A nation knowing its past

In This Article

Having chosen to deal with aspects of dance history as the theme of this paper, I felt reassured of the validity of the topic when I read this opening sentence of a recent Sydney Morning Herald editorial. It read:

A nation that does not know its past will have trouble understanding its present.

Not that this leader article was in any way interested in the history of Australian dance—we have a long battle still to fight to make dance a matter of relevance to the press and to a wide reading public, hungry for debate on its issues. Neither does it go far enough in its implication that history’s significance lies mainly in its revelation of the present. For the purposes of this lecture, that sentence should read—

A nation that does not know its past will have trouble understanding its present and even greater trouble creating and controlling its future.

I admit to being very nervous when I consider the responsibilities that my latest transition to the role of historian present me with. You, like me, must have studied histories of a variety of subjects that have engaged neither your imaginations nor your sensibilities, that have battered you with an array of facts and figures without illuminating either the periods or the personalities, and that fail to reveal the relevance of past times to the present, let alone the future.

It is history, based of course, on facts as accurate as old records and human memory allow, but sifted to reveal the interconnections, the progress and the moments of change in the unfolding story of dance in Australia, that I wish to emphasise. Connections and changes are a main concern. The stories that fascinate me include an account of those specific events, those turning points when special people have, by intuition, energy, even accident or exasperation, set in motion an activity which has changed our practices and thinking in a way that can be seen now to have a significance hardly imaginable at the time. But it is people who must get the credit; it is people who do things; nothing gets done without people.

Though I’ve lived through a fair amount of this century’s history and, like you, whether you realise it or not, have been part of its processes, it is only recently that I have come to see the extent of our neglect in recording it, respecting it and learning from it. Even the writing of this paper has made me view the study of history in a new light. I no longer see it as remote, distant. It need not be 'once upon a time' stuff. Today, now is tomorrow’s history. Everything is history. This conference, this paper is history. Your last class, performance, lecture, meeting, the last funding decision, appointment, piece of choreography, your last article or review or interview is history, and is already adding something or nothing to the course of events. All the specialisations, all the experiences and ambitions, all the potential of each one here in this gathering, will be tomorrow’s history of our period.

It is inescapable. It hangs in the air of classrooms, studios and dance halls. It clings to the walls of rehearsal spaces and dressing rooms. We can smell it in the pages of old programs and publications. You can see it in old newsreels and photos, in theatre museums and collections of dance memorabilia. We can feel it and relive it—as when recently, Baronova and Tchinarova linked us, old and young, to the continuum of history through their stories of a special time in the late thirties, when Australian dancers and audiences felt the impact of European tradition and standards.

History can be our visiting card to those people we could never have met, to events we could never have participated in and to periods that are not our own.

The 'truth' of each of these people, events and periods becomes what is written about them and who wrote it, whether prejudiced, accurate or insightful. It is also what we happen to have read, out of as much or as little as may have been recorded.

For instance, the history of dance in Australia in the 80s may well become what exists between the covers of Dance Australia magazine in that decade, or the opinions of the critics expressed in their edited reviews. These must remain the chief sources of research material for the students and scholars of the future until more and more of us, from our own angle and with our individual viewpoints leave behind the inheritance of the story of our time.

Life is a process of inheritance in every aspect. We inherit those things that others leave behind that we seem to need to reconstruct imaginatively, meanings and values for our own lives and work; lives which are hardly worth living if not for learning about ourselves and others.

Clearly, most of the past history of Australian dance has been accidently created and unconsciously acquired. It’s like the dust kicked up in the wake of each generation of dancers as they come and go. Our history makers are probably shocked to discover that they are seen as such, as researchers evaluate their life’s work as great contributions of the past to what has proved significant in the present.

Keith Bain & Coralie Hinkley in Central Australian Suite by Gertrude Bodenwieser, 1957. Photo: Max Dupain

Hopefully, however, historians to come will bring a proactive quality to their work, looking back for a forward view and enabling each of our generations of dancers to affect their future faster and more effectively, as a result of that knowledge. For this constructive aspect of history we need not so much a chronological listing of facts and figures, as an account of the changes that have been achieved—a sort of chronology of change, providing each generation with an appreciation of what has been done and therefore, clarity about what still needs doing.

