Looking out from downunder Australian dance today

In This Article

Diversity and isolation

Australia, as the world’s smallest continent and largest island, is characterised by diversity. An immense central desert of surreal colours; blinding blue sky, deep red earth and soft grey saltbush contrasts with sparkling aqua seas flecked with white fringing reefs alongside deep green tropical rainforest in the North.

Snow capped mountains can be found in the south along with rolling hills and gentler green vegetation whilst in the West miles of white sands and deep blue sea hypnotise the eye and the mind. The vivid hues of raucous exotic birds colour this diverse landscape inhabited by unique fauna. Space and light are plentiful but water is scarce. The small population mostly hugs the coastline for the inland is harsh, vast and mostly uninhabitable.

Our people are as diverse as the landscape. The Aboriginal inhabitants on whose land we live comprise hundreds of diverse tribal groups with their own languages, songs, dances and stories. What they have in common is a deep spiritual connection to the land through their Dreaming.

Aboriginals have been here for many thousands of years, but the rest of us, now the majority of the population, are immigrants. Following the English convicts in the late 1700s, the Chinese arrived in the late 1800s to work in the goldfields. Both World Wars in the first half of the 20th century brought an influx of immigrants from Europe followed by a wave of Asian ‘boat people’ in the 1970s. Since then refugees from all over the world have settled here, further enriching our cultural diversity.

Similarly our dance, apart from the strong Indigenous presence, began as a migrant culture. Recreational and community dance practice has always flourished. Identities from elsewhere, transformed over time by the local context, have become part of our collective Australian identity, though dominated by the more populous Anglo-Celtics. Individual migrants from Europe in the 1940s and 1950s were our dance pioneers, in particular Edouard Borovansky who founded our first national classical ballet company (now known as The Australian Ballet), and Gertrude Bodenweiser whose introduction of German modern dance spawned the beginnings of Australia’s contemporary dance scene. There were many more significant figures who shaped and influenced our dance, including visiting companies, productions and individual dancers and teachers from Pavlova to Ballet Rambert, from Alvin Ailey to West Side Story.

Diversity and connections—inviting in and looking out

Australian dance has always been receptive to other influences. By the 1960s Australians were already looking out from down under to seek broader horizons for their dance passion. Today there are very few major companies overseas that have not employed an Australian dancer. Many of the artists working abroad returned to Australia to become major influences in our professional dance development.

These include, but are certainly not limited to, the first wave of artists such as Robert Helpmann and Elizabeth Dalman, to the next generation such as Graeme Murphy, Leigh Warren, Ross Stretton, Meryl Tankard, Nanette Hassall, Don Asker, Maggi Sietsma, Chrissie Parrott, Barry Moreland, and those more recently returned such as Kate Champion, Lucy Guerin, Rebecca Hilton, Gavin Webber and many more.

The Australian dance industry was also developed by those who stayed within its shores, or arrived from elsewhere and stayed. These include the life-long seminal work of Shirley McKechnie in dance education and scholarship, the ballet legacy of Peggy Van Praagh, Laurel Martyn and Margaret Scott, contemporary contributions by Graeme Watson, Cheryl Stock, Brian Lucas, Phillip Adams and Gideon Obarzanek, and the intercultural work of Kai Tai Chan.

But for those who return or remain, many more leave the country. Garry Stewart, Artistic Director of Australian Dance Theatre comments in some frustration that:

when we go on tour, we lose a dancer or two at the end of every season, because they end up getting a job in Europe. But yet it’s not reciprocal because we can’t employ European dancers. (Stewart, 2005)

The two-way exchange and focus on Europe and North America has, in recent years, been balanced by mainly independent, rather than company, dancers who have seen Asia as the place to seek new influences and connections, with the study of forms such as Butoh and Body Weather in Japan and residencies or projects predominantly in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam, often supported by funding from organizations such as Asialink.

Despite these ad hoc connections, our Western dominated paradigms and structures continue to make us an anomaly in the region. Nevertheless, from the 1980s an important agenda for Australian dance has been an increasing desire to engage culturally on a much deeper level with our region.

