When the Australian Dance Awards were cancelled last week, many people were sorry, but not necessarily shocked. Those involved were aware that the awards have been under threat ever since 2016 when Ausdance National (AN), the producers of the awards, had its operational funding cut altogether by the Australia Council. Where it had previously been receiving multi-year funding in the Key Organisation category, it suddenly had nothing.

That was indeed a real shock, and it wasn’t unique to Ausdance. Sixty-five organisations lost their funding — the result of a decision by the then Federal Arts Minister George Brandis to reduce the Australia Council’s funds by $104 million over four years. Some of the money was transferred to a new “excellence” category called Catalyst, but it left the Australia Council with far less to distribute. A portion was restored by the next Arts Minister, Mitch Fifield, but not all, and many arts organisations have since disappeared.

AN, to its credit, has a track record of refusing to lie down in the face of such blows. The Australian Dance Awards went ahead in 2017, thanks to the support of hosting partner Ausdance Vic as well as some sponsorship. In addition, AN received some project funding to support the delivery of the National Dance Forum as well as transitional funding to review its operations. Of note is that these activities were successfully achieved without an executive director but through the skilful leadership of the AN board and a handful of highly committed volunteers.

In 2018, AN again received organisational project funding but had to unexpectedly produce the awards without a hosting partner in Brisbane. Then, come 2019, with the awards planned to be held in Darwin for the first time, AN’s funding application for further organisational project funding was unsuccessful, and the organisation made the difficult decision to cancel the awards to give priority to its other activities, particularly advocacy of the art form.

The ADAs in their present form have developed over many years, beginning with the Dancers’ Picnic in the 1980s and building up to a fully produced theatrical presentation taking place in a different city each year. Yet they have always been run on the smell of an oily rag. Their survival has been truly remarkable and is testament to the commitment and resilience of the organisers. Ausdance National, while being the major organiser, has partnered with its State offices to hold the events, and has organised partnerships with venues and sought funds through sponsorship and box office revenue. It hasn’t been easy, and the event is not perfect yet, but it has become a regular and important addition to the Australian dance calendar, appreciated by the dance community and a genuine honour to be nominated.

Kathy Baykitch, AN’s executive director (since October 2018), hopes that this is a suspension rather than an ending. She is putting a positive light on things. “We have a lot of important work to do advocating for increased investment and resources into the sector, such as to the Australia Council, resource organisations, and the small to medium dance [companies], and ensuring the ongoing development of the sector as a whole. The board felt that these activities needed to be a priority in the current arts climate and context. The Australian Dance Awards are the visual delivery of what this sort of unseen advocacy achieves.”

She also says that the AN board views the “suspension” as an opportunity to “reassess the operational model of the ADAs alongside the existing structure of the Ausdance network”. She hopes it will result in “a more cohesive, unified model for the future . . . that assists in increasing our revenue streams, with a new business planning framework hopefully in place by 2021.”

 Baykitch has a long association with Ausdance, having been a member throughout her professional life, and says she has benefitted from the organisation’s support in her own career transitions. “I think we can use this ‘pause’ moment as an opportunity to ensure that Ausdance truly is a leading voice for dance – assisting in deepening the knowledge and understanding about dance while supporting the further development of the sector.”

The biennial National Dance Forum will still go ahead in Darwin in partnership with Tracks Dance Company from August 9 – 10, 2019.

- Karen van Ulzen

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