Of all the benefits that a study of history can develop in artists of all disciplines, are three most desirable ones—a set of values, an artistic perspective and a point of view. Besides, any study that adds to the range of references of each new generation of students and that can dignify, with its legends and perspectives, the art form they are entering, can only be beneficial.

It is time to increase the scope of resources concerning the Australian evolutionary story if only to give balance to the huge body of historical literature that has been produced in other countries. It is a sad state when graduate dancers here are more familiar with, and endow with greater significance, the dance traditions and personalities of overseas countries, rather than their own.

It has been tempting at times to record a What If or an If Only history. What if this person had not been appointed! If only that one had! What if that Government had seen the arts in another light? If only we ourselves had found the right language and argument earlier to convince politicians, big business, heads of Education Departments, funding bodies of the values we feel so strongly and sell so weakly.

It’s not as if it’s a dull tale, let me tell you. There are some very lively, colourful characters, a fair sprinkle of eccentrics and examples of tenacity and resourcefulness that could only be the product of the daunting circumstances of our geography and social story.

So much has changed in the last few decades—everything from dance styles to dance wear, from the way that we were taught to the ways we now teach, from what symbols we were formerly influenced by to the images and the sounds of today.

For some too much has changed, for others, too little. For some, much has been lost, while others say 'good riddance'. The changes in certain areas have been rapid and revolutionary. In others, the clock has stood still. As well, our art form demands the double responsibility of preservation and tradition on the one hand and change and regeneration on the other. Listing the changes and those areas where the greatest and the least changes have occurred is relatively easy but difficulties arise when we seek to define the values of the changes. Objectivity in artistic matters is always a problem.

(Ask the person on your left to pronounce upon the changes in even recent times in such things as artistic standards, levels of creativity, the balance of technique and expressiveness, production values, professional attitudes and opportunities, teaching skills, dance curricula and educational reforms. Then ask the person on your right and see how differently the same questions can be answered.)

In asking myself to search for clear evidence of change throughout the full spectrum of dance activity, I decided against elaborating, in this paper, on testing those obvious and up-front areas—choreography, dance itself, and teaching—though whole conferences could be devoted to examining these key areas for change, by which I mean enrichment, growth, improvement and expansion.

Think of the results of a review of changes in teaching based on these sorts of questions as agenda items for discussion and action among all those who take responsibility for future standards in these areas:

  • What is the balance of technique, expressiveness and creativity in current teaching practice?
  • Where are the teaching strategies that could produce simultaneously, not just the technical and stylistic skills but the full range of performance and expressive qualities expected of any fine performing artist?
  • What are the adjustments to method and curricular content being researched to encourage, hold and develop men and boy dancers?
  • Why are the essential elements of movement and improvisation so neglected in the development of imagination, collaborative skill, emotional courage and spontaneous response to ideas and imagery? [Are we any closer to a situation where there is an ideally appropriate dance and movement program for all of us, male as well as female, at whatever stage or age?]
  • What adjustments to teaching priorities could be developed to prevent the destruction of so many beautiful personal and natural qualities, while still passing on the specific styling and vocabularies of the techniques most commonly taught?

Similar questions could help assess the field of choreography for evidence of change or of the need for more change.

  • Is current choreography worthy of the skills, intelligence, imagination and insight of those who create it and those who collaborate and perform it?
  • Has creativity kept up with technique?
  • Where is the problem, the choreography or the dancing?
  • Are the compositional elements and processes as taught still relevant to today’s choreographic practices or are they perpetuating outdated processes and therefore outdated work?
  • Have there been appropriate developments in the relationship of choreography with technology, design, text, acting, use of voice and sound, production and staging techniques?
  • Can dance say more now, and offer a more subtle and insightful revelation of the human condition?

The questions could go on and on.

Behind this first public face of dance lies a second dimension to dance worthy of investigation for its evolution and history of change. Questioning these topics and comparing the current with the ideal situation should be not only constant but brutal and frank.

Think of your response to these

The status and connections of dance today with the other arts. This implies firstly, the need to know about the other arts, to respect and learn from them and their practitioners, to build a community of artists for education and collaboration.

