Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Touch Compass remixed by THROW

I was recently involved in a professional development process called Improv-E with Touch Compass, a mixed ability dance company based in Auckland New Zealand. The focus was to build a consistent and formalized practice of performance improvisation. It began with a four day workshop taught by Janice Florence and Martin Hughes (State of Flux, Melbourne)which was designed to develop the company’s improvisational skills. The information Martin & Janice presented in the workshop had a generalized focus ie; looking for ways to support the main action in an ensemble performance improvisation. Martin's teaching was flavored with the positive feedback model used by Al Wunder in Australia. There was a lot of improvising in groups followed by analysis and feedback. The feedback was specifically pitched in an uncritical and positive fashion for example: what worked or what was liked and enjoyed in that situation. Working in this way nurtures recognition and instinct but more importantly generosity and enthusiasm. This is particularly healthy for the culture of contemporary dance here in NZ. I am not convinced of its effectiveness in creating sharp critical and intelligent thinking in a devising situation however. I felt that the workshop was without a clear technical framework to improvise from and many fundamentals were not addressed. In spite of the positive feedback in the social setting of the workshop there was communication 'behind the scenes' as it were about the groups limited skill base. So in the subsequent sessions leading up to the performances at Auckland's Tempo Festival I decided to teach a skill base could be practiced, that allowed for an abstract movement composition to happen, in real tine, in front of an audience. In those sessions I taught theoretical and practical information that was designed to enable the performer to improvise and understand situation in an ensemble. This included practical processes such as understanding time space in a movement composition / performance sense, recognition of structure as it occurred, physical vocabulary skills, dynamics, reading and listening skills, performance states, exits and entrances, sensitizing the eye, ear & skin to the physical conditions, working with repetition and ongoing critical analysis and discussion. There probably needed to be considerably more time given to the process of rehearsal for Touch Compass. Rehearsal is not antithetical to improvisation; it is in fact vital because it is skill based. So the lead up to the Tempo performance could have been more dense, comprehensive and consistent in order to filter directly into the stage work of the company. Having said that, the learning rate of the group in terms of their ability to read, compose, and generally improvise was rapid and beautifully understood. The first Tempo performance was calm, clear, and there were abundant instances of individuals reading each other superbly and making creative and sincere gestures to each other. This is profoundly important because what makes the company work so well is their collective spirit and their abilities as performers is of an extremely high standard. The second performance was less coherent and this is where the group’s relative lack of experience with the skill set began to show. The group was more diffident and performers had less of a sense of the whole composition. Touch Compass has only begun to work in a technically detailed way in their improvising. Time and practice in front of an audience as well as consistent studio time is really the only way to address this. In the follow up discussions there was articulate and concise discussion. Watching the videos of the performances provided new perspective despite the fact that video tends to distort the information to a degree. Out of this discussion several things came up. But the most prevalent was the need for individual and group practice. More specifically identifying what those practices needed to be for each individual. This included defining and understanding the word ‘technique’ in the context of a physical practice, a practice that facilitated creative response that could be used in an improvisational performance situation. A practice that invoked and addressed limitation in such a way that each artist could find new ways of understanding and making use of their physical limitations as well as an expanded movement range. Touch Compass are a group of remarkable artists with an extraordinary range of skills that is underpinned by a deep and humorous sense of humanity that makes them a remarkable and unique entity in New Zealand contemporary dance. It's been a pleasure and an honour as always, to play with them.

