James Batchelor on board the RV Investigator, 2016

Ausdance National. Where to now?

It is devastating news that Ausdance National will no longer receive operational funding from the Australia Council to continue its very significant activities in dance advocacy and support, activities that it has pursued with such commitment for close to forty years. A link to the press release from Neil Roach, acting CEO of Ausdance National, is here.

In the press release, Ausdance National President, Brian Lucas, rightly notes that it would be virtually impossible to find anyone—’dancer, choreographer, dance teacher, dance student, dance academic, or dance audience member’ (and I could add other categories)—whose work or life, or both, have not been impacted by the activities of Ausdance National. Among the many projects I could mention, I was closely involved with two that I consider advanced our understanding of the role of dance in our society and that provided (and continue to provide) significant resource material for researchers in Australia and across the world.

An Australian dance collection

Ausdance National was a partner in a project called Keep Dancing! It was a collaboration, funded by the Australia Council, between Ausdance, the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) and the National Library of Australia (NLA). I was the project manager for Keep Dancing! and I was located at the NFSA between 1997 and 2001, and then at the NLA in 2002. In 2003 the Library took financial responsibility for the project and created the position of Curator of Dance, the first such position in Australia I believe. I held that position until 2006 when I went to New York to lead the Jerome Robbins Dance Division at the New York Public Library.

The focus of Keep Dancing! was to acquire dance films and videos for the NFSA collection, to ensure that they were preserved and transferred from old formats to current broadcast quality ones, and to have them catalogued and made accessible. As a collecting partner, the NLA commissioned many oral history interviews, in particular with those who were represented in some way in the moving image material acquired by the NFSA, or unearthed from the NFSA’s existing collections. In addition, paper-based collections were acquired by the NLA, again especially as they related to the other material arriving as part of Keep Dancing! The NLA also assisted with the creation of a database linking material across the institutions.

When the NLA took over the lead role, the database that had developed in the early stages became the dance portal, Australia Dancing. It was meant to be a virtual collection linking dance items from the NFSA and the NLA. It also had provision to have audio and moving image embedded into the entries, although this was never exploited to any extent. In many respects Australia Dancing was way ahead of its time, and it never reached its potential. Ausdance National remained involved with the project and was a member of the NLA project management committee, which met regularly, at least in the early years, to keep the project moving along its established guidelines

Sadly, there is no longer a dance curator at the NLA, and sadly too Australia Dancing is no longer available in the format that it was meant to have. An archived version is available on PANDORA and some material is available on Trove, although the entries are no longer being updated, nothing new is being added, and errors are not being corrected. But this incredible project, which began as a result of an Ausdance initiative to save dance on film, has resulted in the existence of a major national dance collection at the NLA, albeit scattered across formats with no overarching portal to draw it together and identify the material as a discrete Australian dance collection. Nevertheless, a significant proportion of the NLA’s dance material is available online as the result of the Library’s strong commitment to digitisation.

I know that this material is used, even though I am no longer employed by the Library on an ongoing basis. I am surprised at how often I am contacted by researchers, in Australia and from overseas, who have questions about the dance material housed in Canberra. As an example, just in the past week I had a long conversation with a researcher looking into Viennese émigrés in Australia and the notion of modernity. She was, of course, interested in Gertrud Bodenwieser and was spending some time in Canberra examining the Bodewnieser collection. Almost without exception, the extensive Bodenwieser material in both the NLA and the NFSA, which includes oral histories, paper-based items, film and video, ephemera and so forth, came to both institutions as a Keep Dancing! acquisition.

Brolga: an Australian journal about dance

In 1996 I began discussing with Meg Denton in Adelaide the need for an Australian dance journal that could publish writing of various kinds that otherwise would have no Australian outlet. Denton generously donated some start-up money and Brolga began to fly, with the first issue being published in December 1996. I was its editor until 2006 and over that time two issues each year were published, 24 issues in all. Under other editors Brolga was a print publication until 2011 when it became an online journal. The subject areas addressed over the years have been wide-ranging and its focus has changed under various editors, but it has remained a significant publication for the dissemination of Australian dance research.

Ausdance National was the auspicing agent for Brolga. It handled the start-up donation from Meg Denton, published the journal, maintained the list of subscribers and handled monies, did the mail outs and generally dealt with all day-to-day business associated with it. More recently Ausdance National has skilfully handled the design of the journal as well.