The status of dance in, and its interaction with contemporary Australian society. This implies that Australian dance moves with the changing textures of its present day society, anticipating and reacting to its domestic, global and regional priorities.

The status and function of dance among other fields of study, in fact, at every level of education.

The double issues of dance in education and education in dance have produced some great battles in recent years, with enough victories to give a feel of confidence in future campaigns.

The relationship of dance to the media and other theatre forms, to new technologies, to leisure, sport and to the developing physical sciences.

The relevance of dance to personal development and modern therapies.

The interaction of dance with the environment, the urban and rural landscapes and with regional communities.

Finally, one of the most fundamental areas of problem facing Australian dance today:

The status of dance in all its facets, in the eyes and mind of Government.

Important as these issues are, I want to consider here a further list of factors, less obvious perhaps, but revealing great impact on the history of change since, say, the fifties and sixties.

Firstly, the moves, within the fragmented and diverse dance world, to a degree of unity which is making us the envy of many countries around the globe. They are aware of how difficult it will remain for them to achieve that power of combined forces and resources necessary in any dance community to advance the cause of the art.

Secondly, the influence of funding and the effect of the establishment of the Australia Council and the State Arts Ministries.

Thirdly, the emergence of the serious study of Aboriginal and Islander dance.

Fourthly, the spread of tertiary dance departments, and the formal presence of dance as a subject in primary and secondary school.

Finally, greater holistic concern for the dancer, and the issues of the body in training and at work, the appropriate education for each dance artist and the opportunities for training in the transition of artists from one role in dance to another.

I won’t take for granted that everyone is aware of the degree of unity and of the lines of communication which exist today among the diverse fields of the many dance styles and activities across this huge land. Nor do I know how to prove it, but I like to think that things that unite are stronger than those that divide.

Equally, it is also likely that many will be unfamiliar with the degree of separation, division, even misunderstanding in the Australian dance world that prevailed till the sixties. Therefore, a quick look back at the post-war period may provide a fuller appreciation of the journey forward, often local and haphazard to begin with but growing in national coverage and with clearer intent.

So, what was the scene in the forties and fifties? Certainly, a narrower spread of available styles. But then, so many of today’s techniques and contemporary styles had either not been invented—if that is the word—or were still to be introduced from abroad. For theatre dance, students could choose between classical and modern—the expression contemporary was yet to become the norm—as well as musical comedy, tap, toe and fancy dancing, a sprinkle of reasonably authentic national styles, and jazz ballet was becoming.

The late 20s and 30s had brought to Australia overseas companies that thrilled our audiences, inspired our dancers and left behind an inspirational group of European dancer/ teachers whose influence and achievements. When one considers the conditions of the war years, the lack of cultural and theatrical tradition, the depressed economic situation, they were not only phenomenal but miraculous. The interesting thing is that the classical traditions they implanted in this Anglo-Saxon outpost, were Russian, as were their temperaments and methods of training and directing their companies The British influence had not taken over.

The foundations of contemporary dance in Aust. were expressionistic, European. Not American. That was to come. The names of that amazing group alone – who must often have wondered what on earth they were doing here—tell such a story. Kirsova, Edouard and Xenia Borovansky, Burlakoff, Bouslov, Koussnetzova, Tchinarova, Bodenwieser, Exiner, Pernitzer.

Through their teaching, the repertoires they presented, the companies they formed, the professional experience they offered and the standards they set, a generation of Australians, many of whom having now danced successfully abroard, were ready, able and more than willing to continue what had been so bravely and colourfully begun.

Another great difference between then and now was the idea that classical and modern dance were seen as incompatible. Students of classical ballet were encouraged not to risk their purity of line and the subtleties of its technique. The pelvis as used by the moderns became a particular threat to the classicals. Bare feet, flying hair and the moderns’ love of the floor, attracted some but alienated others.

For the champions of the modern cause, classical was the enemy, the target, in fact, the reason for the revolution in the first place. Studios would never offer both styles to their clientele nor would any classical teacher be happy to accept that their students attended modern classes elsewhere. Feelings on this matter ran very high. People were passionate in their allegiance to one style or the other.