bathwater comments

Jack Gray wrote:
I want to tautoko what Kristian has brilliantly captured in his blog re: Unitec's changing of the times and disassociation with the practicing arts community. I have previously had a great connection with the performing arts school, being a first year student in the 'last' year at the Ponsonby studio before moving midway to become the 'first' at the Unitec premises under Alison East in 1995. I returned to complete the first degree year in 1998 with Chris Jannides. My first teaching job was at Unitec a year out of school, which flourished under Chris's passion and spirit and most of all love for choreographic practice. I was lucky enough to have maintained an ongoing relationship with the school as a teacher/guest lecturer, being a guest choreographer in 2005 and having assessed the students choreographic works throughout the years kept my finger on the pulse. My role was important I believe in that I had an empathy with having had been a student, yet also brought the practical experience of having worked around NZ and the world and seeing how the students measured up in terms of development and creative direction. With the recent policies that led to massive restructuring by Unitec, I have felt more and more distanced as a practitioner from having any connection with the current school, students and artistic vision. The offshoot will be a generation of dancers dispossessed from a community that thrives on its collectivity as much as its individualism to survive. NZ is a small country but fostering and acknowledging it's history is a significant pathway to creating links and development of contemporary dance (contemporary as opposed to ballet!).
Ali East said...
Tautoko, tautoko, Jack and Kristian. Thankyou for taking the time( unpaid) to express, so clearly, your deeply felt views regarding the direction that the Unitec dance programme has sadly gone. You are both absolutely right. The original kaupapa upon which the course was founded and which provided the driving underpinning philosophy would seem to make as much sense today as in 1989 when the programme began. Our mission to educate (and I use this word rather than “train”) intelligent and versatile dance artists with a sense of connection both to their own community and to the broader (local and international) community of artists, art theory and practice did not exclude study of classical forms (European and pacific). Some of our earliest supporters were members of the Samoan, cook island and Maori communities along with Dorothea Ashbridge, who made it clear that no more than two ballet classes per week should be taught- and that those would focus on solid training for contemporary dancers. As Kristian states, when an institution loses its connection with the very community that will feed and foster it then it simply becomes like floating dead wood , waterlogged and weighed down by its own arrogance and administrative top heaviness, and in danger of sinking out of sight. Unfortunately those poor unsuspecting current students are likely to go down with it unless they can find some lifeline to cling on to from the outside professional dance world. Oh well, perhaps the phoenix will rise again somewhere else. It’s not the dance that will die even if the Unitec programme does. I want to salute all of the many former Unitec and Performing arts dance diploma students that are still making wonderful and innovative work. Lets keep our connections and conversations going. By the way we should come together in 2009 ( 28 May 1989 to be precise) and celebrate twenty years of the programme’s existence. Regards, and aroha

Mark Harvey said...

Hi, Kia ora all, Thank you Kristian, Jack and Ali for your comments and sharing your insights, as a graduate and former casual staff member of Unitec, these issues and sentiments concern me as well. I have heard quite a lot of graduates and former staff express similar stuff. (Please note, I am not representing where I lecture in this email - Dance Studies at the University of Auckland - I speak here as a graduate and former employee of Unitec.) It's definitely not a stable world in the land of dance tertiary institutions - yes, I agree with you in that we who are in the institutions need try to keep in touch with our surrounding communities. This is no easy task when you are not often able to have complete control over your dance programmes due to institutional demands such as funding pressures and student demands for employability when they graduate - I'm not trying to justify the changes at Unitec here, because I am not aware of them enough to be able to comment on them, however, I think it's important for us to consider the complex variables involved in such situations, no matter how they may appear and feel. (And, I am not also assuming that neither of you have considered such issues, but I feel it's important to bring this into the conversation here.) Considering what you bring up, how about as a professional dance/choreographic/artist community we propose to have an open public consultative meeting with the head of the Dance section and Tina Hong at Unitec for all stake-holders? This way we may be able to air such concerns and hopefully contribute to some positive developments for Unitec. I understand that Unitec has in recent years called for input from the local professional community, though I do not know the outcome of such calls (having been too caught up with where I work and with family life). Perhaps making attempts to dialogue with Unitec in relation to such concerns may have some positive outcomes - giving direct feedback to institutions can be constructive and I have seen it work on many occasions, both at Unitec (years ago) and at the University of Auckland in recent years. Such a meeting may also open up dialogue between Unitec and other dance teaching institutions so that we can work together in a more efficient manner for our surrounding communities. If possible, can you please indicate by replying here if you or your colleagues would be keen for such a meeting? If we have enough of you then I suggest then let's propose as a community to Unitec for such a meeting. As graduates and/or former staff who keep up our practices, I believe it is important for us to keep positive working relationships with our dance training institutions for many reasons and it seems that this is not happening in this case enough at present (at least from what I keep hearing). Let's try to be constructive as a community and attempt to do something about this, at least so it is all out in the open in a positive way. Cheers

Jillian Davey wrote...Thank you, Kristian for posting such a bold and true blog. I'm currently enrolled in UNITEC's programme and because of its unfortunate headlong jump away from its original kaupapa (along with my utter disgust and disbelief that they have chosen to hire a commercial jazz tutor) I have decided not to return next semsester. I realised, not even two weeks into this year, that the golden days so fondly recalled by former graduates, are gone. I've learned more in these past few months from my flatmate, who just so happens to be a graduate from those golden years, than I have from the programme as a whole. Although I do respect the industry professionals they bring in as a token window to the outside community, I sometimes feel the majority do so grudgingly and without the desire to take the new generation under their wing. I'm now forced to forge my own path and while it does seems exciting it's a shame NZ no longer has an alternative contemporary programme to point a path out to me.