A significant number of Asian Australian artists, such as Ramli, Kai Tai Chan, Rakini, Chandrabhanu, Sun Ping, Tina Yong and Tony Yap have helped place us differently in the region. As we feel more confident about being situated in the Asia Pacific, our creative engagement is moving beyond the  intercultural tropes of self/other and the sharing of culturally specific bodily practices and stories, to collaborative relationships in which nuanced cultural sensibilities infuse shared contemporary practices.

Looking within—diversity of Australian practice

Within our borders, the dance industry often bemoans its marginalised state, especially compared with sport which dominates the lives of most Australians. Nevertheless, our ecology is surprisingly healthy. Dance in Australia performs a multiplicity of roles across a range of genres, contexts and activities, which encompass cultural, geographic and stylistic and aesthetic diversity. There has been a flourishing of Indigenous dance practice.

There continues to be a plethora of private dance studios of many styles but predominantly ballet based. Australia is a world leader in dance education, with dance included as a discrete subject in many primary and secondary schools, whilst tertiary institutions are now the main training ground for the dance profession.

Youth and community dance practice tells stories and explores issues of relevance through dance making, and is an important area of grass roots activity. Recreational dance, martial arts and body awareness techniques are experiencing huge growth, whilst culturally specific dance continues to be a fundamental part of immigrant cultural identity.

The glue that connects many of these activities to provide a united voice amongst this diversity is Ausdance—Australia’s industry organisation which supports, profiles and advocates for dance through its national and state offices and wide membership.

In the professional performance scene, commercial and corporate dance opportunities provide some work. The subsidised sector, whilst struggling with funding shortfalls, is still impressive in terms of activity. Lee Christofis (2003, 31), in his overview of Australian contemporary dance, speaks of "an almost embarrassing abundance of artists for a population of near 20 million", citing 15 companies and scores of independent artists and projects producing quality work on a regular basis.

Indigenous dance and Australian identity

Whilst Australia has a long way to go in terms of reconciliation with its Aboriginal and Islander peoples, it has respected the ownership rights of Indigenous dance artists to self-determination and to claiming their Indigenous dance identity, whether the context be traditional, tourism or contemporary mainstream.

This stems from what Magowan (2003, 1) describes as "indigenous concerns to control representations of indigeneity as national event", especially when Australian national identity at home and abroad is increasingly promoted through Indigenous culture. The inherent diversity of these cultures is reflected in the deeply felt sensibilities pertaining to the land from which the dances stem—the "connection to this country and the heritage of their ancestry" (Doyle, 2005).

One thing common to all Indigenous dance is its inseparability from song and story-telling which make it "a natural form of everyday language" and "a vital component of ceremony, of cultural practice and celebration" (Doyle, 2005).

The politicisation of Indigenous culture has meant that dance as a medium is often inscribed "as a mode of indigenous authorisation" (Magowan, 2003, 3) bringing with it what Stephen Page, Artistic Director of Bangarra Dance Theatre, refers to as "cultural obligation" (2003, 50). Page also points out that the outreach programs in Aboriginal communities in which the Bangarra dancers are engaged extend the "dance medium as a cleansing act and an education as well". (2003, 49).

With the loss of language and culture—the result of widespread dispossession—authenticity and identity are not clear cut. This has resulted in what Magowan (2003, 5) calls "new processes of indigenous identity formation", consisting of a "deliberate (and frequently contested) exchange of music and dance styles between indigenous communities" (2003, 5).

In mainstream dance the most successful forging of a contemporary Indigenous dance identity can be seen in the work of Bangarra Dance Theatre, whose style Lee Christofis (2003, 31) describes as "the transformation of authentic Aboriginal material by a gutsy urban aesthetic".

Page himself, speaking at the Womadelaide Festival in 1998 (quoted in Magowan, 2003, 6) refers to the traditional aspects of Bangarra as its "grass roots", in that traditional Aboriginal dance …is about building a bridge between urban blacks and remote blacks, it’s a wonderful marriage for rekindling one’s culture and inspiring urban energy…Without these traditional aspects, Bangarra would not exist in terms of its creative development.

