Artists—the new elite 2008 Dame Peggy Van Praagh Memorial Address

In This Article

It is my great honour to be presenting the eighth Dame Peggy Van Praagh Memorial Address. The occasion is even more special because I share the presentation with David McAllister who so capably leads our national company The Australian Ballet. David is an articulate, generous and capable person who I greatly value as a friend.

Unfortunately Shirley McKechnie can’t be with us today. Shirley is both a mentor and friend whose intellectual dexterity impresses me every time I meet with her. She has generously prepared a written response to my paper which will be read today by Julie Dyson.

Unlike many of the people who have delivered this address, I did not know Dame Peggy personally, but much of what she wrote resonates strongly with me. Her achievements as a pioneer in building the place for dance in post-war Australia stand as testament to her strength and determination. I am sure she would be as thrilled as I am about contemporary debates that honour our cultural heritage and recognise the contribution of both the Indigenous owners of our land and successive settlers—debates such as the recent 2020 Forum, where creativity was acknowledged as central to our aspirations to build on Australia’s success as a nation.

Peggy was passionate about the need to nurture both dancers and choreographers, and her legacy will continue on through those who are supported by her generous bequests to The Australian Dance Council (Ausdance), The Australian Ballet, the Victorian College of the Arts and the Choreographic Centre in Canberra, now QL2 Centre for Youth Dance. Thirty years ago Peggy also co-founded Ausdance so that we had a united voice for dance, able to tackle some of the big questions facing the profession and to educate the industry about issues affecting its sustainability—health and safety, dance education, career development, and a higher profile for what was then the ‘Cinderella’ art form. This Address celebrates those 30 years of success and achievement and looks forward to the decades ahead when Ausdance will further consolidate its leadership role in the arts in Australia.

My dance journey started at the Ballet Victoria Guild in 1965 when, at the age of 5, I started ballet classes. Laurel Martin OBE was hugely influential throughout my decade of training at Ballet Victoria. She says in her book Let them Dance: "It is important that the joy of moving should be retained, even as it is brought under conscious control". 1 Laurel Martyn significantly influenced the Australian dance scene. Not only did she start the Ballet Victoria Guild but also later established Ballet Victoria, the professional dance company, and was responsible for bringing to Australia great dancers such as Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova, and teachers such as Jurgen Schneider, Marina Berezowsky and Janina Cunovas.

Dance has been an enduring love of mine and has led to a privileged and rich life, as GlenTetley describes it, "a heightened life", firstly as a professional dancer, for many years as a teacher and more recently as an administrator. It’s very hard to put into words just how wonderful it is to dance fully and at one’s peak of physical strength. To execute complex steps or passages of movement to one’s satisfaction is a rare and wonderful occurrence, and for me, one never matched outside of dance. It is surely the cruellest aspect of dance that at the point when your knowledge of the world and of yourself reaches a sophisticated maturity, this often coincides with the fading of physical capacity.

My niece Amy, who is nine, recently joined the junior school at The Australian Ballet School, an achievement for which I jokingly take full credit. Through observing and talking to Amy about her engagement with dance, I relive my own experiences, which is most lovely.

When I sat down to write this address I agonised for a long time over what 43 years of engagement with dance had taught me. What did I know and understand about the art form? What insights could I bring to contemporary debate, and what solutions could I offer to the most pressing of our challenges?

In my address today I will explore some of the major challenges faced by the dance sector and reflect on some of the achievements. Broadly speaking, we know what the issues are—it’s finding solutions and changing some entrenched work patterns and policy-driven practices that remain our greatest challenges.

Is contemporary dance on its last legs or has it become the art form of the 21st Century?

Significant among our challenges is the danger of a perception that contemporary dance in Australia is fast becoming redundant, that small to medium size companies are disappearing, we are not nurturing emerging choreographers, less work is being produced and therefore audience numbers are declining.

