Bangarra’s hopes: more than just an “ooga-booga” story

It’s not often that an editor decides a dance story is worthy of the lead to page 3 of a major Australian newspaper.

Especially one about finances.

But that’s what happened on June 26 when The Sun Herald in Sydney ran a news feature carrying the slightly peculiar headline: “We’re more than ‘ooga-booga’ dancers”.

The headline was a reference to the way some British critics look down their chiselled noses at Bangarra Dance Theatre.

The company’s artistic director, Stephen Page, said that UK critics expected Bangarra to perform traditional anthropological dance rather than tell contemporary stories.

It is worth recalling the most negative review* of the Sadlers Wells, London, season of 2008 in which the Australian Ballet collaborated with Bangarra Dance Theatre in performances of Page’s work, Rites.

But The Sun Herald article was not really about a few English critics’ prejudice and inability to do even a minimum amount of research into Aboriginal dance and culture, but about government funding.

The article, published just before the start of a national Bangarra tour, outlined the levels of funding received by Bangarra and Sydney Dance Company, with Bangarra’s executive director, Catherine Baldwin, arguing that Bangarra was unfairly funded in comparison with SDC.

Last year, Bangarra received government of grants of approximately $1.8 million compared with Sydney Dance Company’s $2.9 million. Yet, that year, Bangarra performed to audiences of more than 52,000 compared with SDC’s audiences of 29,826.

According to the companies’ 2010 annual reports, Bangarra’s performance income was $1,277,359 while SDC’s was $915,140.

The Australia Council, the main government funding body for both companies, has made it fairly clear that there will be little change in the level of funding for major performing arts companies in
the near future, so what was the Bangarra story all about?

Perhaps it was partly a plea to potential sponsors. The company lost its major sponsor, Telstra, in 2006, and is now reliant on important, but second tier sponsors, including BHP Billiton, Boral, Commonwealth Bank, and Qantas, which contributed a combined total of just over $487,000 last year.

But surely the Sun Herald article, and another similar story a few weeks ago in The Sydney Morning Herald, was not an opaque hard luck story directed at the corporate sector.

Government support for companies such as Bangarra and SDC relate to the Nugent report of many years ago, under which the funding of both companies was partly based on the number of dancers under contract.

In the case of SDC, funding was for 17 dancers and for Bangarra, 12.

But times have changed. SDC now has only 15 dancers and Bangarra 14 (if you take into account one trainee). Hardly any difference between them.

(The question of why SDC continues to employ only 15 dancers is another matter, as is the reason, if any, for the relatively high turnover of dancers. Since 2009, there has been a turnover of almost half the company members, with seven leaving. Three new dancers were contracted last year and four more this year.)

Catherine Baldwin told dancelines that her company “really needs to have government backing to give us basic resources to get philanthropy and sponsorship [money]”, although she also acknowledged the Australia Council’s recent funding (for two years) for a philanthropy manager.

The company also lacked a fulltime physio and medical team, she said.

The relative support of federal and state governments for major performing arts companies warrants further media investigation.

It looks as though the Major Performing Arts Board of the Australia Council will soon be looking at plans for a new funding model for the companies under its control.

This would seem like an important first task for the new chair of the board, Louise Herron, a lawyer, co-founder of Ironbark Strategy and Transactions and Chair of Company B and Belvoir Street Theatre.

* One UK critic (in The Telegraph) wrote: “That the evening is a disappointment is largely to do with Rites, a paltry, over-promoted use of the Stravinsky.

“As it is a joint venture with Bangarra Dance Theatre, which identifies itself as Aboriginal, and Stephen Page, its choreographer, identifies his style as drawing on 40,000 years of Australian indigenous culture, it’s best to conclude that over 40,000 years dance has moved on a great deal.

“No fewer than 182 dance-makers have hopefully tickled and pummelled Stravinsky’s score in its 95 years, but the worthy ones see that the only way to handle his walls and shards of sound is to punch right back with a real choreographic argument and walls and shards of their own.

“To get your dancers rolling on the ground in brown loincloths, cocking their bottoms and heads up like eager dogs, spraying water and red dust around, is indolently clichéd and highlights the slack spaces between groups that have no intensity or sense of communal purpose, the idle primitivist posturing and the general sense that these people are dancing to the mirror in their studio, rather than genuinely attempting to invade our audience space and spellbind us with poetry.

“Apart from the skinny, shaven-headed Patrick Thaiday, a traditional tribal dancer who darts about with squirrel-like speed and conveys impressive weight in his wiry limbs, the mix of ballet and tribal dancers left a depressingly mimsy impression, not helped by an over-polite musical performance under Nicolette Fraillon”.

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Belong, Bangarra Dance Theatre, photo © Jason Capobianco

Belong, Bangarra Dance Theatre, photo © Jason Capobianco