Meet Michelle Silby: Ausdance NSW and VIC Director

Kiri Morcombe, Michelle Silby, Jo Clancy and Chris Mifsud. Photo courtesy of Silby.

Michelle Silby is leading the way for dance advocates in New South Wales and Victoria, having recently taken on the directorship of Ausdance in both states. She is the first Ausdance director to do so in the history of the organisation. Congratulations to her!

Dance Informa’s Grace Gassin caught up with Silby to discuss what excites her about her new role and the promises and challenges that face the dance sector.

Michelle, congratulations on your new job! We’re curious to know if you’ll be scaling back your previous commitments as Director of Ausdance NSW to take on this larger role with Ausdance Vic?

“Absolutely not! I’ll continue to lead as the Director of Ausdance NSW whilst embracing my new role as Executive Director of Ausdance Victoria. I’m really excited about it and so are the rest of the board, the funders and the members. In fact, I’ve never seen people so excited! It’s the first time in Ausdance’s nearly 40-year history that one director has led the strategic direction of more than one state, and so everyone’s really energised.

From a funder’s perspective, this move shows innovation, leadership and efficiency — particularly needed in the current funding climate. It really helps us at Ausdance, too, because while we’re part of a network and do collaborate, like other small organisations, we get busy very quickly, as there aren’t many of us. This move offers us a real chance to ensure organisational stability while continuing to grow the capacity of each state branch, all with the ultimate point of supporting the dance sector in Victoria and New South Wales, two of the largest states for dance. It all just seems to make a lot of strategic sense.”

What are the major challenges, in your opinion, facing dance artists in Victoria and New South Wales?

“The first obvious one is good training. Once you’ve achieved that good training, it becomes about managing to get a job or experiences that will lead up to getting you your first job or continued work and employment. Then, the next challenge that particularly faces dancers is that of keeping up your skills once you’ve left your study, and then connecting up with and becoming part of a wider dance community. That last point is fundamentally important to achieving all the other aspects whether you’re a dancer or choreographer or working in dance in another capacity.

Also, just keeping up your morale can sometimes be a challenge. This is particularly where Ausdance Vic and Ausdance NSW and our network of offices really come into play. One of our roles as a peak body is to really help people connect. We offer a range of services but also advice and even just a friendly ear when people are in a new city or in a new role or stage of their career. Quite often, dancers and others will come in to have a chat with Ausdance, and we can just sit down, listen and act as a facilitator as necessary.”

What about the major challenges for Ausdance as an organisation, particularly in those two states?

“I would say the biggest challenge for any Ausdance is the fact that there are certain expectations of the organisation that come from 39 years worth of being in service that have to be met by a really small staff. That was a challenge to me when I first took on my role as Director in New South Wales and continues to be a question we’re working on today.

And, as I always say, dance is a really small word, but it covers an incredible variety of contexts and genres across a very large country, so that in itself is also a wee bit of a challenge! Then, of course, comes the question of how to use our expertise and fairly small resources wisely, and how we communicate what we offer to the dance sector and the wider public.

We’ve always tried to look for opportunities to grow our organisation’s capacities, but that’s a real focus for us at the moment. We’re going to look for opportunities and synergies behind the scenes at Ausdance NSW and Vic so that we can actually pool our skills and knowledges together. We want to go beyond just thinking about the day-to-day stuff, such as what training we can provide, what services we can provide, or what’s the next big project that we will help someone do. That’s all fantastic and has well and truly been delivered in New South Wales in the last few years. I’ve also found my predecessors in Victoria have delivered some outstanding work, particularly in the community and education context. I, personally, however, am looking forward to doing more to help the organisation become a little bit more robust.”

Are there any misconceptions about Ausdance and what the organisation is about among the dance community that you’ve come across as a director?

“Yes. There are a lot of misconceptions, but there are also just a lot of questions, like who are they and what do they do? And I think this stems from the fact that Ausdance was created nearly 40 years ago in the 1970s as a network. While the whole Ausdance National network does have some united aims around advocating for dance, each state branch also delivers services catering to the specific needs of their state. The branches also have to think about what that particular state’s policies and funding schemes are like, so there’s always going to be a little bit of nuance between each state, which probably doesn’t help people with their confusion.

Some people have really basic misconceptions of Ausdance — we’re not a dance school, for instance, but there are many wonderful dance schools out there, and many of them are our members! Also, because dance encompasses such a broad spectrum of people, places, cultures and genres, while we are open to working across all of that, we simply can’t focus all our energy across everybody all of the time. We do need to politely emphasise that our strategic and business plan focuses on our priority areas, as we can’t be everything to everyone.

What I would say is that if you’re in any doubt, please pick up the phone and call us, email us or come in for a meeting. The key things that Ausdance does do is advocate dance as an art form, advocate for artists and their needs, and then on top of that we tend to facilitate and broker partnerships —we’re almost like the matchmaker for dance. So, for example, in any one week, I might be helping an artist write a grant, the next I might be meeting with an artist who tells me about what they want to achieve next in their career, which I’ll write down. Then, I might call them back four months later with an introduction to someone who they might wish to work with or train with.”

You and the Ausdance team spend your days working hard to keep the dance sector thriving in sometimes difficult circumstances and with limited resources and personnel. Tell us, what has driven your passion for dance all of these years? What keeps you going?

“As a child, I think I simply loved the feeling when dancing and the enjoyment of watching others dance. The joy that dance brings to people physically in just a village fête or in a hall or some sort of cultural get-together or on the stage — I love that sense of feeling, doing and watching.

Many years later, I think those same things apply absolutely, and while I apply my skills rather differently now, I think it’s still fundamentally that I wish other people to have the opportunity to engage with dance on any level in any genre. I really strongly believe that everyone can dance. Some people might wince when they hear that, so I might swap dance for movement [laughs]. It’s for everyone, and by that I mean that it should be open to all regardless of age, gender, skills or talent. I think those two fundamental things really drive me.

I also see huge benefits in arts for art’s sake, and the accompanying side to that is that I believe in all the benefits and delights that dance can bring socially in terms of people’s health and wellbeing, their cognitive skills and motor skills. I think there’s a wealth of benefits that dance brings.”

 By Grace Gassin of Dance Informa.

Photo (top): Kiri Morcombe, Michelle Silby, Jo Clancy and Chris Mifsud. Photo courtesy of Silby.

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