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Australian dance

Dance is a very dynamic part of Australian performing arts culture. It can provide a rich performance experience, merging the imagination and skill of choreographers, dancers, designers, composers and musicians.

Rachelle Roberts, Red Hot & New (Natalie Decorte and Matthew Lawrence), 2004. Image courtesy of The Australian Ballet.

Classical and contemporary dance performances are enjoyed across Australia. An array of independent, company and project dance initiatives can:

... give audiences anything from unadorned movement process to high-end technology and real-time linkups across the globe, from glossy, fluid dance to hip hop, from fusions of Aboriginal and new forms to dance on film.
Baxter, V and Gallasch, K, In repertoire: A guide to Australian contemporary dance, Australia Council, p 31

Major arts festivals provide the chance for international and Australian dance companies to entertain, challenge and delight new audiences. In turn, Australian dance ventures such as Chunky Move, Buzz Dance Theatre and Australian Dance Theatre are bringing their work to the world through international tours.

A brief history of dance in Australia

Australian dance draws on many influences including the traditions and history of dance as an art form, as well as the different cultures and trends in society.

A strong Indigenous tradition

Dance is an important part of Indigenous Australians' cultural traditions. It is reflected and reinterpreted in the work and creativity of various Aboriginal and Islander dance companies which formed from the early 1960s onward.

Dance is increasing the prominence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as it is transferred from communities to public theatres and transformed from ceremony to spectacle.

European influences

Different forms of dance came to Australia with the first European settlers. Dancers visited colonial Australia from other countries, and danced as part of pantomime, opera and other theatre performances.

Swan Lake by the Australlian Ballet

Jeff Busby, Swan Lake (Damien Welch and Kirsty Martin), 2004. Image courtesy of The Australian Ballet.

Ballet and other forms of theatre became very popular during the Australian gold rushes. The appeal of Romantic Ballet in particular brought many European and American dancers to perform in Australia.

Russian ballet was also very influential. Anna Pavlova's Australian tours in 1926 and 1929, and tours by the Ballet Russes in the 1930s attracted a lot of interest and stimulated the development of Australia's own ballet culture.

Developing Australian dance

A number of professional Australian ballet companies were founded during the 1940s and 1950s. These included the Kirsova Ballet, the Borovansky Ballet, Laurel Martyn's Ballet Guild, the West Australian Ballet and the short-lived Australian Theatre Ballet.

The Australian Ballet School was established in 1964 and a range of contemporary dance companies flourished over the next three decades, including Expressions Dance Company, Bangarra Dance Theatre and the Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre.

Key players in Australian dance

Funding for Australian dance

The federal government-funded arts body, the Australia Council, has contributed to the survival and growth of contemporary Australian dance and dance companies since the 1960s. Australia Council funding has increased the number of small dance groups and the range of dance performances.

Travel grants have given dancers and choreographers the chance to study or work with dance companies in America and Europe. State governments have also supported local dance companies, while subscribers and sponsors also help to support some ventures.

Playing Australia is a federal government program which provides grants to performing arts companies, producers, venues, presenters and tour organisers to tour in regional areas.

Australian dancers and choreographers

Graeme Murphy

Hugh Hamilton, Graeme Murphy, Artistic Director and resident choreographer 1976-2007, Sydney Dance Company. Image courtesy of the Sydney Dance Company.

Australian dance has flourished through the effort and talent of many great dancers and choreographers. Sir Robert Helpmann, Edna Busse, Kathleen Gorham, Martin Rubinstein, Marilyn Jones, Garth Welch, Marilyn Rowe, Greg Horsman, Lisa Pavane, Steven Heathcote and Christine Walsh are just a few of our memorable Australian dancers. Meryl Tankard, Graeme Murphy and Stephen Page are among Australia's most well-known choreographers.

Contemporary Australian dance companies and groups

Large and small Australian dance groups explore the possibilities of dance in a range of ways. From the more traditional Australian Ballet to the upbeat performances of Chunky Move, there are public performances to satisfy all tastes. The mix includes Sydney Dance Company, Australian Dance Theatre, Buzz Dance Theatre, Expressions Dance Company, Dance North, TasDance, Bangarra Dance Theatre, Tracks Inc, West Australian Ballet, Paige Gordon and many others.

Youth dance companies

Youth dance companies exist in most Australian states. They offer young people aged between fourteen and twenty-five a unique opportunity to participate in and experiment with dance and performance. Professional artists work with participants to explore and create or choreograph new work.

Collaboration with professional artists and involvement in the creation of new works gives young people broad experience in the arts and increased understanding of the artistic process.

Useful links

Dance companies

Dance exhibitions

Dance organisations

  • Ausdance – Australia's professional dance advocacy organisation
  • Australia Council, Dance

Print references

  • Baxter,V. and Gallasch, K, In repertoire: A guide to Australian contemporary dance, Australia Council, NSW, 2004.
  • Pask, E.H., Enter The Colonies Dancing: A History of Dance in Australia 1835-1940, Oxford University Press, Melbourne,1979.
  • Whiteoak, J & Scott-Maxwell, A Currency Companion to Music and Dance in Australia, Currency House, NSW, 2003.

Last updated: 14th November 2007

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