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Locked up with the leadership group

Dancenorth's Ashley McLellan. Photo by Amber Haines.

Autumn 2020 in Australia has indeed been a season of shedding, as a tiny RNA virus arrived to upend the status quo. Questions of survival, literal and figurative, have been asked of many. In the arts, where distancing measures are especially disruptive, projects paused, venues closed and revenue streams dried up. 

For the dance world, with its intrinsically physical and proximate practise, the abrupt atomisation of shutdown brings the distinct possibility of both ruin and reinvention. While the precariously funded indie scene and the SME studio sector confront existential challenges to their careers and livelihood, the nation’s top companies have been forced to land on their feet. Although relatively buffered by more secure finances and higher public profiles, Australia’s elite dance organisations have been scrambling to adjust.       

In this, the first of a two-part series exploring their response to the pandemic autumn, we hear from a range of the country’s dance leaders. We asked three key questions – about them, about the sector generally and about the opportunity that the viral era presents for creative flourishing. Here below, with minimal editing from yours truly, Australia’s dance elite open up about being locked away.  

How has the company/organisation been navigating the lockdown (and associated distancing measures)? 

Lissa Twomey, executive director, Bangarra Dance Theatre

“I started as ED of Bangarra the week social-distancing measures and theatre closures were announced. It was not the beginning I had anticipated. We had to postpone our planned national tour of SandSong until 2021, which represented 90 percent of our budgeted box office income for the year. In addition, we’ve had to cancel our Rekindling Youth Program, and other on Country cultural exchanges, and a planned international tour to Papua New Guinea has also been cancelled. We’ve continued to engage with communities and audiences through a number of online initiatives, including streaming the iconic works like Ochres, Waramuk, Terrain and Bennelong in collaboration with Sydney Opera House, the ABC and The Australian Ballet. We’re also delivering our education programs to teachers online and are proud to have launched Nandhu, which in Wiradjuri means to stay close.”

Li Cunxin, artistic director, Queensland Ballet

“We’ve been listening to our patrons, and we hear that they may wish to wait until 2021 to enjoy ballet again. We’ve also undertaken economic modelling, which considered potential social distancing restrictions that would render any return to the stage as extremely costly and potentially detrimental financially to the company. In light of this, we made the difficult decision to move our entire 2020 season to 2021.”

Rafael Bonachela, artistic director, Sydney Dance Company

Rafael Bonachela. Photo by Levon Baird.
Rafael Bonachela. Photo by Levon Baird.

“Everybody’s been re-deployed across the organisation. The job description is out of the window for all of us, me included, and whichever way we can help, so that we can stay employed, we now do. So, some of the dancers are now teaching, and they have an incredible following, which is something they would not be able to do because they are normally so busy. Also, there are dancers doing customer service, data collection, marketing, writing, and I’m so proud of them.” 

David McAllister, artistic director, The Australian Ballet

“We’ve had a rolling program of cancelling performances as they come up, and so far we’ve been getting roughly 45 percent of our patrons either donating their tickets or taking exchanges, which has been a great way to keep the cash flow happening. We have been using liquid assets from our endowment and have organised a sizable line of credit from the bank to get us through this period.”

Amy Hollingsworth, artistic director, Australasian Dance Collective (formerly Expressions)

“In a way, we’ve found being a smaller organisation a benefit. Within a few weeks, we were able to cultivate and make available our Collectively Connected program, a series of free online classes utilising our dancers, rehearsal director and myself to teach everything from ballet and contemporary classes, to Pilates, yoga and HIIT. The turnout has been outstanding. We’ve had over 500 participants in these classes, including people from New Zealand, the UK and Pakistan.”

Dancenorth (NB: Responses are intended to represent the organisation as a whole)

Dancenorth's Georgia Rudd. Photo by Amber Haines.
Dancenorth’s Georgia Rudd. Photo by Amber Haines.

“We find ourselves in the incredibly fortunate position that every one of our projects has been postponed rather than cancelled. We’re aware this is an extremely fortunate position to be in, considering the devastating impact on so many of our peers. Whilst acknowledging the importance of maintaining connections and a sense of belonging for our local community, we also made the decision to deeply consider online initiatives and not rush this process. The oversaturation in this space became quickly apparent, and we invited staff to look for the gaps. How can we stay connected in new ways that don’t currently exist?”

Kristy Ayre, executive director and co-CEO, Chunky Move

“Despite our sector’s incredible capacity to deal with uncertainty, this situation is unprecedented in scale for all of us, and our role at Chunky Move is to ensure we remain an authentic leader in the local dance ecology and service our community in the most appropriate and impactful ways.”

The Australian Ballet's David McAllister. Photo by Justin Ridler.
The Australian Ballet’s David McAllister. Photo by Justin Ridler.

Clearly, the pandemic has been disruptive – and for some disastrous. Looking forward, what is your view regarding the dance sector post-distance? Where, if anywhere, is the silver lining?  