With training of Indigenous dancers predominantly through NAISDA (National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association) in Sydney since the early 1970s, contemporary indigenous dance practice continues to grow with outlets for performances at government functions, conferences, through regular tourist venues, and of course on the festival and performance circuit in Australia and overseas.

Significant independent choreographers like Frances Rings, Bernadette Walong and Jason Pitt are making their mark on the national scene. With regards to companies it could now be argued that the high profile Bangarra Dance Theatre, with its unique contemporary Indigenous (‘Australian’) style, is currently Australia’s flagship national company.

Changes in dance practice–new connections

Sophisticated technology and the resulting cultural globalisation has impacted on dance practice around the world. Lee Christofis (2003, 31) comments on these changes in Australia, in terms of "the sheer weight and rapidity of change wrought by computer technology, cross-arts hybridity, contact improvisation, popular culture and fusions of styles and genres".

While much has been written about the negative impact of globalisation on culture, what is occurring in Australia is a renewed outward-looking focus by artists and arts institutions, offering opportunities to share some of our dance practices with the Asia Pacific region and beyond.

The changing nature of dance practice over the last decade has been reflected in the strength of the tertiary dance sector, where the vast majority of Australia’s dancers and choreographers are trained. A new wave of tertiary dance directors—drawn from the vibrant small company scene of the 1980s—assumed management of these courses in the late 1990s. Their understanding of the changes taking place in the field is now reflected in the ways in which students are exposed to a variety of arts practices such as physical theatre and martial arts, alongside the more traditional training in ballet and  ontemporary dance, the importance and relevance of research, creative use of technological tools and an understanding of the political environment and cultural context in which they practise.

This well-rounded education ensures that dancers are graduating with a repertoire of skills first articulated by Shirley McKechnie in the 1970s.

The Australian Dance Summits recognised that a healthy dance "ecosystem" is important, and noted that the Australian dance profession aspires to a biodiversity which "recognises the value of each of its contributors and does not ascribe to the superiority of one dance form or practice over another" (2001, 6.)

This core value of the Australian dance profession reflects the egalitarian nature of Australian society generally. Unfortunately, of the 23 companies profiled in the 1994 Ausdance Guide to Australian Dance Companies only eleven remain in 2005. In their place have arisen smaller, project-based companies such as Ballet Lab, co.loaded, Lucy Guerin Company, Wu Lin Dance Theatre and Kage Physical Theatre, all directed by independent artists who work between funded projects and individual commissions.

These are often the companies—flexible, small and edgy—are commissioned by the growing number of influential arts festival directors, now major players in Australia’s cultural development. The Australian Dance Summits identified often fragmented patterns of work, particularly for independent artists. Although comparatively generous, arts funding in Australia does not extend to long-term investment in choreographers.

The growing independent dance sector offers an important alternative to the established company structures, which are under increasing pressure to reduce performances and numbers of contracted dancers. Graduating dancers face a much more uncertain world than their predecessors, but also unprecedented opportunities with their exposure to new media, new techniques and new national and international networks.

While funded independent artists are able to develop new work—perhaps once every two years—the short life of that work remains a major concern. The arts here suffer almost more than any other activity from the "tyranny of distance", a phenomenon noted by Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey in 1961.

Vast distances within Australia mean that labour-intensive dance works are almost never seen outside their city or town of origin. The lack of touring opportunities, and, therefore, lack of exposure to peer review, dialogue and new audiences, is a limiting factor in development. Choreographic maturity can only occur with such exposure, so it is heartening to note that funding agencies are now focusing on creative ways to develop touring for Australian dance, although it remains an expensive and unwieldy challenge for the larger companies.

Paradoxically, most artists and small companies who tour tend to travel more often outside Australiathan within it, making for a dispersed industry, despite digital connectivity. The 2003 report Resourcing Dance—an analysis of the subsidised Australian dance sector highlighted the difficulties of audience development for contemporary dance, and suggested urgent action in redressing an apparent decline in audiences.

