Sydney Dance Company's Directors, Fed Up With Money Troubles, Resign Suddenly

Classic Arts News   Sydney Dance Company's Directors, Fed Up With Money Troubles, Resign Suddenly
"How can the arts flourish in a society where war and sport take centre stage?"

With that question, posed with an edge of embittered fatigue, Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon resigned last week as artistic directors of the Sydney Dance Company, the troupe to which they have devoted 30 years and which they led from local status to global fame and influence.

Reports in The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age of Melbourne made clear that the pair, partners in life as well as in art, were stepping down because of what they see as an endless battle to obtain and maintain financial support for the company, and for dance as an art form, from a government and society they see as indifferent if not hostile.

"They were tired, they said," wrote the Herald, "tired of the constant struggle for funding to keep the company operating. Tired of the constant reviews of the company [by government bodies] they have to undergo in order to even qualify for funding."

"Having seen dance blossom in the past 30 years increases the sadness we feel at seeing it enter a less dynamic phase," they said in their joint resignation statement, released on July 13. "Potential for new adventures is greatly diminished in these cash-strapped times. The exciting new undergrowth has never been sparser and old growth (we consider the Sydney Dance Company as such) has never been more threatened."

Murphy and Vernon intend to complete their existing commitments with the company, departing after an already-scheduled spring 2007 tour of the United States.

The Sydney Dance Company has been struggling financially ever since late 2004, when a pair of back-to-back box office failures led to an A$800,000 deficit. Questions about the company's financial condition were discussed on the floor of the Australian national parliament, according to The Australian. The Australian federal government bailed the SDC out with a one-time additional grant of A$600,000, but the company has since had to undergo more than one government review of its finances. Murphy first threatened to resign in May of 2005 if more money could not be found; the Australia Council (the national arts funding body) only guaranteed the SDC's finances through March 2006, and it recently became clear that the company would run another deficit this year.

Murphy came to what was then the Dance Company of New South Wales in 1976 from the corps of the Australian Ballet. In 1979 he changed the ensemble's name to Sydney Dance Company and, with Vernon as his lead dancer and co-artistic director, sent waves of excitement through the contemporary dance world in Australia and overseas. Over the next two decades, Murphy's and Vernon's SDC was showered with acclaim, appearing regularly in London, New York and on the international festival circuit. According to the Herald, the company has recently developed a special relationship with China; the SDC opened the 2005 Shanghai International Arts Festival with a large-scale work performed with the Shanghai Dance Ensemble — and negotiations had been underway to bring the work to Australia when Murphy and Vernon submitted their resignations.

SDC executive director Leigh Small told The Age and the Herald that the Murphy/Vernon statement was a personal perspective, not that of the company: " ... As you can all understand we have been in negotiations for two years concerning our finding, which is extremely debilitating to an artistic director. From the company's point of view it has been exhausting."

One SDC board member, Scott Kershaw, acknowledged to The Age that the resignation was unexpected. He also said that he expected the search for a successor to take about six months. The Age and the Herald quoted Australian dance "insiders" as saying that possible candidates for the SDC artistic director post include Australia Dance Theatre director Garry Stewart; Kate Champion of the Sydney-based dance-theater troupe Force Majeure; Gideon Obarzanek, founder of the Melbourne-based company Chunky Move, Maggie Sietsma, director of Expressions Dance Company of Brisbane and Dean of Dance at the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts; New Zealand-born Adrian Burnett, a resident choreographer at the Australian Ballet; and Narelle Benjamin, an active dancer-choreographer who already works regularly with the SDC.

Australian Ballet artistic director David McAllister praised Murphy to The Age and the Herald, saying, "I think his importance internationally is extraordinary. I think his commitment to creating new work is one of the most important legacies he can leave."

At the same time, he said, "I'm sure the SDC will continue with a new director ... there are lots of talented people around. I'm sure [the position] will be eagerly contested."

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