Ayre

“While we’ve been fortunate at Chunky Move to maintain a level of stability, we’re immensely concerned for the hundreds of local independent dance artists facing significant mid–long term job insecurity. If there is any ‘silver lining’, I’d have to acknowledge the incredible and powerful collegiate spirit that flows through the dance community. I’ve been privileged to be part of some wonderfully robust and meaningful conversations with peers these past few months, and I can only see this will have a positive knock on effect for how we collaborate and communicate as a sector in future. This will be vital, as we face enormous challenges together, but the optimistic side of me believes we’re up for it.” 

McAllister

“I think the sector will be more in tune with audiences, and while going to a theatre may be quite different when we get back into them – social distancing, ppe, monitoring – it will become normalised once the curtail is lifted. We will get used to it much in the same way we did with the added security after 9/11.”

 Waangengo Blanco, Yolanda Lowatta and Tara Gower of Bangarra. Photo by Jeff Tan.
Waangengo Blanco, Yolanda Lowatta and Tara Gower of Bangarra. Photo by Jeff Tan.

Twomey

“Socially distancing in a theatre is not financially realistic for most of the industry, and we are no exception. It is simply not viable to play to a part-empty house.”

Bonachela

“We’re still very much in it, and it’s hard to tell where we will end, but it’s become very clear, very quickly that organisations need to be innovative and agile. The more open you are, the better for your organisation. The fact that we were able to launch, within six days, a virtual studio that is now a significant revenue source is part of that. So, we will have to find ways to bring financial sustainability, and this is with diversity, rather than only one way. This is part of that silver lining. The upskilling.”  

Cunxin

“We need to be more resourceful than ever, be innovative, while staying attuned to the changing climate for the arts world, post COVID-19. Due to the financial impact experienced by many in our community, whilst we know the arts is important to them, we are also realistic, so we are forecasting a 30-40 percent downturn in attendance for the first quarter of 2021.”

Hollingsworth

“One of the forward-facing strategic priorities already in place for this company is a commitment to reimagining performance spaces and mediums. This was a cornerstone of my intentions for the company when I started my tenure as Artistic Director, so in a sense, it’s been an ideal opportunity to push this to the forefront.”

Dancenorth

“When we experience the unknown, our brains are forced to consider the world, and our place in it, in new and unusual ways. Not knowing enables us to disrupt the repeated interactions and habitual ways of being that govern our lives. With so many unknowns, it’s hard to predict what the dance sector will eventually look like, but we have great faith in the capacity for artists to respond with agility and ingenuity as we reshape the world.”

Sydney Dance Company Virtual Studio.
Sydney Dance Company Virtual Studio.

On a deeper level, times of crisis and disruption are also times of re-evaluation. Historically, artists have reveled in the creative and cultural opportunities arising from such ruptures. As a creator, are you inspired to break old rules, to stretch into new territory? Is the pandemic inspiring?  

Dancenorth

“We’d be fools if we didn’t use this time to break old rules, reimagine what’s possible and recognise that our way of living is truly unsustainable — financially, environmentally and energetically.”

McAllister

“Great art has always flourished after times of hardship. The Plague led to the Renaissance, The world wars lead to the gaiety of the roaring ’20s, and then the post-WW2 cultural and design revolutions of the late ’40s, early ’50s. I believe we will, as artists always do, take this opportunity to reflect on the fundamental greatness of humanity, and we will be able to put into our work the inner revelations we’ve had during this time of isolation.”

Antony Hamilton, artistic director and co-CEO, Chunky Move

“In both fiction and reality, post-apocalyptic scenarios are the site for new beginnings, and I’ve always found this to be a point of inspiration. In George Miller’s Mad Max universe, the fall of a sophisticated, you might say overly complicated civilisation, is the spark that sets in motion a complete clean slate revision of social structures, allowing more simplified rules to emerge. Utopian desires for a more enlightened society are nothing new, although there seems to be more of a collective sense that now is the time to seize the moment to make the changes as a society that we want to see. The question is, what scale of change are we likely to see?”

Amy Hollingsworth. Photo by David Kelly.
Amy Hollingsworth. Photo by David Kelly.

Hollingsworth

“I’ve always been interested in the future of our artform and the need to keep responding and reflecting on what it means to be human. I love to reflect on many questions, including: What is the future of storytelling? Does language create barriers? How does movement share stories and body language convey meaning in a more profound and inclusive way? And then, how do we use all of those questions to seek new ways of existing in this world, new ways for dance to be interwoven with all facets of society?”

Bonachela

“Eight weeks ago, when everything happened here, my brother was taken to hospital [in Spain]. He survived. He was one of the lucky ones. So, as a human being, living so close to it, and yet so far away, has magnified the importance of the now. Of staying open to the moment because nothing is permanent.”

PS: In part two of this series, we will look more closely at the creative opportunities the pandemic has seeded. Indeed, as creatives, our response to times of crisis and rupture are often amongst the most adventurous and progressive. Stay tuned.

By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.

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