When creative energy is a walk on the beach

Cathy Anderson

It’s a false dichotomy to separate Australia into arty urban versus bush and beach. Some of the most innovative work happens in small places.
When creative energy is a walk on the beach

Dancenorth has focused on collaborating to create new works in 2016. Picture: Amber Haines 

It’s easy to think that a regional base in north Queensland would be a disadvantage for an arts organisation. The truth can be just the opposite.

Dancenorth, based in Townsville, is evidence that a small coastal city can be a remarkably energising jumping off point for an arts company to make its mark nationally.

Over the past year the regionally based company has performed five works and taught workshops in 32 cities, garnering six national award nominations.

In an environment where many performing arts companies have faced cuts, Dancenorth’s success is evident by the fact that it has secured increases in funding from Australia Council for the Arts and Arts Queensland for the next four years.

Artistic Director Kyle Page said that while the energy of Australia’s major cities is exciting, the chance to escape to a quieter tropical base is re-energising for performers.

‘Being up here and being able to walk 10 minutes from work and be on the beach, watching the sunset, allowing the day to digest and dissolve, is a really rich experience,’ Page said.

‘I know that collaborators who are up here currently and those that have been here throughout the year love that space. In Townsville you have the opportunity to step through this amazing window, there’s a lot less going on up here which frees up a little bit of space to be thinking about the world or the creative process slightly differently.’

A new strategy of commissioning choreographers has led to a slew of new works this year including 3 dancers by Lee Searle. Picture: Amber Haines

Being in a smaller city also provides great opportunities for community interaction. Dancenorth has a very strong community focus. It engages with locals both in Townsville and with regional Far North Queensland and the Torres Strait. It now has a 10-year reciprocal arrangement with the Urab dancers from the tiny Torres Strait Island of Poruma. The Dancenorth ensemble visited three times this year and Urab dancers will visit Townsville to perform at Strand Ephemera in 2017.

‘We haven’t gone up to the Torres Strait and said we want to teach you. We’ve opened a dialogue by saying we have this to share, what have you got to share? How can we offer each other a space to learn and grow in our dance practice through these incredibly diverse and interesting experiences?’ Page said.

Creating opportunities

Page understands that the audiences for his company’s works may be limited, so he ensures they are part of major festivals. This year they performed at Mona Foma, OzAsia, Brisbane Festival and in 2017 they will appear in Townsville’s Strand Ephemera festival, Asia TOPA, Sydney Festival and WOMADelaide to name just a few.

‘Contemporary dance audiences are fairly niche no matter whether you’re in a big city or in Townsville so being able to attach a contemporary dance performance to a Festival allows us access and opportunities to engage with a broader cross section of the public,’ he said.

‘At WOMAD we are performing outdoors – it’s a major music event and there will be thousands of people walking around, so for a contemporary dance company to have exposure in that arena is kind of unusual and extraordinary.’

Being in a small town does not mean limited access to choreographers. Dancenorth now has a model whereby choreographers are commissioned to spend time in the studios and create new works. Stephanie Lake and Ross McCormack created IF ___ WAS ___ while Lee Serle returned from New York to produce a 30-minute work called 3 dancers and Gideon Obarzanek and Lucy Guerin are creating Attractor which will debut at the Arts Centre Melbourne’s inaugural Asia TOPA.

Dancenorth has a main ensemble of five but hope to boost that number in 2017. Picture: Amber Haines

The ethos of collaboration also extends to dancers to join the ensemble with new residency and secondment programs.

Collaboration is important to Page’s approach when working with dancers too.

 ‘When I got the job I knew didn’t want to sit at the top of a pedestal as a singular, ego-driven artistic director,’ he told ArtsHub.

‘My creative philosophy is centred upon collaboration. When people come together with different experiences, it genuinely excites me.

‘We create an environment that is really supportive in order for people to feel comfortable to share and be open to exchange, it is important to be ok with feeling vulnerable and to contribute to the creative process without any fear of judgement. The wrong conditions can really restrict people from engaging in a collaborative process.’

This past year has been extraordinarily busy for Dancenorth, but the pace is not slowing for 2017. Page says there are plans to tour their children’s show Rainbow Vomit in Australia; they will take Spectra – a collaboration with Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima – nationally and overseas after its debut at Sydney Festival; and Attractor, featuring Indonesian music duo Senyawa, has a preview on December 2 in Townsville before heading to Melbourne in February. Page has also lined up collaborations for new works with a designer from France, projects with organisations designing and creating Exoskeletons and plans for an 11-week tour of Rainbow Vomit is in development for 2018.

‘Our ensemble usually consists of five dancers but our aim is to work up to six to eight performers - this is one of many goals for the company,’ he said.

‘We don’t plan on slowing down anytime soon.’

For more information on Dancenorth, visit their website.  

About the author

Cathy Anderson is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist and the co-founder of digital content startup, Ginger Brown.