Canberra Milk High Schools and Colleges Dance Festival, 1996
Is the annual Canberra Milk High Schools and Colleges Dance Festival, which began in 1986 with the theme "Peace", still "... In Motion" as the 1996 theme suggests? Ausdance ACT Executive Officer, Jennifer Kingma says "Yes" with some reservations. Canberra Dance Theatre Director, Stephanie Burridge, also perhaps the most highly qualified teacher in the schools, seems more inclined towards Isaac Newton's First Law of Motion: the law of inertia, "which states that a body will continue in the same state of motion until it is acted on by a force".
In her book about God, physics and gender called Pythagoras' Trousers, the Australian science writer Margaret Wertheim discusses how Newton's laws became models for the social sciences: Burridge would like to see the format for the Dance Festival kicked around every few years to generate creativity. But are the dance crumbs which fall from the great feast table of education so stale?
Going to the Canberra Theatre on August 29 and 30 may help provide some answers, but seeing dance "... In Motion" at one moment in time will tell little about Newton's Second Law which relates force, mass and acceleration, and direction.
Even though dance is still peripheral to the core curriculum in most schools, the Dance Festival is increasing in mass: more schools take part now; more boys take part.
The direction was set from the beginning, in an opposite reaction (Newton's Third Law) to an earlier dance competition. This is still a [Italics on]festival [Italics off] very much in keeping with one of Ausdance's aims: "To establish the opportunity for every child to have dance experience."
Force and acceleration are the deeper issues. Even Newton would have found it difficult to express the Dance Festival as a mathematical equation. The forces for shifting out of a state of inertia ought to be the gradual accretion of experience by the teachers who, one would like to think, have space, time and resources. But the reality is that the dance-in-schools universe, unlike the one envisaged by Newton, is finite. As students pass through the schools, we can only expect the newcomer in 1996 to be able to begin dance with more appreciation, more sense of creativity, maybe even more skills than in 1986, if the teachers have had the time to learn from their previous experiences, the space in the curriculum to build on what they learn; and the input from new forces of qualified dynamic young dance-trained teachers. Our universities, in the post-Einstein space-time universe, are producing some big bangs (in every state except the ACT!), but the ripple effect is marginal in the schools where dance is still in the cold outer reaches.
Jennifer Kingma has no doubts about the need for dance and for the festival. Because the performances are not judged, anyone can take part without fear or favour. She is certain that this is why the numbers have increased and why more boys, including strong teams from the private boys' schools, are taking part nowadays. She is certain too that the core learning experience is cooperation, teamwork and confidence building. This is not only so for the students, but for the teachers who have less need to come to her in fear and trembling about whether their work is good enough as they did in earlier years.
But creativity is where she has her reservations: it's too safe to imitate the actions of Anna Pavlova or Michael Jackson. The link between drama and dance - the motivation for the movement - is, for Jenny Kingma, the accelerator pedal. But if the fuel tank is empty of teaching quantity and the quality is mixed, and the vehicle needs to be four-wheel drive for rough, new terrain - and big enough to carry the masses - then we are forced to accept ten years of inertia. In this view, the Dance Festival is a holding operation - essential to hold on to until the day is reached when our society comes to understand (and supply the resources) so that a new invigorating dance force emanates from the schools. She sees the potential in every Dance Festival performance.
Dance, of course, is the last of the traditional arts to gain a place at the table. In Australian secondary schools art and music were more or less established by the Whitlam era; drama made its big push from the mid-1970's; media shoved its way in from the outfield in the late '70s; while dance lost its olde-worlde social significance, tripped around awhile in ethnic and folk, and only began in the 1980's to take Martha Graham seriously. In the meantime, outside the schools the traditionals stuck with ballet, the arty lot went post-modern, while the others went disco.
Emmy Noether, the great mathematician of this century, who redefined abstract algebra, created the "New Maths" and whose Noether's Theorem relates fundamental physics to mathematical symmetry would have as much chance as Newton if she tried to coalesce dance. Bringing together the dance trainers and the school teachers; the "disciplined" private schools and the less cohesive government schools; the boys' boys and the girly girls; the experience and the art: even Stephanie Burridge finds this daunting.
But Ausdance never gives up, and the Canberra Milk Dance Festival lives on, waiting for the day when dance in education goes supernova. Can someone choreograph this scenario? Maybe next year's theme should be some imitation Latin (for the traditionalists): Per Ars ad Astra - "Through Art to the Stars". And maybe the Festival should be a huge celebration in dance combining all the students in one production. And maybe this could become the new beginning, with a nation-wide performance at the Olympics 2000. Make dance an Olympic event. After all that's where the money is. Ask the Government!© Frank McKone M.A., F.A.C.E.
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