Of course, as in every area of these discussions, there were exceptions, but their rarity highlights the reality of the situation. One such exception was the patron saint of these lectures, Dame Peggy herself, who, the first time we met and agreed to work together on helping to reconcile the factions, told me the story of having secretly to slip away from the Vic-Wells headquarters to take classes with Bodenwieser while that company was in London. She added that she could persuade only one other of all her friends from her company to join her in such an escapade and take the risks attached to their discovery.

Regardless of conflicting styles, studios tended to be little empires and the directors total dictators. It was an act of betrayal, even treachery, to cross from studio to studio or appear in a rival company’s recital program. Some of this probably still exists—it was very prevalent in the ballroom and Latin-American studios—and banishment and dismissal could be the punishment for those who sought wider tuition for their development.

The British style of classical ballet triumphed over the original Russian, largely through the strengthening of the well-organised societies such as the RAD, the BBO, the Cecchetti and others like the FATD, the ISTD, the BDA., which, while giving unity to their particular memberships and the benefits that arise from that unity, had the effect of dividing the classical studios into distinct and exclusive entities.

Add these details to the picture of the times. No full-time companies existed in the modern sense—even Boro’s company continued to form disband and reform throughout his last years. Apart from the Borovansky Australian Company, which could support seasons of up to six months in Sydney and Melbourne, performances took the form mostly of short season recitals, short tours, no rehearsal pay, often no contracts or insurance coverage.

It often also required dancers to find menial daytime jobs so as to be free, though exhausted, to rehearse new programs at night. There were no sources of funding, few touring agencies, the worst rates of pay among musicians actors singers etc., and working conditions in studios, rehearsal spaces and theatres that would not be tolerated today. Yet so resourceful and self sufficient did some groups become that the Bodenwieser Dance Group, for example, in those difficult wartime and post-war years, gave regular city recital seasons, toured country centres throughout NSW and interstate, undertook two tours of New Zealand, one through South Africa and one to India. Small brave companies led by even braver directors, battled to build audiences, increase professional standards all around the country.

Support systems for anyone in the dance game—such as physiotherapists, chiropractors, experts in preventative and recuperative medicine, let alone sympathetic general practitioners—were few and far between.

So, to allow a comparison with today, what was the picture of employment for dancers? Beyond the fortunate few who danced consistently in the scatter of serious companies, the commercial field was a great resource, and there was a healthy attitude amongst the best of dedicated dancers towards work in a variety of venues.

There are wonderful stories to be told about life as a dancer in night clubs, RSL and football clubs, where the 'Ballet', often numbering ten or twelve, performed regular floorshows in a variety of commercial styles. Revue, variety, cabaret were popular as were the big musicals of the period. Society balls and high fashion shows also used dancers extensively. It was considered most fortunate to be chosen as a choreographer or performer for the big scale trade conventions and company promotions, where budgets were vast, the venues spectacular and the scale of the shows beyond anything else on offer.

Television in its inception considered dance and music the perfect product for the screen. And so began the period of the 'television ballet groups' with their long-running series of variety shows and spectaculars, and some serious dance works. The fact that hardly any of the television dance works of that prolific period of the 50s and 60s remain in existence is an example of how much of the achievements of the past that could inform the present generation, has become lost to us.

These TV channel dance groups could be considered, in a funny sort of way, as the small companies of that time and the dancers and choreographers included some very gifted people who needed to be incredibly versatile, spontaneous, theatrically aware and fast-learning to succeed in this medium.

Actors' Equity gave a vague sense of community to professionals but otherwise lines of communication and forums for dealing with special issues were not yet in place.

I consider myself lucky to have sampled those times and situations and to have been part of the processes of change that followed, beginning, I think, with the classes given by dancers from the overseas companies which toured Australian cities, introducing us to styles and standards new to us. This was where we local dancers felt in our bodies the unfamiliar dynamics and shapes of other techniques, experienced new explorations in rhythms and space and sensed a connection to international advances. Besides, these were classes given on neutral ground, and whether as part of company class or in somebody’s studio, broke down the studio barriers.

