Opinion: Why the world stage is so important today for Australian dance?

Carin Mistry,
Director of the Dance Board of the Australia Council for the Arts


Until the 1970’s, many successful Australian dancers just packed up and left for Europe. For most, this was a permanent move – there was little zipping back and forth between the hemispheres – for most, a choice had to be made. Europe offered them an established dance infrastructure, a dance culture of practice and appreciation, with career opportunities not then available in Australia.

Today, the Australian dance industry is much larger but, perhaps more than other artists, dancers and dance companies still feel the need to test and to develop themselves internationally.  This still isolated dance industry is gathering now in Melbourne for Dance Massive, a fortnight of workshops, performances and discussions involving more than 200 Australian dance artists and a host of international and national presenters. It is timely to ask why international connections remain so important and how this relates to our need to sustain excellent dance at home.

The reasons for maintaining an international context are complex and interconnected. It can be about income generation, creating a longer life for great works, the purpose of soft diplomacy, prestige, career development, creative development or finding partners to invest in the making of new works. Adelaide based Australian Dance Theatre is currently in the middle of a three month tour of Garry Stewart’s new work, Be Yourself. They will tour to 17 cities in nine European countries. For the company this is more than just a market development exercise; Be Yourself is a co-production with three European theatres which means these partners are investing in both the creation and the presentation of a new work. At much the same time, Bangarra Dance Theatre will be performing their newest work, Spirit, in 17 theatres across Italy, Switzerland and Germany. Melbourne’s Chunky Move also have been building their international connections over the years but that overseas exposure has grown significantly with the interest generated by works such as Glow and Mortal Engine. Over the last four years Chunky Move have toured to 16 countries in Asia, Europe and the Americas.

So, international connections can be about growing markets and about extending the life of great work, but for the majority of companies and dancers it is also about something more – it is lure of new influences, new ideas and new perspectives and the effect this can have on their creativity and the quality of their work.  This is where, in 2011, the link between international exposure and growing the excellence of our dance work seems to be strongest. Of course, only the best of Australian dance survives in a competitive international arena. However, once in this larger arena, Australian dance artists seem to not only to survive, they most often thrive – they eat up the new influences, perspectives and ideas. They get to benchmark their work, to compare and contrast, to push and stretch their practice in highly critical environments – to make their work better. The Australia Council recognises this and makes significant investments in this overseas market. We are bringing international presenters to Dance Massive this month in Melbourne, investing in Australian and overseas performing arts markets and supporting international tours through the Going Global fund. The Dance Board also currently runs a three month residency at the Cite Internationale des Arts in Paris available for dance artists and hopes to offer more such residencies, as is the practice by other artform boards.

An increasing number of our dance artists are based overseas and running careers, unlike their predecessors, with a focus back home on Australia’s dance culture. Grayson Millwood and Gavin Webber are Australian artists who also call Germany home and create work that spans two continents. Their most recent work, Food Chain, has German and Australian producers and so has been created and will be performed in both countries. Younger dancer/choreographers such as Antony Hamilton and Gabrielle Nankivell are following the trend of working in two hemispheres.  

Although larger than in the 1970’s, the contemporary dance scene in Australia is still relatively small and mostly concentrated in Melbourne and Sydney. In many cases, artists and companies work in relative isolation. But dance is fundamentally a collaborative medium and artists inspire and push each other on. Connecting with other artists across the country and across the world can help to avoid the danger that Australian dance practice becomes insular and complacent and declines in quality. If Australian dance is to truly thrive, it must expose itself to audiences and to the industry nationally – and internationally. Events such as Dance Massive, the Sydney Opera House’s annual Spring Dance program and the National Dance Forum provide important opportunities to enable this to happen, and to happen regularly.

Important issues for dance were discussed this weekend at the National Dance Forum, staged by the Australia Council and Ausdance National as part of Dance Massive. The forum provided a rare opportunity for the dance sector to consider the state of dance practice in Australia and chart a course for the future. We saw lively discussion and debate around how we articulate a dance practice, career development, dramaturgy in dance, how we use new media and the digital technologies, hybrid and interdisciplinary practices, dance on film and dance in local communities. Technology in dance is commonplace now, as is the crossover with other artforms. But while it adds a new dimension to the experience of watching dance, the balance between performance, storytelling, technology and audience connection is a fragile one.

I look forward to these discussions continuing long after the forum. But all these questions can’t be answered by reference just to the Australian dance experience. As we resolve them and chart our own dance practice, I suspect all our leading dance innovators will also be talking about their experiences and aspirations to continue to work in Australia and on a world stage.
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