STRUT Dance comes of age

29 September 2023

There’s pride in the past and optimism for the future as STRUT Dance celebrates its 20th birthday. Nina Levy catches up with organisation’s homegrown artistic directors as they look back and forward.

Watching STRUT Dance’s newly appointed co-artistic directors Sofie Burgoyne and James O’Hara open Perth Moves at the 2023 Perth Festival felt like a watershed moment, and not just because STRUT is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

In a sense Burgoyne, O’Hara and STRUT have grown up together.

Two decades ago choreographer Sue Peacock and arts manager Gabrielle Sullivan established STRUT Dance as a membership organisation supporting independent contemporary dance artists. In the mid-2000s, when STRUT was in its infancy, Burgoyne and O’Hara were stretching their wings as emerging dancers and makers.

Sofie Burgoyne and James O’Hara. Photo: Emma Fishwick

Both Walyalup/Fremantle born-and-raised, Burgoyne and O’Hara recall the impact of STRUT on the early days of their careers.

A WAAPA graduate, Burgoyne cut her creative teeth at STRUT, as an independent maker and performer, honing skills that she also used dancing for Buzz Dance Theatre and Tasdance, and choreographing for Steps Youth Dance Company.

In 2010 she headed to Europe where she worked for 10 years as a dancer and choreographer, with the likes of Theo Clinkard (UK), Frantic Assembly (UK) and Miguel Pereira (Portugal). In 2021 she completed a Masters in Choreography with specialisation in New Performative Practices under the guidance of Chrysa Parkinson at Stockholm University, before returning to Perth in 2022.

O’Hara’s career began overseas in 2003, as a member of Ballet Junior de Genève. He would go on to work with choreographers and companies all over the world, perhaps most notably Belgium’s Damien Jalet and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (Eastman), Ireland’s Michael Keegan-Dolan (Teac Damsa) and Marina Mascarell to name just a few, before being appointed co-artistic director of New Zealand Dance Company.

STRUT Dance continues to sustain the practices and careers of independent artists. Pictured front: Kynan Hughes and Ella-Rose Trew (third dancer unknown), circa 2013. Photo supplied

Though O’Hara was a young dancer when he left Perth, he recalls attending the first versions of STRUT’s work-in-progress showings before he left, and feeling motivated by the innovation on offer. It was bittersweet, he says, knowing he was about to leave his home town when there were so many exciting ideas churning around.

Against the backdrop of these memories, the pair’s return to Perth and 2022 appointment as artistic directors of STRUT, feels pleasingly circular.

STRUT Dance continues to sustain the practices and careers of independent artists and produce original choreographic works in Western Australia. Over the years the organisation has gained a national and international reputation, and dancers have travelled from interstate and overseas to participate in workshops held with internationally renowned dance-makers.

Now STRUT has co-artistic leadership for the first time and a year into their tenure, both directors are feeling the benefits of the new model. The breadth of experience of their combined career trajectories was one of the reasons they decided to apply for the position together.

“We understood that the array of experiences we’ve had between us could be a benefit in terms of having empathy with and understanding of STRUT’s membership,” says O’Hara.

The pair also share a belief that dance should not exist within aesthetic boundaries, Burgoyne says.

“Then 45 people turned up to do this house class on a Tuesday night in the middle of Perth at 9.30pm. And we realised… we’re onto something.”

“I think that’s perfect for an organisation like STRUT because we [represent] the breadth of the dance sector rather than one voice that’s quite specific,” she elaborates. “When it comes to programming workshop leaders or hosting assessment meetings, I think that we can really fight for that breadth, for not homogenising dance.”

That conviction – that dance should not be homogenised – was at the heart of the Perth Moves program, a week-long free dance hub that took residence in the State Theatre Centre Courtyard, as part of the 2023 Perth Festival.

For contemporary dance aficionados, Perth Moves included a season of Crystal Pite’s 10 Duets on a Theme of Rescue (pictured top), performed by casts of Australian and New Zealand independent dancers. But what set the program apart from other Perth Festival offerings was its free community dance and movement workshops and participatory events which included styles such as Afro-fusion, house, break and salsa, as well as yoga.

Although they believed in the program, the still-new artistic directors felt nervous about whether they’d draw participants to the community workshops.

An all styles dance battle, one of the free events held as part of ‘Perth Moves’. In the foreground is dancer Jayden Lewis Wall. Photo: Tristan McKenzie

“The day before we launched Perth Moves I called my friend Helen Duncan in a sweat,” remembers Burgoyne. “She gave me this really great advice: Make sure you get one piece of documentation with what looks like a crowd.

“But then we did the performance and lots of people came. This house dance class was about to begin. The numbers in our bookings were rising.

