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Amanda Card

Platform Paper 8

The state of dance in Australia

Amanda Card

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Dance practices have changed radically in the last 15 years, writes Amanda Card, as she traces the reasons behind these changes and pays tribute to the brilliance and stamina of our creative artists. Choreographers, once the dictators of the dance world, now work collectively with their dancers. Dancers who once worked in a single genre now move among them as ‘bodies for hire’. There are too many graduating students and no apprenticeships. Long-term employment is now rare. The days of the contemporary dance company are almost gone; the great bulk of new work is funded hand-to-mouth. So why not change the present structure? Why not capitalise on the new collaborative culture? Instead of choreographers carrying the burden, why not have the big companies become entrepreneurs, employing pools of dancers, inviting choreographers to come to them and providing the facilities they need to work. ‘We need to reinvigorate dance in Australia—for the sake of excellence of the form, the health of our creative artists and for the attraction of audiences. We need a new system—an alternate way of employing choreographers and a new deal for dancers.’


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About the Author

 Amanda Card gave up a career in dance in 1990 for academic study. She holds a PhD from the University of Sydney where she lectures in dance and movement studies.

I, like many others, believe that our ways of dancing offer us a particular way of ‘being in the world’. The way we move, our experience of what we imagine our body can do, affects the way we understand and perceive our relationship with the world and those in it. It affects how we perceive space, location and time, how we relate to others and to ourselves.



Publication of Amanda Card's Platform Paper, Body for Hire: the State of Dance in Australia, was an opportunity for a 'call to action' to raise the profile of dance in Australia.

Jennifer McLachlan is Director of Dance, Australia Council for the Arts.

Reading Amanda's often very personal observations made me reflect on my own background in dance. Having trained in Cecchetti and RAD at the Scottish Ballet, and later in Graham and Cunningham techniques at London Contemporary Dance School, I realised that my dance lineage would leave me horribly unemployable as a 'body for hire'. Happily for me, getting a job in the contemporary dance sector isn't nearly that simple.

Many leading choreographers want and need to work with a particular dancer or group of dancers to develop their work, their vocabulary and their form. I don't-for a second-believe they do so because 'funding structures dictate it'. I also believe that contemporary dance already has a strong history of repertory-based companies employing 'bodies for hire'. I believe that this encapsulates a weakness in Amanda's paper. In trying to force the diversity of the Australian dance scene into a narrow schema, in many ways she misses the point.

Perhaps we could engineer a series of state-based contemporary dance supergroups. This might produce a strong sector in which dancers have a lucrative career path, but it would undoubtedly have major repercussions across the rest of the field. Either way, it is not the role of any funding body to dictate the development of the artform in this way-unless there is universal support across the sector. I'm yet to hear this groundswell of opinion.

And while the dance sector should get more money from governments, the reality of budget processes is nowhere near that simple. There is no question that improved support for the sector remains one of the Australia Council for the Arts' fundamental aims. The long-standing (and continuing) lobbying efforts of the Australia Council and the dance sector in making the case for increased funding testifies to the difficulties involved in the budget process.

While getting a boost in the direct funding of the dance sector is a difficult process, there are a number of other indirect ways that the Australia Council's Dance Board is channelling more dollars into dance.

Working with other parts of the Australia Council-Major Performing Arts Board, Key Organisations, Community Partnerships and Market Development, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts Board and our new Inter-Arts Office-has already borne substantial dividends for the sector.

Different parts of the Australia Council are working together through programs such as the touring initiative Mobile States (with the Theatre Board, Inter-Arts Office and performing arts venues across the country) and Indigenous dance infrastructure development (with the ATSIA Board and state and territory ministries). We are also working more broadly with the Australian Government on programs and initiatives such as Playing Australia, New Australian Stories, Major Festivals Initiative and Young and Emerging Artist initiatives such as SPARK and Take Your Partner.