While increased marketing alone cannot fully address audience development challenges, high profile events such as festivals are known to attract large audiences for dance. As critic Lee Christofis (2003, 13) noted:

Robyn Archer has done what no government in Australia has had the guts to do—stage a full-scale, international contemporary dance festival with 23 productions, 84 movies, two conferences, masterclasses and choreographers’ workshops. Archer also unleashed a nightly extravaganza, Dancing in the Streets, that ranged from salsa and swing to Bollywood.

In pursuit of wider audiences, companies and project artists have identified diversified working contexts in venues such as clubs, warehouses, abandoned buildings, shopping centres, art galleries and in television environments. They are taking dance to the people as much as expecting people to come to the dance, and companies such as Chunky Move in Melbourne have become experts in creative ways of developing new young audiences for their ‘product’.

Companies and activities also flourish in the smaller centres, such as youth dance companies, school dance festivals, ethnic community celebrations, and ballroom dance competitions. The issue of sustainability remains at the top of the professional dance agenda. Young choreographers are developing new work through collaborative relationships, with alternative sources of funding becoming an imperative to allow them to sustain their practice.

The rise of choreographic centres in Canberra and Sydney has provided an avenue as well as a support structure for artists to develop and mature through a range of residences and fellowships. Sustainability is also a priority for large and small dance companies, where a generation of artistic directors has survived the odds and continue to employ and train a younger generation of artists.

Artists are also increasingly turning to the broader global and new media agendas; collaborating across cultures, art forms, and technologies both as a renewal of creative processes and as a strategy for sustainability. Bonemap, a small project group isolated in far North Queensland, believes the nature of their practice provides a tool for sustainability, enhancing audience development by new media-based work which creates "economical touring components for galleries and performance spaces" (2005, 13).

Other independent artists are creating films as a way of extending the life of their work and challenging the spaces in which dance exists. Screen-based work also provides a way to counteract the ephemerality of live performance, although the expense of producing films and the lack of income does not contribute to financial sustainability. However, in terms of innovation, Sue Healey notes

It fires my imagination in a particular way that leads me into new ways of visualizing movement…my personal objective is to question how dance can be translated to the screen with integrity and with new choreographic insights.

The challenges of interactive technologies to extend the creative potential and relevance of 21st century dance practice have been taken up by some of our leading practitioners, such as Hellen Sky (2005, 11):

This rub with technology connects us to new ways of thinking and communicating and experiencing the world. Images and thoughts, sounds and movement co exist and become dispersed over smaller and larger grids, and we become new boundary riders slipping in and out of virtual and physical worlds.

Despite the challenges facing Australian dance in the 21st century, new modes of practice, new relational possibilities and a continuing outward focus to connect with the region and beyond are some ways to ensure its relevance and survival in the foreseeable future.


  • Milledge, R. and Youdell, R. ‘Bonemap’, Dance Forum, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Winter 2005), p. 13.
  • Champion, K., Obarzanek, G., Page, S., Stewart, G. ‘Not Strictly Dancing’, in State of the Arts, April–June 2005, pp. 44–53.
  • Christofis, L. ‘Australian contemporary Dance: an introduction’, in Baxter, V. and Gallasch, K. (eds.) In Repertoire (Sydney: Real Time / Australia Council, 2003), pp.31–33.
  • Christofis, L. ‘Making all the right moves’, The Australian, 28 October 2003, p. 103.
  • Doyle, F. 2005. From lecture notes prepared for the unit Australian Dance, Creative Industries, Queensland University of Technology.
  • Healey, S. ‘Capturing the Intangible’ Dance Forum, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Spring 2005), p. 10.
  • Magowan, F. ‘Dancing with a difference: reconfiguring the poetic politics of Aboriginal Ritual as a national spectacle’, The Australian Journal of Anthropology, Vol 11, Iss 3, (2000) pp. 1–14.
  • Mulready, R. ‘The price of independence’, Dance Australia, 135 (Dec. 2004 / Jan 2005), pp. 34–37.
  • Nihas, V. and Dyson, J. Australian Dance Summits 2001, (Canberra, Australian Dance Council – Ausdance Inc, 2001).
  • Sky, Hellen ‘Choreography for the 21st Century’, Dance Forum, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Winter 2005), p. 11.