Organisational muscle: Hilary McKenna becomes executive director of Co3

Co3 in 'Architect of the Invisible'. Photo by Stefan Gosatti.
Co3 in 'Architect of the Invisible'. Photo by Stefan Gosatti.

Social, folk or theatrical; dance activity often coalesces around groups and organisations (associations, troupes, companies, etc.). What this entails is a level of administrative burden because, beyond what happens on the floor or stage, there are realities in play that make it imperative for dance organisations to have a structured and strategic approach, whether for financial, creative or other mission critical reasons.

It sounds banal, but it is in this space that Arts Administrators sit. People like Hilary McKenna, a lifelong Irish dancer turned Executive Director of Perth based contemporary dance outfit Co3 Contemporary Dance.

Hilary McKenna. Photo by Frances Andrijich.
Hilary McKenna. Photo by Frances Andrijich.

Having recently moved across from the West Australian Ballet, where he worked for five years, McKenna is someone who tends to zoom out from the silo specific (ballet vs contemporary, folk vs street), to take a helicopter view.

“With any organisation, there needs to be strategy and leadership in place to deliver the organisation’s goal, and arts organisations are no different,” he argues. “In fact, many of them have had to be extremely savvy in the way that they refine those business skills, simply due to a lack of resources.”

In an industry that lauds the artistic, talk of business smarts can sometimes seem antithetical, ranking alongside grant applications as one of the more excruciating aspects of life in the arts. Yet, having been a professional dancer (and as someone still playing an active role in the Irish dance community), McKenna is alive to both pragmatism and passion.   

As he duly points out, “For every moment an audience sits in a theatre appreciating what they’re seeing on stage, there has been the work of arts administrators.”

Co3 in 'Architect of the Invisible'. Photo by Stefan Gosatti.
Co3 in ‘Architect of the Invisible’. Photo by Stefan Gosatti.

To be more specific, his role with Co3 is to help frame the vision of the Artistic Director, which, he insists, “must come first.” From there, it’s about delivering that message. Not merely to people at shows but to the broader community the company engages with, including stakeholders like government and philanthropists.

When asked to compare Co3 with West Australian Ballet, McKenna sidesteps. Here again, his view is panoramic, rather than granular. “Every artform has its place and relevance; but there are certain forms that are, for whatever reason, maybe more valued. Or more recognised,” he explains. “The benefit of that is that they have larger audiences who are more used to a pattern of attending. For smaller organisations who haven’t yet had the opportunity or the resources to build that network, those traditions, there’s a great opportunity. So, for Co3, I don’t see it as a challenge, but as an opportunity.”

Underlying this is the recognition that classical ballet has a stronger ‘brand,’ and with it a more rusted on audience. In comparison, contemporary dance suffers from its own newness and the less sharply defined parameters of its form. From an organisational perspective, this is a reality that McKenna must contend with.   

“For people who have yet to see contemporary dance, they are in the dark a little,” he says. “So, our job is to demystify what we do to a degree, and to create connections for people. That’s how we build an audience.”

In this, he recalls his own journey. Having been in the Irish dance world since the age of seven, he was a stranger to the contemporary space. As he recalls, his first experience of the artform left him “not inspired.” However, further exposure changed his mind, and by the time he was on hand to see Co3’s first-ever mainstage show in 2015, he was a convert.

Co3 in 'Architect of the Invisible'. Photo by Stefan Gosatti.
Co3 in ‘Architect of the Invisible’. Photo by Stefan Gosatti.

“That’s been a really strong factor for me in stepping forward to work with this company,” he adds. “And so, remembering my own experience, I want to build audiences by finding those people out there who haven’t yet had that experience.”

At this juncture, McKenna’s trajectory in the arts (first as a performer, then later backstage with symphony orchestras, major festivals and folk dance organisations) comes in handy, affording him a deeper strategic understanding.  

His basic argument goes, “I don’t think it’s helpful to treat organisations like Co3 or the WA Ballet as being different because it’s always about finding your own audience.”

Furthermore, he contends that arts organisations can thrive together through collaborative effort. This is not just about co-pros but fertilising the broader arts ecology. The pithy one liner here is: “Organisations that work together build audiences together.”

Having decamped from classical ballet to contemporary dance, McKenna seems more likely to find synergies than stark differences. “We all share the language of dance,” he concludes. “Everyone has a little bit of dance in them.”

This, he reminds us, is a core reality when thinking about audiences. We all respond to the moving body, whether it’s in pointe shoes or barefoot.

By Paul Ransom of Dance Informa.

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