The first of these for me was the revelation of the African-based dance of the Katherine Dunham company, and I will hold within me till I die the memory of those waves of rhythm and of unashamed and uninhibited physicality that rolled out over the auditorium from the stage on opening night. Such companies were very generous with their guest classes and, as has often happened with visiting companies, teachers, such as Antonio Rodrigue and Joe Jenkins stayed on or returned soon after to help in the spread of the knowledge.

My first Graham class was taught by Arthur Mitchell, the unforgettable black dancer with the New York City Ballet. My first glimpse of Horton work came when the Alvin Ailey Company left us breathless in our seats, while the introduction of the Horton technique as taught by Jimmie Truitte provided us with another flavour to add to what has eventually become the Australian eclectic style.

The classes and repertoire of the Jose Limon company fed the hunger and fuelled the imagination of the growing population of contemporary dancers in Australia.

Fresh influences followed the return of Australian dancers, like Margaret Chapple, Coralie Hinckley and later, people like Nanette Hassall, who had studied and worked overseas. They quickly claimed as national resources, the treasury of experience and knowledge that arrived on our doorsteps, in the form of Ronne Arnold, Ernie Parham, Guillermo Keyes Arenas and Carole Johnson. More flavours and colours came with visits of Merce Cunningham and Elio Pomare, Steve Paxton and others.

Gradually, the barriers were lowered. Acceptance and understanding of the values of the new techniques slowly spread. Dancers and students welcomed the choices and the range that became available. For studio teachers, the economic advantages of offering a variety of courses helped change old attitudes to the teaching processes.

But let me add that I have sent up many a prayer of gratitude that, in those formative years, we worked and danced far enough away not to have been swamped by the influences of international dance styles which arose from specific histories and conditions, other than our own. There were our own temperaments to respond to, our special environment, geography and social circumstances. Most of all, we had an artistic isolation that not only allowed but demanded an exercise of resourcefulness and imagination on the part of Australian teachers, and choreographers particularly.

In those more innocent times, when, before the easy availability of video, Australian dance appetites were served, but hardly satisfied, by Baron at the Ballet books, Dance and Dancers, Ballet Today, Dancing Times and Dance Magazine, these real-life companies on their rare visits—and individuals like the ones I mentioned—were bombshells in our artistic lives. Australian audiences, often slow to respond to the contemporary companies, found increasing impact in the programs of fine Spanish and Indian groups, as well as folkloric groups from Mexico, the Philippines, Poland, Yugoslavia and Russia.

To Ballet Australia can be attributed a significance that Valrene Tweedie, the instigator and driving force behind the idea, probably never expected. Looking back, it seems as simple and obvious as all great ideas seem, to solve the problems of the lack of opportunities and facilities for choreographers—experienced or raw—to experiment and create, and secondly of the absence of outlets for dancers, from any school or style, to use the techniques they had acquired, in performance on stage.

Nobody expected to be paid; one could volunteer to create, dance, stage-manage, deal with wardrobe, lights and sound. Musicians and designers offered their services.

Apart from the impressive statistics of new works, city seasons, audience growth, emerging talents and variety of products, of equal importance were the breaking down of stylistic barriers, the bonding of people and art forms and the broadening attitudes and appreciation that Ballet Australia covered the period from 1960 to 1977.

There is a distinct line of connection between the Ballet Australia period and the Dance Collections and independent artist’s movement of today. The same problems that faced dancers and choreographers then still need to be faced today: and there is something very healthy about the self-help approach, as opposed to the attitude that nothing can be done till the grant money has arrived

Now to SODA

The Society of Dance Arts, or its nickname, SODA, is an organisation that few of you in states other than NSW may know much about, let alone grant a special significance to. I include its story because it consciously set out to unify all branches of dance activity in the region, and by reconciling the different factions and ideologies, work for the betterment of all, in ways that remain uncertain or impossible without that unity. Its awkward name indicates the struggle to find a means of expressing the full range of its concerns.

As far as I am aware, it was Sydney’s first attempt at such a major move. It is possible too, that something similar may well have taken place in other states at that time. The inaugural meeting brought together exactly the mix and range of people that was hoped for. Even the remarkable and redoubtable Margaret Barr was there mixing in with that group of dancers of all kinds.

