If the truth be told there’s nothing I fear more than dancing. Public speaking might be nerve-wracking but really it’s just a big conversation. We all hate moving house, at least the sane amongst us do. And no one looks forward to starting a new job, but it’s always relatively painless in the end. Dancing, however, well, I hate it, and hate is the word, whether at a backyard party or out in a nightclub (I think I can remember going to one of those) or, God forbid, at a wedding, which is a special kind of hell. I have no rhythm, no coordination, no style; on the dance-floor I feel like a robot that needs an oil change and a new pair of batteries.
Miraculously, some people make a living from dance, with the word dance pointing to a bigger world than that inferred by dancing I’ve used above. Canberra’s own Ruth Osborne, the artistic director of QL2 Centre for Youth Dance, which operates out of the Gorman House Arts Centre, is one of these people. Osborne is passionate, articulate, and disarmingly gentle – hers is a very tender and calm type of company – but her charm and self-deprecatory wit hides an extraordinary drive and steely determination. It’s this drive and determination that last year saw her win an Australian Dance Award for her “superlative teaching and wide-ranging services to dance over four decades, for an outstanding contribution to dance education, and to the development of youth dance practice in Australia”.
If Ruth Osborne had done all this in swimming or in tennis or any other kind of sport, she’d have her mug-shot printed on cereal packets, she’d have prominent public buildings named after her, she’d be recognised in the streets. But this is the arts, and contemporary dance of all things, and we’re talking about Canberra, so Osborne just quietly goes about her work, except it may be the most important work we’ve barely heard of.
Born in the New South Wales country town of Musclebrook – her father was a civil engineer, so she moved around regularly – Osborne and her family relocated to Sydney when she was five years old. At the age of eight, her mother enrolled her in the Bodenweiser Dance Centre, which at the time was the only place for modern dance in Australia. “I can remember my first day,” says Osborne as if she’s recalling the most important event in her life, and perhaps she is. “It wasn’t the usual ballet school, with pink tutus and all of that. It was just so creative. They were all in bare feet. I couldn’t wait to get there every Saturday. Within a year I knew that it was what I wanted to do forever.”
It was, of course, a difficult journey on which to embark. Says Osborne, “When I started dancing there were no publicly funded contemporary dance companies in Australia. I was a Bandstand dancer. That led me to the first opportunities to choreograph for payment, which were for commercials.
“Then I got married and went to Perth, which was way behind Sydney at the time. There weren’t any choreographers that I could work with over there, so I had to do it for myself. I ended up developing this passion for choreography and for teaching.” In the west, Osborne established the Contemporary Dance Centre in 1976, where she was artistic director until 1999, taught at the West Australian Academy of performing arts from its inception, and was a founding board member, choreographer and artistic director of STEPS Youth Dance Company for ten years.
Why this passion for contemporary dance?
“You have to be a contemporary thinker to appreciate contemporary dance,” says Osborne, by no means in a pretentious way, she just calls it the way she sees it. “You’re not going to like everything all the time, but you can appreciate that there’s a lot of mind in it, and that you actually will go and test yourself a little bit.
“If it doesn’t stimulate any ideas for you, you can appreciate that contemporary dancers of today are strong and powerful. You’re watching athletes who are not trying to win a ribbon, or a cup, or a million-dollar sponsorship. But they are dedicated and that kind of precision with their bodies is incredible. And often you’re not watching them in unison, the type of work you see in ballet companies – in contemporary dance you’re watching them retain their individuality.”
QL2 has its genesis in the Quantum Leap Youth Program, which commenced in 1999 as a strand of the Australian Choreographic Centre, an organisation that also operated out of Gorman House until it lost its the funding from the Australia Council for the Arts in 2006. The following year QL2 came into being, and since that time hundreds of young people from Canberra and the surrounding region have participated in the various sub-programs, the flagship of which is an annual public performance where young people aged 15 to 26 work with some of the most exciting choreographers in the country.
The lack of competition is of critical importance for Osborne.
“It’s the opposite of competition,” she says. “At QL2 the competition is with the dancers themselves. At first, there are trust issues – am I going to look like an idiot, which is particularly so for boys if they haven’t done much dance. And then they gradually put that trust in each other and they get such a reward.”
Why this unwavering commitment to youth dance?
“It’s about growing the brain,” says Osborne, as if we’re talking about the easiest thing in the world, and maybe, after all these years, it simply makes perfect sense to her. “I just think that young people are so busy being influenced by peers and needing to fit in that there’s such a danger in narrowing their opportunities and their life. But at QL2 they come out of their groups and it’s very different. We’ve had refugees from Cambodia and Burma. Gay and straight – it’s really hard for boys, especially if they come from one of the private boys schools. It’s just opening up all of that and saying come and talk to people and listen. You’ve all got value.
“It’s about taking the threat away. Creating a safe place – safe to try things, safe to grow, safe to express yourself.”
For decades, Osborne and the organisations she’s cultivated have had a particular focus on boys in dance. “When we started STEPS Youth Dance Company in Perth,” she explains, “we noticed that there were boys who were performing in events like the Rock Eisteddfod, but they were always in the middle and did the footy thing or the break-dance trick and went off the stage again. So we decided to run a boys project and it was incredibly successful. It brought together a motley crew. We got some boys that other people would call “unco”, because most boys grow up to believe that that’s exactly what they are – “unco”.
Don’t I know all about that.
“And there were the geek boys,” Osborne continues, “and the sporty boys who could do all the tricks, and the poor ballet boys who’d religiously attend class and be the only boy in the girls class and almost having to become a girl to exist with that community. We gave them some stuff that’s got masculinity to it, and then let them go into areas of subtlety and emotion – I used to cry at every rehearsal, because it was just beautiful. What I’ve noticed with boys is that they improve incredibly quickly.”
It may sound like something from a Hollywood movie, but Osborne has had her fair share of fathers who have refused to let their sons participate in dance.
Fortunately, Canberra is home for Ruth Osborne and her work, but the small-city location does come with its challenges – and an opportunity.
“You know, there’s that thing of it can’t be good if it happens in Canberra, which drives me nuts, but they haven’t been able to do it in Sydney or Melbourne. A youth dance company needs to be embraced by the community. In Canberra people understand the broader picture of the value of youth dance, and people here understand the educative values, so there’s more respect for it. And it’s a smaller community. QL2 has been embraced, and that’s important, because it feels like it’s always been here now.”
Anyone eager for an inclusive, creative Australia should be eternally grateful for that.
First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 4 February 2012. With thanks to Ruth Osborne and Diana Streak.