When can the teacher dance?

Shaun McLeod

With access to funding more competitive and scarce than ever, the relationship between universities and dance artists seems to have gained new significance. The academy has been a traditional source of valuable employment for many dancers and choreographers but a new dimension has recently appeared where choreographers are engaging with the research paradigms of universities. Melbourne has seen a steady growth in the number of practitioners returning to do postgraduate studies in dance as a way of deepening their practice and extending their careers. The universities have also become more explicit in their demands that practitioners who are also lecturers/teachers become better qualified academically. This has led dancers to engage with theoretical constructs in ways that did not exist 10 years ago. But what sort of a marriage is it, this meshing of the academy and practice? And how do the artists themselves view the intersection of dance and theory? The relationship is in continual flux but talking to 3 Melbourne choreographers and a performance maker, some interesting themes emerged about this occasionally uncomfortable relationship.

For choreographer Anna Smith, who teaches technique sessionally and is a research associate at the Victorian College of the Arts, the relationship is clearly positive. She is appreciative of the support and access to resources the work gives her and is philosophical about the impact the teaching work has on her own practice. She often finds it problematic trying to separate her teaching from her choreographic practice, even though both require a different focus and intent. But she says, “I have to be pragmatic about it and value it for what it gives me which is space in the studio and a lot of support—not just financial support but also people walking in. I could grab someone in the hallway and say could you just have a look at this.”

This appreciation of the support universities provide was echoed by all the artists I talked to. The job of teaching itself was also often a big attraction. Dianne Reid, ex-Dance Works dancer, choreographer and dance-video maker has been teaching technique, composition and theory at Deakin University’s Rusden campus for 4 years now. Teaching for her is an extension of her skills as a performance-maker and an opportunity to try new ways of delivering the material, such as her highly performative lectures—a major hit with first year theory students. She loves the investigative environment of the university which leaves her free to experiment and tailor courses which reflect both her own artistic interests and the needs of the students. She is currently developing a dance-video unit for third year Bachelor of Contemporary Arts students, allowing her to combine teaching requirements with her passion for dance and the camera.

The downside of having an ongoing position is the loss of profile. Suddenly Reid has become strictly a dance educator not an artist, something that clearly rankles. “You tend to disappear in people’s eyes when you are at a university.”

The sheer workload for full-time teachers also has an impact. Multi-disciplinary artist Margaret Trail (not strictly speaking a choreographer but whose work is often seen in dance contexts such as Dancehouse) has been teaching full-time for 2 years at Victoria University of Technology in the Performance Studies course. While she loves teaching, the first 18 months of full-time work were challenging. Rocked by the demands of the workload and the new administrative responsibilities of the full-timer, she was left with no choice but to concentrate wholly on the job itself, to the detriment of her practice. “I do get enormously frustrated with the university and that’s compounded by the fact that as a full-time staff member you can’t walk away. You have to take the university on. You have to make a relationship with this bureaucracy which is often dysfunctional, which tends to undervalue teaching, which is increasingly driven by economic, not educational motives and you have to survive inside it and feel alright.”

High profile choreographer Lucy Guerin did a stint of teaching technique and choreographing at the Victorian College of the Arts in 1999 and felt uncomfortable with aspects of the job. To be responsible for the training of students and to respond to their multifarious needs weighed heavily on her. “I’m really happy to go in and give people a taste of my work and my choreography and where it has come from—what its technical origins are. But in terms of teaching long-term and taking responsibility for people’s development, I felt I couldn’t really take that on in the way they needed.”

However, Guerin saw the opportunity to choreograph as beneficial and a way to develop her ideas with a large group of dancers otherwise impossible for her to access. In so doing, she saw the process quickly shift from being exclusively about her ideas to also becoming a response to the needs of students. How could she achieve a common stylistic understanding from 19 dancers of different abilities and yet foster a personal investigation and embodied awareness of her choreography? She relates the almost rigid approach of some students to the legacy of dance training throughout Australia. Tired students are striving to reach a standard of technical excellence that is perceived to be appropriate for the professional arena. The demands of this kind of training leave little time to concentrate on investigation and experiential understanding of movement. “It’s not the fault of the institution. They are very aware of these problems. It’s just how to implement [the changes] within this kind of structure which is subject to all this history. The students come in with particular preconceptions about what they are going to be doing and it’s quite hard to break them down.”

Another major challenge for practitioners working within universities, and one with huge potential implications, is negotiating the vexed issue of theory and dance. Traditionally resistant to entering this domain, many dancers and choreographers, either through postgraduate degrees or as lecturers, are now being asked to rigorously confront theoretical frameworks and use these to analyse and inform their practice. It remains unclear how this will change the ways artists create or think about their work—the relationship between dance and theory is still nebulous and few choreographers currently write about their work. If the growth in practitioners doing postgraduate research continues, a major shift in approach will surely follow. But how do practitioners feel about the meeting of theory and practice? Although wary of the academisation of practice, Margaret Trail says, “I’m terribly interested in that cross-over because to me it has only ever been productive, although I do think they are 2 different ways to process information and I never take my Lacan down to the studio. Still, encounters with theory have only ever been exciting and wonderful and have opened things up in practice.”

Certainly, doing justice to both the theorising about and making of dance work is difficult. It requires skill in juggling and expertise in very different forms of knowledge. Writing takes just as much practice as dancing, which can then interfere with the experiential nature of the studio work and even the needs of dancers’ bodies. Research into dance has its own needs but the body of writing on dance research remains comparatively small and is still justifying its own place in many universities. Questions also remain about the balance of practice and research and the impact they will have on each other. But Dianne Reid, who has been granted research leave by Deakin University to take part in Luke Hockley’s forthcoming project at The Choreographic Centre, sees the emerging relationship as moving in the right direction. As long as artists remain proactive and have clear plans about how to work within the institution, they can develop a positive relationship. “There’s more and more understanding and support and inquiry into research into the arts which we used to just call working or rehearsing or process but really it’s the same thing.”

RealTime issue #38 Aug-Sept 2000 pg. 14

© Shaun Davies; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2000