The creative program officer at Belconnen Arts Centre, Philip Piggin, recently had some surprising news. It was so surprising he had to email the organisation that had broken the news to enquire whether or not it was a hoax. It wasn't.
Piggin has received an honorary life membership from People Dancing, a major community dance organisation based in Britain whose activities stretch across England and Wales. In 2016 People Dancing celebrated 30 years of community initiatives and as part of its celebrations the organisation honoured 30 people who had made a significant contribution to the development of dance among community groups. Piggin was one of those 30 people.
Piggin, who spent his childhood on a farm about an hour west of Albury, has had a long career in community dance practice across the world. His connections with People Dancing included an extended period in Clwyd, Wales, in the early 1990s where not only did he act as Community Dance Animateur at Theatre Clwyd, but also set up Men Dancing, a company for male dancers only, in order to counter a lack of opportunities for men to dance. His experiences in Clwyd awakened his senses to the significance of working with people having a range of abilities, not only the star performers.
"There was some glorious, elite activity happening onstage," he says, "but then there was the other 340 degrees of dance practice. We had youth groups, adult groups and special needs programs as well as workshops and artists' talks and a host of other activities, including touring and exchange programs. I began to realise that the dance journey I was on had many colours to its rainbow."
But his parents were getting older so he returned to Australia and, in order to be closer to them, worked first in the Albury-Wodonga area. He taught, lectured, choreographed, performed and directed, working with a range of arts groups in the Murray River regiom. With his interest in making dance for community groups still growing, he recalls in particular a work he choreographed called River of Islands.
"I was driving along the River Murray one day when it suddenly struck me that the river was the lifeblood of the community groups who lived along it. With some dance colleagues and a composer we made River of Islands with eight communities in the region, with each community exploring through dance their varied relationships with the River Murray."
But Canberra was calling and he relocated to the ACT in 1999 when Jenny Kingma, then chief executive officer of Ausdance ACT, offered him a job as the organisation's first dance development officer. Canberra has largely been his home ever since, with some freelance work giving him opportunities in other parts of Australia, and with a Churchill Fellowship in 2015 taking him to San Francisco, New York and London for further study into community practices. Prior to working at Belconnen Arts Centre, where his initial appointment in 2010 was as community cultural development officer, he acted as co-artistic director of, and company manager for Canberra Dance Theatre, and worked on various Canberra-based arts advisory committees.
Recently, Piggin choreographed a section for the award-winning work Great Sport!, a commission from the National Museum of Australia and performed in various parts of the National Museum of Australia complex. The section choreographed by Piggin in conjunction with Jane Ingall was called I used to run marathons and showcased dancers from two ACT Dance for Parkinson's groups. It was performed with the dancers largely seated on a circle of chairs and provided a quietly beautiful contrast to the other sections. Even more recently, Piggin has begun dance classes for people living with dementia. He sees the future of community dance in positive terms, noting that the ACT's Dance for Parkinson's programs have received international recognition.
"I am very fortunate to be working at BAC," he says. "It's an arts centre that really values and supports arts for all in our community. As a consequence, we have in place a growing number of programs across many art forms, for all ages and levels of ability and experience. We have just found out, too, that we have funding from ACT Health under its Healthy Canberra Grants program for a major three-year project. In parallel with Tuggeranong Arts Centre, we will be running programs involving the Parkinson's groups, people living with Alzheimer's and people living with multiple sclerosis. It will be a jewel in the crown of our activities."
Piggin missed the official celebration of People Dancing's 30th birthday and still has something of a "why me?" attitude. But his contribution to community dance is undeniable. With the range of dance opportunities being offered in Canberra for youth, older dancers, and people living with a range of special needs, I can't help wondering whether Canberra is slowly becoming a hub, or indeed a world centre for community dance.