As part of an artist-led initiative to help Melbourne’s independent dance community to cope with Melbourne’s 112-day lockdown in 2020, the Think Tank Dance Assembly was born. TTDA was a self-organising collective for Melbourne’s independent dance artists. Throughout the lockdown, TTDA provided an opportunity for dance artists to meet regularly online and document their conversations about several important issues that were thrown into sharp relief by the pandemic. A small amount of funding facilitated by Ausdance VIC, through a Creative Victoria Stage 2 Recovery grant, created the opportunity for TTDA to consolidate and undertake projects that had been under discussion over the period of the lockdown. Out of the process of meeting in solidarity, members of the Assembly wrote a series of documents expressing their ideas for a post-COVID future. The result was a collection called DMN Writing.
In this report, Ausdance VIC’s communication and media officer, Marty Hirst talks to members of TTDA and outlines its processes and achievements.
What is TTDA?
Think Tank Dance Assembly (TTDA) is a porous collective that welcomes everyone from undergraduate dance and choreography students to well-established performers and choreographers who make up the Melbourne/Naarm dance community.
The assembly was established to meet the immediate needs of independent dance artists who were unable to meet, rehearse or perform during Melbourne’s COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020 and early 2021. At its peak, during Melbourne’s long periods of lockdown in 2020, the TTDA involved a social media network of some 244 artists.
The online forums developed into a platform for TTDA members to articulate a series of demands to address long-standing issues that they felt had been ignored. Participants said they no longer wanted to be at the bottom of the dance sector pyramid and that they wanted an opportunity to be centred in the decision-making and discussions around creative research, the development of dance practice and the presentation of their work. In a statement outlining their new-found voice, the group wrote:
“Our focus is on addressing what independent dance artists need now, to envisage new models and strategies for the sector and push for a seat at the table where decisions are made that affect our livelihood and careers.”
As the pandemic and the Victorian lockdown began to impact on livelihoods and wellbeing for many individuals, households and businesses, Ausdance VIC assisted the coming together of the dance assembly because it recognised that independent artists were among the most affected groups within the sector. Through a grant processes auspiced by Ausdance VIC, Creative Victoria provided funding for TTDA and DAMN Writing. Ausdance VIC appreciated that there was a need to shift the power dynamics in the dance sector toward greater equity and inclusion for independent dance practitioners.
TTDA was created to support dance artistry and independent dance practice into the future as a sustainable artform. As choreographer and dance artist Rhys Ryan explains, TTDA came at just the right time for many in the sector:
“It became this bizarre moment in which we could take stock and clearly see how things had been before COVID, how the pandemic changed everything, and what might be different when it was all over.”
Throughout the various stages of lockdown in Melbourne, TTDA held regular online ‘Zoom’ meetings where all participants were equally recognised and had an opportunity to check-in and report on ongoing activities. Dance artist Arabella Frahn-Starkie says she got involved after prompting by a colleague:
“My involvement in TTDA and DAMN Writing evolved from seeing how some of my dance colleagues were catching up on Zoom and it snowballed from there as the discussions got more intense and the question of What are we going to do during lockdown now we can’t dance together?”
As the Zoom meetings got larger, notes were posted on Google docs and Facebook which encouraged others to join in. Arabella says she found it helpful to be in touch with her dance buddies—even though they couldn’t dance:
“At first, I found it quite intimidating to attend the online events, sometimes 30 to 50 people were there, but I quickly realised I wanted to join in and learn more.
It ended up being a really positive experience for me; talking to peers and getting to know each other better, just through showing up.”
Once the group had some momentum, a series of consultations was also held with local dance organisations and peak bodies to discuss key issues and topics of mutual interest. Choreographer Rhys Ryan says the conversations were focused around important issues within the sector:
“They were conversations about what’s not working – things like working conditions, and pay – but with some positive overtones about how we could help each other. It was about sharing resources and new ways of relating to each other within the independent dance community.”
