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Study Performing Arts in Australia

Australian Performing Arts

Author Dr Anita Donaldson  University of Adelaide



Although Australia is probably better known abroad as a sporting nation, as well as the home of Crocodile Dundee, Priscilla the Desert Queen, and the Sydney Opera House, nonetheless the performing arts have always played an important - if not necessarily primary - role in shaping the cultural identity of the country.

However, with the release in 1994 of Creative Nation, the first national cultural policy document in the country's history, the significance of the arts has been articulated in an unprecedented way. As a consequence, cultural policy has entered a new era, and is now  firmly on the political agenda, with the government committing itself to long term strategies across a wide range of areas including higher education.

Among the more specifically  identified strategies, the policy recommends a broad- frame "Charter of Cultural Rights":

  • the right to an education that develops individual creativity and appreciation of creativity in others;
  • the right of access to our intellectual and cultural heritage
  • the right to new artistic works
  • the right to community participation in cultural and intellectual life


Notwithstanding its newly defined vision, the government - at both state and federal level - has always played a major role in subsidizing the arts. Private and corporate sponsorship has been limited, with business companies more inclined to support sporting activities such as the Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix, the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, and the Australian Open  Tennis tournament. With the Olympics being held in Sydney in 2000, a further shift away from arts sponsorship can  be anticipated.

At the centre of the country's cultural development lies the Australia Council, a federal organization responsible not only for the disbursement of funds to artists (including companies - both national 'flagship' companies and smaller capital city companies ), but  also for developing policies and strategies: for broad ranging arts education, and for audience sponsorship, and international export development. State arts and cultural development departments undertake similar responsibilities at the regional level.

While it has an educational brief, the Australia Council is not involved directly with performing arts education and training. That remains the province of specialist centres, academies and schools, most of which are situated in universities. Since the latter are autonomous in respect to their academic programs, the courses offered around the country vary widely in both structure and content. However, most offer a basic three year degree, and post- graduate study is also widely available.

Funded directly from the Commonwealth cultural portfolio - and thus enjoying a high degree of independence - are several national centres of excellence which focus  on high quality professional training. Among them is the Sydney-based National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA), whose primary role is the training of actors and directors for theatre, film and television. The Australian Ballet School (Melbourne) is another of these elite institutions. The School is closely aligned to the internationally acclaimed Australian Ballet Company, and the ranks of dancers are recruited largely from those who have graduated from the School.

A quite different version of the national centre concept is the National Academy of Music. Recently established in Melbourne as a direct outcome of the Creative Nation policy statement, its aim is to develop young, highly gifted musicians to international standard. The focus is on solo performance of fine music, including works by contemporary Australian com- posers. The Academy differs from its counterparts in two distinct ways; students will attend only on a part-time basis; and a  number of subsidiary schools around the country will be developed in order to capitalize on the strengths that exist in the various university music conservatoria.

At the next tier of performing arts education are the major academies, all of which function within a university context (and many of which also include the visual arts). The emphasis in these academies is primarily on performance; on the training of singers, musicians, actors, dancers and etc. The Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), for example, has a strong focus on the training of actors, while that of the Academy of Arts at the Queensland University of Technology is on dance, with the program offering the first postgraduate degrees in dance in the country.

Centred in Adelaide, the Helpmann Academy of Performing and Visual Arts stands somewhat apart from the other academies in the country. It is a rather unique - and brave - experiment aimed at consolidating performing and visual arts education in what is ultimately a very small state. Rather than being a single institution located on a single site, as is the case elsewhere, the academy is essentially a confederation of the best of the performing and visual arts programs in the state's four tertiary institutions. The University of Adelaide, The Flinders University of South Australia, the University of South Australia, and more vocationally oriented TAFE (Tertiary and Further Education).

For the forseeable future, each partner institution will retain autonomy over its respective programs and funding. However, the possibilities for joint course offerings,  cross-institutional awards, pathways of articulation, and of closer cooperation in general, are continually being explored, and where practical, implemented. One very successful example of this collaborative ideal was a recent production of Henry Purcell's Fairy Queen, which brought together, for course credit, students from The University of Adelaide's Faculty of Performing Arts (specifically the elder Conservatorium of Music, and the Department of Dance), and the TAPE Centre for the Performing Arts Technical Theatre course.

while the academies are under the aegis of universities, so too are a number of specialist Conservatoria or Schools of Music around the country. Many were established soon after their host universities were founded, and so hold a long and proud tradition. The two oldest among them are the Melbourne Conservatorium (University of Melbourne, 1895) and the Elder Conservatorium of Music (University of Adelaide, 1898). (Byway of interest, the  first music degree in the country was offered by the University of Adelaide in 1884. It was an academically oriented music degree with a strong composition focus).

Professional performance training is the principle focus of the academies and conservatoria. However, other more broadly-based programs are also readily available within the university sector. The Bachelor of Creative Arts at the University of Wollongong (in regional New South Wales), for example, has a strong inter disciplinary orientation, and offers two particularly interesting double degrees: the BCN Bachelor of Commerce, and the BCN Bachelor of Law. In the multi-campus  School of Performing, Visual and Media Arts and Deakin University (Victoria),  a three-fold focus has emerged; interdisciplinary arts, arts technology, and arts in the community context.

A similar diversity extends to the post- graduate degree level, with possibly the most unique example being the awards developed by the Music Program at MacQuarie University. In a radical department from the norm, the Program is affiliated with the School of Mathematics, Physics, Computing and Electronics, and offers MA and MSc research degrees, and is considering a joint research degree in conjunction with the Australian Film Radio and Television School in Multimedia Music and Sound. (The ARFTS is one of the national centres of excellence).

From both a cultural and artistic perspective, one of the most exciting and  significant developments in performing arts education over the past twenty years has been the growth in programs that cater specifically for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. One of the longest stand- ing of these is that offered by the NAISDA College, one of two components of the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association. (The other component is the National and Aboriginal Dance Theatre). Established in the late 1970s, the College has a strong dance focus, and integrates traditional and western approaches in its teaching and learning. At present the College offers three awards: a Certificate, and Associate Diploma and a Diploma in Dance. A full Bachelor of Arts (Dance) degree is also being planned.

Largely as a consequence of such programs, there has also been a gradual growth in professional indigenous performance. Best known internationally is  Yothu Ymdi, a band which incorporates a strong element of aboriginal dance within its cross-cultural mix of music styles. but there are others. The Bangarra Dance Theatre, for example, has established a national and international reputation with work that similarly blends traditional and western forms and practices. On the opposite side of the country - in Perth - the Black Swan Theatre Company, while not exclusively indigenous (as is Bangarra), has a strong commitment to performing works created by Aboriginal artists. One of its most successful productions is the highly successful musical Bran Nue Dae, created by Jimmy Chi and Kuckles in 1991.

The richness and diversity of performing arts education in Australia is just touched on in this article. Ultimately the prospective students is blessed with a wide range of high calibre programs from which to embark on a performing arts career - whether as a performer, creator, teacher or scholar.

Author Dr Anita Donaldson Dean, Faculty of Performing Arts The University of Adelaide 

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