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A body will always be a body

Naomi Richards in dialogue with five dancers in melbourne

Naomi Richards is a Melbourne writer on dance.

Shelly Lasica, Sandra Parker, Trevor Patrick, John Utans and Ros Warby are all mature dancers and choreographers who have worked in a wide variety of settings. All of them have choreographed and performed their own work, and collaborated with other performing artists in dance, theatre and opera. All have worked overseas, so understand their practice in relation to dance and choreographic practice throughout the world.

Their highly individual work has grown from explorations of a range of classical, modern and postmodern movement and performance techniques including classical ballet, American modern dance, European dance/theatre, release techniques, alignment work and improvisation. Their work is frequently performed without sound. When present, sound is just as likely to be spoken text as music. Although their movement is often subtle, small and slow, the experience of watching their work is vivid.

The questions “What characterises Australian dance in the 90s?”, “How is that shaped?” and “What is the future of dance in Australia?” asked of these five practitioners led to very general discussions. The conversations included issues such as the definition of an Australian dance style, the diversity of work here, support for dance and the impact of new technology.

Many of the conversations began with my asking what sense it makes to talk about Australian dance.

JU The push to find the ultimate Australian style in dance, as in any art form, results in token gestures such as the Australian Ballet’s commissioning of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie or Ned Kelly. I don’t think you can push an identity like that…I’m conscious of being an Australian choreographer and dancer but I prefer to place myself in a dance heritage and to reflect on myself as an Australian dancer from this framework…If there’s anything that characterises Australian dance it is its diversity.

RW When people talk about Australian dance in a positive way it’s all about the strength, the power, the athleticism and the space that Australian dancers occupy. When you think about that, it’s about people “doing” something, and dancers here are very good at “doing”. When I am working, I watch. The combination of doing, watching and sensing is very hard, very disciplined work and you come at it from a very rigorous process. In the training of dancers here, and in the social environment here, “doing” is a much more popular way of existing than sensing, watching and observing.

Australian dance, like many other art forms in Australia, is under constant pressure to make easily reproducible and digestible product. Popular culture’s aspiration to preserve an eternally youthful body, together with its stress on the visual and our culture’s limited understanding of physicality, encourage dance to be experienced merely as spectacle.

TP The institutionalised learning of dance is such that the dance scene is constantly moving from one wave of youthful exuberance to another and often does not reach the point where people are practising as mature artists and working with ideas. Few young artists think of themselves as artists. To most people who are practising dance, it’s a job. Again because it is so much tied with youthful vitality, the work being performed and made is imbued with that. The work is often about glamour, virtuosity, the spectacular…Where is the art amongst all this hormonal activity? It’s very difficult to fight that, particularly when people are funded in ways that encourage them to pursue that energy.

So who in the dance scene is working with ideas and how are such individuals supported?

TP Usually the people working in this way are older. They are supported by other artists and each other, and through personal exchange with the international community. They don’t get a lot of popular support. They tend to become known as the “dancer’s dancer” or the “choreographer’s choreographer”, but it is this body of work that is at the core of the development of dance in this country.

But will it survive with lack of popular support?

TP It has to, because one constantly feeds the other. Although it’s not often acknowledged, any developments that occur in the popular form I feel are made sourcing this other constant that is bubbling away beneath everything. To involve it in the hunger that is the popular arts would be the death of that sort of creativity. It needs to be supported to survive but left alone to do its work. If it was trying to function under the pressure to fill seats, I don’t think it could.

What is the diversity of dance in Australian in the 90s? A stunning Merry Widow; an elastic modern dance; a contact improvisation with text spoken by the dancers; a male dancer in a black frock; a story told in the gestures of hands and eyes; a solo dancer moving without a sound in a gallery; a Western-trained dancer, a designer, an actress, an Eastern-trained dancer and several musicians collaborating in performance; a raunchy rendezvous in a café to rival any Grand Marnier TV ad; a barefoot woman in a jumpsuit on a wooden floor listening intently for the next move; a woman with a birdcage on her head; a woman pulling an endless strand of red wool from her mouth; any number of people doing for the thousandth time something with a chair…The multicultural society is rich with diversity, but how comfortable is it sustaining difference?

TP It’s an interesting problem that I have noticed in the last few years, the dance establishment trying to homogenise the whole scene into one big, happy, harmonious community. I don’t think it is. I think there are a lot of vibrant, diverse forms and they need to be separate, they need their own space, and this corralling, it seems to me, from organisations that purport to represent the whole community, is misguided.

SL The homogenisation somehow goes in line with people trying to identify an Australian dance style. But there is no one story and no one history and to set up official histories is the predilection of reasonably unpleasant forces. It disturbs me immensely that the perception exists of a recent springing up of contemporary work from a single source, when if you look at the bigger picture you see how things grow and develop, how the diversity grows and develops.

JU It is a time of diversity. I just wish that people would accept that diversity. When I think of Melbourne and the different philosophies that different dance makers are employing, there’s a very rich and vital practice. What bugs me a little is the competition, or that …

That difference cannot be sustained?

JU Yes, and that comes back to the funding dollar.

So, as long as everyone’s fighting for the dollar, then everyone will have to step on top of one another, maintain and fight for their turf?

JU Yes, then what is funded is interpreted as the trend.

SL One thing that I think would have a very positive effect on dance in Australia and the arts generally is if the whole funding situation was exploded, so that there was not just one source of funding. There needs to be much more diversity: private funding, corporate funding and foundations. That’s quite hard to set up in Australia, but somehow it has to be nurtured. In this way you would end up with a far more multi-layered community, which can only be better.

In the last decade of the millennium, technology is the buzzword. Is there anything happening with new technology worth talking about? Are the computer boffins getting past gimmickry? Are we being transported into a completely new age?

TP Technology is having an extraordinary effect on the whole form: film, video, computers and interactive sound. And it’s not just because artists want to make the most of what is available to them. It’s also that funding bodies and governments even are legislating to manipulate the artistic community along particular lines of achievement, in what they perceive as the development of the arts and creating exportable commodities…One of the big dilemmas now seems to be how to integrate the body and technology in performance so that one isn’t just dancing around in front of a film, or dancing over music. There seems to be a quest to make that happen, and I don’t think it can. I think that a body will always be a body and it can’t deconstruct before your very eyes and fade in and fade out, and materialise and dematerialise except in quite a literal way.

SL New technology is not automatically superior to other technology. Technology is a wonderful tool but it has to be seen in context. It certainly has limitations and the idea that a live performance can be completely transferred into a new medium is nonsense. Why have people chosen the live arts as their medium? It’s about the experience. No matter how extraordinary a film or video, it does not replicate the live experience.

Another baffling thing is the belief that new technologies can be developed into something meaningful overnight.

SL You need only look at people who have been working in video art for over twenty years. It’s not a matter of running at it. It’s a matter of working something through. It’s very short-sighted of people to think they are going to develop this work quickly. That quick hit mentality is very much associated with a product-based view of art production.

So what is the future of dance in Australia and what will determine it?

RW If those individuals can just keep a certain persistence and integrity to their practice, then maybe there’s the possibility that an understanding of choreographic practice will extend.

SL The future of dance in Australia relies on the generosity of spirit among practitioners and an increasing belief in the practice, a realistic belief in the practice and an integrity about what it is that one does. Until practitioners have that sense, why should anyone else take notice?

Naomi Richards is a Melbourne writer on dance.

RealTime issue #5 Feb-March 1995 pg. 8

© Naomi Richards; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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