Creating a New Zealand dance industry (2014)

by Raewyn Whyte
This article was commissioned by Dance Aotearoa New Zealand as one in a series marking their first 20 years of as a New Zealand dance infrastructure organisation. It was originally published in DANZ Quarterly, Summer 2014.

In the period since 1992, there has been steady growth and development for dance in Aotearoa New Zealand. Numbers have slowly but steadily increased to achieve a critical mass of professional practitioners now working in all areas of the dance industry, and with New Zealand-made dance works being seen around the world.

Over the years, a series of national industry conferences have focused on dance industry needs. In 1992 at Flock House, the industry identified twelve areas of concern, primary amongst them being the need to establish a service organisation to provide infrastructural support for dance throughout New Zealand.  Subsequently, Dance Aotearoa New Zealand (DANZ) was established in 1993 in Wellington, with other regional offices to be established over time.

At Future Moves in 2001, increased visibility, viability and sustainability was identified as the key to a healthy future for dance in New Zealand. Independent dance practitioners were unanimous that their viability depended on establishing  a UK-type “dance house” to support the independent sector, with access to shared management, production and promotion resources, rather than each new group continuing to duplicate such services.  Planning towards establishment of such a “dance house” in Auckland began in 2003, but has not yet succeeded.

At Tuanui Whakamaru/Dance Canopy 2005, increased infrastructure continued to be the most urgent need, along with establishment of more full- time, funded companies to provide progressive career pathways for dancers, plus funding for emerging artists and mid-career independent artists, and increased security of employment.  Since the review of Creative New Zealand’s recurrent funding in 2010,  four new dance have companies joined Black Grace and Footnote as full-time, CNZ investment clients: Touch Compass, Atamira, Okareka , and NZ Dance Company.

An action plan for industry progress on all other fronts is outlined in the New Zealand Dance Industry Strategy formulated by DANZ in 2008, following industry consultation.

We lack formal statistics by which to quantify this industry growth – the numbers, demographic breakdown, distribution patterns, and growth of employment across the spectrum of professional activities which dancers pursue. Similarly, there are no studies which identify the changing patterns and conditions of professional dance employment over time. Such employment, outside of the established companies, tends to be dependent on the availability of funding or payment of fees by students and clients, so is fragmentary, often pursued part-time (on an hourly or daily basis), or on an individual contract for a few weeks or months in any given year, and this seems unlikely to change.

Creative activity is at the core of the industry, and it is it is possible to illustrate the growth and increasing diversity in professional dance production over this twenty year period by considering annual performance listings at the start (1992), end (2012), and midpoint (2002), of that twenty year period, as shown in the tables below.  Theses tables identify common programme structures, percentages of works touring, genres of works presented, and the location in which these productions were developed.  [NB: Each production is counted once only, regardless of the number of performances.]

Productions by programme type 1992 2002 2012
Main bill – full length, single works 12 20 29
Min bill – short works programme 14 23 33
Main bill – Shared programme 3 14 41
Improvisational structure 1 8  6
Total number of productions 30 65 118
% Touring works 43% 38% 28%


Productions by genre 1992 2002 2012
Contemporary/interdisciplinary 3 16 34
Multimedia /performance installation 3 13 14
Site-specific/site-sympathetic/out of doors  4  5
Cabaret/cirque/burlesque 4  4 16
Showcase  2  9
Youth ensembles 3  8  8
Student showcases (eg graduation shows, student works) 3  4  5
Informal series 4  4  4
Maori contemporary dance 4  1  4
Pacific contemporary dance  2  8
Dance film showcase/festival showing 1  2  2
Other (eg ballet, Indian classical, integrated) 5 10 10
30 62 118

There has been a marked increase in the number of annual dance productions over the past 20 years – almost doubling over the course of each decade. This increase reflects the steady growth of the dance sector with the annual addition of graduates from tertiary dance programmes determined to find a niche in the industry, the continuing commitment by successive generations to the making of their own works, and, most recently, the impact of CNZ investment funding which has increased the choreographic output of the funded companies.

Rising costs have greatly reduced the percentage of works which tour following their initial season, down from 43% in 1992 to 28% in 2012, though this will change again as the full-time companies will be touring more often. Venues  and directors can source productions from pitches made at the annual PANNZ art market, as well as those seen live, and digital technologies increasingly make it possible to assess the quality of unseen work. But despite the development of a regional festivals circuit over the past decade in the August through NOvembr period, and deliberate links made between the two major dance festivals – The Body festival in Christchurch, during September,  and Tempo dance festival in Auckland, during October – relatively few productions manage to appear at more than two or three festivals in the same year.

The contemporary dance mainstream continues to be largely interdisciplinary in nature, with works presented in an array of small to medium-sized mainstream venues, and a diverse array of other genres being regularly presented, often in lower-cost/non-theatrical spaces.

While evening-length works comprise only 25% in 2012, down from 40% previously, these now tend to be on a smaller scale than those of 1992 (such as The Race by Michael Parmenter) and 2002 (such as Inland by Douglas Wright and The Lighthouse by Catherine Chappell for Touch Compass). In 2012, such works tend to have smaller casts, carefully targeted use of recent technologies, and to be presented in   non-opera house venues.  A recent example of such smaller scale full-length work is Lazy Suzy Boy by Ann Dewey for Spinning Sun (2012), which tours to community halls with set, sound, lighting and 4 cast members  fitting into one van.

Over the decade 2002-2012, there has been a significant increase in mixed bill shows such as shared programmes, curated showcases, cabaret, burlesque and cirque productions. The mixed bill format allows for significant resource, cost and profit sharing, and shows with a populist appeal encourage greater ticket sales.  In these shows, a  central curator or producer creates the production around particular works or performers with special skills. Cirque, burlesque and cabaret in particular are also presented in an intimate cabaret setting which is popular with audiences, as it keeps them close to the action.

Pacific contemporary dance is growing rapidly in Auckland, thanks to development programmes offered by  the industry-based initiative Pacific Dance New Zealand which provides opportunities and mentoring for Pacific choreographers and performers emerging from the tertiary sector.  Youth dance is also growing rapidly in Auckland, with secondary school choreography and dance curriculum enrichment offered by Bounce/Northern Dance Network, in association with the annual YouDance Festival, a steady increase in youth dance companies from the private studio sector, and the rapid growth of world-class competitive hiphop crews.

City where production was created 1992 2002 2012
Auckland  6  (20%) 32  (52%) 67  (57%)
Hamilton/Tauranga   3 (5%)  2  (1.7%)
Wellington 18  (60%) 21  (34%) 28  (24%)
Christchurch  3  (10%)  4 (6.5%) 15  (13%)
Dunedin  3  (10%)  2 (3%)  6  (5%)
Totals 30 62 118

NB percentages have been rounded up

As these figures attest, there has been an inexorable northward drift in dance production, making Auckland the current “dance capital”. This is logical enough, given that the Auckland region holds more than 33% (2006 Census) of the national population, all but two of our full-time dance companies, half our tertiary dance education programmes, and the annual Tempo dance festival  plus a number of other festivals which commission and/or programme New Zealand dance. The Auckland region also has arts funding which supports both professional and community-based activities,  a good supply of recently built, dance-friendly medium-sized venues and rehearsal spaces, media which regularly cover dance performance, infrastructural support organisations, specialist dance talent agencies, and an array of creative businesses which employ dancers on commercial projects.

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