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Dancing with the past: Dancehouse on 20 years of performance

Founded in 1992 by a collective of dancers and choreographers led by Hellen Sky, Dancehouse has managed to carve a unique niche for itself in the Australian performing arts scene. It remains the only independent, artist-run dance venue in the country, and its program and mission marks it out as a rare institution worldwide.

Twenty years on, the organisation is celebrating two decades as an incubator for independent dance with Alive! 20 Years — 20 Choreographers. As the name suggests, Dancehouse has assembled 20 choreographers chronicling the history of the venue.

As Dancehouse’s artistic director Angela Conquet explains, it’s both a retrospective of work at the space, and a who’s who of Australian independent dance.

Tony Yap will dance a solo that he sued to dance when he was much younger, because it’s improvisation he doesn’t know himself how this whole thing will circulate within his body. Born In A Taxi stopped working for a while, and now they’re back on stage. It’s very, very rich,” Conquet said.

Conquet comes to Melbourne from Paris, where she was formerly the artistic director for dance at Mains d’Oeuvres. ”I was appointed last year, and I think it is a place where you feel at home if you come from the independent sector,” she told Crikey.

I think what I learnt there is that for me everything starts and ends with the artists, whenever we do a program of residences or the curated seasons, it must start with the artists’ needs and wishes. It’s about facilitating the right things, making the right connections between the works and audiences.”

When asked to assess the health of Australian dance, Conquet draws parallels and contrasts with Europe.

I think Australia is like anywhere in the world, there are the big companies and they are what are known overseas. The thing that I was most impressed with was the trust and confidence given to young authors and young choreographers, and I have a feeling there’s nothing much left when you’re mid-career at 31, and I’m also amazed that the seniors of Australian dance are not fully acknowledged.

Globally speaking, in Australia there is a very interesting generation of young and not-so-young artists who are completely unknown to local audiences and overseas as well, people like Matthew Day, Tim Darbyshire and Atlanta Eke; these people should be touring just as much as Chunky Move and ADT [Australian Dance Theatre],” Conquet said.

So what does the 20-year anniversary mean for independent dance? “I know many similar organisations in the world and they can’t say ‘we’re 20 years old’, especially an organisation created by the artists, which are the most fragile,” she said.

It proves that the independent sector is vital to any country, so it is a a shame to see the Arts Victoria review of the small-to-medium sector. I see this happening everywhere and they always start with the small-to-medium sector, but it shouldn’t be the case, because this is where the new ideas come to light. We have the freedom in this kind of infrastructure to take the time, and give that time to the artists, to develop ideas and develop a relationship between works and audiences.”

Conquet is evangelical about the value of dance, and its capacity to move audiences. “We need to cultivate almost a one-to-one relationship with any new dance lover. It is the most universal artform after all, you don’t need to read Deleuze or Spinoza to see what’s going on, on the stage,” she said.

Merce Cunningham said dance doesn’t give much back in exchange — you can’t keep a book, you don’t have a picture on the wall, you don’t have anything but the fleeting moment when this is all happening — so it’s about passing that on to others. I try to provoke that moment when people go ‘ahhh’, and it probably doesn’t work right then on the spot, but it has an impact which might be more tangible as the years go on.”As seminal Australian choreographer Helen Herbertson explains in a DVD documentary about Dancehouse, “all the slices that are part of being a dance artist are present here at Dancehouse”.

Herbertson, a former artistic director of Dancehouse and currently the graduate co-ordinator for dance at the Victorian College of the Arts, points out that independent infrastructure such as Dancehouse remains critical in the 21st century. “The need to find the space, that’s still here, the need to be able to have dialogues with others, that’s still there, the need to share practice, that’s still a need, the need to train, that’s still here,” she said.

It’s a very person-to-person kind of artform, the sort of work that goes on here, and I still think that’s the mantra that’s right for it.”

Alive! therefore represents a rare treat for dance lovers in that it provides a live retrospective of an always-evanescent artform.

It is a fragile artform,” Conquet said. “It rarely survives its authors, you have all the generations there, there’s about four different generations, it’s also about showing that work created 20 years ago still has context. It is very interesting that all [the choreographers] were excited to take up the challenge [of the retrospective].”

Alive! is also a tribute to the health of Australian dance itself. “It’s about the vibrancy of the independent sector, and not just Dancehouse, ultimately,” Conquet said.

*Alive! 20 Years — 20 Choreographers runs from June 20-22 at Dancehouse in Melbourne

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