“Then 45 people turned up to do this house class on a Tuesday night in the middle of Perth at 9.30pm. And we realised… we’re onto something.”

“One night there were these French backpackers, who walked into the courtyard, were like, what’s this? They came back every day after that,” O’Hara adds.

“We’re constantly questioning and evaluating who is dancing, whose stories are being told, specifically in relation to WA.”

“There was an accumulating community of people who had no idea what STRUT was, had no idea what Perth Festival was. They walked into the space, felt something good and then contributed to it continuing to feel good.”

The success of Perth Moves’ workshops has strengthened Burgoyne and O’Hara’s determination to create a more inclusive future for Strut.

“We’re constantly questioning and evaluating who is dancing, whose stories are being told, specifically in relation to place, WA, and what’s happening here right now,” says O’Hara.

Part of that includes ensuring that First Nations stories are part of the mix.

“We identified that STRUT wasn’t doing anything specifically for First Nation artists,” says Burgoyne. “So we are working with some First Nations artists in WA, and with Blak Dance, a national service body for First Nations artists, to develop a strategy that supports First Nations-led dance artists.

“If we are successful with our multi-year application to Creative Australia, we hope to support a First Nations creative producer on our core staff, to embed First Nations knowledge and experience within our organisation.”

‘We want to keep providing opportunities for people to stay engaged with the arts professionally, for longer.’ Pictured (L-R) are Liz Cornish, Stefan Karlsson and Ronnie van den Burgh in STRUT Dance’s 2013 production of Jean Claude Gallotta’s ‘Trois Generations’. Photo: Christophe Canato

Having grown up in Perth and engaged with the local dance sector as professional dancers and makers, O’Hara and Burgoyne recognise the importance of creating sustainable career pathways for dance artists in WA.

“We want to keep providing opportunities for people to stay engaged with the arts professionally, for longer,” remarks O’Hara. “So not just offering choreographic opportunities for established artists who want to keep making work, but making sure there are other opportunities for them to engage, as their interests shift and change, in the myriad of roles that exist around the development of new work.”

The duo are also committed to making opportunities more accessible to those living in regional WA. “We’ve changed the language around opportunities, so that people can undertake choreographic developments in any part of WA, instead of having to be in Boorloo (Perth) to do them,” says Burgoyne.

“We’ve also increased some travel bursaries in our budget, so that if a project is Boorloo-centred, regional artists can travel here. Denmark-based choreographer Annette Carmichael recently came in for our mid-career laboratory, for example.”

A photographic book featuring a selection of the many beautiful images of STRUT’s shows will be published to mark the organisation’s 20th anniversary. Pictured: dancer Sarah Maelor in STRUT Dance’s 2019 production of Maxine Doyle’s ‘Sunset’. Photo: Simon Pynt

Connecting with other dance houses and choreographic centres in the Indo-Pacific region is also an important part of the vision.

“Living in one of the most isolated cities in the world, we’re a place that benefits greatly from connection with our neighbours in any direction,” says Burgoyne. “So we’re trying to set up mobility and exchange opportunities, both for WA artists to go into Southeast Asia, or over to the East Coast, and for artists from those places to come into WA and grow their audiences and networks. There are mutual benefits to WA artists in both scenarios.”

Underlying all these initiatives, says O’Hara, is a desire to stay contemporary and responsive to what it means to have a sustainable dance career in today’s world.

While the pair are excited for the future, they’re just as thrilled to be able to celebrate the past, with STRUT’s 20th birthday party taking place in 22 November 2023.

The party will include the launch of a photographic book that documents STRUT’s first 20 years, featuring images by some of Australia’s best-loved dance photographers.

“Over the past year and a half, the STRUT board and staff have collected generously donated pieces of writing, relics and journal entries from our 20 year history,” says Burgoyne.

“Along with that, we’ve formalised an archive of photography, which comes from great artists like Christophe Canato and Ashley de Prazer. This will all be gathered together in a printed publication that people can purchase, to have something to hold and to keep.”

STRUT Dance’s 20th anniversary book launch is taking place Wednesday 22 November in Studio 3, King Street Arts Centre, 6.00-7.30pm. Capacity is limited, RSVP here to reserve your spot at the celebration.

The book will be available for purchase at the launch for $50 – or you can head to the STRUT website after the launch to order your copy.

Pictured top are dancers Zachary Wilson and Rhiana Katz in a scene from Crystal Pite’s ’10 Duets on a Theme of Rescue’, performed at Perth Moves as part of the 2023 Perth Festival. Photo: Tristan McKenzie

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked as an arts writer and critic since 2007. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. As a freelancer she has written extensively for The West Australian and Dance Australia magazine, co-editing the latter from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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