How Darwin dances to the beat of its own drum

The Northern Territory has the highest rate of population turnover of any state or territory in Australia. The rate is particularly high in our northern-most capital, Darwin, which churns through almost half of its population every five years.

So you may well expect that a long-standing performing arts company based in Darwin would utilise a revolving door of talents from across Australia.

But the much-lauded dance theatre company Tracks has not only had the same two artistic directors for two decades, it’s embedded itself deeply into the Darwin community and works almost exclusively with locals.

“Tracks, very early, had to decide whether to try to create a dance company like others in Australia,” co-Artistic Director David McMicken says. “Which meant a style of dance, a style of training, a style of touring and a size of work. We very quickly realised that wasn’t growing to work in Darwin, because there isn’t any tertiary dance training up here, people leave, and it’s such a long distance between population centres, making touring very difficult and arduous.”

The company grew out of a community dance program founded in 1988, but officially became Tracks in 1994.

Since then it’s been one of the most successful arts endeavours in Darwin, winning a number of awards, including the prestigious Sidney Myer Performing Arts Award in 2004. In 2014, McMicken and his co-Artistic Director Tim Newth were both made members of the Order of Australia (AM) for their contributions as long-standing figures in Australia and the Northern Territory arts communities. The company has Indigenous Australians and communities as one of its main focuses.

“There’s a strong feeling, especially in the last decade, that [dance] companies want to engage with an audience more than saying ‘come and buy a ticket’.”

“Tracks really is a company that’s built on relationships,” Newth says. “Darwin has a large and regular turnover of people leaving, but we’ve really focused on people who are more likely to stay — we work with multicultural groups, we work with young people, we work with seniors a lot. We have 30 years of really strong real, human relationships.”

The pair say the inspiration for the company isn’t the international world of contemporary dance, and the work coming out of Europe and America, but rather the people who work with the company.

That source of inspiration is particularly clear in Track’s latest work, Man Made, which premiered last week as part of Darwin Festival.

The work features an all-male cast of all ages, made up by both professional and amateur dancers. It’s part of a strategy to engage more local men in the world of dance and with the company.

“Over the years, we’ve been aware that the male dance population up here is quite small but we’ve had a very high success rate with our male dancers who have left to get training,” McMicken says.

One of those artists is Josh Mu, a contemporary dancer who’s worked for many of Australia’s leading contemporary dance companies (Chunky Move, Force Majeure, DanceNorth, Stephanie Lake Company, to name a few), but is an alumni of Tracks.

Mu appears in Man Made and choreographed parts of the eclectic show exploring manhood from a number of different perspectives.

In one particular segment, all the men who are performing reveal an object that they have themselves made and then parade around the front of the stage for the audience. The objects include everything from ceramics, to baked bread, to a catapult, to a wooden chair.

“It feels like a generation ago it was very common for men to make things, but that’s shifting,” Newth explains. “So we’re very much trying to make a work that belongs to now and this moment.”

Making dance that speaks directly to the here and now for the people of Darwin isn’t just an artistic goal for Tracks, but also one to ensure it can build and maintain essential community ties. According to the artistic directors, while work that tours to Darwin may be of a very high standard, it often doesn’t hold a great deal of relevance for people living in the city.

McMicken says the community focus that Tracks has had for its two decades of operation is becoming a lot more popular around Australia and the world as companies have moved away from post-modern work.

“They perhaps didn’t care much about what an audience thought of a work — they were exploring deeper structures and forms — but coming out of that there’s a strong feeling, especially in the last decade, that companies want to engage with an audience more than saying ‘come and buy a ticket’,” he says.

The community engagement fostered by the company is also an essential element in its ongoing ability to secure support from government.

“That’s how we create up here; the arts aren’t separated into forms — they’re the same thing.”

Tracks has long been an Australia Council ‘key organisation’, meaning it receives ongoing funding. But when former Arts Minister George Brandis ripped $105 million of funding from the Australia Council’s budget in 2015, the arts funding body was forced to reduce the number of key organisations it funded.

McMicken and Newth say that both Tracks and the Northern Territory arts community are particularly susceptible to changes in funding.

McMicken recalls meeting with dance leaders from other capital cities in Australia and discussing the fallout of the funding changes.

They were saying ‘We’re losing a few companies but the major orgs are going to kick in and do this’. Well we only have one company and no majors,” he says.

Three-quarters of the key organisations in the Northern Territory managed to retain their funding, including Tracks, which also receives support from the Territory government. The federal government has now returned the majority of funds to the Australia Council, relaxing the situation for smaller arts companies a little.

“It does make you reflect on what you do have and what does work,” Newth says. “There was a stronger sense of nurturing locals and younger people through that period of time. When there’s a drought on, what do you do to keep things going until the rain comes?”

Darwin-based companies might seem isolated given the city’s size and the lack of major population centres in its immediate vicinity, but McMicken and Newth say they view its position as an opportunity for creativity, and artists from Darwin are frequently collaborating with artists in Darwin or remote communities in Northern Australia.

They also say Darwin’s artistic community is defined by its versatility, which isn’t only required by the population size, but a cultural move that Newth says is inspired directly by the Indigenous population and communities of the surrounding areas.

“One minute a man’s doing a dance, the next he’s showing you a dot painting about the same thing, then he’s telling you a dreamtime story. And that’s how we create up here; the arts aren’t separated into forms — they’re the same thing.”

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Featured image by David Hancock

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