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education & the arts

dance education: why invoke the nation?

linda sastradipradja

Linda Sastradipradja is a Melbourne-based independent dance artist who has spent over 20 years dancing, teaching, directing, producing, mentoring, creating and engaging with dance and dancers in Australia and internationally.

Over and Out, 2010, LINK Dance Company, WAAPA Over and Out, 2010, LINK Dance Company, WAAPA
photo Jon Green

An important priority within curricula, Australian dance content is defined by various combinations of acknowledgment and celebration of Australian dance works; cultivating an understanding of a lineage of dance artists who have contributed to the development of what we see as current Australian contemporary dance; of utilising and maximising the expertise of current dance artists and transferring those benefits to the students; and possibly of patriotic or nationalistic pride.

working from the local

Dr Sally Gardner, Lecturer in the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University, says that upon starting their undergraduate degree many dance students “have little knowledge of contemporary dance art either locally or globally, currently or historically.” Given that this is their starting point she asks “why invoke the nation?” suggesting that “perhaps it would be better to think in terms of the local. Making connections with or referring to local dancers has a pragmatic, potentially vocational value.” At Melbourne University’s Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) a strategy to feature the work of Australian dance artists both in performance and in the curriculum has been pursued over the past 10 years. This integrated approach to dance education and training aims for VCA students to become conversant with the work of Australian choreographers and dance companies in a variety of contexts at and beyond the VCA.

A combined pragmatic and referential approach comes from Michael Whaites, Artistic Director of Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts’ (WAAPA) postgraduate pre-professional program LINK. Providing networking and employment opportunities are highlighted goals and the choice of national dance artists and companies is geared towards assisting the graduates from LINK to gain work within the profession: “Australian dance artists are very important...helping the students connect to the landscape and east coast, and helping to familiarise them intimately with some of the current people working in the industry.”

dance artists as teachers

Australian tertiary dance courses value and employ currently practising Australian artists as teachers for their currency of knowledge, their particular artistic practices and the professional networking information and opportunities that can benefit their students. Deakin University’s dance course includes comprehensive representation of local dance artists throughout the many aspects of students’ studies including as teachers, occasional additional visits by guest dancers, unit readings, reference or mention during technique, composition or other workshops and announcements on unit website pages.

The VCA’s current focus on Australian work is described by Associate Professor Jenny Kinder, VCA Dance Undergraduate Coordinator, as “underpinned by the involvement of practising dance artists in curriculum delivery. Participation by practising artists in three of six subjects on offer represents significant exposure to Australian work and practices.”

resource: god bless youtube

At Macquarie University Dr Pauline Manley, Lecturer in Dance Studies, says that Australian dance content is comprehensively included within the Macquarie dance course, “ranging from watching artists on YouTube to setting research tasks to seek out and attend live performances in unfamiliar venues and settings.” The inclusion of Australian content is considered vital in providing students with information about the content and location of what is currently occurring in the Australian dance environment and she praises the ability to access it via the internet: “God bless YouTube and the artists who release their work for the world to see. Thanks to YouTube we can watch Australian contact improvisation, performance artists, improvisations, contemporary dance ...”

While Pauline Manley applauds YouTube, Dr Erin Brannigan, Lecturer in Dance at the University of NSW places the onus of releasing more Australian dance information into the wider public domain on the works’ creators. Although documentation of dance exists she says “it is very difficult to obtain. Choreographers and dance companies need to take responsibility for this.”

resource: dance as written word

It is generally agreed that currently there isn’t a broad enough body of written text and reference material regarding Australian dance, although resources in areas such as dance film are increasing. Performing arts journals, magazines and publications such as Brolga, the Writings on Dance archive, RealTime and the RealTimeDance portal are quoted as valuable sources of written material, although in total they are few. Key resources that relate to Australian dance are available in other formats—some in the form of living, practising senior artists. Jenny Kinder makes the point that “the issue is not access to information but whether Australian researchers will capitalise on existing primary sources and documents (such as the National Library’s Oral Histories) to produce the kind of dance texts and documentation that have emerged from the United States, Britain, Europe and more recently Asia.”

