Arts & Entertainment

Cultivating choreography

Angela Koh and Lizzie Thomson from Jane McKernan’s entry. Photo: Chris Peken

There are over a hundred awards for the arts in Australia, but there is not a single one dedicated to the art of choreography. It was this realisation that inspired philanthropist Phillip Keir to create Australia’s first major award for the sometimes overlooked and underappreciated contemporary art form. With the partnership of Sydney’s multi-arts organisation Carriageworks, Melbourne’s independent dance centre Dancehouse and the Keir Foundation, a private ancillary fund Keir established with his wife, the Keir Choreographic Awards was born.

“When I got to a certain point of setting up the [Keir] Foundation, dance was one of the first areas that I started to look at,” says Keir. “I think it’s vital and it’s very strong, and there are lots of people innovating in all kinds of form, but I felt what I could bring is to help give some of these artists and this community a higher profile.”

Keir’s two decades of experience in the media helped direct him. “What I’ve noticed is when there are cash awards, all of a sudden you get a different type of coverage and a different way of talking about these things,” he says.

Competitions bring audiences and certainly one with a generous $30,000 cash prize for the winner, as well as an additional $10,000 awarded to the audience’s favourite choice.

While there can only be one grand winner, Keir was determined to make it an award where everybody wins. Eight artists chosen from entries submitted earlier this year were commissioned to develop their ideas into 20-minute works with support from Carriageworks or Dancehouse.

For finalist Jane McKernan, who isn’t normally a fan of competitions, the experience has been wonderful. “It’s great to have money to make your own work without going through the process of writing grant applications and everything else, and to be able to rehearse at Carriageworks.”

With time and help to delve into their ideas, the eight artists then had a platform to showcase their work to judges and audiences in the semi-final performances at Dancehouse over two weeks. Out of the original eight, four finalists emerged – Atlanta Eke, Jane McKernan, Matthew Day and Sarah Aiken – and they will battle it out for the top prize in the finals held at Carriageworks on July 19.

Carriageworks director, Lisa Havilah, is excited to be hosting the finals, particularly as she’s been impressed with the bold new works by the artists. “[While choreography] does come from that form of contemporary dance practice, there’s been really experimental work that moves between sculptural practices, video practices and contemporary dance practices,” says Havilah. “It’s really great that the award is a new thing so it doesn’t have any parameters around it.”

Strict parameters and rules is precisely what Keir doesn’t want.

“We’ve taken the broadest possible definition of what choreography is,” he says. Keir wanted the awards to be as open as possible so artists from all disciplines, not just a conventional dance background, would be inspired to create original works. “People have come from visual arts, from music, as well as from dance,” adds Keir, although the “choreographic question” of concept and process is still key.

The judging panel includes Swedish choreographer Mårten Spångberg, New York curator Matthew Lyons, director of Melbourne Festival Josephine Ridge, Australian choreographer Becky Hilton, as well as Keir himself. The mix of international and national judges coming from different disciplines is again a measure to ensure the process is fair.

“By having two international judges, it meant there were people from outside who wouldn’t necessarily know the local artists,” says Keir. The diverse judging panel would hopefully help artists concentrate on their own ideas and not be constrained by the thought “if I want to be successful I need to make that sort of work to fit in with that kind of judge,” says Keir.

It’s not just the judges’ opinions that matter, though, with the audience getting a say in the audience choice award. It’s a prize that Keir hopes will create a public conversation around contemporary choreography.

“We wanted to make it a way of talking about choreography. When people see four pieces in an evening, they can decide if they like one because of that or didn’t like that one so much because of that,” he says.

McKernan, a choreographer and dancer herself, encourages audiences to ask questions and speak to all of the choreographers. “It’s good to hear feedback,” she says.

With eight new experimental works coming out of the Keir Choreographic Awards, it is an award less about the prizes and more about experiencing the many possibilities in the independent dance sector.

“I hope that these artists go on to bigger and greater things, and I hope the pieces extend to larger works,” says Keir. But most of all, Keir hopes the awards will initiate new audiences into the sometimes strange but always fascinating world of contemporary choreography. (MT)

Jul 17-19, Carriageworks, 245 Wilson St, Eveleigh, $35,


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