The Executive committee elected on that day was an ecumenical mix of representatives from the contemporary, multicultural, classical and ballroom fields. With the aim of promoting all forms of dance in the cultural and educational life of the region, the society’s first major project, entitled Dance ’70, was dedicated to the eventual creation of a permanent dance company in NSW. An amazing line of connection now follows. Suzanne Davidson (Sue Musitz), having already established Ballet in a Nutshell and Athletes and Dancers to serve primarily educational and schools programs, was chosen by SODA to become the Artistic Director of Dance ’70.

The following year she incorporated The Dance Company (NSW) which continued after 1975 under the directorship of Yaap Flier. Graeme Murphy then accepted the artistic director’s position and the group was later renamed the Sydney Dance Company. (Other names, Dance ’71 program).

SODA still exists, serving now a different set of aims for its mainly classical membership. It is appropriate that organisations change, even disappear, as circumstances alter, but each move towards a higher goal makes the next attempt easier and the chance of future success greater.

Of the other moves that have taken place towards a more unified dance community in various parts of the country, I particularly mention here the work of Kira Bouslof in Western Australia.

The Armidale summer schools

I also wish to give significance the now famous series of summer schools held at the University of New England at Armidale, which began in the late sixties. These summer schools and SODA both asked all of us, classicals and moderns, ballroom and folk teachers and dancers, amateurs and pros, academics and critics, anyone, in fact, who was a lover of or curious about dance, to connect and communicate in the cause of progress and understanding.

One of the many special qualities of Dame Peggy was the sense of responsibility she accepted towards all forms of dance in her new homeland as director of the newly-established Australian Ballet. She established a partnership with the University in Armidale and especially with the Head of Continuing Studies, Bernard James—another of the many non-dancers who have contributed to our cause.

In the university’s charming rural atmosphere, and having the facilities and resources of its residential colleges, the first of the Summer Schools, based on classical ballet, attracted from all over the country people who freed themselves of all other allegiances and dance preoccupations to devote themselves to the subject they loved the most.

This was in 1967. The next summer school, two years later, took the title Dance in the 20th Century. This encouraged those who had dedicated themselves to contemporary dance studies to join with devotees of classical dance.

All this now sounds so unexceptional. The effect then was sensational. Days and nights away from all other cares, sharing, mixing, comparing, always learning and opening up to fresh perceptions in the company of others of the profession we might otherwise never have met. With each course, the sense of the community of Australian dance grew stronger and everyone returned to their little spot on our big map, having sensed how much can be achieved through unity and connection.

Each of the summer schools took on board the concerns of many who, till then, had worked with little specialist care, such as choreographers and dance academics. Faculties for each of the courses included the best of our own experts as well as several prominent international personalities.

The summer courses included an intellectual dimension, allowing participants a view of dance as a branch of study as serious as any tertiary program. They clearly made those who were present, aware that there is far more to dance than dancing.

Apart from the technique classes, the historical papers and the courses on writing , criticism and aesthetics, special emphasis was placed on choreographic and compositional workshops to support the imagination and challenge the craft of an emerging group of talented young creators, many of whom have become the outstanding Australian choreographers of today. The international tutors, from the USA and the UK, served as links to the standards and processes of the best of the Western world, helping this particular generation of Australian choreographers find their creative feet and then their wings as Dame Peggy was so anxious to encourage.

One special memory was of the occasional connections that the dance courses shared with participants of other arts courses taking place on the same campus. Those peeps into the workings of the other arts and the awakening of interest and understanding of each others’ worlds had a rare value that, sadly, we are not often enough given the chance to experience.

Even today, where more and more arts departments with their facilities, spaces, equipment and administration support, exist, low priority is given to experiment and collaborative learning among the students and staffs of the various disciplines.

All in all, there were four summer schools between 1967 and 1976. So immediately impressive were the results of these experiential and experimental courses, and so rich a sense of national community was engendered, that the small group of organisers whom Dame Peggy had gathered around her became committed to the huge plan to set in place a national organisation that would network the entire nation and service the advancement of dance concerns of every sector of dance activity. Thus the seeds of AADE, later Ausdance, were sown.

