ABC News: Australia Council funding cut leaves dancers with disabilities in limbo

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By Matthew Smith

A man without a shirt and a woman in a black dress throw their heads back and arms out on a black backgroundPhoto: Restless Dance Theatre dancers Michael Hodyl and Jianna Georgiou in Seeing Through Darkness. (Supplied: Shane Reid)

Internationally renowned choreographer Michelle Ryan is using her time in self-isolation during the coronavirus pandemic to save her dance company.

Key points

  • Adelaide-based Restless Dance Theatre employs dancers with disabilities
  • Its Australia Council funding application was unexpectedly knocked back
  • Director Michelle Ryan recently won an Australia Council award

The Australia Council has announced the winners and losers of its latest four-year funding process, with Restless Dance Theatre joining the likes of La Mama Theatre in Melbourne and The Blue Room Theatre in Western Australia in having its main source of revenue axed.

The company, which provides paid work for dancers with disabilities, currently receives more than $300,000 per year as part of a four-year funding arrangement, and had applied to the Australia Council to increase that figure.

Instead, its funding was cut entirely — a move that has left Ryan devastated.

“I was absolutely shocked,” she said.

“I thought that our application was very strong and we have such a point of difference to everyone.”

A woman with a dark backgroundPhoto: Restless Dance Theatre artistic director Michelle Ryan. (Supplied: Shane Reid)

Arts Industry Council of SA chairwoman Gail Kovatseff was critical of the decision to take funding away from an employer of artists with disabilities.

“I was profoundly shocked, and the reason why I was profoundly shocked was that they are not just a nationally regarded company, but an internationally regarded company, working in diversity,” she said.

“Diversity is a strong criteria for the Australia Council.”

She said while Australia Council funding to South Australia had “been in decline for some time”, the loss would not only be felt this year but would have a “cumulative impact”.

Ms Kovatseff said smaller companies like Restless Dance Theatre were already disadvantaged because they did not have the staff to target alternative financial sources, such as philanthropy.

A spokeswoman for the Australia Council acknowledged that Restless Dance Theatre was highly regarded within the national dance sector, a fact that had been recognised by those who assessed its funding application.

However, she also said competition for the four-year funding was fierce and demand had continued to exceed the budget capacity.

A woman with deformed arms wearing a dress in front of a dark backgroundPhoto: Dana Nance from Restless Dance Theatre in a performance called In The Balance. (Supplied: Shane Reid )

Some within the dance sector are bitter that Restless Dance Theatre lost its funding while others including the Australian Dance Theatre had their funding renewed.

A spokesman for the Australian Dance Theatre did not want to compare the two funding bids.

However, he said the company would be supporting Restless Dance Theatre and the two troupes were in ongoing communications about how that would work.

Fighting back tears while fighting to survive

The news of the funding cut came less than two weeks after Ryan was named as the winner of the 2020 Australia Council Award for Dance.

Battling multiple sclerosis, which ended her dance career, Ms Ryan has been locked in self-isolation for three weeks.

A person looking out from inside an open suitcase.Photo: Dancer Darcy Carpenter in a Restless Dance production of Intimate Space. (Supplied: Shane Reid)

She is spending much of her time on her mobile phone and computer trying to save the company.

“I moved to Adelaide for this job and really work has been my life,” she said.

“I’ve had two Zooms [online meetings] today and I ended up in tears, but I’m also quite a strong person when I get a fire in the belly.

“I just really believe in the work that we do and we need to find a way.”

Almost 150 arts organisations across Australia will get money from the annual allocation of nearly $32 million.

Nine of those organisations are from South Australia, a drop from 11 in the current funding period.

To soften the blow, the Australia Council will provide “transitional” funding for one year to companies which missed out.

For Restless Dance Theatre, that equates to about $217,000 — a figure which would lead to job cuts, as well as less paid work for dancers.

Beyond that, Ryan fears for the future of the company that had been set to tour internationally again, before travel was restricted to halt the spread of coronavirus.

Topics: arts-and-entertainment, disabilities, dance, federal-government, adelaide-5000, norwood-5067, sa

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