****************************************************

Keep Dancing!, with the subsequent growth of an Australian dance collection at our national cultural institutions, and the establishment and the ongoing publication of Brolga are just two of Ausdance National’s achievements that fall a little outside what the practising dance community might think of as the role of Ausdance National. But both have attracted international attention. Both were extraordinary initiatives and I wonder whether there is any realisation of the diversity of the contribution Ausdance National has made to the arts in Australia? I wonder, too, if there is any understanding that so much of what has been achieved will have a lasting impact?

Where to now? Neil Roach says in the email that accompanied the distribution of the media release that Ausdance ‘is not going to go away’ but that time is needed to rethink the organisation’s future. Choreographer James Batchelor, seen in the featured image, set sail to the Antarctic with a research team early in 2016. His aim was to find new ways of working in his chosen profession and the image suggests it would not have been without its difficulties. We await the outcome of his adventure as we also await a new pathway for Ausdance National.

Michelle Potter, 14 May 2016

Featured image: James Batchelor on the RV Investigator, 2016. Photo courtesy of the University of Tasmania.

Dance diary. February 2013

  • Hannah O’Neill

Admirers of Hannah O’Neill, and there are many if my web statistics are anything to go by, may be interested to read the following post on Laura Capelle’s website Bella Figura. In addition to what is written on the site, there is a link to an article written by Capelle for the American dance magazine Pointe. The article was published in the February/March issue of Pointe and Capelle has done a great job in getting O’Neill to open up about her experiences, including some of the difficulties she has faced in Paris.

  • Bodenwieser update

A news story on the Bodenwieser project being led by Jochen Roller, which I mentioned in last month’s dance diary, was screened on SBS TV a few days ago. The SBS story is available via this YouTube link.

Below I have reproduced a photo of Marie Cuckson, who with Emmy Taussig assembled the Bodenwieser archival material and kept it in good order until she donated it to the National Library and the National Film and Sound Archive in 1998. The acquisition was part of the Keep Dancing! project, which was the forerunner to Australia Dancing. Marie Cuckson is seen in her home in Sydney in August 1998 with the material packaged and ready to be transported to Canberra.

Marie Cuckson, 1998Marie Cuckson with the Bodenwieser Archives, 1998

  • Oral history collections

As a result of the Athol Willoughby interview conducted recently I retrieved the listing of dance-related oral histories in the National Library and the National Film and Sound Archive that used to be part of Australia Dancing. I have updated that list (an old version is on the PANDORA Archive). Here is the link to the updated version. It is a remarkable list of resources going back to the 1960s with early recordings by pioneer oral historian Hazel de Berg and, in the case of the NFSA, to the 1950s with some radio interviews from that period. It includes, for example, interviews with every artistic director of the Australian Ballet—Peggy van Praagh, Robert Helpmann, Anne Woolliams, Marilyn Jones, Maina Gielgud, Ross Stretton and David McAllister—and with three of the company’s administrators/general managers—Geoffrey Ingram, Noël Pelly and Ian McRae. But it is not limited by any means to ballet and in fact covers most genres of dance and the ancillary arts as well.

That material held by the National Film and Sound Archive is included reflects the origins of the list, which was begun in the early days of the Australia Dancing project when the NFSA was a partner in the project (and in fact the major collecting partner in its initial stages). I have also posted the list on the Resources page of this website and will update it periodically as information about new interviews comes to light. It deserves to be more obvious than it is now—that is hidden in PANDORA in an outdated version—especially as it is not a static resource.

  • Site news

February saw a huge jump in visits from France due largely to the post on the Paris Opera Ballet’s production of Giselle, which was the most accessed post during February by a runaway margin. Critics in France were curious about the reaction of Australian audiences and critics. As a result I have added ‘Danses avec la plume’ (the title refers a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche) from journalist Amélie Bertrand to my list of Resources under ‘Other sites’.

Coming in at fourth spot was a much older post on the Paris Opera Ballet’s production of Jiri Kylian’s Kaguyahime, which was having a return season in Paris in February. Interest in these two posts saw Paris become the fourth most active city after Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.

The second most accessed post in February was an even older one, my review of Meryl Tankard’s Oracle, originally posted in 2009. Tankard is currently touring this work in the United States. At third spot was a post on Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring perhaps reflecting the wide interest in 2013 in the many dance activities associated with the 100th anniversary of the first performance of the Stravinsky/Roerich/Nijinsky Rite of Spring, of which the Tankard tour is one.

