It’s a Sunday afternoon in Melbourne’s busy inner-northern suburbs and I’m wandering around empty dance studios at Dancehouse. The lights are switched off throughout Carlton Hall, a former community centre-cum-dance hub, and I can’t spot a sign directing me to the first session of the How to Like Dance workshop. I finally find the facilitator, theatre critic and author Alison Croggon, alone in the back-of-house office, sitting at a conference table and unsuccessfully trying to turn up the volume on her PowerPoint slide show. The six remaining participants are yet to arrive.
How to Like Dance (HTLD) is a collaboration between Dancehouse and the Keir Choreographic Award (KCA), facilitated by online theatre magazine Witness Performance. It’s delivered by Witness founders, Croggon and the theatre all-rounder, Robert Reid. The workshop consists of two three-hour, Sunday afternoon dance appreciation workshops, a ticket to each of the KCA’s two weeknight programmes, a further one-hour discussion group after the second programme, and a free glass of wine.
KCA, now in its third edition, is Australia’s most prestigious (and only) contemporary dance prize, and has quickly asserted its place and mission in the Australian dance field by ‘promoting innovation, experimentation and cross-artform practices in contemporary dance’. It biennially commissions eight new works by Australian dancemakers, and the eight finalists vie for a AUD 30,000 grand prize and AUD 10,000 audience prize.
HTLD forms part of a larger public programme accompanying the KCA, including choreographic workshops for the local dance community led by the KCA’s international jury members Meg Stuart and Eszter Salamon; a dance documentation activity, Scribe, for recording audience reactions; and a range of panel discussions on timely, hot-button topics, featuring academics and local and international dance professionals.
There seems to be a growing interest in dance appreciation and audience engagement and development programming worldwide. For example, Springback editor Sanjoy Roy wrote about his ‘dates with dance’ experience, and in 2014 I had the opportunity to tailor dance appreciation activities for the festival temps d’images in Düsseldorf, Germany (as part of a small team of dance researchers). Why might this be? My best bet is that as contemporary dance becomes progressively less like normative ideas about dance – that is, virtuosic, codified movement set to music and presented on stage to an audience – spectators are increasingly pondering how to respond, and whether they’re doing it right.
As I have teased out at length elsewhere, the works presented by the KCA have even left many Australian dance critics scratching their heads. Conventional critical criteria in dance have become obsolete almost across the board in contemporary dance, and spectators and commentators can no longer assess performance quality on the basis of stretched feet, innate musicality, dramatic expression, and so on.