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Animated Edition - Spring 2003
Choreographic commissions: Bringing dance to life
Creating living opportunities for emerging choreographers: Francesca Rendle-Short tells us about the Australian experience
According to the Australian Macquarie Dictionary, the word choreographer means a person who creates ballet and other dance compositions. According to one of the 13 residents at The Australian Choreographic Centre in 2002, the word choreographer means to give. 'To give to your performers, to give to your audience, to give to and of yourself.' What draws independent choreographers and dance practitioners to The Australian Choreographic Centre in Canberra, Australia is this choreographic experience: discovering how to be a choreographer and the opportunity to work with choreographers.

Imagine then that you are an independent choreographer - able to give in this way - and you have been asked to commission a work. Then imagine you have a large ensemble of dancers ready and eager to work with you to realise your creation, and that you are given the time to work with them through the choreographic process as your composition comes into being. Imagine too that you know you will be putting on the work as part of a public season in a main stage theatre complex, backed up with full resources and by a professional production team. And on top of that, imagine you are young, and this is probably your first work.

At The Australian Choreographic Centre in Canberra, this dream is possible.

For the young choreographers and young dancers involved in the Centre's Choreographic Commissions and Secondments programme with Quantum Leap Youth Choreographic Ensemble, it is heaven-sent. This programme is part of the core business of the Centre. It reflects its commitment to 'nurturing choreographic innovation and vision'.

Of all the artforms, dance is perhaps the most dynamic. It is so very physical - for creator, performer, audience - the art present, right in the very moment. Dance is all about movement. It needs living bodies to exist. Its very physicality is an expression of the life it embodies. For choreographers, for those who develop the dance, what is needed are three things: time, bodies and space. And this is what The Australian Choreographic Centre provides: a professional structure and resource base to support the development of choreographic practices and processes, for emerging and experienced choreographers, from around Australia. It does this through its key programs of choreographic fellowships, commissions and secondments, and residencies.

The Australian Choreographic Centre opened in 1996. Given the state of dance in Australia at that time, the Centre was, unarguably, an idea right for its time. In the six and a bit years since then, it has grown from strength to strength, while remaining true to its original vision. The idea of involving young people in the Centre in what is now a web of opportunities, began in a modest way in 1998 with the opening of the Hatchery, a separate studio space, then devoted to a range of youth initiatives. The idea of Quantum Leap, the development of an ensemble of young dancers drawn from the Canberra community and the region, was a natural progression. The ensemble is a long-term initiative of the Centre, assisting young people to develop an understanding and appreciation of the choreographic process.

This year, the Centre is preparing again for two seasons of performance programs with Quantum Leap: Quantum Leap at the Playhouse and Chaos in the Courtyard. Quantum Leap works with over 60 young dancers from eight to 21 years old and the Centre is able to offer eight or so choreographic commissions to emerging choreographers, all under the watchful eye of manager of youth practices and artistic director of the programmes, Ruth Osborne, and director of the Centre, Mark Gordon. The choreographers travel from around Australia to work with the ensemble. They are talented young professionals, experienced dancers, choreographers and teachers, committed to making original dance work, and are all interested in working with young people. From time to time, selected choreographers are invited to act as assistant artistic directors, to gain experience and skills in artistic direction of a major performance project.

The strength of the commissions programme is that it encourages and assists young and emerging choreographers in making transitions in their skills, in terms of scale, focus and depth of practice. It supports choreographers in the leap from a studio practice to mainstage experience, from open-ended creative development to working on a commission to a brief, and, from the use of composition and basic principles to the practice of a choreographic craft. The end result is the move towards a viable integrated practice as a professional choreographer.

A commission is unlike a creative development, in that the participating choreographers are required to deliver agreed outcomes, and work collaboratively with a group of dancers, the production team and most importantly, with the artistic director. It provides young people with an extended focus on creative processes, and the opportunity for mentorship in the choreographic craft and production facilitation.

The process begins with auditions early in the year, and the commissioned choreographers take part in selections. This is an important step because not only are choreographers part of the selection process of the entire company for the work, they are also able to express their interests in particular individuals for the concepts which they wish to explore in their own sections. It is the beginning, as Ruth Osborne puts it, of 'the collaboration about our ideas and how each of the pieces will fit into the whole of the performance'. One of the choreographers for the 2002 season, Gerard Veltre, saw benefit too for the participants. Although he is quick to admit he does not like auditions as a rule, they 'did make the community participants see the project as an opportunity and therefore took both the process, and more importantly themselves, seriously'.

Once the groups are established, the choreographers then begin their work with the selected dancers, rehearsals spread over weekends and week-long intensives. This stage is an invaluable experience for dancers and choreographers alike, in appreciating different approaches to the choreographic process. It gives the dancers an opportunity to work first-hand with choreographers and is one of its attractions for the young people and its strength. For the choreographers, there is a collegiate crosspollination of ideas as they work individually on what will be, in the end, a joint project. As Osborne says, 'participants grow to appreciate how much individuality there is in the choreographer's directions and how, within that, it could still come together into a combined piece that still makes a statement about how young people feel about their world today'.