This appears to be an urban myth created around the significant restructuring of the dance profession in the 1990s, when small companies lost funding, a flood of dance graduates couldn’t find jobs, funding was totally inadequate and policy settings were not responsive to the new reality. Contemporary dance was seen by the media to be drab and uninspiring, and those choreographers who chose to stay in the business had a decade of struggle for recognition in a severely competitive and unsupportive environment.

Then came the flood of reports, summits and recommendations, which, although painting a clear picture of what was occurring, seemed to receive little response from our political masters. In the meantime, the profession was just getting on with it, and there is now much to celebrate artistically—a group of talented, switched-on younger choreographers has emerged who are relating to audiences, building a fan base, and are encouraged by new investment by the Federal Government.

There are now about 50 companies and groups active in Australia, and over 200 choreographers contributing to innovative Australian dance. In 2006 10% of the population aged 15 years and over attended dance performances, with 26% of these attending twice, and 1.8 million viewers weekly watched So You Think You Can Dance. There’s still a long way to go, but the Australia Council has responded with new opportunities for contemporary dance, its funding structures are more sympathetic, and there have been policy adjustments, which provide better access and more transparent information.

The outstanding ARC-funded work done by Robyn Grove, Catherine Stevens and Shirley McKechnie into the relationship between choreographer and audience, titled Creativity and Cognition in Contemporary Dance requires ongoing exploration. Audiences often feel ill-equipped to observe and translate abstract or non-linear narrative dance works. Too much dance is made without the audience in mind. The sad reality is that work that is made as a vehicle to display dance rather than as a vehicle of artistic expression leaves audiences feeling that choreographers have little to say, or even an idea to explore. Fresh, passionate and transformative artists need room to breathe, experiment and grow. They need time. As Salvador Dali said, "you need to systematically create confusion, it sets creativity free. Creativity is not easy".

The great Australian choreographer Lloyd Newson, whose work To Be Straight With You premiered in Australia at the Adelaide Festival this year, took 18 months to create the work and his research for the idea started well before that. Sadly that level of support and funding is not often made available to artists in Australia. Our two most prominent contemporary dance companies, Sydney Dance Company and Australian Dance Theatre based in Adelaide, have for years been financially unstable despite their local and international successes. Perhaps the two companies could merge? Pooling resources might allow dancers to be employed year round and give choreographers larger casts of dancers to work with. France, as many of you will know, set up over 20 well-funded choreographic centres across the country as incubators for new work and to drive interest and interaction with the local community, a highly successful model and one that keeps French dance at the cutting edge of contemporary practice.

The proposition put by Cathy Hunt and Phyllida Shaw in their paper titled ‘A Sustainable Arts Sector: What will it take?’ suggests that a Future Fund for the Arts be established.

As well as injecting significant new investment into the sector every year, a Future Fund for the Arts would free up the existing agencies to concentrate on supporting artistic production and promoting the value of the arts to all Australians. 2

Hear, hear!

Dance is in a great position to benefit from such innovative investment, with the newly released Dance 2012 action plan stating that by 2012 we will have:

  • more excellent and innovative Australian dance
  • more opportunities to see and participate in Australian dance
  • dance as an integral part of every young person’s education
  • a range of sustainable careers for dance artists.

If we can make these things happen, dance will surely be the art form of the 21st Century! As the critic Deborah Jones says "we have been thinking too small about dance: this is something we’re really good at." 3


Our traditional ways of educating and training dancers need to change. We have for too long structured learning environments for elite performance outcomes knowing that only a minuscule percentage of students are likely to continue training to elite levels or indeed be good enough to succeed at elite levels. Less than one percent of all children, mostly girls, who study dance, will ever derive their primary living from it.

Our teaching effort over past decades represents a huge lost opportunity for all those (the vast majority) who did not make it to the top. And many among that vast majority feel a sense of failure, failure that their dream of becoming a dancer was not realised. Rarely does dance classroom learning link with learning and knowledge outside the studio and therefore the rich opportunity for young people to learn about the world through dance is lost.