The formation of Ausdance

The group who had become the force behind the last Armidale events sensed the rightness of the time for formalising a more permanent structure to build on the foundation of the feelings of national unity, serious study and concern for all dance activity all over the country. So, from the 12 – 15 August 1977 at the Melbourne Town House, that remarkable gathering of the faithful and hopeful, launched the Australian Association for Dance Education.

Now known as Ausdance, the Australian Dance Council, it has grown from the most difficult of beginnings to an equally difficult but invaluable state of responsibility and coverage. Of course its influence has reached nothing like its potential and there are whole sections of the dance community to connect and serve, but its structure is strong, its strategies are well-considered and its staff now includes truly remarkable and under-rated people.

I prefer to review it from the point of view of what makes so many overseas countries envious of its achievements so far. The USA, UK and Canada, which have separate organisations for each sector of dance concern, acknowledge that they lack the power we now have, given by Ausdance’s range and inclusiveness, to tackle issues that are relevant to the whole breadth of its membership.

Take the Safe Dance Project, for example. It profits the professionals, the studio teachers, the tertiary departments and dance in the schools simultaneously and automatically. New Zealand has made Ausdance the model for its national body, and the World Dance Alliance can find no better a model for its structure. Ausdance’s membership-based structure allows it to be driven by the people who belong to it in a committed, voluntary manner and provides a process for passing shared resources and successful projects and practices from branch to branch. Its 'recognition factor' now makes it a powerful tool in politics and matters of advocacy. The flexibility of the organisation enables specialist subcommittees to form and function, like the Tertiary Dance Directors, Youth Voice, the Career Development group.

What has made me proud is the way in which it has helped produce the number of articulate and philosophic champions of dance needed for the good and the bad times that dance will always face. In the growing strength of Ausdance, I see the possibility of designing the future of Australian dance, and an end to the draining reactive campaigns and the battles for mere survival that dance seems always to be fighting.

Those who feel that Ausdance is not working for them are probably not working with and for Ausdance. It is no longer a minor, well-meaning little society; and those organisations which also carry responsibility to dance, should see Ausdance as a partner in planning and policy-making so that we are working together to implement the ideal vision for our future.

The Australia Council

Another event in the moves to greater unity was the establishment of the Australian Council for the Arts. All such organisations are bound to arouse distrust and suspicion, disappointment and frustration among certain of the communities they are set up to help.

But, as we know, strong negatives can serve to rally communities together, more so sometimes than positives. Funding bodies have always and will always say no to as many or more than they can help. The big view of the Council provides many positives. In the concerns of this paper, these are some of the more important.

  • The Council has always seen the field of dance as a whole, not as a scatter of separate interests, and in doing so has asked of us that we see it as a whole as well.
  • It has raised the level and range of discussion, from personal, regional and sectarian to national and international concerns, from practical and pragmatic issues to matters of philosophy and overview.
  • It has demanded from artists an articulation and analysis of needs and plans that dancers had not been accustomed to. In asking dancers to offer, in discussions and in their applications, their clearest statements of belief and best considered rationale for their views and dreams, it has helped give to them the voices that few knew they had.
  • It has set in place procedures which have raised the standards of proposals, projects and company structures.
  • It has helped accustom dancers to the examination of bigger issues than the day-to-day problems they face, through conferences, forums and summit meetings.

To deal with the Council on their bureaucratic terms, we dancers have needed to become articulate, politically aware clients, capable of administrative and planning skills and conscious of the corporate world in which we function.

Money, public money, Federal and State Government funds, have altered everything, to such an extent that it is difficult in a paper such as this to assess how far reaching these changes have been, whether in practical, economic, artistic or psychological terms. Succeeding or failing to receive funding has affected the careers and futures of countless individuals, groups both large and small, companies established or new. Learning how to make an application has become as necessary a skill as any other in the dancer’s range.

Depending on a grant has, for some, become a way of life. To the successful, it has been heaven; to the unsuccessful a hell. One thing about money is clear—there will never be enough of the stuff for all who seek it. Therefore it is essential that funding is put to the services of vision, clear, constantly-monitored vision. Then, so that it never becomes a sort of lottery, funding becomes the way to implement the policies that the vision demands.

But among the things that the Australia Council has helped supply what we did not have before, are

  • a company structure of a reasonable geographic spread, bringing works of a variety of styles and approaches to a wider audience and employment to a greater number of talented performers and creators.
  • greater contact with international resources through awards, scholarships and travel grants.

