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Dance stories focus of Fellowship

Thursday, 27 July 2017 1:41pm

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A community dance event will be held at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery at 2pm on Sunday as part of Dr Caroline Sutton's Community Dance Fellowship.

Community dance groups from around Dunedin will perform at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery on Sunday – the culmination of Dr Caroline Sutton Clark’s six-month tenure as the Caroline Plummer Fellow in Community Dance.

Dr Clark has used her time quite differently from those who have held the Fellowship before her. Rather than teaching dance classes that lead towards a performance, she has been recording the oral histories of local dance groups.

"My proposal has been to create an oral history archive as a portrait of the Dunedin community. It is a different way of supporting the wellbeing of the community through dance."

Since arriving in Dunedin from Austin, Texas, in January, she has conducted 26 interviews with 29 people, who represent 24 different dance forms. They range from members of Pacific Island dance and Haka groups, to those who have been involved in Dunedin’s ballet, hip hop, Scottish, Chinese or classical Indian dance scenes.

“My proposal has been to create an oral history archive as a portrait of the Dunedin community. It is a different way of supporting the wellbeing of the community through dance.”

Her interviews, each about an hour in length, focus on each person’s experience of dance, and their experience of dance in Dunedin.

Dr Clark says she has always thrived in one-on-one conversation, and is very interested in the minutiae of everyday life.

“I can be talking to a dancer about a 1970s tour across the country, and I’ll wonder about the details – like ‘what did you eat?’ and ‘how did you find places to eat’ and ‘how did you do your laundry?’. Thinking about these details stimulates memory for the person I’m talking to as well. While they are tiny details for an archive, they are also connected to very big pictures of towns, politics and beliefs.”

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Dr Caroline Sutton Clark.

Dr Clark comes from a diverse dance background – including performing as a professional ballet dancer, a modern dancer, and working on choreography projects. She holds a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Hawaii, and a PhD in Dance from Texas Women's University.

While travelling across the world to take up a Fellowship in Dunedin was a big move, Dr Clark says from the moment she read about the opportunity it resonated with her.

“Its intents, the vision of the Fellowship from Caroline Plummer to promote wellbeing of community through dance. My vision has always been that as well.”

The Caroline Plummer Fellowship was established in 2003 in honour of Caroline Plummer, who completed a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology and a Diploma for Graduates in Dance. She was diagnosed and treated for cancer during her studies, and died in 2003, just after graduating. She had a passion for dance, and a vision for the healing role of dance.

Dr Clark says her oral histories, when taken together, provide a really positive and interesting view of the role of dance in people’s lives.

These range from the physical benefits of fitness and flexibility, to emotional and cognitive benefits.

"It’s just been such a pleasure to listening to people talk about how much dance has improved their quality of life."

“Dance takes a lot of focus and takes brain power for people to remember sequences and patterns,” Dr Clark explains.

For many people the social component is also important – for some their dance group is the one part of the week when they can socialise with others. And for others it is cultural immersion – people have been able to learn more about their culture by dancing their traditional dances.

“It depends on the form of dance in some ways, but for me it’s a whole package deal.”

She says while people were happy to speak with her, at first many felt their story wasn’t important.

“I completely disagree. It’s just been such a pleasure to listen to people talk about how much dance has improved their quality of life.”

Dr Sutton recorded all of the interviews, and has had two thirds of them transcribed. The complete set will be held at the Hocken Library, while individual interviews will also be given back to people and their families.

“I have facilitated the telling of their life story. It’s their life story, and it’s lovely for their families to have that interview; people rarely take the time.

“But it’s not a comprehensive history, and it’s not a biography. It’s simply what came up in one particular conversation on one day with me.”

"Dunedin has been a real jewel for me to explore my research into dance, and I would like to keep this kind of community based research going in my work."

While Dr Clark’s performance event on Sunday is not a direct representation of her work on the Fellowship – it is a bringing together of the groups who were involved in the research.

All of the groups were asked to perform, and about half have taken up the offer.

Each will perform in different areas, and the audience will be able to walk through the gallery and discover them.

“It will be a metaphor of how I found these people,” Dr Clark says. “I had to look around Dunedin for them. Also, it makes it more fun.”

The performance will be a chance for the different groups to meet one another, and for the Dunedin public to see the diverse range of community dance groups operating here.

Dr Sutton will return to the United States next week – and hopes to continue with this field of work.

“Dunedin has been a real jewel for me to explore my research into dance, and I would like to keep this kind of community based research going in my work.”

Come along:

Dancing our Stories: Dunedin
Sunday 30 July, 2pm
Dunedin Public Art Gallery
Free