The Helpmann awards: winners of the year and problems of the past

It’s been 11 years since the Australian Ballet won the Helpmann Award for the Best Ballet or Dance Work.

Back in 2003 the company won for Graeme Murphy’s production of Swan Lake.

This year the award went to to the Australian Ballet for its production of Wayne McGregor’s Chroma.

The winners and the shortlisted dance companies in both the Helpmann Awards and Australian Dance Awards (ADA) seem to go in cycles that often revolve around Sydney Dance Company, Australian Dance Theatre, Bangarra Dance Theatre and Chunky Move.

And it’s often the case that if one of these companies wins with its production, so too do the dancers in that production.

This year, Sydney Dance Company’s Charmene Yap won the Helpmann for Best Female Dancer (for in 2 in D Minor – part of Interplay) while last year, she won the Australian Dance Award for the Best Female Dancer for her performance in 2 One Another, a work that also won the ADA’s Outstanding Performance by a Company.

The Helpmann this year for the Best Male Dancer of the year went to Chunky Move’s James Vu Anh Pham (for 247 Days).

Pham has now danced in at least three Chunky Move productions, An Act of Now, 247 Days and finally, AORTA, choreographed for the company by Stephanie Lake.

This year’s Helpmann for Best Choreography in a Dance or Physical Theatre work was awarded to Stephanie Lake’s work, A Small Prometheus, that premiered at the Melbourne Festival in October 2013.

Every year the Helpmanns come under criticism for various reasons but for me there are three frustrating elements.

1. Australian dance companies compete with visiting international dance companies for the award “Best Ballet or Dance Work” but there is almost always a bias against the dance works presented by touring companies. The touring companies seldom win, even if they are considered among the best in the world, such as the Bolshoi Ballet or the Paris Opera Ballet.

2. Contemporary dancers and contemporary dance works compete with ballet dancers and ballet productions.

For several years, I’ve suggested that administrators of dance awards in Australia introduce separate categories for ballet and ballet dancers as opposed to contemporary dance and dancers, but the blending of the two goes on.

In this year’s Helpmann Awards, the Australian Ballet’s Daniel Gaudiello and the West Australian Ballet’s Andre Santos were up against contemporary dancers, Kimball Wong and Pham, for Best Male Dancer, while the Australian Ballet’s Lucinda Dunn and the West Australian Ballet’s Fiona Evans were competing with Dalisa Pigrim and Yap.

Even those panel members with a profound knowledge of all forms of dance and dance training may have trouble choosing winners when such different dance styles and performances are pitted against one another.

One compelling reason that ballet is not considered a worthy individual category in Australia (as it is in the Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards in the United Kingdom) is money – more categories/awards means more cost.

3. Unlike the UK, where London is the theatre centre, dance in Australia encompasses five capital cities in different states. Panel members, despite their access to travel funds, are unlikely to visit more than two states in any one year, therefore their choices are based on reports from other panel members or from watching clips.

This problem is not unique to the Helpmanns, as the Australian Dance Awards has also faced the same problem although the ADAs do have advisers in different states.

(I was a member of the Helpmann Awards dance panel for five years and am now a member of the Australian Dance Awards panel).

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Vivienne Wong and Rudy Hawkes in Chroma, The Australian Ballet 2014, photo © Jess Bialek

James Pham and Leif Helland in 247 Days, photo © Jeff Busby