Sunday, April 27, 2008

Throwing The Baby Out With The Bathwater

n 1989 Wendy Preston, Maggie Eyre and Alison East established in Auckland what was then called the Performing Arts School to offer a full time dance programme for a two year Diploma of Contemporary Dance. In late 1994, PAS relinquished its independent status to join Unitec, by which terms the school would gain improved facilities, financial viability (dependent on targeted levels of student enrollment), and the right to develop a degree programme. In 1998, as The School of Performing and Screen Arts (PAS/SPASA) began offering NZ's first dance degree, with students in effect majoring in choreography and contemporary techniques. This was its vision statement: "The Performing Arts School is committed to encouraging the development of personal creativity and artistic process through the theory and practice of the contemporary dance discipline and its related arts. There is a strong commitment to identifying a contemporary dance form that reflects the social, cultural and geographical environments of Aotearoa, New Zealand. The broad based holistic education programme is designed to develop a disciplined and sensitive human being and dance artist." Sadly the current population of students attending Unitec's dance program know nothing of its history, its original vision, and its aims. Their level of exposure to and interaction with the community of people that now exist as a result of that vision is token. This is compounded by a narrow and generic training programme that has come about through endless waves of restructuring. Unitec was never focused on creating company dancers, that’s the New Zealand School of Dance’s specialty and no one does it better than them. Rather this was a dance course with a vision to create dance artists capable of mounting and producing their own work, people with unique voices, and most potently community. Under the original direction of Ali East it was policy to implement an industry led curriculum. This is something that was done in line with other leading edge institutions such as the School for New Dance Development (Amsterdam) and the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (Perth) After Ali had left, Chris Jannides (alongside industry stalwarts such as Felicity Molloy, Raewyn Whyte, Charles Koroneho and too many others to list) continued to evolve the programme. They also continued to invest in the development of graduates in order to support a healthy vibrant scene of contemporary dance performance in the real world. It’s fair to say that a lot of shows wouldn't have gotten made without the significant time and energy given freely by these people. Chris was the last one left in that institution who not only maintained an agenda that supported the original core values, but who also had the ability to provide a conduit between the professional world, and the students. Management didn’t really approve of his methods - Unitec was providing the resources unofficially to get work made. It couldn't last. At the end of 2006 Chris Jannides left the dance course after a radical restructuring (over seen by an educational policy maker, the current head of Unitec’s School of Performing and Screen Arts) disestablished his position as Head of Department and replaced it with a lesser role of Programme Coordinator. Lesser in terms of its autonomy, the job description was almost identical to a department head. That role was filled by a South African classical dancer with plenty of administrative nous, but no experience in making contemporary choreography. In a financially strategic and fairly typical move for an educational institution, a policy limiting the hiring in of part time tutors was enforced and the proportional salaried staff took the brunt of the teaching workload. This was at the expense of the the programme’s unique approach that exposed students to new, progressive, informative practices in dance, choreography, art, interdisciplinarity etc. Teaching nutrition and somatic anatomy (as well as classical ballet) is a former ballet dancer and sales representative for a diet supplement company called Ultimate Sports Nutrition. He was hired by an interview panel of three that included his wife - the new Programme Coordinator for the Dance Dept.

Curriculum staples that set this course apart from other full time dance institutions are no longer taught: Skinner Releasing, yoga, improvisation, Feldenkrais, Alexander technique, & Contact Improvisation. All current practices within the industry globally, all so deeply interwoven into the original course philosophy and practice, all but non existent. However a commercial jazz dance teacher has been hired. Choreography was once taught by anything from seven to ten different current practitioners throughout the course of a year, industry professionals who were out there working on the practice. Now this is handled by two proportional staff, one of whose background is in classical ballet choreography and the visual arts.

The interdisciplinary approaches and projects inherent in the contemporary dance course (and now interestingly enough being favoured by other institutions such as Toi Whakaari) are gone. The initial vision that the course was built on, the culture, direction, and spirit are also gone. It’s a historical turning point. The new direction appears conservative, retrogressive, fiscally driven and mediocre. Unitec's dance course was a peerless construct with a spirit deeply devoted to the uniqueness and longevity of the people who went there. As it detaches from its history in the name of progress it seems out of step with the times. Just when the NZ School of Dance is focusing more on outreaching to the community and industry it seems sad that Unitec is unable to sustain those same relationships intrinsic to its identity.

Lets hope that this period of transition will result in the eventual manifestation of unique vision and soul in the work being done there. Thats something many of us want to see out there in the world anyway, something that I think a lot of us are going for in our own work.

comments posted here

(Thanks to Raewyn for the editing feedback and input, and Ali for inspiring the title)