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Pathways to excellence: Dr Maya Gavish on dance education at Australian Performing Arts Grammar School

Students at APGS
Students in the self-devised class at APGS. Photo by Wenny Tan.

Dance education should be about more than perfecting technique and learning to replicate choreography. Fostering creativity and inspiring young performers is the key to ensuring the next generation of artists realise their full potential. The Australian Performing Arts Grammar School (APGS) has crafted its tailored performing arts program with this in mind, supporting students from a young age to gain a broad understanding of all areas of performance. One particular class that focuses on supporting students across their pursuit of excellence in HSC Dance is the self-devised class, taught by Dr Maya Gavish, who is also Head of Dance at the Academy of Music and Performing Arts (AMPA).

“The self-devised class is basically a composition class where the students are invited to collaboratively work on creating a dance piece for the school’s performance,” Gavish shares. “First, ideas and inspirations are discussed, and then, the dancers explore various ways to physicalize these concepts individually or in groups. Eventually, movements are combined and sequences are being manipulated by the dancers in various ways. Throughout the two terms, the students work on refining the execution of their movements and their performance skills.”  

APGS has designed the self-devised class in a way that encourages its students to think critically about dance-making and to question their own creative choices. This enables them to search for their own solutions to problems that arise and to learn different strategies for enhancing creativity. They are prompted by the teacher who oversees the whole process, but most of the responsibility for creating a solid dance piece lies on their shoulders – an innovative concept when compared to a standard dance class, and one that truly prepares students for the dance industry of today.

Students in APGS' self-devised class.
Students in APGS’ self-devised class.

“Nowadays, dancers have a much more significant role in the creation of dance works to the point where some choreographers credit their dancers as co-creators,” explains Gavish. “The general understanding is that in order to fly a plane successfully, it is not enough to have a brilliant pilot. The responsibility is distributed and shared amongst a variety of people and components. In the self-devised class, dancers are encouraged to engage their mind, imagination and body to contribute creatively to the shared goal. They are also challenged to go beyond the familiar and comfortable and explore more personal and original ways to express themselves. These are crucial elements to the development of their artistry and the shaping of their character and individuality.”

After graduation, students can always continue their dance training by joining workshops and classes, but those who pursue dance as a career will often join a full-time course. “There are many programs available out there from certificate to diploma all the way to graduate and postgraduate degrees,” says Gavish. “It can become a bit confusing. My advice is to carefully consider one’s long-term goals, dance experience and life circumstances, in conjunction with what each program offers. Each dance program has its pros and cons, so take time to inform yourself, read the content presented on web-sites thoroughly, converse with people, and attend open days and performances.”

Students in APGS' self-devised class.
Students in APGS’ self-devised class.

She also suggests students ask themselves key questions. “High school graduates should in their thoughts clarify: What are the skills set they want to gain?” she says. “What sort of training or qualifications will take them to the next level? What will make them more employable and provide for a more sustainable career? Some employees may give more importance to where a person was trained and by whom. Sometimes, it will be the level of qualification that will give an added advantage when applying for a job.”

However, Gavish places the highest importance on diversifying skills. “There are only a few paid jobs in performance and choreography, so young dancers should ensure they are equipped with other skills to keep them afloat,” she suggests. “You can have a long and exciting career in dance, exploring a range of options like research, teaching, curation, administration, directing, producing, management and so on. In my view, a good training program is one that not only turns individuals into great dancers but one that equips them with the skills and knowledge to support the pursuit of various opportunities. A good training program should strengthen one’s appreciation of the arts, and how the arts can be utilised to transform lives, communities and realities.”

Indeed, students who study at APGS benefit from this kind of broad training program from an early age, and the school’s connection to AMPA – and Gavish herself – opens even more doors. As the only performance-based degree program in NSW, AMPA’s two-year Bachelor of Dance program helps students develop their technical and performative skills through the guidance of exceptional teachers. Many former APGS students have gone on to study there. “The dancers take dance history, music, arts management and body science classes and have different electives to choose from each trimester, such as theatre skills, acrobatics and singing,” describes Gavish. “The pinnacle of the course for many of them is a unit titled ‘Project B’, where students create and produce a 15-minute dance piece. They choreograph their work on their peers, edit their own music, and design their own costumes and lighting. Their final work is presented in front of an audience at the end of the trimester and is a real testament of all the knowledge acquired during their studies with us.”

Graduating with a degree can open up a wide range of career opportunities, especially if a dancer’s ambition is to continue into future graduate or postgraduate courses or join a workplace that requires such a qualification. “Our aim at AMPA is not only to train individuals to become better dancers but also better thinkers, writers, speakers, leaders and confident human beings,” Gavish shares. “Our alumni are now working as performers, creators, teachers and directors, and some have become part of the dance faculty, inspiring and educating the next generation of students.”

For more information on APGS or to apply, visit apgs.nsw.edu.au. For more information on AMPA visit www.ampa.edu.au.

By Emily Newton-Smith of Dance Informa.

Photos by Wenny Tan.

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