Michelle Potter, 28 February 2013

Tankard banner HOW TO ORDER

‘It brought back so many memories’—Jill Sykes
This book is also available through the National Library of Australia’s bookshop and to library clients through James Bennett Library Services

Season’s greetings & the ‘best of’ 2012

Season's greetings 2012 bannerThank you to those who have logged on to my website over the past year, especially those who  have kept the site alive with their comments. I wish you the compliments of the season and look forward to hearing from you in 2013.

The best of 2012

Lists of the ‘best of’ will always be very personal and will depend on what any individual has been able to see. However, here are my thoughts in a number of categories with links back to my posts on the productions. I welcome, of course, comments and lists from others, which are sure to be different from mine.

Most outstanding new choreography: Graeme Murphy’s The narrative of nothing (despite its title), full of vintage Murphy moves but full of the new as well.

Most outstanding production: Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Terrain with choreography by Frances Rings and outstanding collaborative input from the creative team of Jennifer Irwin, Jacob Nash, Karen Norris and David Page.

Most outstanding performance by a dancer, or dancers: Lana Jones and Kevin Jackson in Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky pas de deux as part of the Australian Ballet’s 50th anniversary gala.

Most disappointing production: The Australian Ballet’s revival of Robert Helpmann’s Display. I’m not sure that anyone in the production/performance really ‘got it’ and it became simply a reminder that dance doesn’t always translate well from generation to generation, era to era.

Surprise of the year: Finucane and Smith’s Glory Box. While some may question whether this show was dance or not, Moira Finucane’s performance in Miss Finucane’s Collaboration with the National Gallery of Victoria (Get Wet for Art) was a wonderful, tongue-in-cheek comment on the angst-ridden works of Pina Bausch, and as such on Meryl Tankard’s more larrikin approach to serious issues.

Dancer to watch: Tammi Gissell. I was sorry to miss the Perth-based Ochre Contemporary Dance Company’s inaugural production, Diaphanous, in which Gissell featured, but I was impressed by her work with Liz Lea in Canberra as part of Science Week 2012 at CSIRO and look forward to the development of that show later in Canberra in 2013.

Beyond Australia: Wayne McGregor’s FAR, in which the choreography generated so much to think about, to talk over and to ponder upon.

Most frustrating dance occurrence: The demise of Australia Dancing and the futile efforts to explain that moving it to Trove was a positive step.

Michelle Potter, 16 December 2012

Tankard bannerHOW TO ORDER

‘It brought back so many memories’—Jill Sykes
This book is available to library clients through James Bennett Library Services

Dance diary. August 2012

  • America’s irreplaceable dance treasures

This month my essays in the series America’s irreplaceable dance treasures: the first 100 went online on the website of the Dance Heritage Coalition. I was commissioned to write on Merce Cunningham and Rudolf Nureyev. The Irreplaceable treasures site is something to be treasured in itself. It is a continuing source of regret to me that in Australia we no longer have something similar. See my previous post on the demise of Australia Dancing: the Australia Dancing site was admired and used not just in Australia but around the world.

  • Tammi Gissell

I continue to be impressed with dancer Tammi Gissell who earlier in August was the solo performer in Liz Lea’s work in progress ‘Seeking Biloela’. A follow up conversation with Gissell revealed her strong and much treasured connections to her indigenous heritage. It was also interesting to hear her thoughts about working with scientists at CSIRO. She said: ‘What is also exciting for me in working with Liz is the opportunity to work with the scientists at CSIRO and to see the absolute relationship between traditional knowledge and scientific knowledge and how they support each other. For example, the scientists confirm that the Black Cockatoo rides ahead of the rain currents, heralding fertility for the land and people’.

Tammi Gissell 2012. Dance diary August. Photo Lorna SimTammi Gissell in rehearsal for ‘Seeking Biloela’, 2012. Photo: Lorna Sim

Gissell has recently been commissioned to create two new works for the Perth-based Ochre Contemporary Dance Company for a forthcoming season. She will choreograph one herself and make the other in collaboration with Jacob Lehrer. She is also currently in discussions with Queensland Theatre Company to develop a new work in 2013.

