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FB Our funding was cut approximately 50% for 1995 so rather than spread that very thinly across the whole year, the company elected to use its funding over seven months, which is not that unusual for small companies working on tight budgets. The current company finish at the end of July.

Sue’s resignation forced us to look at what was going on. We stopped and asked how do we get our funding back and which direction do we go? So we’ve had consultations with the community, with funding bodies, dancers, and other artistic directors. We wanted to find out if there really is a desire to have a professional contemporary dance company in Canberra and what the form of that company should be. We held a public meeting at the end of April and more than a hundred people attended. There were lots of letters of support not only from members of the community but also from people like Meryl Tankard and Don Asker, the two previous artistic directors of the company. We got good media coverage and representatives from the Australia Council and Cultural Council (the ACT funding body) attended.

We presented a strategy paper for options for 1996. Although the need for a company was clear, the issue of what kind of future was not, because of the number and diversity of the people at the meeting. But it did make clear who we should keep talking with, including dancers and choreographers.

KG What is the ACT dance community attitude to Vis a Vis?

FB Very concerned that there might not be a company—with a loss of work opportunities, peer opportunities—just knowing that you’ve got a company in Canberra you can work with, get advice from, get support from—administrative support, classes, keeping up professional standards.

KG The federal cut was from $142,000 to $100,000, the local one from $150,000 to $85,000. What was the rationale for the local cut?

FB A lot of things. The bottom line was they didn’t feel that audience development was happening fast enough, that the work was inaccessible.

KG Were they right, do you think?

FB We’ve been doing surveys for a year now and no-one has said “inaccessible.” At the meeting with Cultural Council we asked, “Where do your statistics come from?” and they didn’t have an answer. They were correct about the high level of government subsidy but it’s on a par with other dance companies around Australia. Their argument was that in comparison with other non-dance companies in Canberra on lower subsidy, how could they justify funding this company.

KG A blanket approach.

FB Exactly. The result—no professional dance company and the loss of sixteen years of work. But the forum was a positive event and the board has an exciting concept for next year to answer everyone’s problems. We did a very successful tour to Greenmill in Melbourne and got excellent reviews. We took Succulent Blue Sway to the Gippsland Festival, an inspiring experience—so many people want to see dance. Then we did Askew, Dance of Line here—and it was well received. Finally, we’re doing In the Wind’s Eye comprising two pieces by Sue Healey and one by returning Canberran Phillip Adams. Then it’s over to the board for 1996.

It takes a while for a company to establish itself. Sue’s third year has been very good, so it’s a bit like it’s been cut out from under her just as it’s all starting. It shows a lack of insight from various quarters. We’ve also had the problem of negative arts journalists, even when they haven’t seen the work. But Sue is leaving on a fantastic note.

KG What is this concept for 1996 that’s going to “answer everyone’s problems”?

FB A choreographic centre with an artistic advisory panel (local and interstate). We’re calling for projects—these will be advertised over the next few weeks. We can provide administration, publicity, rehearsal space and a performance venue …

KG Is this an interim strategy or a long-term one giving the board more power in the absence of an artistic director? Could it be like the inclination to replace theatre company artistic directors with executive producers?

FB We definitely do not want to cut out the idea of the artistic director. The board will not make the artistic decisions; the advisory panel will select from the proposals submitted.

KG Sue, how are you coping with this very dark situation?

SH It’s not really dark, it’s just that Canberra is no longer the place I want to be. It’s a difficult place—it’s conservative, it can be small-minded and it’s small. But I feel I’ve done a lot of what I wanted to do and the company’s been a fantastic stepping-stone for me.

KG What’s your connection with the dancer Phillip Adams?

SH He was a student at the VCA many years ago when I was teaching there. I was intrigued by him. He’s a unique dancer and choreographer. In Australia, he’s only worked with this company; the rest of his time has been spent dancing in New York with many cutting edge choreographers. He’s ready now to make a work.

KG How would you describe his work?

SH The emphasis is on distortion and restriction, how distorted bodies can be—it’s not a pretty little dance.

KG You’re also doing two pieces.

SH Saddle Up is light-hearted on the outside, but it’s really a comment on my time in Canberra. I did a sketch of it in our last season, Askew. It has a rodeo theme. Physically, I’m looking at the horse but metaphorically it’s about what a ride I’ve had in Canberra. It’s been tough but I keep getting on that horse. The other piece, more of a major work, is called Hark Back. There’s an ancestral element to it and also an evolutionary thread, and in a grand way, light evolving through the different elements from water to land to air—that’s the general structure to it.

KG Are you still pushing the choreographic limits?

SH The basis of my work is a fascination with the body but I sense a change in what I’m doing. I’m interested in what the body is saying and what the motivation for movement is, more in a theatrical sense.

KG How is this expressed—is it more psychological as opposed to working on form?

SH Yes, with a strong base in physical form, but the theatricality is vital and each performer explores genetic, physical and family origins. It’s fabulous for them.

KG Do you use speech? I ask because there is a proliferation of talk in recent dance and because the material would seem to lend itself to speech.

SH A little. I have used it before but only as an aside. Once people introduce language it can take away from what the logic of the body is saying. Speech has to be organic for me, to come from a central physical focus. My work in this show with the body is quite architectural. It’s the first time in Canberra I’ve worked with a set. I’ve designed it in collaboration with a builder. I’m working with the set and the dancers as I create it. It’s very three-dimensional, with lots of possibilities for changing spatial relationships—putting people upside down, placing them high in the air. We move on it but there are shifting elements. So it’s architectural in form because, as with the bodies and lives of the dancers, I’m looking at the evolutionary element.

The music is composed and improvised by percussionist Keith Hunter. I always have live music. He’s very much a performer in the piece. There’s also a Pianola activated by the performers—including myself.

KG And after Canberra?

SH I head straight back to Melbourne to teach briefly at the VCA and then I’m off overseas.

Vis a Vis new season In the Wind’s Eye commences June 28 at Gorman House Arts Centre, Canberra.

RealTime issue #7 June-July 1995 pg. 24

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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