"Changing the bath-water" Michael Parmenter I have been a little disturbed by the tenor of the current debate concerning the change in focus at UNITEC. Firstly, I am surprised that within the discipline of contemporary dance, which defines itself by continually re-defining itself, there are those that expect that UNITEC should cling to a decades-old vision. The dance scene in New Zealand is constantly changing, and one would hope that the training institutions would be changing along with it. Also I would certainly not, as Kristian does in his blog, want to consign the training of dancers solely to the New Zealand School of Dance. This is something that we all need to be interested in and take responsibility for. Yes UNITEC has changed, and there are many changes that I personally feel are changes for the better. One only needs to look at the sophistication of the choreographic contributions of the current students to recognise that a lift in the technical standard of the dancers will result in a more articulate and informed dynamic to their choreographic ventures. Dancers who are well versed in the negotiation of somatic and kinetic possibilities will learn to think with their bodies, and not just in their journals. A number of correspondents complain that UNITEC has lost contact with the dance community. However among the choreographers and teachers currently working at UNITEC, I can name Charles Koroneho, Malia Johnston, Taane Mete, Moania Nepia, Louise Potiki Bryant, Katie Burton and myself. Charles in particular is making a remarkable contribution and certainly keeps alive the vision of creative invention that has marked UNITEC’s past. I personally have a number of concerns regarding the generic nature of the theoretical component of the course, but it must be acknowledged that the dance faculty are very focused on keeping dance-specific studies before the students. The UNITEC course is running efficiently and smoothly. The enrolment numbers have improved markedly over the past couple of years, and I can testify that the focus, sense of enjoyment and morale of the students has never been higher. It seems that UNITEC is fulfilling the desires of the students who are the reason for its being. As for the “South Africans”, rather than bagging, them, I think we owe them a huge show of thanks. They stepped into a difficult situation, when others abandoned ship, and have worked tirelessly to keep the course focused on a creative and rigorous, practice-based pathway.

Unitec never responded to this my blog post publicly or otherwise. That was predictable. Michael predictably did respond but doesn't represent the views of Unitec. Simply his own. His letter makes it sound as if things had improved at this institution. If you actually talk (and listen to) the students a slightly different picture emerges; its more of a case of life goes on. Its not that things things are no better, they are simply no worse. Since Michaels letter The Beijing Dance Academy mysteriously withdrew its interest and presence at Unitec. Michael himself has dramatically declared that the students are not interested in learning and will not teach there again.

Life goes on. Some things never change eh Mr P.

Carly Townrow wrote...

I would like to begin by asking some of the well informed, ready to judge, very respectable persons who have commented on this forum how many of us currently studying at Unitec that they know personally? With what grounding and knowledge can they so confidently elude to the fact that we are a bunch of dull, uninteresting clones without the tiniest spark of creative ability or artistic voice? I am particularly upset Kristian that you chose now as the moment to air your views when so many of us who you know well and who respect you are still attending the course, doing our best to graduate and clutching at the straws of advice we can remember you and yes even Chris giving us. Not because they are more worthy than the advice we are being given now but because we, unlike a lot of people apparently, respect and appreciate every opinion given to us with regards to our work because the world does not have just one mind. By the way I think you would have really enjoyed the recent Year Three choreographic showing Kristian. Also, is it so wrong that I want the technical proficiency that will enable me to express my creative notions in a clear and interesting way? Why do I seem to be getting the feeling from these posts that real ‘art’ should not have a technical base? In defence of Charene; We are very lucky to have a head of department who puts so much time, passion, energy and care into us and our development. Everything she does she does for the benefit of the students and Michael is right when he says that morale is generally pretty high. And we are very lucky to have as a ballet technique tutor an ex principle danseur, he has extensive knowledge to offer and he was hired for that reason. It must be no easy job teaching ballet to a bunch of frowning girls who don’t always want to be there. He does remarkably well. I have the upmost respect for the way Unitec used to be run. I can almost remember word for word the speech given by Chris Jannides about the foundation of the school on my first day more than two years ago now when I was so wide eyed and hopeful about the future. But I also have an immense respect for the way it is run now. It only wish that this was a mutual respect and that the community which I am very shortly about to join will not belittle me for having attended, and the most horrible of all actually enjoyed Unitec, like it seems that they will. Kristian, I respect your opinions and I miss your classes but don’t create this kind of animosity for our sake. We’re doing just fine. You should know that. It was you that gave us our choreographic grounding. Have more faith in yourself for teaching and us for listening. And as for those newbies who weren’t lucky enough to have you teach them, they’ve still got Charles. Have faith, we’re not that bad.

Kristian responds to Carly...

I think youve taken this kind of personally, the key issues in the blog post (and lets get this into perspective people, its my OPINION on my little corner of the internet ) are; insularity, and the question of Unitecs accountability to the profession. Its not about your potential as practitioners or about technique or any of the other 'interesting' topics that have sprung up out of this storm in a teacup.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Fear

This image was taken by Robert Fear, a man whose dance imagery has in my estimation been overlooked and undervalued. The image is of me dancing a solo called "You Are Not Alone, You Are Just in New Zealand" (credit where credit is due, that title was a line from an email from Lisa Densem, a friend in Berlin)

WHAT I WROTE

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