Introduction to DAMN Writing

Introduction to DAMN Writing

By William McBride

9th September, 2020

‘DAMN Writing’ is an iterative writing project that runs alongside the Think Tank Dance Assembly (TTDA).

Its chapters are written by people who have been engaged in TTDA activities, and who responded to an open call for contributions, or to a direct invitation based on their connection to a key topic, activity or perspective within the sub-culture. The editing team came together in the same way.

DAMN stands for ‘Dance Artists of Melbourne Network’. ‘Damn’ also gets at the exasperation that permeates the ‘practicing artists sector’1 in Australia, in 2020 – a kind of weary, hoarse-throated insistence to be listened to, that what we do matters, and for things to be approached differently if the sector is to survive. ‘Things’ meaning the conventions that shape the practice of an independent dance artist (or any artist) working in Melbourne (or anywhere in Australia) in 2020 and beyond. ‘Survive’ also means ‘change’ or ‘rearrange’ (or ‘knock it all down and start again completely’).

This is from a multi-authored explanation, ‘What is Think Tank Dance Assembly’:

TTDA is an open assembly for independent dance artists to discuss shared interests and strategies. Its activities are focused on the advocacy and development of independent dance practice across its multiple processes and outcomes, structures and desires. Inclusive of undergraduates through to established dance artists, TTDA is predominantly focused on the dance community in Melbourne/Naarm, but open to artists and discussions from further afield.
TTDA is artist-led but is avoiding fixed, centralised leadership, it is continually in progress, growing an informal self-organising structure that allows any individual artists involved to initiate dialogue and action. Driven by the changing, diverse and frequently aligned interests of individuals, TTDA is never necessarily representative of the ‘group’ writ large.

(Basically, once the pandemic hit, dance artists based in Melbourne started meeting up over zoom to talk about things that matter to us, and these discussions have been fleshed out in Google docs and Facebook group chats. A big theme of the conversations has been that things weren’t working before Covid, and that the disruption may present an opportunity to try something new. Compounding everything, landing one month after the pandemic shuttered the entire live performance industry, the Australia Council’s multi-year small-medium-organisations funding announcements of April sealed the deal in terms of that program’s calcification, with the ‘company’ model no longer a viable professional pathway when Stephanie Lake Company and Temperance Hall/BalletLab cannot break through. That announcement left the three mainstays of Dancehouse, Chunky Move and Lucy Guerin Inc. - each extremely valued and treasured institutions - with a full-to-bursting set of community responsibilities for holding the independent dance scene together - responsibilities far beyond a 20th Century conception of ‘the company’.)

• • •

DAMN Writing as a project was conceived against the highly unusual backdrop of the early pandemic: a collective desire to materialise or extend on the anxious and sometimes exhilarating conversations arising from within the confusion, concern and thrill of that time in March, April, May. Initially, it was maybe conceived as a single, clarion call from ‘the dance community’-as-singular-block, like an open letter or manifesto.

As the pandemic has worn on, stretching thin and changing the shape of many parts of society with it, the shape and purpose of TTDA has stretched and changed as well. Not exactly unorganised, it has been an experiment in unfixed structures and changeable leadership. At different times it has felt like a proto-union, a movement, a community hub, a communications technology, a working group, a solidarity enterprise, a gabfest, a lobby group, a mentoring network, an insurrection, a proto-training institute and a think tank. Sometimes it has felt like an elusive idea, a memory, a chore or a puzzle for the too-hard basket. From the outside, and in the eye of the beholder, it can look like any of these things at any given time. There is what TTDA is. There is also what it signifies to have arisen now - what underlying causes is it a symptom of? And there is its potential: what could it become?

