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Dancing to a new beat
Tiny Little Tragedies, part of the MoveMe festival. Picture: Supplied.

Getting bums on seats has been a huge part of the bottom line, so to speak, in the strategy to revitalise contemporary dance in WA.

"Contemporary dance used to be a dirty word for audience development," says Agnes Michelet. "After four years this is no longer the case."

Michelet is the director of STRUT, the independent dance producer charged with implementing, along with Ausdance WA, the State Government's four-year Future Moves initiative to fertilise the growth of the contemporary dance sector in WA.

The numbers say it all. STRUT's 2011 audiences were up by half from those recorded in 2008. The overall audience figures across the contemporary dance sector are harder to compile - not all presenters keep such records and some are not willing to share the information - but it appears audience sizes for local work have grown almost 20 per cent since 2008, when Future Moves began.

The funding injection saw STRUT present its first main-stage season the next year. Called Counterpoint, its headline act was the new work Harakiri by internationally renowned French choreographer Didier Theron.

Cut to 2012 and Harakiri is being remounted for Perth's inaugural MoveMe dance festival, which runs over six days at the end of this month. Featuring performances by local and international artists, the festival also includes choreographic workshops and forums. The cherry on top is the Australian Dance Awards. It's the first time this prestigious national event has been presented in WA.

Is it a coincidence that this dance cornucopia is happening just as the Future Moves initiative winds up? Absolutely not, according to Michelet and Ausdance WA director Michelle Saunders, who say the festival is a showcase of WA's contemporary dance achievements since its Future Moves began.

There are plenty of wins to celebrate, they say.

Saunders details such advances as the doubling of dancers' wages, the creation of six new full-length works by WA choreographers and the development of the MoveMe brand and website to promote contemporary dance in WA. In the country, 16 choreographers have been supported by a new regional professional development fund.

It's not all about facts and figures, though. "There used to be a massive gap between the senior artists like Sue Peacock and Chrissie Parrott and the generation of young emerging artists," Michelet says. "Now choreographers like Aimee Smith, Bianca Martin, Alice Lee Holland and Danielle Micich have formed a middle generation of artists."

So what has allowed the new mid-generation to flourish? "It's been a snowball effect," Saunders says. "We've seen an increase in State and Federal funding to individual projects - the quality, ambition and the visibility of the submissions has improved," Michelet says.

She and Saunders agree that this improvement is the result of the increased funding Future Moves has provided for creative development and seed-level activity. The artists are preparing better submissions because they have had the time and space to develop and present work in progress.

Traditionally, a huge challenge for the WA dance sector has been the exodus of talent to the Eastern States and overseas. Now, a new pattern is emerging.

"We've seen the return of many artists to work on projects in Perth," Michelet says. "Someone like (dancer) Sofie Burgoyne is now based in London but she comes back to Perth because there are attractive opportunities here. We've seen the return of dancers like James O'Hara (Belgium) and Matthew Morris (Britain)." Instead of leaving never to return, local dancers based elsewhere are remaining part of the local action and enriching WA with their international experience.

An important part of attracting those expats back to WA is the engagement of international artists to work in Perth. Future Moves funding has enabled STRUT to forge relationships with renowned artists such as Jonathan Burrows (Belgium), Jean-Claude Gallotta (France) and Robyn Orlin (South Africa/Germany), as well as Theron.

Having these choreographers in WA also gives local artists the chance to network internationally. "Michael Whaites (artistic director of WAAPA's Link Dance Company), who danced in Harakiri in 2009, is one example. He is now regularly invited to Didier's space during the Montpellier Festival," Michelet says.

With WA attracting so much attention, it's no surprise that Ausdance WA was successful in its bid to host the Australian Dance Awards for the first time.

The celebratory mood is capped by the fact that there are six WA nominations among the 36 contenders for awards on the night.

"A strength of our tender was the idea of having the awards as part of the MoveMe dance festival," Saunders says. Traditionally the ADA presentation showcases Australian dance talent and the 2012 program is no exception. For dance lovers the inclusion of an excerpt from Proximity, by the Australian Dance Theatre, is a special treat because the company has not performed in Perth for many years.

So the WA contemporary dance community is on a high but there are concerns that the story of a dance revival in this State may not have a fairytale ending.

The Future Moves funding period expires at the end of this year and prospects beyond that point are uncertain. STRUT and Ausdance WA have submitted new business plans to the Department of Culture and Arts to continue the initiatives but won't get an answer until November, says Saunders.

And if the funding doesn't continue? Will the fruits of Future Moves wither on the vine? "In the short term, the momentum would continue but in the medium to long-term, activity would slow," says Saunders.

'We've seen the return of many artists to work on projects in Perth. Someone like Sofie Burgoyne is now based in London but she comes back to Perth because there are attractive opportunities here.'