Dance artist William McBride agrees that the dialogue with other actors and institutions has been worthwhile, but he adds there’s still a long way to go:
“I’m a bit optimistic because people have been motivated to speak up and some institutions have begun to pay attention. The good thing about TTDA and DAMN Writing is that it has forced people to engage with reality, to look at the real situation facing creatives and to blast away pretence.”
The TTDA project was unique in that participating dancers and choreographers were paid for their time and attendance at various assembly events, such as a face-to-face day of workshops at the February 2021. A total of 61 creative practitioners received a small income as a direct result of the TTDA project. The network of people that comprise TTDA brought their diverse opinions into play to not only be a forum for communication, but also thinking through and producing many different types of outcomes. Towards the end of 2020 the TTDA decided to formalise its documented discussions in a series of essays that became DAMN Writing. “DAMN Writing started; so that we could remember and benefit from the conversations we were having,” says Arabella Frahn-Starkie, one of the editors of the project.
DAMN stands for ‘Dance Artists of Melbourne Network’. ‘Damn’ also gets at the exasperation that permeates the ‘practicing artists sector’ in Australia, in 2020 – a kind of weary, hoarse-throated insistence to be listened to, that what we do matters, and for things to be approached differently if the sector is to survive. (About DAMN)
DAMN Writing is a digital document repository to identify areas for future work and research created by and for the Melbourne independent dance community. It is intended to be an iterative project that runs in parallel with the Think Tank Dance Assembly.
The writing project was born as a response to the hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic in Melbourne in early 2020. It represents a collective desire to make material and to extend the anxious and sometimes exhilarating discussions that arose from the backdrop of confusion, anxiety and adrenalin of that time. Perhaps it’s an ‘open letter’ from the dance community; maybe it’s a ‘clarion call’, or could it be a ‘manifesto’?
The various chapters were written by TTDA participants who responded to an open call for contributions, and by people directly invited to share their expertise with the community. The project has been collectively edited in line with the non-hierarchical principles of the TTDA.
Rhys Ryan says the work in DAMN Writing clearly fits in with the lived experience of dancers during Melbourne’s lockdown periods:
“My piece in DAMN Writing was finished during the second Melbourne lockdown. I wrote about dance because that’s my lived experience, but it does generalise to being a sole trader in the gig economy. I think most of the pieces offer some exposure of what I call a chain of complicity within the sector in terms of how harmful the precarious nature of independent dance work can be for dancers and choreographers.”
Arabella Frahn-Starkie agrees that many of the pieces reflect the times in which they were written, but she says the issues they engage with are, in a sense, timeless:
“How I feel now about reading these pieces is that I get a sense of the absolute de-acceleration of that time. Everything almost coming to a complete stop. During that time, I realised that as a dancer I was complicit in what was actually a harmful system. While dancing is something I enjoy doing, I don’t know if it’s the best thing for my wellbeing. Reading the pieces in DAMN Writing and also the experience of having to stop dancing during COVID made some things – precarious employment, poor wages and conditions – more clear to me.”
[Editor’s note: stay tuned for an upcoming piece in which dancers talk to Marty Hirst about their experiences of precarious employment]
TTDA is an artist-led collective that tries to avoid the pitfalls of a centralised, bureaucratic leadership. As such, its membership is fluid and still coming to terms with what sort of organisation it wants to be. Participants in the TTDA collective intend to continue their collaboration in order to develop capacity for research, advocacy, strategic planning, within the independent dance community.
The assembly is in a process of continuous reflection and improvement and is in conversation with similar collectives in New York and Berlin that have dealt with similar issues. The aim of this methodology is to develop and informal self-organising structure that creates the space for any individual artist to initiate dialogue and action.
TTDA is driven by the diverse, shifting, and frequently aligned individual interests of participants. The TTDA position is therefore never representative of the ‘group; as a whole.
Improving methods and modes of communication within TTDA and smaller ‘focus groups/containers’ has been a focus in reflective discussions.
Members of TTDA are currently involved in a series of research and self-help projects that will help keep attention on some of the issues raised in their online forums. A second season of DAMN Writing is also planned that will further explore the issues raised in Season 1.