Adding to this is the lost opportunity to engage many more people in dance, adult learners and people of all ages who want to dance as a form of exercise. We need to find ways to build the community of dance practice and to dispel the myth that dance is only suitable for a select few. As a friend of mine with a teenage daughter says

she dances all weekend but would never consider taking dance as a subject at school. Most people dance, but the dance they do is outside the academy and usually to music outside the academy. We must call all Australians to engage in dance and to be dancers.

There has been a growth of dance activity in schools arising from curriculum developments, extending arts practice from the once dominant forms of music and visual arts to include dance and drama. However, the take-up and quality of the dance experience in our schools is patchy in terms of coverage, quality and content. Not surprising given the very small numbers of teachers who leave university with specialist dance teaching skills.

For those in middle or old age, there are very few ways to participate. There are pockets of activity where largely folk dance forms are practised and teenagers gather to practise popular culture dance forms like hip-hop. Social dance is gaining popularity, particularly since the screening of popular shows like So you think you can Dance? and Dancing with the stars. Opportunities for novice dancers to practise in large numbers and in interesting and creative learning environments are few and far between.

This represents a considerable lost opportunity for the dance sector. On-line social networks like Facebook and YouTube are gathering and connecting largely amateur dance enthusiasts of all ages. The dance clip titled Dance Evolution on YouTube has been downloaded over 90 million times. Swing dance is enjoying an on-line led resurgence, with clubs across the world gathering for workshops and friendly competitions. Many old dance forms, and importantly old footage of these forms, are surfacing through these on-line networks.

Despite my earlier plea for dance education to extend beyond the production of elite performers, Australia has been extraordinarily good at producing dancers. Dance teachers around the country have been nurturing talent to feed into our national school and intensive tertiary-level dance courses. For decades these courses have fed talent into our companies and many based overseas. Australian-trained dancers are credited and favoured for their physical strength, passion and ability to move through space. Research into professional training methods, both old and new, could cement and give credibility to these achievements. Australia is well-positioned to take a leadership role in research into teaching and learning for elite dance performers.

Why do some studio teachers continue to send their students overseas for dance training? There is a perception that overseas ballet centres are better than our own. We need to promote the extraordinary and often international impact of Australian trained dancers—it’s an export success story!

With skills shortages predicted across most sectors in the coming years, the dance industry should also prepare for the inevitability of a lack of skilled artists. Old claims that too many dancers were being produced across the country will have to be replaced with active and vocal support from the profession toward the tertiary sector to ensure that these relatively expensive courses survive, and indeed that more are set up.

Given our long and successful history in dance training, surely it is time for an Australian-based examination body to take over from the dominant RAD. We do have Cecchetti Ballet Australia, the Australian Institute of Classical Dance and the Australian Dance Assessment Program, but still each year hundreds of thousands of dollars are sent to the UK for the administration of examinations.


Creativity is the new black. During my lifetime there has never been such a focus on innovation and creativity. Education has traditionally placed importance on left-brain functions, which are logical, sequential, and linear, as opposed to right brain synthesising, empathetic, big-picture type thinking. This is our time. Creating meaning and significance is what artists do. As academics Hillary Glow and Stella Minahan so cleverly cautioned "Business has inappropriately used the concept of creativity as a metaphor for efficiency and profit." 4

However, creativity is as much a process of failure as of success; of imagination as of procedure. Business leaders and management gurus need to look more closely at their disciplines and artists and policymakers need to guard those aspects of creativity that are at once non-commercial and priceless, to identify its absolute essence.

The basis of future prosperity is creativity. People want to buy experiences, not commodities. Dreams and narratives are becoming increasingly more important in marketing. There is growing, some describe it as exploding, recognition that those who illuminate significance and bring meaning to the world will flourish as we move from the information age to the conceptual and emerging experience age. These are the claims made in the name of creative industries. They are based on a radical rethinking of the role of cultural production, which has brought art, culture and entertainment from the obscure margins of the economy to its very core as a major potential for sustained growth.

