The search for intelligence and charisma

Wendy Lasica

Contemporary dance-making in Australia comprises a robust yet personal set of approaches to the process of making and performing work. There are probably as many ways of working as there are choreographers. Consequently responses from choreographers, artistic directors and programmers to questions about recent graduates were distinct. What follows is a snapshot of some areas of agreement, and some diverging opinions. There are clearly 2 different directions that graduates are following—the path to company member, as a dancer in one of a small number of funded companies, or participation in the independent dance scene, principally as a dance-maker/performer.

All choreographers agreed that a strong physical training was the bare minimum required from graduating students and most felt that institutions were providing that to some degree. However opinions were divided on what sort of physical training is offered and how it’s taught—suggesting perhaps the very different approaches to dance-making by the choreographers themselves.

Obviously what each choreographer is looking for in potential dancers will depend on a number of factors. These may include: the physical skills and experience needed for executing the work; the process that the choreographers use to make work and the level of input they require from their dancers in that process, necessitating an ability to think, respond and compose; and the emotional resilience required for participating in the process.

Garry Stewart, artistic director of ADT (Australian Dance Theatre, South Australia), is the only choreographer I interviewed who consistently takes newly graduating students into a company. He finds most of them through a national audition process and looks for dancers who demonstrate strength, dexterity, confidence and a physical understanding of the body and how to use it. They also have to be willing to undertake further specialist training in order to perform his work. Stewart talks of the importance of tumbling, a high level of yoga and contact improvisation as the sorts of training that are imperative for the execution of his work. Most of these would not be part of a mainstream dance training program on a daily basis. Stewart sees that part of ADT’s role is to extend training into areas that underpin the very nature of the work, which is highly physicalised, often high risk, sometimes aerial.

Gideon Obarzanek (Artistic Director, Chunky Move, Victoria) on the other hand, does not regularly audition, as he doesn’t find it relevant or useful. He mainly finds dancers by attending performances or hearing from colleagues teaching at the colleges who alert him to promising students. Obarzanek works with a small core group of dancers, adding company members on a project basis.

As Chunky Move is not set up to train but to make new work and perform existing repertoire, Obarzanek finds that he is mostly attracted to graduates a couple of years after they complete their studies. By this time they have working experience outside an institution, which requires a level of maturity and understanding. Obarzanek’s dance-making requires a high level of contribution from the dancers, which puts a lot of responsibility on each individual. And he finds there are 2 different skills required: performance of existing repertoire and making new work. Both require “an open mind, strong rigour about picking things up. At Chunky Move you are asked to do many things very quickly.” Sometimes Obarzanek will employ a dancer to learn a role from repertoire for a tour before asking them to participate in making new work. Through this process their appropriateness for continuing with the company can be assessed.

Rosalind Crisp (dancer-choreographer, Director, Omeo Dance, New South Wales) mostly becomes acquainted with potential dancers through residencies at dance colleges or from those that seek her out by attending her classes at Omeo Studio in Sydney. She has seen a cross-section of graduates from around Australia and is concerned about the lack of inquiry that many of them have on graduation. What she looks for is a sense of curiosity, an interest in making work, an understanding of release and contact improvisation, and an open-mindedness about engaging with something new. These are not always areas of training or experience that students are encouraged to follow during institutional training, and she muses that many graduate without realising that this is just the end of the first step in their dance training. Crisp is concerned by what seems to be a lack of interest and adaptability to different ways of working. Some colleges, she suspects, are training the dancers for jobs, rather than educating them as intelligent artists—with a sense of what they can do with their training.

Both Obarzanek and Crisp are interested in dance-makers rather than dancers. Obarzanek looks for “a natural thirst and passion for composition”, while Crisp says she would much rather work with dance-makers, “they make more interesting dancers, they are part of the process…[which leads to a] greater longevity.”

Maggie Sietsma’s Expressions Dance Company (Queensland) has a dance and education arm, which is generally the first step for graduating dancers joining her company. This is a very small ensemble that performs repertory suitable for primary and secondary school students across the state. Sietsma looks for graduates with a strong and solid technique and a determination to maintain it under very difficult circumstances—on tour and with only a handful of others. “They need to come with a creative excitement but with the ability for me to imprint my own style (on their bodies)”. Because of the grueling touring schedule (up to 8 weeks at a time) and difficult conditions—different sorts of performing spaces, different levels of support from the schools—these dancers either have or develop an emotional resilience and maturity to make it through.

Precision and consistency in the performance of repertoire are of utmost importance to Sietsma’s work and she laments the loss of emphasis on this in current training. She sees this particularly when placing dancers into an ensemble where reproducing movement the same way each time it’s performed is paramount. She wonders if this is a result of so few existing dance ensembles and the imperative for the institutions to prepare dancers for work as part of the independent dance scene where ensemble work is not so important.

Dancer and choreographer Marilyn Miller, the newly appointed general manager of NAISDA (National Aboriginal & Islander Skills Development Association, based in Sydney), expects that their graduates will leave with an ability to adapt to many different ways of working. Their physical training incorporates a range of western dance forms as well as working with cultural tutors who share traditional cultural practices. NAISDA training reinforces a cultural identity and an understanding of traditional cultural practices, even if they are not specifically the student’s own. This encourages students to explore particular relationships with their own regions. She believes that graduates are well equipped for a range of outcomes including joining dance companies, particularly small to medium-sized companies as well as initiating community cultural dance projects.

Melbourne is perceived to have the most active independent dance community and attracts dance graduates from around the country. Helen Herbertson’s experience as director of Dancehouse, has shown that these graduates know how to show their independence. “They are used to working on their own, or inside their own teams. Dancehouse tries to respond to the needs of these graduates [with programs] that fill the gaps…help people step up.” Herbertson believes that the professional development courses now being offered as part of students’ studies have helped to give a realistic understanding of what is needed for planning and implementing a successful independent event.

Herbertson thinks that the first couple of years after graduation are the biggest test for independent dancer/choreographers. Away from the structure provided by an institution, the graduate must be able to manage their own body maintenance as well as furthering their work. Sarah Miller, Director of PICA (Perth Institute of Contemporary Art, home to the dance event Dancers Are Space Eaters), describes the positive aspects of STRUT, which supports emerging dance artists with administrative and marketing support, providing opportunities for making and performing short works several times a year. Set up by Sue Peacock and Gabrielle Sullivan and AusdanceWA, “it creates a supportive community who are constantly making work,” says Miller.

Flexibility and adaptability to different ways of working were the elements most often discussed by the choreographers. The challenge for the institutions is to provide a training that turns out educated or “intelligent” dancers. What complicates this is understanding the sorts of intelligence choreographers are looking for. Although all choreographers stress a strong technical background as a base, for some the purely physical aspects are the most important, for others the intellectual input and others require a level of life experience and maturity. Most probably it will be a combination that provides the dancers with the skills and experience they need.

Then there is the ephemeral element—something more difficult to define. All the choreographers talked about looking for what Obarzanek calls “charisma”, Sietsma “excitement”, Stewart “panache.” It’s the element that draws you to watching someone. Is that something that can be trained, or will those who have it be obvious whatever the circumstances?

RealTime issue #56 Aug-Sept 2003 pg. 34

© Wendy Haslem; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2003
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