Darc Swan – 1984 – left to right – Peta Rutter, Kilda Northcott, Chris Jannides, Kaye Freeman
Darc Swan was a dance company I started in Sydney, Australia, around 1981-82. It was initially intended to be experimental. I wanted to test a range of different ideas and approaches to performance that were not possible in Limbs. Mostly, I wanted the freedom to fail.
The first 2-3 years had a core group of myself, Kilda Northcott, Kaye Freeman, and the actress Peta Rutter (to whom I was also married). Shona McCullagh, Danielle Courtier, Belinda Fox and Stasi Siotas were also key members in the first phase of Darc Swan. A number of other dancers, actors, designers and composers worked with the group during this time for specific projects.
We did a lot of experimentation – mixing text with dance, exploring cross-disciplinary collaborations with original music and large scale puppets, tackling mythology and lacing it with feminist inflections, fumbling around with a form of anti-dance we called bullii-bullii. Some of it was audience friendly and attracted strong interest, and some of it was just bad dance and bad theatre – but that was the point, the freedom to get it wrong.
We rented our own studio near Chinatown, which we used as a rehearsal space as well as a venue for semi-regular loft-style performances. These performance events featured many other independent performers – musicians, comedians, actors, clowns – all sorts, as well as attracting a significant kiwi contingent. In fact, we ran a number of ‘Kiwi Nights’ and gave out prizes of peanut slabs and other kiwiana items. (Here is a link to a low quality video of me and Kilda in one of our studio Kiwi Night evenings doing a short dance to a piece of original music played live by a kiwi composer whose surname I’ve forgotten – sorry Jed – http://youtu.be/kmgUUMk5s5c).
A highlight during these years was driving across the country to perform at the Adelaide Fringe Festival. In our first visit there, we won the award for the best Fringe dance act and had to extend our stay an extra week to cope with the flood of performance requests that we received.
A major turning point came when we were invited to put together a school holiday performance for young people for the Sydney Opera House’s Bennelong Programme. The decision to accept this invitation had a major impact on the future of the group. Had I known what was in store in the years to follow, I might have thought twice.
The success of the children’s shows at the Opera House attracted the attention of an agency that toured performers in all genres to schools round the country, for a percentage of the box office income. We were seduced by the promise of big money! And the promise was not wrong.
Over the next decade, the company toured primary and secondary schools all over Australia, gradually amassing an annual audience of around 100,000 young people. In a survey done by the Australia Council of 23 Australian dance companies, we were ranked the 6th highest income earner. However, we were virtually invisible to the wider public, and we were also the lowest funded in terms of government and state grants. Because of the size of the country, each show that I choreographed for schools would tour for 2 to 3 years. At its peak, Darc Swan employed 16 dancers divided into teams of 4, all touring simultaneously to different parts of the country.
I folded the company in 1997. I was burnt out and disillusioned at having spent such a large amount of time stuck to a money trail that burrowed me more deeply into the education circuit, and steadily decreased my opportunities to pursue my original goals – which were experimentation and the freedom to follow new choreographic and performative directions.