A Professional Dance Company to Call Our Own.
The Human Veins Dance Theatre.
The Human Veins Dance Theatre was Canberra’s first professional dance company. It was first formed in 1980 and performed around Australia and abroad until 1988.[i] Many of the group’s works and performances received positive reviews from critics around Australia and the company was warmly welcomed to Canberra by appreciative audiences and supporters. Much of the information around how the company was formed and how it became to be based here in Canberra is recorded in two files held by ArchivesACT. These form the basis of our November Find of the Month
From the beginning, it seems that the driving force behind the Human Veins Dance Theatre was Don Asker. A pamphlet promoting one of the group’s earliest performances described Asker as “probably the best known internationally of Australia’s young choreographers”. Having lived in Europe for eight years previous, he danced and choreographed for several large dance companies there and then decided to return to Australia with a small group of experienced dancers. Asker had worked with the Netherlands Dans Theater and it is said the name of the company comes from a Dutch expression, op menselijk stemming, which implies ‘lifeblood’ or ‘human temperament’[i]. Apparently some of Asker’s works, that were described as “essentially contemporary, though firmly rooted in classical technique”, had already been performed by the Australian Ballet and Sydney Dance Company.[ii] Working off the proceeds of a grant from The Australia Council, the Human Veins ‘project’ began their performances at the Australian National University’s (ANU) Art Centre where it was said that the audience was able to “view the work from close range in an intimate atmosphere”. The first performances were scheduled between the 20 and 23 February 1980, but a ‘Meet the Dancers’ evening was also offered to those interested in contemporary dance to be able to meet the company and to hear Don Asker speak[iii].
It seems Canberrans loved the idea of having their own professional dance company. At the end of April that year, Asker wrote to the Chief Officer of the Department of the Capital Territory to thank him for the continued use of the ANU Arts Centre to be able to complete the production of ‘The Year of the Monkey’. As well as being booked to perform the full evening work in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney, they had also been booked for a return performance at the Playhouse in Canberra. Canberrans had participated in twice weekly classes at the ANU and attended open rehearsals. On the 19 May he was pushing to establish a permanent base in Canberra;
There has been a strong surge of support towards the company establishing itself here in Canberra on a permanent basis.
The A.A.D.E.*, the Arts Council of Australia, ACT Div. and many private individuals have expressed their desire that we seriously consider finding a rehearsal and performing home in Canberra. I and the company as a whole are very willing to explore and support such a plan[i].
The files show that the company was supported by some notable individuals, including Dame Peggy van Praagh (Artistic Director, Australian Ballet) and Senator Susan Ryan who, among many others, provided written representations on its behalf.
The Human Veins Dance Theatre was able to establish a base in Canberra but, at least in its early years, a lot of time and effort was devoted to ensuring the company had the resources and funding required to survive. Compared to other dance companies in capital cities, Human Veins was quite small. Don Asker was not only the artistic director but also choreographed and danced in the productions. Much of the behind the scenes efforts required to keep the company operating are documented in the files.
By February 1981, the Company Manager Wendy Tubman wrote to the Department of the Capital Territory about her concerns about the number of dancers that could be employed by the company. In particular, they had just two male dancers employed, one of those being Don Asker. She argued that this detracted from the company in several ways;
First, it limits the extent to which Don is able to “step back” and direct the concept and performance of the Company…Secondly, the present composition of Human Veins, four female and two male dancers, detracts from the artistic balance and appearance of the Company as a whole. Thirdly, the present composition greatly limits the repertoire which the Company could undertake…in addition, with only the present complement of dancers, the Company’s entire engagement schedule is vulnerable to the possible accident to, or illness of, any one of the dancers.
Another issue the company faced was securing suitable accommodation. They had reluctantly taken up residence in Block G of Gorman House in 1981 while Block F was to be renovated to a standard suitable for a professional dance company. When word got around that the renovations were going to experience significant delays, some well-directed lobbying ensured adequate funding was allocated to complete the works in the agreed time frame.
Despite the successful tours around Australia and abroad and the takings from the box office and royalties, as well as the enthusiasm in the Canberra community for a performing dance company of their own, efforts to secure grants, private sponsorships and donations were a constant in the first few years after the company was formed. There was a series of articles in the Canberra Times during July 1982 that supported a public campaign to allow the company to continue to exist, which it did until some years later. Canberra’s Human Veins Dance Theatre continued to perform until it was disbanded in 1988[i]
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- ArchivesACT: 80/1221, Human Veins Dance Company.
- ArchivesACT: 81/4617, Human Veins Dance Company.
I Potter, Michelle. Lifeblood, Don Asker and the Human Veins Dance Theatre [online]. National Library of Australia News, Vol. 12, No. 6, Mar 2002: 12-15. Availability: <https://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=200204317;res=IELAPA> ISSN: 1035-753X. [cited 21 Oct 20].
iii ArchivesACT: 80/1221, Human Veins Dance Company.
v Potter, Michelle. Lifeblood, Don Asker and the Human Veins Dance Theatre [online]. National Library of Australia News, Vol. 12, No. 6, Mar 2002: 12-15. Availability: <https://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=200204317;res=IELAPA> ISSN: 1035-753X. [cited 21 Oct 20].
*Australian Association for Dance Education
Links to Newspaper articles
- Visit by new modern company (1980 30 January). The Canberra Times (ACT: 1926 – 1995), p 23: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article13701207
- Euphoria in new group’s premiere (1980 17 May). The Canberra Times (ACT: 1926 – 1995), p16: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article110957800
- An exhilarating evening (1981 22 June). The Canberra Times (ACT: 1926 – 1995), p 9: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article125642755
- An intense challenge (1981 28 February). The Canberra Times (ACT: 1926 – 1995), p 16: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article125654819
- Human Veins company facing financial ruin (1982 9 July). The Canberra Times (ACT: 1926 - 1995), p. 1: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article126883152
- Human Veins faces tragic extinction (1982 10 July). The Canberra Times (ACT: 1926-1995), p. 17: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article126883363
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