On the eve of the organisation’s 20th anniversary, it now seems hard to imagine a contemporary dance scene in Melbourne without Dancehouse. Its inception was premised on the need to support the proclivities of independent artists, even if these approaches were sometimes resistant to mainstream approval. The celebrations will include a June performance season involving 20 artists central to the Dancehouse narrative, and the launch of an anniversary website. The occasion may offer a moment of historical clarity, crystallised through the compilation of the different artists, practices, reflections, stories and representative choreographies. Will it be a point of stillness that lets us reflect on what has happened so far? Will it also create anticipation for what will unfold as Dancehouse regenerates towards a new future?
Historical assessment is difficult, as so little has been said or written about what has happened. This is as true for Dancehouse as it is for Australian dance in general. It remains a cardboard box full of collective mementoes that no one has opened in years; things have not been mulled over, the dots left unjoined, and simply put away as the next project announces itself. For dancers entering the fray now, it is difficult to get a sense of what mature artists have done or how the previous generation has influenced what they themselves now see as urgent or fresh. The scholarship or resources to engage with our dance history is limited. It is possible for us to appreciate the work of Trisha Brown without fully understanding the ways her influence has become insinuated into our comprehension through the work of Russell Dumas or Becky Hilton (via Russell Dumas and then Stephen Petronio). Dance lineages are complex and our capacity to unravel them hindered by a lack of perspective. So the fizz of the upcoming anniversary with its gathering of artists may catalyse reflection on the qualities of engagement artists have had at Dancehouse and their impact on the wider dance scene.
The 20th year is also a chance to reflect on Dancehouse’s mission as a home for contemporary dance. The vision with which Hellen Sky, Sylvia Staehli, John McCormick and others founded Dancehouse is as insistently relevant today as it was 20 years ago. The predicament of independent dance artists continues to be fragile: limited funding spread across numerous practitioners and in a landscape in which ‘innovation’ reads like ‘novelty’ and towers above ‘reiteration’ or ‘consolidation’ in a forest of priorities. It is difficult for artists to take the time to consider, develop and consolidate what they are interested in. Dancehouse, too, is vulnerable to the changes in emphasis applied by funding bodies. Yet, it has survived not just because it has expanded its reach nationally and internationally, but also because its raison d’être continues to be relevant locally. Dancehouse continues to champion artists whose work does not necessarily fit comfortably into a mainstream marketing regime.
So, lets celebrate! Here’s to another 20 years of detailed, gritty, thoughtful, evocative, infuriating, quiet, expansive dancing!