There are also a number of strategies and activities in capacity-building across the sector. These include our recent announcement of SCOPE-an exciting program to assist dancers to increase their earned income, being run with Ausdance and the Australian Institute of Sport. This project is one of the Australia Council's major restructure.

In all, the Australia Council supports the Australian dance sector to the tune of around $11 million-with more than $3.4 million of this money being distributed through the Dance Board to what Amanda considers the 'lower end of town'.

It's companies from this 'lower end of town' that are selling-out venues in Paris; are in high demand across Europe; and were recently the 'talk of the town' in New York. So much is already being achieved on such limited resources.

However, we are unlikely to get contemporary dance out of our (self-perceived) ghetto simply by asking for more government money. In the UK, the influx of funds to the arts coming from the government's lottery system undoubtedly gave the dance sector a boost. More than this, however, it was a concerted effort to connect with new audiences and build partnerships in the community that took dance to its current flag-bearing status in the performing arts.

I agree wholeheartedly with Amanda on one point, one that I have heard repeatedly across the country-that now is the time when we can all make a difference.

We urgently need to come together as a sector, including state and federal funding bodies, to find new ways to back the creativity and innovation that are the hallmark of Australian contemporary dance.

We need to find new and exciting ways to get more people interested in dance; to have more creative dance staged; and to encourage more people to come and enjoy it. And we can only do these things by working together.

David Spurgeon is a senior lecturer, and co-ordinator of the Dance Program, in the School of Media, Film and Theatre at The University of New South Wales.

I congratulate Amanda Card on her provocative and insightful look at aspects of dance in Australia, and would like to comment on just two of the issues she raises.

During a three-month study leave last year, which I spent at the new Centre national de danse in Paris, I had the opportunity to watch a number of video recordings of dance performances recently given at the Centre. I was disturbed to see how many 'dance' items held in, and subsidised by, the Centre featured performers who appeared to have had very little dance training or experience. I agree with Amanda's assertion that here in Australia we have a strong group of 'bodies for hire', dancers with finely honed dance technique, further inscribed by the acquisition of other movement disciplines. Indeed, we have dancers who, to quote Amanda's analogy, can 'run like a runner'. My point is that I feel that the dance scene in Australia has many instances of exciting practice because we have dancers, not non-dancers, experimenting with new movement and new performance forms. Australia's 'bodies for hire' can invest the most mundane movement with a kinaesthetic-an 'imprinting', 'multi-layering', perhaps-significance. This was entirely missing from the many obscure and self-referential, non-dance performance pieces that I watched in Paris, pieces which, nevertheless, were advertised, and received funding, as 'dance'.

Secondly, with regard to Amanda's discussion of the 'role of institutions in the redefinition of independence', I believe that many tertiary institutions can and, indeed, do play a supportive role in the nurturing of new choreographic talent. They do more than simply produce graduates for the job market; they can, for example, offer freelance choreographers living on the smell of an oily rag the occasional chance to practise their craft at no cost. At the University of New South Wales, where I co-ordinate the Dance Program, I have two dance studios at my disposal and ninety full-time students, all intent on teaching dance in high schools and all anxious for any opportunity to dance. I find myself, therefore, in a position, to provide such a choreographer with not only space and time, but also, given ample time to make the necessary arrangements, several dozen dance-students' bodies. And all this at no cost to either the University or the choreographer. In return, I can expect some teaching or choreography-sometimes for a reduced fee and sometimes, depending on circumstances, for the usual professional fee. I also benefit by having on campus an expert dance-maker, who is prepared to help out with advising and assessing the students' dance work. I am sure that this kind of loosely symbiotic relationship, or something similar, has been experimented with elsewhere in other institutions. It deserves to be more widespread. For the last few years I have been fortunate enough to be able to call upon the services and talents of Sue Healey in this capacity: she teaches, on a casual basis, in the undergraduate program, and, when her busy schedule permits, choreographs for us. In return, we can make available to her the keys to the studios, where, subject to availability and mutual convenience, she is free to rehearse her own dance group. Sue is, as it were, a 'part of the family'. It is a 'win-win' arrangement for both parties.

