1. in which we are living in end times
“In the 1960s and ’70s I grew up on a sheep farm in north-eastern Victoria,” said choreographer Rosalind Crisp in a very plain voice, somewhere at the start of her lecture-performance DIRtywork. Crisp had spent more than a decade dancing and choreographing in France; she only returned a few years ago. She continued, “My parents, my three siblings, myself and our dogs and cats ate sheep nearly every day.”
“In 1797 my great, great, great grandfather arrived in Australia. He was Irish, transported for anti- government activities.
“The same year, the first six merino sheep arrived in Australia, four ewes and two rams.
“By 1880 there were 106 million sheep in Australia.”
It was a peaceful, sunny afternoon in late summer/early autumn, an insufficiently appreciated Melbourne season. They were at Dancehouse, in the gym-like Upstairs Studio, and the sun was hitting the blond floorboards at a golden angle. Some sat on the seatless seating bank, others sprawled on the floor. It was a one-off, not a performance but a showing. Crisp stood up, ageing but limber, slim and dressed head to toe in black.
“A lot of my practice nowadays is about trying to understand how to dance in the midst of this ongoing destruction.”
2. in which deeds are recognised
“I wanted to say hi,” Rosalind said after the show. “You wrote about my work a few years ago for one of the newspapers, and you said I should be made a dame. Did you know—someone must have heard you—six months after that review, I was actually given a damehood.”
“No!” the Critic didn’t know. That was an astounding thing to say. Those were Tony Abbott’s times.
That line in the review was a direct reference to Abbott re-establishing the institution of knighthood, and promptly giving one to Prince Phillip.
“I was made the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. So basically, I’m a dame in France.”
“Oh, wow,” the Critic went from baffled to less baffled, then picked herself up. “Congratulations! Congratulations! That’s amazing!” Rosalind Crisp is one of Australia’s best living choreographers. Of course she should be a dame. Somewhere, at least.
“She should be a dame in Australia!” Liz slammed her vino on the massive table. They were in one of those faux-Mediterranean Rathdowne Street bars, I forget which one.
“Should she? Really?” June looked up quizzically, but as she did so, her eyes rolled just a little bit.
“Yes, she should. Australian artists have to go to Europe if they want to get any kind of recognition, it’s an age-old story and it repeats in every generation.” Liz sighed, a little theatrically, the way Dr Phil sighs just before delivering some frank words to a Midwestern 40-year-old man still living with his parents. “I’ve seen a whole generation of theatre artists decimated in the nineties. The best ones leave—Barrie, Benno, Simon— and we’ll never,” she took a breath, “never, get them back again. The others get discouraged, beaten down, and they stop. And what a loss.”
“Look, I think it’s great that she’s a dame anywhere.” the Critic said. “She’s a choreographer! No-one ever gives a shit about dance...” This was part making light, and part honesty: truly no-one ever gives a shit about contemporary dance...
“Does the world need more knights? Does Australia need any knights?” June was pushing back; it was such a relief to no longer be living under Tony Abbott.
But Liz had ten years and a tenure track on them and would not be dissuaded. “We produce artists and thinkers as good as—and I would venture to say often better—than anything Europe has to offer. Yet we’re constantly kowtowing to foreign artists! We think a choreographer visiting from New York must be a genius, instead of appreciating the talent in our own backyard. Who will appreciate them, if not us?”
“Well, the French Order of Arts and Letters...”
“Our artists punch well above their weight! They create work with little or no funding, limited audiences, in a hostile climate, and they’re telling our stories! We’re not Europe! We live on a different land, under a different sky, what can their art say to us? We need to support our own artists that speak about our country, that express our Australian identity and our values and preoccupations...!”
Liz was on her second wine and it showed: she was becoming loud, the way Anglo-Australians tend to. The Critic looked down. The clientele in the bar were mostly Dancehouse patrons having a nightcap; it was Dance Massive and performances were going late into the night. At the table next to them was a group of dance presenters from some smaller Southeast Asian countries, in Melbourne as guests of the festival. She had seen them at other shows and had had some very interesting conversations about contemporary dance in postcolonial nations. They were now looking towards her.
Liz continued, hotly. “We need to appreciate our own artists, not always put foreign art on a pedestal! Our artists already compete against huge marketing machinery overseas! We’re up against massive economies of scale when it comes to touring, and we defund our native-bred artists every few years to slush some more funds into European elite arts like opera! It’s incredible that our artists manage not only to survive, but to thrive in these conditions.” She made a well-measured pause, before rising to a crescendo. “But every few years another shock comes, and I wonder which will be the deathblow!”
None of this was necessarily incorrect, but the Critic caught the eye of a Malaysian woman at the other table, who was looking slightly scared. Her cheeks burned red.
“You should come to Malaysia and do a critical residency with our centre.” Bilqis had said a few days earlier. “It would be great to have an international perspective on our new generation of artists—they’re not great yet, but they’re coming up with some good stuff!”
The Critic smiled at the offer. “I’ve always wanted to know, is there a Malaysian traditional dance?” she asked. “Something similar to the Thai Khon?”
“There isn’t one,” Bilqis rolled her eyes. “I mean, the patriots would like there to be one, particularly something as refined as Khon, but there isn’t anything at that level, not really. There’s just a lot of invented faux-old dances that people pretend are important. Most kids prefer hip-hop.”
“But what technique is the national dance curriculum based on?”
“Ballet!” she laughed. “Come visit some time! It would be interesting to know what you make of it.”
This was an issue the world over: a culture either had a completely impenetrable, bone-breaking, feet-deforming dance tradition, or it imported or invented one. There was something humorous about how tangled up dance and nationalism were. On a good day, that is; on a day when we’re not taking ourselves too seriously.
But now Liz was banging her fist on the table. The Critic felt the rising dread that, any moment now, her tirade would turn towards the Chinese spying on ‘us’ through Huawei or invading ‘our’ real estate market. She wanted to apologise to Bilqis and the other guests. This particular narrative of Australian victimhood, of how no-one cared about Australia, was something felt only by white Australians. She had yet to hear an Aboriginal or POC artist make that claim, and it seemed somehow fundamentally connected to the white settler identity, to some perception of an astronaut-like distance from the centre. At another time, the Critic would have pondered this, but now the rising shame was too great. It was obvious to all the fine-diners present that they were in a singularly prosperous and untroubled land. There was no need for this outburst of imaginary victimhood; it diminished them all. She wanted to apologise for her friend, whose ancestors had been living on this land for little more than a blink, yet who seemed to believe that her people’s experience of the world was of some fundamental importance to the whole bar, to the whole world. She wanted to stand up, in this bar serving tapas and European cheese, and reassure everyone that their countries were allowed to knight any Australian artist, or their own, it was fine, the world was a connected place...
"Liz, tell me about your trip,” she said instead. “You were on holiday in Ljubljana?”
Liz paused for breath.
This above is an excerpt from Issue #42 of The Lifted Brow. To read the full series alongside many other brillant works of writing and art get your copy here.
Jana Perković is a theatre nerd. Her writings on theatre and dance appear in The Guardian, RealTime, The Conversation and on http://guerrillasemiotics.com.
Isabella Meagher is a Sydney based illustrator and animator. You can see more of her scribbles @kovvu on Instagram.