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australian dance: unseen at home

sophie travers: national dance touring & roadwork

Lee Serle (foreground), I Want to Dance Better at Parties, Chunky Move Lee Serle (foreground), I Want to Dance Better at Parties, Chunky Move
photo Igor Sapina

Before researching this article I shared the opinion, derived from reports of international success from companies such as Melbourne’s Chunky Move and Adelaide’s Australian Dance Theatre (ADT), that there was a hungry international market for Australian contemporary dance due to the high production values, markedly physical style of the work and strong stamp of the sophisticated choreographers running the major middle-scale companies. Looking at the touring schedules of four companies with significant international touring in the last two or three years, it was immediately evident how little national touring accompanied their overseas success.

Set to explore the issues underpinning this imbalance, I spoke to the producers of these companies and was surprised in a couple of cases to find that large and significant Australian tours are planned for 2010 and 2011. Kate Champion’s Force Majeure is the first company to embark upon a national tour through the new Australia Council funded Roadwork network. This network administered by Performing Lines in Sydney consists of a self-selecting group of 18 regional theatres and the regional touring network, Country Arts SA. Roadwork is an extension of the successful Mobile States network model (also administered by Performing Lines and subsidised by Australia Council) which supports smaller scale work.

Roadwork seeks to support adventurous middle scale dance and theatre which is suitable for regional touring. The presenters meet to select productions from dance and theatre which can benefit from marketing and audience development activity. Created in response to feedback articulated by both presenters and producers about the obstacles to presenting dance, the program has been tailored to meet immediate needs. Force Majeure will tour The Age I’m In, the production which premiered to great acclaim at Sydney Festival in 2008. For the company the opportunity to present the work across such a large range of venues is an exciting extension of its aim to create accessible work which has a strong relevance to Australian audiences. Champion plans to accompany the performances with workshops and talks to create opportunities for regional audiences to come into contact with the artists and the work.

Also, heading out on a Roadwork tour, this time in 2011, is Lucy Guerin Inc’s Untrained, the production which premiered at Melbourne’s Dance Massive festival in 2009 and which will tour to Adelaide Festival, Hong Kong Arts Festival and regional Victorian venues—Kingston Arts Centre, Geelong Performing Arts Centre, Colac Otway Performing Arts Cultural Centre, Frankston Arts Centre and Dandenong’s Castle Theatre in 2010. For Guerin, the nature of this production, which pitches two trained performers alongside two untrained individuals in a series of tasks which are both humorous and touching, has been the breakthrough required to reach broad Australian audiences. In 2011, the show will tour to 16 venues over nine weeks, with workshops for two untrained locals creating the show with the two touring professionals and Lucy Guerin. The work will literally transform with each local iteration.

For both Guerin and Champion, these new opportunities to present their work outside of their home bases in Melbourne and Sydney respectively are unprecedented. Prior to this tour Guerin’s producer, Michaela Coventry, told me that there were ongoing relationships with Brisbane’s Powerhouse, Sydney Opera House and PICA in Perth, but that it remains difficult to build an audience and demand for the work outside of a festival context. Only in Melbourne has the company succeeded in securing a long-term presenting partnership with Malthouse which has consistently presented the company and will partner Lucy Guerin Inc in an Interconnections commission of a new work in 2010.

In 2009 Lucy Guerin Inc toured Corridor, Love Me and Structure and Sadness to three US venues and six European venues. Untrained was presented at Sydney Opera House for the successful Springdance program but there were no further Australian presentations. In 2008 the company presented at Sydney and Perth festivals and in 2007 there was a Mobile States tour of Love Me which reached all five venues in that network. International touring in 2007 reached Korea, China, the US and Singapore.

Force Majeure has mainly presented work in Australia in the festival context and has begun to explore international opportunities for presentation on the back of its successful inclusion in Lyon’s Biennale de la Danse in 2006. In 2009 The Age I’m In toured to prestigious festivals in Ireland, Korea and Canada. For real international profile however Chunky Move and ADT have been redefining the parameters of success.

