everything that has been said before about dance

Lining the walls of Chunky Move’s foyer are vast placards of performances, and above the sofas, those shows are the Live Acts series from 1999. I was sitting there staring at them one day after class and noticed they serve as something of an epitaph of Melbourne’s dance scene. In eight years, the names of Melbourne’s choreographers haven’t changed. I was a student then, and since then … where are the new choreographers? And the dancers, it’s a trickle over close to a decade. Altogether, no great new explosions or earth-shattering debuts, a void of arrivistes and demi-mondes, just an absence we all pretend isn’t happening.

I was really hoping for a complete slamming of federal and state governments attitudes to supporting dance in Australia, and the title of the interview with Expressions Dance Company founder and current Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts dean of dance, Maggi Sietsma had me all gooey in expectation of the utter blasting Australia needs that everyone talks about in private but seem to come over all coy when the media is pointed in their direction.

Oh disappointment, how I adore you.

There are two things Australian dance – and generally all the arts – needs: One elegantly summarised on one sentence by John McCallum is “Any crisis the Australian theatre might be facing now is entirely a matter of money”. The other is for Australian artists to look at how a handful of Tasmanian loggers managed to hold state and federal governments in their thrall and behave accordingly.

“In theory I am supposed to come back to Expressions towards the end of the year, but having read the State’s development strategy for dance, I am not sure that I am wanted,” she says with a wry smile.

“I still have to check things out but it seems to be advising companies not to hang on to top talent for too long, which to me again demonstrates a lack of respect for quality artists.”

— The Courier Mail

Maggi’s war dance

BRISBANE’S doyenne of contemporary dance Maggi Sietsma is letting fly at everyone and anything from Prime Minister John Howard to the Queensland Art Industry sector development plan.

The fiery founding artistic director of the Expressions Dance Company, who has been dean of dance at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts for 18 months, is catching up on a quick visit to the Expressions HQ at the Judith Wright Centre in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley.

Sietsma, who launched Expressions in 1985 and took a two-year sabbatical to head the Hong Kong faculty two years ago, is again exasperated with Australia’s alleged lack of respect for its arts talent.

The two giant bees in her bonnet on this day are a recent lunch hosted by Mr Howard for 100 high-flying Australians living and working overseas, which he dedicated to the cricket Ashes win, and a State development directive to encourage the rotation of our leading dance talent.

“The lunch in Sydney just after Christmas was for people from all walks of life but our PM had to say how wonderful it was that we were all there to celebrate the Ashes win in the cricket,” she said.

“Now I know it was meant to be something of an amusing aside but to me it emphasises the fact that Australia so often puts sport ahead of everything else.

“The result is that while artists in Europe are held in the highest regard – in France the arts has its own spot on the TV news like sport on Australian television – our leading talents tend to be disregarded.

“One of the results of that is there’s an enormous amount of Aussie talent in the arts living and working overseas. I’m at the academy while John Meehan, another Australian, is the artistic director of the Hong Kong Ballet.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love sport and I think the athleticism needed is much like that in dance, but I just wish we artists could command more respect.

“One of the reasons I opted to take on the role of dean of dance in Hong Kong was that they seemed to hold artists over there in such high regard.”

The dancer turned choreographer, administrator and educator who was born in Brisbane in 1951, toured with the Australian Ballet and worked as a soloist with the London Festival Ballet in her formative dance years, is uncertain when she’ll return home.

“In theory I am supposed to come back to Expressions towards the end of the year, but having read the State’s development strategy for dance, I am not sure that I am wanted,” she says with a wry smile.

“I still have to check things out but it seems to be advising companies not to hang on to top talent for too long, which to me again demonstrates a lack of respect for quality artists.”

Sietsma, who has staged more than 30 major works for the company, including Virtually Richard 3 (inspired by Shakespeare’s Richard III) and Score!, has returned for a short visit to help prepare Expressions for its three-week US tour.

“Both Virtually Richard 3 and Score! – which debuted in 2005 and was widely praised as one of my best – were selected for the program,” Sietsma said.

“I know I sound as if I am having a huge go here but that’s what people such as myself have to do in this country all the time,” she says.

“The problem is that while constantly battling for respect and funding might keep you raw and on your toes, there’s definitely a burn-out factor.

“I think that’s why Graeme (Murphy) and Janet (Vernon) have decided to call it a day with the Sydney Dance Company.

“I really can’t tell you what’s going to happen with myself and Expressions – please don’t make me look too over-the-top – but when you’re working somewhere that values you, it is a great feeling.”

Sietsma, whose CV includes helping the North Queensland Ballet Company become Dance North and gain its professional status, and working as a lecturer in dance at QUT, says she’s flying the flag for all dancers and artists when she speaks out.

“Despite what I say about the home front, dance is bigger than ever and many Australian dancers and artists command a lot of respect overseas,” she said.

“It just saddens me that our bureaucrats, politicians and corporate sponsors can’t see that.”

Sietsma, who at least was smiling when we left, is due to create a major production for the company she founded 22 years ago for the company next year.

Expressions will tour Washington, Miami and Hawaii from March 23-April 12 with Virtually Richard 3 and Score! while Sietsma’s The 5th Door can be seen at the Judith Wright Centre later this year.