“Innovation” is a buzz word right now, thrown about by politicians and jargon junkies with such abandon that it has become very nearly meaningless. In the arts, where tick box terminology is increasingly prevalent, the notion of a grant based around the hazy notion of innovation might well cause us to scratch our heads. However, thanks to core funding from Arts NSW, Ausdance NSW has decided to brave the minefields of correctness and ambiguity and proceed with a three-year initiative called the Innovating Dance Practice (IDP) grant.
IDP is principally a professional development program that aims to give the state’s dance makers the chance to investigate areas of their practice that they might not otherwise have the opportunity to explore. The six recently announced recipients will use the additional funds to investigate how things as diverse as family and cultural heritage, low vision and issues around aging affect not only their own work but also the broader dance community.
Indeed, if we’re talking about buzz words, we could well add “diversity” to the mix because the IDP recipients represent a broad range of ethnicity, age and ability. According to Patrick “Lucky” Lartey, a Ghanaian dancer/choreographer who came to Australia in 2011, one of his core motivations in applying for the grant was that “African voices matter”. Meanwhile, former Paralympian and low vision dance artist Sarah Houbolt says, “I am driven by my past experiences trying to engage with dance as a professional performer with disability.”
So what does any of this have to do with innovation? How, in fact, will the recipients use their five grand grants to innovate?
As a partially sighted artist, Sarah Houbolt will work closely with Sydney Dance Company to tease out how blindness and low vision can play out in the world of performative dance. “I’ve been told that I can’t dance, that I’m not trying hard enough, that I’m an unsafe risk never to be allowed in a group class,” she recounts. “These beliefs come from a view that disability is negative and deficient, rather than an asset or a stimulus for innovation and benefit. Through a series of experiments, I hope to compare and contrast what does work.”
But is this innovative? “I guess it is because no one else is doing it from the perspective of tacit knowledge,” Houbolt states. “Being legally blind all of my life, I’m combining my arts practice with the knowledge of how my body works to inform new dance processes.”
Elsewhere, dance maker Ryuichi Fujimura is challenging not only the advancing years but also perceptions around aging and performance. “I’ve been dancing for two decades and am 52 years old now,” he declares. “I still have an aspiration to continue dancing, performing and creating because I believe that dance is an artform that belongs to all ages, not just the young. My long-term goal is to continue with and deepen my dance practice for the next decade and beyond.”
For Lartey, the challenge is to find a common ground between centuries old West African dance language and Western contemporary grammar and to do so in a way that isn’t simply a token fusion. As he explains it, “I try to negotiate what it means to draw on a rich history of traditional dance while innovating within a contemporary context. I want to create work that speaks about Ghana and West Africa and what it’s like to be a West African choreographer working and living in the West, looking back at my culture and then exploring ideas that are relevant in both Ghana and to a wider audience.”
Here, Lartey hits upon yet another currently hot button: the often vexed idea of relevance. In an era infected by the bean-counting mindset, the prevailing view of “relevance” is a reductionist, largely economic one. So why, we might ask, does it matter that Lartey will travel to Burkina Faso to be mentored by Serge Aime Coulibaly, the artistic director of Faso Dance Theatre? “The world needs more positive and inspirational representations of Africa and African artists,” he says simply.
For Houbolt, the importance of her work is couched in far more concrete terms. “Safety is a key aspect,” she argues, “because other people I know who are interested in assisting blind and partially sighted people are being really unsafe under the banner of ‘inclusion’. My dream is to lead the way and bring consciousness around various logics used in teaching and how this impacts on my community.”
Fujimura’s take on relevance also ties in with physicality. His five-day, one-to-one residency with Alice Cummins (veteran dance artist and BodyMind Centring practitioner) is all about longevity in the artform. “I asked Alice to work with me because she is one of the rare dance practitioners who are over 60 and still dancing in Australia,” he reveals. “In order to continue to dance at my age, I feel the need to find a sustainable dance practice physically and mentally.”
However we choose to understand things like innovation, diversity and relevance, and whatever we think of the political niceties surrounding them, Ausdance NSW have clearly chosen to support artists to dive into some of the lesser-known aspects of the artform and its current practise here in Australia. In the never-ending battle for eyes, this is the kind of longer term investment strategy that may well pay dividends down the line for everyone involved in dance.
By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.