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Heretics and heritage

Amanda Card in defence of dance independents: Green Mill 1997 and PICA’s Dancers are Spaceaters

Amanda Card is currently completing a PhD on aspects of Australian dance history and formerly performed with Kinetic Energy and Human Veins.

Our search for a history often begins with the residue of memory, with the traces of the past that remain with us in the present. These remnants become starting points for a journey into our history—for the maps we make of the past. And yet, memories are invariably partial and incomplete. The maps we create lead us back to very precise places—to very personal and limited locations—and they give us a very particular view of our history and our heritage.

This tracing of a memory to create a history is a very pleasurable act. I was reminded of this at the 1997 Green Mill Dance Project held in Melbourne during early July. As I watched a parade of dancers take the microphone to offer witness to the legacy of Gertrude Bodenwieser and Laurel Martin, I was fascinated by the seductive nature of living history (especially when it is celebrated among people starved of a past). Person after person rose to pay tribute to these women—bodies in the present becoming testimony to the significance of these bodies of the past.

But what does it take to be remembered in dance? Which bodies resonate in the present, leaving maps for us to follow to the past? According to Karen Van Ulzen, editor of Dance Australia, they are the heretics who leave a heritage. They are “seldom lone individuals but part of a continuum of change sweeping Western art”. These artists defy tradition while acknowledging their heritage as a “point of departure”. This genesis model of history (Martha begat Merce begat etc etc) validates the present by reference to the existence of a past. It offers dance a kind of historical legitimacy which champions linear, progressive development but, in the process, glosses over a memory of rupture and historical specificity.

Let’s take one dancer’s career as a case in point. Sonia Revid was trained by Mary Wigman in Germany. Originally from Latvia, she arrived in Australia in 1932. Four years earlier Revid had left Wigman’s Dresden studio to pursue a solo career throughout Europe, gaining particular success in Berlin. She remained in Melbourne for 13 years, dying suddenly in 1945. Like other independent dancers working in Australia during the late 1920s and the 1930s, Sonia’s work provoked interest, received praise, and stimulated criticism from reviewers, audience members and other dancers. Basil Burdett was one critic who took a particular dislike to Revid’s style. Burdett was horrified by what he saw as Sonia’s abandonment of established technique (ballet) and scoffed at her reliance on internal stimulation for external action. He told his readers in the Melbourne Herald in 1934 that during her recital, the “general conception and technical invention were hardly adequate” and “the emotional side tends to be too dominant”.

However, Basil Burdett condemned Sonia Revid’s performances by judging them against completely inappropriate standards, assumptions and principles. For him, her abandonment of an identifiable technique made her dance highly subjective and, therefore, of suspect quality. However, the whole point of Sonia Revid’s work was her rejection of formalised techniques, her application of theory which had been developed in other art forms, and…her independence.

Consequently, as her work was so personal she did not acquire the trappings necessary for the development of a stake in the future, in the history of this country’s dance practice. She left no legacy, no disciples, no means through which her name, her life, and her work could transcend her own time. The focus of this woman’s life, and her dance, was its particularity, it was situated and historically specific. Such behaviour dictated that she be forgotten in a world so reliant on a history in which the significance of a past activity is measured by its residue and relevance in the present.

I suppose it should come as no surprise that, 60 years after Basil Burdett’s complaints, the idea of an art which transcends the specificities of time and place should prevail. As Karen Van Ulzen stated in 1988:

It is surely obvious that most of the good art of the past transcends the flux of specific ideologies to touch something else that remains constant throughout human experience…
Dance Australia, October/November 1988

Such a statement was prompted by Van Ulzen’s evaluation of the work of American independents such as Yvonne Rainer, Deborah Hay, and Trisha Brown and the theories they followed. Theories which, to Van Ulzen’s dismay, had infected the projects of Australian dancers and choreographers. These dancers applied inappropriate theories to an art form which had always been, for Van Ulzen, necessarily associated with ideological individualism, the attainment of skill, the rewarding of talent, and a “discriminating, evaluative…authoritative, hierarchical approach” to criticism.

Well, Van Ulzen is nothing if not consistent. Ten years later, in her review of this year’s Green Mill for The Australian, she bemoaned the lack of external stimulus and reference to tradition displayed in the work of contemporary independents. Their dance was “utterly unremarkable”—but, as she later suggested:

We really shouldn’t be surprised—most independents choreograph on themselves. They are therefore, first, limited by their own technical facility and, second, by a lack of outside perspective of guidance.
The Australian, July 4 1997

However, this was only part of the problem. The other was the continued use of supposedly inappropriate theories in the creation of dance; or the use of “post-frog guff” as Van Ulzen calls it. This phrase refers to post-structuralist theories and post-modernism and was proudly borrowed by Van Ulzen from the Robert Hughes—a critic who freely admits to his own generationally induced myopia.

As we have seen, this association between independent practice, the active use of theory, and the critical devaluation of such art, has a long history in Australian dance. So, when I attended this September’s Dancers Are Space Eaters forum, organised by the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA) and subtitled Directions in independent dance, I arrived with the history of independent practice, the reviews of this year’s Green Mill, and the indignation of many dancers, ringing in my ears. There, some interesting questions were asked. “What is independence anyway?” Sally Gardner grappled with this topic offering a reference point for further discussion. “What do those artists who consider themselves independents represent in their work?” The variety of relationships between the individual, the world and movement saw a mesmeric exploration of the relationship between light/video and movement by Sue Peacock, f22: the last stop; the revisiting of a highly personal but revealing history by Kate Champion, Of Sound Body and Mind; a dance of playful simplicity and explosive space-carving from Jennifer Monson, Lure; a frenetic race for escape at the crescendo of Rosalind Crisp’s memorable roar; and Tamara Kerr’s Ricochet whose relentless energy became seductively hypnotic.

What I saw at PICA was a group of artists exploring the relationship between life and their moving bodies. Sure, not all of it was great, but even the pieces mentioned above, which have all stayed with me in the months that followed their viewing, were very specific to their time and place. For me, this is where their validity lies, but for others this condemns the work. It also threatens to banish the creators to historical obscurity as the canonical myths of the future devour the multiplicity of our dancing present, just as has happened with our dancing past. For independence, whether it means working alone, inventing against the grain, or merely managing to create work outside dominant funding structures, rarely lends itself to the establishment of a ‘heritage’. Or does it?

To my amazement even I finally contributed to the maintenance of this idea of heritage with my address to the audience of Space Eaters. I should have seen it coming, but I didn’t. For in my attempt to diffuse the centrality of certain memories and explode the mythology of ‘heritage’ through the illumination of the lives of former ‘independent’ dancers in Australia, I also gave some of those who identified as independent artists in the audience a linkage to a past of their own. Hungry for affirmation of their contemporary location, these histories gave these young dancers—their process, their passions, and their position in the contemporary social structure of Australian dance—some sort of validity. It offered them a memory from which to create a map to their own heritage.


Sections of this article originally appeared as part of the keynote address for the 1997 Dancers are Space Eaters forum at PICA entitled Maps, Notion and Memory: a tale of independents in the history of Australian dance.

Amanda Card is currently completing a PhD on aspects of Australian dance history and formerly performed with Kinetic Energy and Human Veins.

RealTime issue #22 Dec-Jan 1997 pg. 30

© Amanda Card; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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