In 2002, Rowan Marchingo choreographed Group Dynamic for the boys' project, Hardware 3, part of Quantum Leap at the Playhouse. Reflections on his involvement with the program exemplifies how it best works and the way in which it integrates the different elements of the process in order to produce a range of quality outcomes. Rowan Marchingo is an artist working with the Sydney dance group Legs on the Wall, one of Australia's best known physical theatre companies. Legs had a residency at The Australian Choreographic Centre in April, 2002, culminating in a showing of the work and a touring project evolving material for a season of performance at Belvoir Street in Sydney. The Legs visit gave local practitioners the opportunity to watch them in performance. Members of Quantum Leap took advantage of their presence too, observing the way in which the material worked in development and in production, and through master classes, and then in working with Rowan Marchingo on his commission for the Playhouse season.

As a choreographer, what is important to Marchingo is that the dancers are free to explore their ideas and able to find a sense of ownership in the work. Although he had a clear idea from the outset about what he wanted to create for his commission - an expression of how men relate to each other and how these ideas are expressed physically - the process itself of working with the dancers from scratch informed the work. In Marchingo's words: 'The process was about formulating the idea (a piece about men relating), discussing it, creating movement, finishing the piece, and then revising the choreography according to what we remembered our initial discussion to be.' The meaning of the piece revealed itself, in more ways than one. Built around a game of soccer, the dancers were able to use the very physicality of the creation of the dance in a reflexive way, to understand what they were doing intellectually and emotionally. Free to explore their own ideas, yes, and revealing. Marchingo said: 'it immediately highlighted the various dynamics within the group - the mates who each talk up, those that have skill but are left out, those less coordinated people who struggle, and those who didn't want anything to do with the outward testosterone driven attitudes that dominated the playing field.' In working together they learned to harness their energies - and this dynamic - to work creatively with each other, with care and respect. The result was an explosion of highly focused, electrifying dance exploring this very physicality, issues of aggression, closeness, touch and sexuality.

If the youth program of The Australian Choreographic Centre was just about creative development it would be success enough, for this first part of the process stretches the participants in unheard ways. But to cap it off, a professional season of performances is then produced, one on the main stage, which adds to its potency and challenge.

It is during the production week that the participants - choreographers and dancers alike - really see the different sections come together. And they work very, very hard for that. For the choreographers of the Playhouse season, as well as ensuring their piece fits with the others, they get the chance to collaborate with a team of professional theatre production technicians and artists. The dancers are introduced to the whole theatre experience from how to prepare for performance and work as a team, to approaching every performance as though it is the first. Furthermore, given the profile of The Australian Choreographic Centre, the programme attracts much community interest and publicity. This gives the chance for the participants to be involved in talking about the process and the work in public forums and media interviews.

For choreographers and dancers involved in the Chaos in the Courtyard season, performed in the outdoor courtyard of Gorman House Arts Centre by younger members of Quantum Leap, there is the added challenge of having to work with the particular characteristics of the setting and the sometimes fickle elements. In 2002 the dress rehearsal was cancelled due to bad weather, but the cohesion and maturity of the participants, developed through the creative development, enabled the performance to be, as one reviewer said, 'nothing short of ... slick and professional'.

The commissions program is now a cornerstone of the Centre's work. Having emerged in response to the increasing difficulty experienced by choreographers in finding the resources or opportunities to make works of more than a handful of dancers, or in being able to produce a work on a full-size stage, it is now growing in reputation. Given the feedback and testimonies of the participants and audience alike, it is becoming clear that the evolving program is proving invaluable in cognitive and pedagogic terms. The dancers are immersing themselves in all aspects of the artform, eager to go on learning about process and performance visibly thrilled at putting the theory into practice. (It is interesting to note that in 2002, six members of the senior Quantum Leap group went on to audition for tertiary dance courses around Australia to begin this year, and all were successful in finding places.) And the young choreographers learn things for themselves as they teach others about what they know they can create. As Vivienne Rogis, who has been involved in Quantum Leap since it began, and who in 2002 was a commissioned choreographer and assistant to the artistic director, says: 'Although challenging, it is of immense value as an opportunity to learn about how you communicate and create work in your own artistic process.'

In the end, after something like seven evening performances and two matinees all up, more than 3000 people witness the transforming power of dance. Together, Quantum Leap at the Playhouse and Chaos in the Courtyard are not only a celebration of dance in the community, they affirm the sense of place for young people in the world today. With the focus on transitions from boyhood to manhood, on mapping the social and political context in which we live, on issues of social consequence to young people, their attitudes to the future, to war and terrorism, the participants are able to bring themselves to the performances. They express this through their own words, poetry, voices, and of course through their moving bodies. As one young boy puts it: 'I love doing this. It's something different to football or soccer, and everyone you work with is just great.' Now that is a gift.

Francesca Rendle-Short is a freelance writer and editor email:

francesca.rendle-short@canberra.edu.au

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Animated: Spring 2003