Tertiary dance

The establishment of tertiary dance departments, of which there are now 14 across the continent, registers clearly as another great breakthrough. As can be imagined, setting up the first one, in the hitherto unsympathetic atmospheres of university faculties of the time, was the greatest battle and a special moment of change. Other departments spread so quickly and are now so established that is not easy to believe that Shirley McKechnie’s victory on the Rusden Campus was achieved as recently as 1975.

So, what has been the significance of this addition to Australian dance life? Certainly, it has added an academic respectability, a dignity, to dance studies which several of the visual, performing and fine arts had been accorded for some time. Valid and valuable areas of dance, given only spasmodic attention in previous times, such as research, the physical sciences, criticism and evaluation, aesthetics, composition, history and choreology, now receive their share of study.

The variety of courses and their specialisations have helped create new employment possibilities. The opportunity for students to pursue their full education while still continuing their technical and creative development, has helped reduce the tragic number of students in the past, whose dance ambitions had to be realised at the expense of their personal and intellectual growth.

At best, the dance departments, by involving more scientific methods of training and incorporating broader educational principles, are producing dancers who work well in those companies, mainly contemporary, where creativity encourages the dancer’s artistic contribution.

The result of the empowerment that higher education is granting the increasingly independent-minded graduates of these tertiary institutions, is apparent in many situations. It is especially evident in the number of confident young dance folk capable of speaking out and arguing for dance concerns, of taking office in dance organisations, administering and managing projects and being involved with the big issues that face dance both today and in the future.

Already a force, tertiary dance courses will grow even more in excitement when more of the departments embrace fresh ideas for such things as more flexible staffing, sensitive recruitment and nurturing of male dance students, challenging summer schools and adjustments to courses that align more fittingly to the realities of a life in dance.

Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander dance

The emergence of the serious study of Aboriginal and Islander dance studies is a special moment in our modern story. I really believe that the impact that this has made is nothing to what it is likely to produce. So far, it has been pretty well a one-way influence but there is being developed a quality of dancing and of choreography, with a texture and a flavour like no other in the world.

Frances Rings in Corroboree by Bangarra Dance Theatre. Choreographer: Stephen Page. Photo: Danielle Lyonne.

Apart from the blend of Indigenous and Western styles, there are ingredients of focus, groundedness, surrender, high drama, imagery and rich humanity that will continue to enhance this distinctive work and hopefully pervade other forms.

The history of Australian dance pays respect to the invaluable contribution of people from abroad who have become our pioneers. But it has become also the record of the claiming of positions of leadership, established by those pioneers, by dance professionals from within our own ranks.

In the matter of the Aboriginal and Islander development, much credit must go to the pioneering vision and labour of Carol Johnson and equally now to those Australians guiding companies and training centres throughout the country, to new standards.

The future of dance

Allow me finally, to clarify the message of this digressive paper. My first point is a concern for the paucity of historical literature that treasures all aspects of our colourful and hard-fought past. Secondly, a plea that it should be the kind of history that searches the facts to reveal the lines of development and processes of change which, in turn, explain the direction of our progress and the standards and practices of the present.

But no matter how important the past is to us, nor how absorbed we dance workaholics allow ourselves to become with our day to day present, nothing can possibly be more important than our future. Having acquired a past largely through accident, it is now in our power to create that future, to actually design it. Our history has led us to the perfect point of readiness to prepare the strategies based on wisdom from the past, on analysis of the present and projections of the future, that will ensure the speediest and most efficient solutions to the collective problems facing our weird and wonderful world of dance.

It’s never too late to change things. It’s just hard work, and for far too many of us, something to fear and therefore resist. Forgive this obvious statement, but we cannot have progress if we hold onto the status quo. We cannot be dealing appropriately with the mid-90s by maintaining the viewpoint and processes of the mid-80s. In any case, it’s the next century we must be worrying about.

So let’s have more of everything—more history that preserves and informs, more scrutiny of present conditions and analysis of needs, more collective argument for a vision of what could lie ahead, so that it will be possible to create our future by knowing—and respecting the past.