Response to Amanda Card's Platform Papers No. , Body for Hire?: The State of Dance in Australia

Erin Brannigan works in the fields of dance and film as an academic, curator and journalist.

Albeit belated, this response to Amanda Card's essay is opportune. As I write, Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon have just announced their intention to resign after thirty years in their positions as artistic directors of Sydney Dance Company (SDCo), Australia's flagship contemporary dance company. They will leave on 1 April 2007. Card's comprehensive and incisive survey of the state of dance in Australia will soon, with some good luck and savvy decision-making, be superseded, as the field undergoes a seismic shift from the top down over the next two years. Choreographer-led flagship companies will be revealed as unsustainable in this cultural and political climate, a fact which has clearly made a pre-emptive strike at Murphy and Vernon. Resources have to be shared, a belief that discreetly underpins Card's arguments. It is to be hoped that SDCo will make the smart move and change to a more open, widely supportive company with a flexible stable of dancers working with Australian and international choreographers and overseen by a creative director. Moreover, this improved structure would revitalise the company's image and provide infrastructure for more artists.

It would also be a more equitable structure. In New South Wales, SDCo has kept its funds, and more importantly, its audiences to itself. Under Graeme Murphy, SDCo has cut itself off from the local dance community and lost relevance within the broader cultural landscape. This has not been the case with other flagship companies such as Australian Dance Theatre, Bangarra Dance Theatre, or Chunky Move, who all, in a variety of ways, support local choreographers, whether emergent or established. Like Murphy-for whom all of them have worked-Stephen Page, Garry Stewart and Gideon Obarzanek landed their current positions when they only had a few full-length works under their dance belts. They have built up local support as they have developed as choreographers, creating an artistic and public profile and gaining all the attendant benefits and responsibilities. But they have been careful to share their resources. They have adapted just enough to guarantee their survival. The same cannot be said of SDCo.

For Card, the current problems with the dance scene have everything to do with the structure of the flagship contemporary companies. (She replaces Bangarra and Chunky Move with Expressions, Danceworks, Tasdance and Buzz Dance Theatre to create a state-by-state list.) Card believes the main problem with choreographer-led companies is that they place an unnecessarily heavy emphasis on the 'auteur' and give insufficient credit to the dancers as collaborators. She is spot-on, but only for very limited cases. Perhaps it's stating the obvious, but only in theory can a 'dictatorial' and a 'democratic' approach to ensemble choreography be seen as mutually exclusive alternatives. In the reality of the dance studio the creative process is as complex and varied as the artists themselves.

Card's alternative model of state companies made up of 'bodies for hire' is a radical provocation, reducing the role of the choreographer at the expense of giving the dancer job security. Handing the company structures over to the dancers and rotating the choreographers is not a viable option. Of the choreographers associated with Card's Super Group of dancers (which, by its very nature, is an unfairly exclusive list), there is not one who would, or could, relinquish their right to choose their own mix of performers in order to realise a personal artistic vision. It is the choreographer's artistic vision that is ultimately devalued in this model: Card's claim of a current 'homogenisation' of choreographic invention across the companies working with the Super Group of dancers, due to the dancers' overwhelming input into movement development, is her most damning and controversial criticism (p. 32). And what about the dancer's right to choose creative directors?

Which brings us back to the problem that SDCo must soon face: who will take up the company of dancers as they now stand, hand-picked by Murphy and Vernon? Garry Stewart? Gideon Obarzanek? Or, perhaps, Kate Champion? Or Meryl Tankard? The SDCo dancers are perfectly suited to Murphy's aesthetics, but would not be right for these other choreographers. Whatever the change, it will be radical-and welcome. Create better equity and security with the limited resources available and let the artists- choreographers, dancers and other collaborators-find each other. And on this note, Amanda Card was right about an essential point in her argument on behalf of the dancer: more open auditions by dance companies would also be a welcome change.