A narrative of privation and the threat of imminent collapse haunts the practising artists sector, and has done for at least a generation (one contemporary instalment of Australia’s frequently tormented relationship to its own culture, as per ‘cultural cringe’, starting from the dispossession of First Nations’ lands and cultures and an inability to truly acknowledge that at a national level). The seeming permanence of this besieged group psychology can lead to a calcifying of attitudes around competition for scraps, ‘survival of the fittest’, and a kind of aggrieved, disempowered resentment towards the bureaucratic powers that seem so consequential to the functional practice of art in our society at this point in time. Between a culture of endless applications, where an artist must effectively reapply for their job every two weeks ad infinitum, and the frequently repeated ‘artist as sole trader micro business’ hoax, the conditions on the ground for a sustainable practice - for sustainable artistic culture - are hostile at best. And as both a kind of paradox, and an inevitable consequence, of this privation, those who do manage to toil on under these conditions skew far whiter, wealthier, younger, more able bodied than the general population (with the faces looking back on most TTDA Zoom sessions attesting to this). A ‘paradox’ because virtually no working dance artist within this system will identify anything like security, stability, abundance or robust cultural recognition, in relation to their working life. ‘Inevitable’ because current structural conditions - from who got sent to ballet class at age 3, to who has time outside of work and family commitments to ruminate and put into words their perspective in this DAMN Writing - prune out all but a narrow demography. In TTDA meetings, POC dance artists have expressed the particularly brutal, nullifying experience of feeling entirely unacknowledged in the Melbourne dance community, almost literally invisible. Dance artists in their 40s and 50s have reflected on time spent in other cities with significant dance cultures across the world, where artists dance and choreograph well into their 60s, holding and passing on cultural lineage, while in Melbourne, barely anyone survives in the profession beyond the age of 40.

The practice of dancing and dance making feels almost uniquely communal and community-dependent, with the transmission of information between whole-mind-and-body organisms fundamentally underpinning the form - literally, any lineage in dance must be transferred through embodied, person-to-person learning and teaching. To choreograph, to teach, and to dance, calls on the intellectual and emotional, the embodied and cerebral, the artistic and athletic. As an art form and practice, dance has a power and potential that is stubbornly difficult to distil in words and concept, or to commodify, and this power is often invisible to the casual viewer. But if ever there was a moment for dance to serve the wellbeing of its society it is now: to bring people away from screens and into their bodies, sensitising people to their organism-ness, interdependent within a carefully balanced natural ecosystem; to demote the inflamed, literal, certain, insistent, dug-in rhetorical hellscape of 2020-era cultural discourse, and promote non-definition, complexity, unfolding, intuition, changing (adapting), changing (transforming) and  empathy. The form has much to offer a fractious and anxious society. For people who are taken in by it, who open themselves to knowing and living it, dance is an extraordinarily potent and valuable form of human activity. These high stakes are probably why some of the responses within the DAMN Writing read like expressions of grief or anger – hot-blooded sorrow and frustration at the feeling of thwarted potential, a ‘failure to thrive’. But if grief or anger goes unexpressed what do we risk? Cynicism? Denial? Dissociation? An untenable status quo leading to a mass-dance-extinction event.

In part, TTDA is an ambition to see how dance could thrive in Melbourne in 2020 and beyond. Because it could. If there is a collective willingness to look at the nuts and bolts of how things currently operate, and how they could operate differently, to persevere with the laborious untangling and reconfiguring, then we could get somewhere really fruitful. And TTDA artists have plenty of ideas.

Or if JobKeeper and JobSeeker become JobDancer, that might be enough: it is no coincidence that for many, this thinking activity is made possible because of the rare free time and financial stability afforded by the economy-saving measures of the pandemic. For others - ineligible for these payments, or overrun with intensified domestic responsibilities - the pandemic has meant something very far from free time and stability, and it has been a challenge for many to consistently remain involved in TTDA’s conversations. As it does for many things, 2020 feels like a tipping point for a particular type of artistic dance practice that Melbourne is known for around the world, and maybe it will be its simultaneous collapse and rejuvenation.

• • •

Pieces for DAMN Writing were originally pitched around distinct topic areas: the lack of diversity in contemporary dance; practice post-motherhood; international relations; dance and capitalism; dance as a pyramid scheme; engaging the Australian Ballet; and about 20 more. Over the course of the pandemic and its lockdowns, contributors have joined and left the project; several contributions remain in the works, and others are yet to be conceived. What we end up with will be an accumulation of distinct points of view from different writers – each author always speaking of and from their own perspective: at no point is any sole voice within TTDA ‘representative’ of every person associated or engaged with it. To understand TTDA, is to read and consider and take in the perspectives offered, and to make your own contribution in response, to thicken the conversation, with courage and honesty, and motivated by a love of and investment in the form and practice of dance.

• • •

‘TTDA’ received a ‘Resilience’ grant from the Australia Council, which has largely been spread across contributors to DAMN Writing, in the form of $300 honorariums per contributor. If you would like to contribute writing to the project, send an email to – contributions will be paid until the money runs out, with unpaid contributions welcomed thereafter.

1 David Pledger’s term, to distinguish from the heavily bureaucratised ‘arts sector’

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