What’s next for Australian dance?

As Ausdance National closes, Colm O’Callaghan reflects on the National Dance Forum, contemplating Indigenous practice and investigating future advocacy.

Photo by Ahmad Odeh on Unsplash

Radical. Specific. Achievable. Three words chosen by our inimitable MC Bec Reid to summarise the intentions that came out of the recent, excellent National Dance Forum (NDF), hosted by Tracks Dance in Darwin. These words echoed across the two-day event through the superbly curated program of speakers who each responded to the theme Home: Dance of place, disruption and belonging.

For those of us in attendance, we have taken these intentions back to our workplaces and it is our job to turn them into action. If there was one thing I and many other colleagues took from this year’s NDF, it’s that if we are going to thrive and succeed as a sector and art form, we need to be led by our First Nations colleagues and artists. To create a future in dance that provides a home for all, we must go about it in ways that are radical, specific and achievable. The remarkable speakers prepared the ground for how we do so by embracing these three kinds of actions.

Radical? Because what is more radical than a culture that is the oldest living culture on the planet, one that has survived a few hundred years of disruption and yet still remains inextricably linked to place. In her keynote ‘Perspectives of Home’, the legendary Marilyn Miller touched intricately and personally on how place and belonging are intertwined in both the spiritual andmaterial sense. How disruption can take many literal and figurative forms, but that all of us have an individual connection to our respective ancestries that can inform our dance practices in a respectful way.

Specific? Because as we learned in nuanced ways from speakers and elders across the forum – dance, place and home are not divisible entities for our indigenous colleagues and artists. They are inextricably linked. This old and resilient idea was, in the context of their own career of work, explored by Co-Artistic Directors of Marrugeku, Dalisa Pigram and Rachael Swain, in their inspiring closing keynote ‘Australia’s Dance from the Heart’. Their detailed presentation responded to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, touching on the ways in which indigenous and intercultural practices have for years offered us a way of working in radically inclusive and local ways.

Keynote Speaker Thomas Mayor at National Dance Forum. Photo Charlie Bliss.

As it happened, those of us gathered had the privilege of hearing Thomas Mayor speak about and recite the Uluru Statement from the Heart in his keynote ‘The Uluru Statement and its Artwork’. At the same time as calling on the wisdoms and sustainability of indigenous practices, Dr Priya Srinivasan in the panel discussion Lineage, Disruption and Action, reminded us that we need to have an unending specificity in our revision of accepted historical narratives and cultural appropriations.

And achievable? Because we already have examples of colleagues working in intercultural and inclusive ways that are bench marks. West Australian Ballet and Gary Lang’s NT Dance Company shared their experience of collaborating on their 2018 production of Milnjiya – Milky Way: River of Stars. As Deborah Cheetham AO said, as both a panellist and singer in the work, as long as you have mutual respect at the heart of the process and the genuine artistic desire to make happen, it will happen.

A breakout session led by Merindah Donnelly (Blakdance) and Collette Brennan (Abbotsford Convent) had a tangible and powerful impact on many of us present. Our role as allies and non-indigenous companies is to set short and long-term goals to include and present indigenous artists in ways that make us accountable to these targets.

Timing is everything. As Kristy Ayre, Executive Director at Chunky Move, said a number of times, this NDF couldn’t have happened at any other time in any other place. The theme of Home came from the unique connection to community and Larrakia country that Tracks Dance have, and indeed the relationships they have built with colleagues from all backgrounds across thirty years. Massive kudos to the Tracks team of David McMicken AM, Tim Newth AM and Adelaide Wood who shepherded this unforgettable NDF with support from NT Government and in partnership with Ausdance National. The curatorial panel, led by Annette Carmichael from Ausdance National Board, also delivered an extraordinary program.  

The cruel irony of the winding up of Ausdance National happening in the same week as the NDF (which is an initiative of Ausdance National), was lost on none of us. Tributes were paid by many to the incredible 42-year legacy of the organisation, particularly to Julie Dyson AM alongside the many Honorary Life Members, and the current President Prof. Gene Moyle and the Ausdance National Board. Robust discussions were had about the future of advocacy for the dance sector in Australia, and recently appointed Australia Council CEO, Adrian Collette, who spoke at the forum was present for these conversations. Whilst the loss of our peak body is a sad and worrying one, the next chapter in national advocacy holds great potential if this NDF is anything to go by. For many of us present, it is clear that we should look to our First Nations colleagues, who are already breaking new ground and paving the way, to lead us into this next chapter together.

Colm O’Callaghan
About the Author
Colm O’Callaghan is Executive Producer at Force Majeure in Sydney. He is a member of the Board of Ausdance National and the Dance and Physical Theatre Board of Create NSW.