  • Claudia Gitelman

I was sorry to hear, just a day or so after posting my review of On stage alone, edited by Claudia Gitelman and Barbara Palfy, that Claudia Gitelman had died. Gitelman was associate professor emerita at Rutgers University, the State University of New Jersey, and was well-known for her uncompromising scholarship. Her published writing includes a study of Hanya Holm. She also co-edited and contributed to a critical analysis of the work of Alwin Nikolais with whose company she performed. Here is a link to a brief obituary.

  • Time in motion

The exhibition venue at the State Theatre in Melbourne is currently showing an exhibition celebrating the Australian Ballet’s 50th anniversary. Called Time in motion: 50 years of the Australian Ballet and curated by Margot Anderson, the Arts Centre Melbourne’s curator of dance and opera, the exhibition shows a diverse range of material including footage (some of which is archival), photographs, designs and memorabilia. It covers, if randomly, the company’s history from its first performance of Swan Lake in 1962 up to the triple bill, Infinity, staged in 2012.

Natasha Kusen 2004 Photo Justin SmithNatasha Kusen of the Australian Ballet in Serenade, 2004. Choreography G Balanchine ©The George Balanchine Trust. Photo: Justin Smith

I was especially taken by the works on paper from set and costumes designers working for the Australian Ballet across the decades. They ranged from highly detailed works, such as that by Kristian Fredrikson for Franz in the 1979 production of Coppélia, to others that were simply pencilled shapes, such as the designs by Moritz Junge for Wayne McGregor’s 2009 production, Dyad 1929. I especially liked the designs by Akira Isogawa for Graeme Murphy’s Romeo and Juliet (2011). They looked like they had been drawn in fine black pen on cloth rather than paper and were careful works of art with fabric swatches attached to become part of the art work rather pinned or stapled on in a less than careful manner. But probably my favourite was Michael Pearce’s design for the character played by Simone Goldsmith in Stephen Baynes’ At the edge of Night (1997). I loved how it was presented as a collage of sources with costume drawings complemented by historical images and a fabric swatch carefully placed to enhance the total effect.

My one gripe is that there were some issues with the display of archival footage. Some of the footage made the dancers look decidedly short and dumpy. While one can make excuses (perhaps) for the 1960s footage, there is no excuse for having Lisa Bolte and Robert Curran look short and dumpy in footage of Baynes’ beautiful pas de deux from Edge of night. I know they don’t look like that and suspect that something as simple as a change of monitor might have made a difference.

Time in motion finishes in Melbourne on 23 September 2012 and then goes to Sydney where it will be hung at the State Library of New South Wales, 12 November 2012–10 February 2013.

Michelle Potter, 31 August 2012

‘Australia Dancing’: Vale

It is with deep regret that I note that Australia Dancing, the National Library’s dance portal,  has ceased to be an active website. ‘Australia dancing leaps into Trove’ we are told when we open the site’s URL www.australiadancing.org.

Well Trove has its place as a search engine, or discovery service as it is called, and its newspaper service is absolutely brilliant. But it is not the ‘exciting and rapidly expanding service for dance researchers’ it claims to be in the redirection notice. If I look up Giselle for example I get a variety of unwanted items—a photo of someone whose name is Giselle and who recently got married in Canberra; a book called Sweet Giselle available from Amazon for which the description begins:

Giselle thinks she has the perfect life. Her fine and sexy husband, Giovanni, is obsessed with his perfect wife and gives her whatever her heart desires. Giselle thinks her husband can do no wrong. What she doesn’t know is that Giovanni’s seedy dealings put her in danger;

a whole bunch of Giselles under ‘People and Organisations’ who have nothing whatsoever to do with dance; and so on. At least under ‘Maps’ it says ‘No results’, which is better than what comes up for Australian Dance Theatre, which has four results under ‘Maps’ the first of which refers to editions of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim.

Times change and money is short but it is regrettable that the Australian dance community has lost what Alan Brissenden referred to in his book Australia Dances as ‘that essential resource’, especially given that Australia Dancing was established using specifically focussed public money. But then the site has been badly neglected recently. It has needed a redesign for some years. Many of the entries are now out of date and some contain incorrect information. I am not sure whether the material will ever be updated or corrected now that the site has taken a flying leap.

Vale Australia Dancing because moving it to Trove has destroyed its integrity as a dance resource.

Michelle Potter, 3 July 2012