The regional dance culture drew its energy from the passionate commitment of Ann Roberts, who began her long career in dance as a teacher, advocate and cultural activist in the 1940s. The North Queensland Ballet Company and the subsequent Dance North professional dance company and Youth Extensions now take their place proudly on the national cultural scene.
The following history of the creation of Dance North is taken from “A Brief History of The North Queensland Ballet Company” by D’Esley Smith.
So by 1979, the major aims of the Society had been achieved and the success of the North Queensland Ballet Company as an amateur institution was widely acclaimed. In the light of this information, the Board now felt that it was time to move forward to the next stage- that of a professional company. There had always been ideas of progressing towards a professional company. Mr Abel’s Presidential address to the first annual general meeting proposed that “it should become a highly professional company capable of taking its place with the well known companies of Australia”- prophetic words! But it took more than just words; there were legalities to be observed. In order to become an employer, it was necessary that the Society become incorporated, and the structure of the governing body needed to be changed from a Committee to a Board of Directors or Trustees. Another meeting was needed. It was held on the 26th November, 1980.
Those attending decided to explore the prospects of establishing a Limited Liability Company with Articles of Association that would allow the employment of a small nucleus of dancers, while maintaining the amateur group as support dancers. This investigation was protracted because there was no precedent for this situation. The final decision to become incorporated was not made until the 5th of April, 1982, the date of the special general meeting at which the North Queensland Ballet and Dance Society was dissolved. It was replaced by the North Queensland Ballet and Dance Company, limited by guarantee under the Companies Act of 1961-1981, with Memorandum and Articles of Association to be prepared by the Society’s solicitor.
The wheels of the law revolved slowly, however, and legal processes were not finalised until 14th December, 1982, an uncertain situation which caused many problems for the administrators. There were also differences of opinion about the artistic policy, structure and projected operation of the new company, and personality clashes caused further disruptions.
However, commitments still had to be met in the meantime. There was the Pacific Festival programme, “An Evening of Dance”, which was performed on the 5th June. This concluded the major season for the N. Q. Company in 1982. There was also the schools’ performance and the Townsville City Council Entertainment in Parks programme. The final performance of the North Queensland Ballet Company in its fully amateur status was at one of these entertainments on the 30th October, 1982. At the Annual General Meeting held on 13th of October, 1982, a new committee was elected and the next step in the evolution of the North Queensland Ballet Company was taken: the Company entered upon a new phase of its existence in 1983 in a Pro-am format.
Government grants had been requested and work had been done to obtain corporate sponsorship. Some of these funding sources were sceptical about the need for a professional company in the North but the reputation that the company had built over the years was a strong influence in gaining their support. The fact that Miss Roberts was to remain as a member of the Board of the company was another positive factor. The Queensland Government Directorate of Cultural Activities within the Department of the Arts, National Parks and Sport, awarded the company a grant. The Queensland Arts Council awarded money for a thirteen-week schools tour programme and a grant was received from the Federal Government through the Theatre Board of the Australia Council. It was stressed that the project was to be considered as a 2 year “Pilot” scheme and further funds could not be guaranteed. Future availability of funds depended on the company’s performance and acceptance by the community.
Corporate sponsorship was eventually forthcoming in the form of a small grant from Mt Isa City Council, Mt Isa Television, Mt Isa Mines, Priceways Transport and Radio 4LM Mt Isa. This funded a tour to Mt Isa. Then, towards the end of 1983, the regional television company, “Telecasters North Queensland”, and the Townsville City Council both offered financial support and have continued to do so ever since. Advertisements for professional staff, both performers and administrators, were placed nationally. Auditions were held in three states and Gary Hill was appointed Artistic Director. Meryl Weston was re-employed as Administrator. Six professional dancers were engaged but only eleven amateur dancers presented themselves for inclusion in the Company. The fact that so few amateur dancers were available undermined the success of this aspect of the enterprise.
