by Maggi Philips
Memories, wafer-thin now, tie the journal, Brolga, to a bird encountered on a crevasse-ridden earth path in a remote Northern Territory settlement, Kalkuringi. This brolga, a fully-fledged being with a wondrous wing-span and fully grounded feet danced, as if in parody of my feeble attempts to move in European ways across the desert landscape. At the same time, this bird, commanding yet soft in the greys and pinks of its feathers, accepted me as a fellow traveller on the difficult route to identity or, as the brolga knew, on the stretch to its ‘home’ with the local policeman.
As I watched the brolga navigate the road and then the gate to its refuge, I had a glimpse of the incongruities of life and particularly of a dancing life. Did he/she dance in the police station or was that moment of display reserved for the inept being he/she met along the way? I’ll never know the answer to that question but the opening of wings and subsequent display ingrained the knowledge of dance, complete with enigmas, into my being.
If I have the privilege of surveying Australian dance in its propulsion to be acknowledged and legitimised, I also have a responsibility to try and generate a dialogue within the discipline and its outwards extensions beyond place and particularised practice. Dance being quintessentially embodied can be challenged by the language of words: why write, so it is said, if the dancing body says much more than words can convey?
Answers are manifold according to the unique needs and desires of each speaker/writer but the pivotal response lies in the inextricable place of dance in human experience, in the interface of dancing and talking, of dance and image, of dance and sound. We dance in and not separate from all the intricacies of sensation and convention that constitute human life. Consequently, alike the many partnerships that contribute to the delight and puzzlement of being, dancing and talking sustain each other.
Indeed, this dialogue, in and between modes of communication, performs all sorts of invisible feats stretching across interpretation, documentation, justification and celebration, and extending to what we all hope will be an inexhaustible adventure. I dedicate this issue of the journal to an anonymous brolga in the Territory and that unending adventure.
As this preamble suggests, I am particularly biased towards diversity in the dancing and talking journey, even if this issue of Brolga, unlike those of my formidable predecessors, Michelle Potter, Alan Brissenden and the line of guest editors, is rather slimmer than usual and late in its publication. In reflection, I have to talk louder and more persuasively to spur contributions to this special avenue which gives voice to dance and people who move.
Australians and those who connect with Australian dance experiences in one way or another need to know that their ideas, memories and research are valued as the vibrant electricity to keep the dancing-talking duo spinning on through time. The current issue does, I believe, give a sense of the multiple voices and approaches that weave into the repertoire of Australian dance, its history, present and future.
If loss is a mark of sadness, it also shines bright with a life well-lived, of an individual whose presence threaded inclusiveness into Australian dance. Julia Cotton’s Tribute for Keith Bain exemplifies Bain’s extraordinary openness to the range of dignity and playfulness of dance experience. He possessed a knack of enlarging our community, stepping across and around stylistic barriers, wherein he reached a zenith of his own pride (and not without astonishment) in his appointment as a juror of the International Theatre Institute’s Dance Committee. It was, and is, a pride he extended to us all. Loss, when read through Bain’s life, is nothing short of a celebration of what he left in his gentle but indelible wake.
From an ending that endures to a kind of beginning that defies endings, Ann-Maree Long’s evocation of a new-comer, Jack Gray, turns the focus on Indigenous performers. Resonating in many ways with the Bain’s legacy, Gray, through the auspices of Blakdance emanates, according to Long, an indomitable personality dedicated to the development of Indigenous performance in ties between Australia and our neighbours from New Zealand and the Pacific.
The article gives a sense of the growing confidence of Indigenous imagery and potency within the overall dance perspective which indicates, within an admittedly complex socio-cultural environment, a gradual shift towards acceptance of cultural diversity and ways of knowing that hitherto have evaded white Australian consciousness. Bangarra have unquestionably led the way but until people like Gray exploit that entry, there is a danger of a single expression ‘of country’ which may not encapsulate the landscapes of multiple languages. Gray with his committed mentorship within Indigenous communities is a performer who needs to be followed.
History is strange territory, particularized if viewed from one angle, and replete with surprising interconnections when viewed from another. Remembrance of Tomotake Nakamura: Revival of Western Dance in Post-War Japan through the Life of a Remarkable Dance Artist captures both angles even if focused on an early Japanese exponent of classical ballet against the tumultuous pre-and post-war social upheavals in Japan.
Motohide Miyahara’s intimate perspective reveals something of the appeal of a westernized dance form flourishing in an unlikely environment and of the connections which the US State Department’s support of Balanchine’s New York City Ballet’s international touring forged in the fifties. Miyahara’s account of Nakumura’s conversion to and subsequent promotion of ballet concentrates on the aesthetic effects of the tour to Japan and Australia of the NYCB, effects undoubtedly corresponding to the artists’ intentions.
However, considering the US governance of the Japanese territories, the cultural propaganda just beneath the story’s surface must have engineered the undertaking. As a young member of the Australian audiences, I succumbed to the impact of Balanchine’s style and bravado, totally naïve as to what the political purpose of the tour might have been. Nakamura may have been a little wiser but his admiration for Jacques D’Ambroise reflects a general response to the then young and powerful dancer commanding the stage in ballets like the sassy Western Symphony.
Another unplanned synchronic pattern emerges in the performance trajectories of Bain and Nakamura, both of whom moved seamlessly between dance styles and their respective positioning on the social hierarchy, at least as conceived currently. While the Japanese scene was arguably more complex due to the overlays of western and eastern cultures, the juxtaposition of the two articles suggests that switching from ballet to television, from jazz to ballroom was close to the norm for dancers in the mid-twentieth century. A dancer simply migrated across styles chasing viable livelihoods. This behavior and the chameleon-like skills involved raises questions about 21st century specialization and, perhaps, a fracturing of the dance community.
Olivia Millard’s examination of the peculiar bonding which can occur through improvised dance practice in Dancing habitus: The formation of a group (dance), foregrounds a practice which, to all intents and purposes, focuses on expressions of individuality and, therein, provides an intriguing counterpoint to the suggestion offered above about the specific identification of dance styles in contemporary terms. (This article has been peer reviewed.)
Bain and Nakamura probably practiced ‘improvisation’ as a means to create work or to play with their various experiences, dragging a jazz feel into a balletic shape for example, but this is a far cry from improvised practice developed as a technique and performance style which occupies Millard. Improvisation currently registers as a distinctive practice which Millard examines in terms of the conundrum between individuality and the social.
The article draws on, amongst others, Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus to suggest that, in spite of privileging unique identity, the practicing together, over time, creates a sense of common purpose that becomes a social unit with shared values and, perhaps, shared movement expressions. The formation of a group with knowledge of touch, witnessing and releasing enables the individual to belong without subsuming identity into a forced mould and so the puzzle of identification continues through the channel of dance, commenting on the wider construction of society.
The issue culminates with two book reviews, Renee Newman-Storen’s perspective on Fernando Alonso; The Father of Cuban Ballet by Toba Singer and my own survey of Dena Davida’s editorship of Fields in Motion: Ethnography in the Worlds of Dance. The Cuban dance story has to be told, if only because it is an instance where revolution and dictatorship collide to form a unique experiment of art and science, one which has marked the virtuosity of classical ballet in unexpected ways, given the tiny Cuban state, its socialist agenda and political isolation.
Singer’s story lies in contrast with the numerous chapters of Davida’s compendium of dance through an ethnographic lens in that Cuban practitioners’ political point of departure needed to highlight achievement (amply demonstrated through performance history) against dance as a means of testing experience or of exploring fields that both perform and happen.
Let the dancing/talking pivot and bound in its inordinate variety.