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White Board, Where is Independent Dance in Sydney? Symposium White Board, Where is Independent Dance in Sydney? Symposium
photo Erin Brannigan
ON APRIL 7 A SYMPOSIUM FOR INDEPENDENT ARTISTS AND ARTS PROFESSIONALS, WAS HOSTED BY THE SCHOOL OF ENGLISH, MEDIA AND PERFORMING ARTS (UNSW) AND PERFORMANCE SPACE WITH THE SUPPORT OF REALTIME AT UNSW KENSINGTON CAMPUS. WHERE IS INDEPENDENT DANCE IN SYDNEY? WAS SWIFTLY ORGANISED IN RESPONSE TO THE ARTS NSW FUNDING OUTCOMES FOR 2009 ANNOUNCED EARLY THIS YEAR THAT HAD A DEVASTATING IMPACT ON THE LOCAL INDEPENDENT DANCE SECTOR, MAINLY DUE TO A CHANGE IN FOCUS AWAY FROM INDIVIDUALS AND TOWARDS ORGANISATIONS AND PROGRAMS.

The broad aim of the symposium was to create an event where the community could “connect with peers, identify strengths and gaps in provision, and take a proactive role in determining the future of independent dance.” With many people commenting on the novelty of all being together in one room (highlighting the absence of effective social and industry events for Sydney’s dance community), the event was successful in providing a sense of focus and plans for concrete action.

The six hour symposium was attended by some 35 artists and administrators (from long-standing members of the community such as Tess De Quincey and Nikki Heywood to newcomers Rachel Morgan and Rachelle Hickson), and was framed by an opening ‘provocation’ from Julie-Anne Long and ‘case study’ in the person of Emma Saunders. Long talked about perceived or imagined binaries separating the independent community dotted around the inner city from institutionalised dance centring around the harbour; the possibility of choosing independence; and the reconfiguration of this binary to accommodate flows in both directions. Her descriptions of the Sydney Opera House as a UFO heading off out of here, and the Wharf precinct as a liner about to depart for other shores, were images that encapsulated the tenuous nature of current connections with these ‘edifices.’

Performance Space director Daniel Brine guided us through a variety of frameworks for discussion in smaller groups around two major themes: what “we” need (the infrastructure map); and what “I” need (the artist’s map). Topics such as our strength in diversity of practice, the imperative for independents to maintain their status through collective action, the entrepreneurial bent of this group of artists and the ideal of maintaining an uncompromised position in one’s practice produced exciting discussion. And a creative task in personal map-drawing produced some surreal and sometimes frightening results that would be perfect for the walls of the Arts NSW office on Elizabeth Street.

Ultimately, the visual maps with gaping holes and vortexes, along with Emma Saunders’ emotional articulation of everything we-always-wanted-to-say-but-didn’t, brought to the surface much of what had been simmering just beneath for many individuals feeling isolated and disheartened. Having been involved in this community for more than 20 years, it does seem to me the time is ripe for action with so many key players signing up in support. The foundational work done by artists such as Rosalind Crisp at Omeo Studio and supporters of local practice such as Performance Space, One Extra Dance and Critical Path has, over many years, produced a groundswell of activity, bringing in to focus the profound deficiencies in practical and financial support for ongoing practice, production and presentation. I guess we all anticipated what a choreographic laboratory like Critical Path in Sydney would mean; excellent work with nowhere to go.

Things did get a little fuzzy in the sixth hour, but my summary notes emphasise the desire for a clearer articulation of the sector in order to educate funding bodies and have the practice properly valued; to pursue places and spaces where the community can exist and connect; and to seek some relief from administrative work that eats up precious time and resources. Identifying the people and places already negotiating the objectives, such as the inimitable Sam Chester at Queen St and FraserStudios (p21), appeared to be one of the most logical steps forward.

The following is an excerpt from a letter sent to Mary Darwell (Executive Director, Arts NSW) which resulted from the day. It was signed by around 40 members of the Sydney dance community who met a few weeks after the Symposium:

“The sector was alarmed by the application of assessment criteria (audience numbers, financial sustainability) that severely disadvantaged most members without taking into account the challenges faced by the sector. Our gathering recognised that the independent dance community is a strong, supportive one, but that the lack of grants in 2009, the paucity of studio spaces for ongoing training and development of works, the modest commissioning funds at Performance Space and CarriageWorks, the absence of a major University-based School of Dance in NSW, all mean that independent dance artists in NSW work in an anxiety-making, fragmented environment…

“We believe that the issues of the health and future of the independent dance sector, as a whole, need to be taken into account in the 2010 funding round. We urge Arts NSW to consider the recommendations we have made here and those outlined by Ausdance NSW in its issues paper, particularly that assessment criteria be modified so that they are responsive to the actual conditions under which the sector operates; that peer assessment be made by peers; and that Arts NSW partner the sector to address studio space and administration issues.”

Other outcomes of the follow-up meeting included the setting up of a volunteer rotating working group of five (Alexandra Harrison, Nikki Heywood, Sue Healey, Julie-Anne Long and Martin del Amo); sponsorship from Sam Chester at FraserStudios in the form of space for meetings and communications support; and a briefing with Arts NSW regarding the new guidelines for funding released May 15, to be hosted by Ausdance NSW.


Where Is Independent Dance in Sydney?, symposium for Sydney dance artists and workers, facilitated by Daniel Brine, Director of Performance Space and Dr Erin Brannigan, Lecturer in Dance, School of English, Media and Performing Art, UNSW; April 7

RealTime issue #91 June-July 2009 pg. 22

© Erin Brannigan; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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