If Daniel Pink , the author of the book A Whole New Mind is correct, his prediction is that the creative industries will be worth $6.1 trillion dollars in 15 years time. Pink says

The last few decades have belonged to a certain kind of mind—programmers who could crank code, lawyers who could craft contracts, MBAs who could crunch numbers. But the keys to the kingdom are changing hands. The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind—creators and empathisers, pattern recognisers and meaning makers. These people-artists—inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers—will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys. 5

This begs the question: how creative we are in teaching dance? How infused with creative challenges are dance classes and teaching approaches? The dominant class structure of rote learning exercises in preparation for exams does not engage children’s creativity. Dance classes have to do more to help people to learn and be less about preparation for examinations. There must be room and time to create something new and unique rather than just repetition and imitating what the teacher does.

Fascinating research is emerging about creativity and the environments and techniques that help to develop it. Professor Robert Knight MD, Professor of Neuroscience, Psychology and Neurology at UC Berkeley in the USA, pointed out in a lecture I heard him give in 2004 that there are two critical periods of brain development that occur in children during the ages of 4 – 6 and 11 – 14. The biggest drive to activate the brain is the process of creating something new or discovering something new.

On the question of whether creativity could be taught Knight, says that the key to developing a creative mind was to allow learning to occur in unstructured environments, where experimentation can take place and children are allowed to fail and try again. "There is a beautiful window when children are young to expose them to learning modes (choice and variety) which helps them to be creative throughout their life".

Interestingly Knight believes that a child who has never been exposed to flexible mental processing experiences is very unlikely to be creative later in life. In explaining his theories Knight helps us to understand the complex and eclectic nature of the brain, which is made up of multiple systems, each with specific tasks, working together. Different sides of the brain control this global and local processing.

Children are generally global thinkers until language comes along and they become more local processors. Interestingly, Knight says that we should all think less and be more aware, that spatial skills are important and that the increasing use of the internet will stifle creativity because it is too structured. He advocates giving young people more sensory stimulations by getting them out to experience nature.

Or as John Egar says in his book Creative Community "the more time in cyber space the more important the real space." Professor of Pharmacology at Oxford University, Baroness Susan Greenfield, recently visited Brisbane and in her new book The Quest for Identity in the 21st Century she reassures us that there is no single gene responsible for creativity. It’s also clear from her books that the search for a scientific explanation for the link between the brain and creativity is still a long way off. Greenfield says

Creativity is surely the ultimate expression of individuality, and a characteristically human activity: it is deeply fulfilling for those who achieve it, and usually of some kind of incidental benefit to wider society. 6

Reframing our arguments about the value of the arts

How do we navigate the world of opportunity we are faced with as a result of the high value being ascribed to creativity?

Clearly we need to sharpen our arguments. I have observed a worrying trend where some artists and arts workers are dismissive, and in some cases hostile, to arguments that seek to support the arts based on economic or public benefit grounds. The personal or intrinsic benefit of arts participation is and will remain the primary reason that people continue to engage in the arts. Many artists will tell you that they are driven, compelled to engage. It is sometimes likened to a calling, and for them any suggestion of financial motivation is offensive.

As John H. Howard says in his recently released report titled Between a Rock and a Soft Space: design, creative practice and innovation,

the emergence of the creative industries as a creative force has been largely enabled by digital technologies, which have linked creative outputs and commercial opportunities. For many people, the challenge is to see creative output as both artistic and valuable in its own right, and as a commercially oriented activity that is valued by others. One does not necessarily compromise the other. 7

Contemporary debate on creativity and innovation, the knowledge economy, experience economy and creative industries, place the work of artists as central and vital to our future prosperity. What can be wrong with that? In my view all arguments need to be put forth. People will continue to engage in the arts whatever their reasons, and economists, statisticians and cultural theorists will count and analyse. We need to build a body of rigorous and independent research, research that stands up to scrutiny. Old arguments trumpeting the transformative life-enhancing values of the arts seem tired and clichéd and they don’t work on those who don’t engage in the arts. Promoting the value of the arts for its intrinsic, public and economic benefits is likely to gain us more broad-based support.

To finish on a light note and to acknowledge one of the most significant advances made over the last 30 years, let us reflect on just how far leotard design has come!