The new Company members came together in mid-January to begin preparing the year’s programme. Their first commitment was an Arts Council tour starting in February, and extending over an area from Ingham in the north to Mackay in the south and to Mt Isa in the west. It was undertaken over thirteen weeks, spread through the 26-week contractual period. The first performance of the company was a Gala Premiere in Townsville on the 18th of March for one night only, with a repeat performance at the new Burdekin Theatre in Ayr on the afternoon of Sunday the 20th of March. Another programme consisting of a full length ballet, “Cinderella”, was presented at the end of April and they toured this presentation throughout May to coastal towns, then to Mt Isa at the beginning of June. A third programme was arranged for the beginning of July and in the meantime, visits were made to schools throughout North Queensland until the end of the first 26-week contractual period at the end of July. Considering the time and distance involved in travelling through North Queensland, it seems incredible that the Company were able to complete such a packed schedule. Afterwards, some of the dancers stayed in Townsville and supported themselves by dancing or choreographing for various community groups, until a second season began in December, 1983 with a Christmas pantomime. This continued in 1984 with more touring of both the pantomime and the schools’ programme. The heavy schedule, the continual bouts of illness and injury, the difficulties of working with both amateurs and professionals, and the rapid changes being proposed, resulted in stressful times for all. Gary Hill resigned before the major season but the strength of the Company ensured that the season was completed nevertheless.
On the whole, the first period of operation of the professional North Queensland Ballet Company had been artistically successful. Audiences had been appreciative, although not always as large as the administrators would have liked! Working with limited resources made life ‘interesting’, but the company survived and the Board of Directors began making plans for the future, as the end of ‘pilot’ period approached. Strengths and weaknesses had been revealed, but if the project was to progress, the administrators had to face difficult decisions which would capitalize on their assets and profit from their mistakes.
With great courage, the Board decided to make a quantum leap into the future and jettison the amateur company, establishing a new fully professional company, with Cheryl Stock as Artistic Director for 1985. The management team included three others: Lorna Hempstead as General Manager, Meryl Weston as Liaison Officer and Andre Reynaud as Production Manager. The Arts Centre became the company headquarters. Apart from the office already established, extra space in the building was acquired for a rehearsal area and Green Room facilities. Six dancers were employed for a 26 week period.
The new team formulated new artistic and administrative policies, creating a totally new entity with totally new aims and objectives. Funding bodies underlined their confidence in the administration by approving grants for the company, whose new style, everyone felt, needed a totally new name. “Dance North” was born. From that time, the Company has gone from strength to strength. Dance North has achieved a greater national profile through a touring programme which has been extended to cover the whole of Australia. Very successful tours have also been undertaken to South East Asia. The Integrated Residency Programme applied in touring means that “Dance” is taken to a far wider section of the community than could have been envisaged by the first Company.
The Artistic Policy continues to promote Australian choreographers, artists and musicians. The geographical location of the company with its close proximity to South East Asia and the many contacts the Company has made with Aboriginal Communities in Northern Australia have added a twofold purpose to the Artistic Policy of Dance North: there is now a conscious effort to forge a link with the artistic product of those countries nearest to North Queensland and to promote dance in the context of the multicultural heritage of Australia. Neither has the local dance community been forgotten. A youth arm of the professional company was established in 1987 with the title “Dance North Extensions”. Under the direction of Jane Pirani, this company of young dancers, 50 strong, has already been highly acclaimed and is a developing a national profile. Tours to other Queensland centres have been conducted and this year, Extensions performs at the International Youth Festival in Adelaide, “Come Out ’91”. Many of the aims of the original Society have been incorporated into the artistic policy of Extensions, but they have their own individual image as well, separate from, but closely allied to, both the North Queensland Ballet Company and Dance North. The links are very strong, not only from a historical aspect, but through direct lineage – Jane is the daughter of Ann Roberts.
From the humble beginnings of 1969, not one, but two companies have emerged over the 21 years. While one is professional and the other amateur, both have achieved notable success and, as the descendants of North Queensland Ballet and Dance Company, they are “capable of taking [their] place with the well-known companies of Australia.”