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SO YOU THINK YOU CAN CHOREOGRAPH – SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

July 10, 2014

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By Philippa Hawker

“Awards are a little bit like executions in the 18th century,” says Marten Spangberg. ”They bring in an audience.’’

Spangberg is a member of the judging panel for the Keir Choreographic Award, a new biennial prize in the contemporary dance area. He has come from Sweden to take part in the penultimate stage of the process. Eight works are now being presented in front of judges and audiences at Melbourne’s Dancehouse. Four semi-finalists will be announced on Sunday and the finals will be at Sydney’s Carriageworks from July 16 to 19.

This might sound like a  So You Think You Can Choreograph situation – but talking to Spangberg and a fellow judge, Melbourne choreographer and teacher Becky Hilton, it becomes clear that they are taking a broad view of where the award might lead.

When she became involved, Hilton says, “to me the appealing thing was that eight people would get resources and money to start making something’’.

The award is funded by the Keir Foundation, set up by entrepreneur and philanthropist Phillip Keir. He came up with the idea, he says, ‘‘because I wanted to give a much higher profile to contemporary choreography. I noticed that in Australia alone there are about 150 prizes of various sorts, and it suddenly occurred to me that there wasn’t a single award in the contemporary choreographic space” – apart from broad-based performing arts awards.

He wanted a national award with an equitable judging process. From this came the idea of commissions, so that works could be judged in the same place at the same time. ‘‘Is competition a good message to send to artists?’’ he asked himself, and decided that if it were in the form of new commissions, with financial support, then the answer was yes.

He also decided that the process should take “every two years, which seems more sustainable – if you did it every year, the cycle would be too tight”.

The award includes a cash prize of $30,000; there is also an audience choice award of $10,000.

Submissions were invited earlier this year: they had to come from professional artists with an established practice, who were asked to provide a five-minute video pitch with a choreographic idea of 20 minutes’ duration.

Seventy-seven applications came from dancers, choreographers and visual artists around Australia. In April, eight finalists were announced, a mixture of dancers, choreographers and visual artists: Matthew Day, Atlanta Eke, Shaun Gladwell, James Batchelor, Sarah Aiken, Brooke Stamp, Tim Darbyshire and Jane McKernan.

The submission process was very open, Hilton says, compared to the narrower restrictions that funding bodies require – and that undoubtedly encourages creativity.

Having seen the first four performances, she says, “There is an energy about what I’m seeing. You can feel that the work is really new and unsettled.” She would like to think that longer works could be developed or commissioned from the award performances.

The judging panel is a mixture of local and international names: alongside Spangberg, Hilton and Keir, are Matthew Lyons, a curator from New York’s culture hub The Kitchen, and Josephine Ridge, creative director of the Melbourne Festival. The international presence is important, Hilton says,  ‘‘because we get really hermetic here. We are an island, we are a long way away, we get the same people on the same panels.’’

As to the competitive aspect, Hilton and Spangberg are keen to put it in a context. For Spangberg, “evaluation and jury work can be seen as a kind of mode of production rather than selection. What I am doing here, since I have nothing to lose, is also passing over bits and pieces of a canon from Europe, bits and pieces of knowledge that I think can be relevant and interesting for people here.”

The Keir Award is a unique event, but there is also an element of continuity with what he does every day, he says. First of all, he started out as a dance critic and spent six years filing reviews for a newspaper: secondly, “in the studio we make decisions, selections, choices all the time”.

The judges’ decisions, Hilton says, will emerge “not by a coming up with series of scores that someone goes away and tallies. It’s going to happen in conversation, in relationship to each other and all our different histories.”

And judging by the lively to and fro between Spangberg and Hilton, it is going to be an interesting, intense, wide-ranging conversation. They range over, among other things, the nature of choice, the exercise of judgment, the essence of a competitive situation, the timing of decisions, the importance of intuition and the difference between a choreographic award and the World Cup. And they come back, more than once, to what that hope the enterprise can lead to.

“Normally what an award does is that it produces mainstream stuff – right?” says Spangberg. For the Keir Award, “it would be great if it could produce experimental work”.

The Keir Choreographic Award semi-finals run until July 13 at Melbourne’s Dancehouse. The finals are at Sydney’s Carriageworks from July 16 to 19.

Image: Dancers James Batchelor and Sarah Aiken with philanthropist Phillip Keir, founder of the Keir Choreographic Award. Photo: Paul Jeffers

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