The Australian Ballet: bodytorque 3 -- face the music, Sydney Theatre; and the demise of Dance Works...
A staff member at Chunky Move told me a couple of weeks back that the audience for contemporary dance in Australia was .7% of the adult population. Now, I’m hoping that he got the decimal point in the wrong place -- easy enough to do -- as the total attendance by his reckoning wouldn’t hit six figures, nationally.
In the late 1990s, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that the audience for all types of dance came it at around 9 percent, with contemporary scratching just 6%. The ABS put the total over-15 audience for contemporary dance at 840,000.
That, to me, seems like an astoundingly large number, even taking into account the contemporary work of major dance companies like Sydney Dance and the Australian Ballet. I’d be amazed if total tickets sold was anywhere near that number. Even including ballet sales.
Tzu-Chao Chou in Action Ritual by Kristy Biggs
(photograph Branco Gaica, click to enlarge)
In Melbourne, a 12 performance run of Giselle ends on Monday. That production sold especially well, nearly filling the 2000-seat State Theatre. The Australian Ballet had its usual 20 performance season at the Opera House, in May, also of Giselle. The opera theatre is smaller, around 1600 seats, but has a substantially greater tourist trade -- visitors will see virtually anything that’s on at the Opera House -- allowing the company to sell more tickets and sell them at a higher price: $120 versus $99 for a premium seat, $100 versus $89 for A reserve, $88 versus $78 for B reserve, and so on.
So, if the Australian Ballet has a sell-out season in Melbourne, its sales will be around the 24,000 mark. It performs five separate seasons in Melbourne. The company would be pretty happy, one imagines, with annual ticket sales in Melbourne of 100,000, and 150,000 in Sydney. Visits to other capitals are still few and far between.
A contemporary dance season at Arts House -- the old North Melbourne Town Hall -- even by a name choreographer like Sue Healey, might pull a nightly audience of fifty-or-so over a five night season. That figure is barely one percent of the audience Giselle has pulled in the same city.
When the Australia Council reported on the prospects for contemporary dance nationally, it was typically blunt. Not only was the audience small, the disposable incomes of audience members were correspondingly small... they were far more likely to be buying student or other concession tickets. Fewer than half the attendees surveyed had paid top price.
The killer stat, however, was this...
A study of box office results of six capital city-based presenters (1997-99) showed paid attendances at contemporary dance performances had been between 230 and 350 per performance (105-118 performances in total). By comparison, the average attendance of 12 consistently-funded companies included in the present analysis over the four years to 2001 was 228 per performance.Got that? The “consistently-funded companies” attracted substantially smaller audiences. Which possibly explains why one of the oldest and most radical contemporary dance companies in Australia recently announced it was throwing in the towel.
After the opening night performance of Duplicate, in the inner-Melbourne suburb of Prahran, the chairman of the board of Dance Works announced that the company could no longer realise its artistic vision under present funding arrangements. After 23 years, the company would be wound up.
With macabre timing, Dance Works’ Artistic Director Sandra Parker popped the cork off a bottle of champagne before the news had been digested by a stunned gathering of family, friends, and the usual first-night suspects. Sandy had a gallows grin on her face.
Founded by Nanette Hassall in the early 1980s, Dance Works has been remarkably successful in finding and grooming terrific choreographers: Sue Healey, Beth Shelton, Carolyn Hammer, Lucy Guerin, Trevor Patrick, Ros Warby, Helen Herbertson and many many other. The tally of works created in that time would be around 150. Perhaps more.
But the company has never been the kind of drawcard that funding bodies have wanted it to be. When the Kennett Government announced it was planning to establish a contemporary dance company in Melbourne to rival Sydney Dance Company, it was as if Dance Works had never existed. It was invisible.
But if the thunder of champagne corks at the wake of Dance Works wasn’t bizarre enough, the premiere of the Australian Ballet’s third bodytorque season in Sydney, two nights later, had its own shock value.
Andrew Killian, Rudy Hawkes and Jane Casson in Eve by Tim Harbour
(photograph Branco Gaica, click to enlarge)
Now, bodytorque is the national company’s choreographic development program. That it exists at all is exciting enough. But the metaphorical leaps and bounds happening in the program, in just three years, have been gobsmacking.
The first program consisted of women choreographing on the company’s men. In that first program, choreographers from outside the company were welcome. Actually, they were a necessity. The 2004 season included Paulina Quinteros, best known for her work with Paul Mercurio’s company, ACE, the Australian Choreographic Ensemble in the early 1990s.
Last year’s season -- bodytorque.two -- was devoted to duets. Of the five choreographers, three were AB dancers including 21 year-old Kristy Biggs. A fourth was a former company member working in Europe. The best work last year, in my opinion, came from first time choreographer (and senior artist) Tim Harbour. Both he and Biggs backed up this year. And both created works that were both fascinating and impressive to commissioned scores, played live by a bantam-sized ensemble in the pit of the Sydney Theatre.
Resolution by Timothy Farrar (photograph Branco Gaica)
But the surprise -- the real shock -- of the program was the opening work. Why? Because it was choreographed by BalletLab boss Phillip Adams, who puts the mod into post-modern, to a crunchy score by David Chisholm. We’re talking the equivalent of Salman Rushdie getting an invitation to write an editorial for the Baghdad Post, okay?
And, well, Adams created something worthy of George Balanchine: fast, bouncy, delicate, quicksilver. Apart from guest dancer, Clair Peters, it was all done on AB dancers.
This might not sound like a dambusting collaboration in a world where Rufus Wainwright can be commissioned to write an opera for The Metropolitan, but in Australia... there is such hostility -- such lingering contempt -- for contemporary dance from the old guard of the ballet, that this combination of talent would have been inconceivable before David McAllister took the helm of the ballet company.
So, here’s the thing... The Australian Ballet might have a hand in building an audience for the avant-garde. The company might even bring the avant-garde in from the cold... and I'm talking cold, drafty, uncomfortable halls! What a world. What a world.
OTHER AUSTRALIAN BALLET REVIEWS:
Raymonda (September 2006)