hopefully there might be interest in some of the works, though we don’t see the award as a platform or any kind of market.

2016 Keir Choreographic Award Semifinalists: Sarah Aiken, James Batchelor, Chloe Chignell, Ghenoa Gela, Martin Hansen, Alice Heyward, Rebecca Jensen, Paea Leach.

Award Jury: Bojana Cvejic [Belgrade], performance theorist and performance maker based in Brussels; Pierre Bal-Blanc, Documenta 14 curator and independent art critic based in Athens and Paris; US based choreographer Sarah Michelson; Perth International Arts Festival Artistic Director Wendy Martin; choreographer Atlanta Eke, winner of the 2014 Award; Phillip Keir, Keir Foundation

2016 Keir Choreographic Award Semi-finals, Dancehouse, Melbourne, 26-30 April; Finals, Carriageworks, Sydney, 5-7 May

See video interviews with the finalists of the 2014 Keir Choreographic Award with excerpts from their works.

RealTime issue #132 April-May 2016, web

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

13 April 2016