Dance highlights in Canberra for 2015 by Michelle Potter

Dance highlights in Canberra for 2015 by Michelle Potter

I have longed bemoaned the fact that there is no longer an annually funded, professional dance company in Canberra. We lost Sue Healey's Vis-a-Vis Dance Canberra in the mid-1990s. Vis-a-Vis followed on from the Meryl Tankard Company, which itself followed Don Asker's Human Veins Dance Theatre, established in Canberra as the city's first professional dance company in 1980.

All three were highly individualistic contemporary companies and each had a strong following and support network. At the same time, perhaps because Canberra was seen as something of a dance hub, smaller professional companies blossomed, including organisations led by Padma Menon and Paige Gordon.

From left, Elise May, Riannon McLean, Michelle Barnett in Carmen Sweet.

From left, Elise May, Riannon McLean, Michelle Barnett in Carmen Sweet.Credit:Dylan Evans

Since then, the local dance diet has largely consisted of youth and community dance, a sprinkling of work from emerging choreographers, and some project-based activities from others, most of whom struggle to find funding opportunities. Canberra has grown remarkably over the past three decades but, as far as providing its citizens with high quality, locally-based professional dance is concerned, the city has stepped backwards.

Looking at 2015 in as positive a tone as possible, however, Elizabeth Dalman's work was a major highlight, and resulted in her being named 2015 ACT Artist of the Year by the Canberra Critics' Circle. For Dalman, whose Mirramu Dance Company is based at Bungendore, 2015 was a momentous year.

Dean Cross in QL2's walking & falling.

Dean Cross in QL2's walking & falling.Credit:Lorna Sim

It was the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Adelaide-based Australian Dance Theatre and, as that company's inaugural artistic director, Dalman made a magnificent effort to celebrate and honour the company, sometimes even taking a risk and self-funding her programs.

The two major shows she presented in 2015, Fortuity and L, were powerful evocations of early Australian contemporary dance, as well as indications of the growth of Dalman's choreography in the local region.

During the year, Dalman also presented short dance programs in several of Canberra's cultural institutions and, in fact, performances in such situations have become a significant feature of dance in Canberra over the past few years.

During 2015 I saw dance in the National Gallery of Australia, the National Library of Australia, the National Portrait Gallery and Canberra Museum and Gallery. While all these productions were inspired by the collections of these institutions, perhaps the most engaging came from Ruth Osborne, artistic director of QL2, Canberra's annually funded youth dance program. Her very moving work, Walking and Falling, was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery as an adjunct to its World War I exhibition, All that Fall.

Sydney Dance Company's Frame of Mind, directed by Rafael Bonachela and featuring, clockwise, dancers David Mack, Chloe Leong, and Cass Mortimer Eipper.

Sydney Dance Company's Frame of Mind, directed by Rafael Bonachela and featuring, clockwise, dancers David Mack, Chloe Leong, and Cass Mortimer Eipper.Credit:Jamila Toderas

Osborne's Walking and Falling brings up a particularly interesting aspect of Canberra dance in 2015. All three of the performers in Walking and Falling, Dean Cross, Caitlin MacKenzie and Gemma Dawkins, were former youth performers with QL2. In 2015 we also saw the choreographic work of two other former QL2 dancers: James Batchelor showed Metasystems and Chloe Chignell presented Post Phase.

Both Batchelor and Chignell now have tertiary qualifications and work professionally in dance. Both have also recently been shortlisted for the prestigious Keir Choreographic Award for 2016.

Bangarra's Our Land People Stories, featuring Kaine Sultan Babij.

Bangarra's Our Land People Stories, featuring Kaine Sultan Babij.Credit:Edward Mulvihill.

In no way do I think that QL2 is a substitute for a professional dance company, but the successes of its former students who have gone on from QL2 to work professionally in dance is impressive. Any return they make to Canberra is wonderful, but how much better it would be if there were a permanent professional company for them.

In 2015 Canberra audiences also saw some outstanding performances from interstate companies. Sydney Dance Company and Bangarra Dance Theatre, who consistently include Canberra in their touring schedule, just get better and better and always give us a taste of where dance is heading as a collaborative, 21st century art form. Expressions Dance Company from Brisbane also visited in 2015, appearing at the Q in Queanbeyan with Natalie Weir's sensational Carmen Sweet. Weir tells me that she is hoping that Expressions will tour to the region on a regular basis.

Ballet dancer and choreographer Elizabeth Dalman.

Ballet dancer and choreographer Elizabeth Dalman.Credit:Karleen Minney

I also gave a silent cheer when l heard a comment by Rafael Bonachela, artistic director of Sydney Dance Company, speaking at the launch of the Canberra Theatre Centre's 2016 season. Commenting on coming to Canberra, Bonachela said how much he liked performing here.

"Our works look so good on the beautiful stage of the Canberra Theatre," he said, which brings up the issue of the Australian Ballet and Canberra.

One of the national company's many excuses for not visiting Canberra on an annual basis, as it used to do, is that very stage. Some have problems, others don't. While I was pleased to see the Australian Ballet's 2015 production of Giselle in Canberra, I wonder if the company will ever get over its attitude to Canberra? A ballet for children, its 2016 Canberra offering, is wonderful if you are a child.

We are many in Canberra who would like some change to the local scene, in particular more focus on professional performance. More commissioned collaborations with our cultural institutions would be wonderful, especially if the marketing of these shows is stronger and targets the dance community.

And serious thought to re-establishing a small company for the city would be a step forward.

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