networks & shared learning

Another challenge is getting students to access information and material about dance artists and practices that occurred before the digitised age, and not to confuse accessibility of information with ease of access to information or the only available information. However, consideration does need to be given to how the current generation of students consumes information, says Associate Professor Cheryl Stock from Queensland University of Technology’s Creative Industries and former dancer, choreographer and artistic director. By students sharing information via blogs, YouTube and social networks, she observes that teaching and learning processes have changed to incorporate more dynamic peer-to-peer exchanges of information: “It’s about the conversations that are being held in whichever format they’re occurring. This has many advantages in engaging students and providing access to work that cannot be seen live but it does not replace the experiential. Learning about dance and learning through dancing provide an essential praxis of theory and practice.”

embodied learning

Critically, dance students need to understand that some information can only be accessed by direct interaction with practising artists. Cheryl Stock says that “to acquire deep knowledge of dance, students need to be in the studio often to directly engage with their learning for a more complete understanding of the ideas they access—and most importantly, that information becomes EMBODIED; it is a type of knowledge that is experienced and transferred personally and these kinaesthetic understandings cannot be acquired through digital platforms. Students need to engage with our contemporary artists and their ideas on a number of levels and where at all possible learn directly from them through classes, secondments and choreographic opportunities.”

learning lineage

Acknowledgement of the history and legacy of Australian dance is the aspect of Australian dance content unanimously considered of utmost importance and relevance for today’s dance students. The knowledge of national and international dance practices and histories is symbiotic and provides a perspective of how Australian dance and seminal Australian dance artists developed, progressed and impacted on current generations of Australian dance artists within local and global contexts. Cheryl Stock says that “there is a tendency for many students to think that various (contemporary dance) practices are new. They need to have access to the lineage of dance artists that have contributed to what exists now. And we also need dance scholars to write those histories.”

In 2012 the VCA will introduce a new subject Dance Lineages which will focus on the development of contemporary dance in Australia in order to contextualise the international contemporary dance trends and influences studied. Jenny Kinder underscores the value that it will be “acknowledged through the prism of Australian dance artists and their various overseas encounters”. Macquarie Dance also shares this view and has a research project underway to establish an audio-visual database of Australian dancing from the 1960s to the present day.

While the principle of prioritising Australia’s dance heritage is a shared theme, the selection of artists focused on reflects each course’s specific aesthetic values, geographical location and the individual experiences of staff. The artists highlighted by different tertiary dance courses and the reasons for their inclusion and prioritisation, are therefore important indicators of the particular character, artistic approaches and aesthetics of the course and what it can offer.

thinking globally, dancing locally

On the issue of inclusion of Australian dance content in tertiary dance courses there is an overarching agreement that it is a fundamental necessity for dance students to experience information and dance work that is excellent and which reaches beyond national definitions, histories and borders; but to be able do this their perspective must be informed by knowledge that is local in order to understand and appreciate the global.

As Cheryl Stock comments: “We live and work in a global world but we need to foreground past and current Australian dance practices and histories for an appreciation and understanding of how what is happening now came to be and why. That is, we need to contextualise the information historically and with an understanding of how the different genres have developed. Australian contemporary dance—and indeed all contemporary dance—didn’t just happen.”

additional resources

The Australian National Library’s Australia Dancing (; Alan Brissenden and Keith Glennon’s Australia Dances, Creating Australian Dance 1945-1965, Wakefield Press, Adelaide, 2010 (RT 100); and Erin Brannigan’s Platform Paper for Currency House, Moving Across Disciplines: Dance in the 21st Century, 2010. Ausdance National and Routledge’s book on Australian dance with interviews and articles by and with Australian dance artists, academics and critics is due for publication in 2011. The Australian company Contemporary Arts Media’s Artfilms provides DVDs (at individual, educational and other institutional rates) of Bangarra Dance Theatre, Lucy Guerin Co. and Chunky Move ( Erin Brannigan and RealTime are editing a collection of essays and interviews on specific works by 12 Australian choreographers for publication in 2012 (the choreographers are profiled with articles and video clips in RealTimeDance: Eds.

Linda Sastradipradja is a Melbourne-based independent dance artist who has spent over 20 years dancing, teaching, directing, producing, mentoring, creating and engaging with dance and dancers in Australia and internationally.

RealTime issue #104 Aug-Sept 2011 pg. 3

© Linda Sastradipradja; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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