In 2009 Chunky Move toured more or less non-stop from March till December, with Glow, Mortal Engine, Two Faced Bastard and I Want to Dance Better at Parties. Fourteen venues in the US, UK and Europe presented this Melbourne-based company. Glow, the technologically driven solo created by artistic director Gideon Obarzanek in 2006 has become the company’s international calling card, with huge demand for the work appearing unabated into 2010. Executive Producer Rachael Azzopardi explained how this international dynamic was not mirrored in Australia. While Chunky Move has presented work annually in Sydney, Geelong and Canberra and has seasons in Sydney and Canberra planned for 2010, the company’s wish to tour regionally is difficult to fulfil. In 2007 I Want to Dance Better at Parties undertook an extensive regional tour supported by Playing Australia but Azzopardi admits that this did not create any forward momentum for the company.

ADT too has undertaken national tours in the past, with Birdbrain in 2002 and again in 2005, but in the last 10 years there have been only four visits to Sydney and one apiece to Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra. ADT toured Birdbrain internationally for seven months solid from late 2002 to early 2003 to UK, Europe and the US. Between 2004 and 2007 it toured extensively with Age of Unbeauty and Held. In 2008 G toured to 26 venues with 39 performances across Europe and in 2009 added a tour of five more international venues to the impressive tally. Between 2002 and 2009 there were over 200 international performances. Due no doubt to the strong relationship with Gent based agent, Frans Brood, ADT experiences consistent and strong international demand for work which is rarely seen in Australia.

So why is there such a roadblock for contemporary dance in Australia? A follow-up article to this will survey the presenters and seek their views but for now the producers have their opinions. First amongst these is cost. The producers recognise that they compete with smaller, less technically complex works regionally. ADT sends up to 19 people on the road to support a production with 10 dancers and Chunky Move’s Mortal Engine requires a three-day bump-in. None of the companies can afford to subsidise their touring from operational budgets dedicated to the creation and presentation of new work.

The nature of contemporary dance is another obstacle, in that the form is perceived to be relatively less accessible to audiences. Whilst the large Sydney Dance Company, Bangarra Dance Theatre and The Australian Ballet have a sizeable audience in the major performing arts centres they visit each year, the producers often hear that these companies meet the need for dance content and attract all the dance attenders out there. The producers indicate that there is a lack of enthusiasm for dance from the presenters and few advocates for dance within the touring infrastructure. The invisibility of contemporary dance at dedicated touring platforms such as the Australian Performing Arts Centre Association (APACA) conferences, discourages producers from more confidently tackling opportunities to interface with presenters. Not since Playing Australia’s Made to Move program (now defunct) have the producers experienced pull from the sector. The losses experienced by many of the presenters associated with Made to Move are not forgotten and there is a sense that risks will not be taken with dance programming. With targeted funding programs for international market development and a keen interest in contemporary Australian work in several dynamic markets such as the UK and parts of Europe, it is little wonder that these busy producers focus their efforts upon areas where they are more likely to make immediate impact.

Perhaps the success of Force Majeure and Lucy Guerin Inc on their Roadworks tours to come will open some doors for dance companies to tour outside of this initiative and begin to build the communication between companies and venues which has dwindled of late. There is no lack of interest in engaging with Australian audiences on the part of the companies and no quality issues with the work. There are obstacles to be removed and companies, presenters and funders need to continue to work together to clear the path. More Roadworks required.

Lucy Guerin Inc’s Untrained will be presented at the Adelaide Centre for the Arts, Feb 24-28 as part of the Adelaide Festival.

Chunky Move’s Mortal Engine returns to Melbourne, March 3-13 at Malthouse, and Sydney May 5-15 at Sydney Theatre.

RealTime issue #95 Feb-March 2010 pg. 13

© Sophie Travers; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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