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Brookes Street to Brooklyn
Written by Jordan Vincent   
Friday, 09 October 2009 14:42

Brookes Street to BrooklynIn Brookes Street to Brooklyn, author Denise Richardson traces the journey of Queensland’s Expressions Dance Company from its modest debut in 1984 at the Loaves and Fishes Restaurant, to its success both at home and abroad as one of Australia’s premier dance companies, through to the resignation of the company’s long-term artistic director and founder, Maggie Sietsma, and company general manager, Abel Valls. Part fan book and part dance history, Brookes Street to Brooklyn outlines the chronology of this long-standing and influential company and emphasises Expressions’ role in nurturing young dancers and choreographers. The timing of the publication in 2009 coincides with the changing of the guard (Sietsma and Valls departed the company at the end of the 2008 season) and is clearly designed to stand as a tribute to their impressive dedication.

Richardson is a Brisbane critic and writer for the national magazine, Dance Australia. She was commissioned by the company to “record the how, where, when and why” of Expressions, beginning with Sietsma’s early training, her time with the Australian Ballet School and the London Festival Ballet, her partnership with Abel Valls and the “child” they created in Expressions Dance Company. The book also chronicles the careers of a number of young dancers and choreographers who worked with the company.

This book clearly demonstrates Sietsma and Valls’ dedication to their company, and particularly the benefit of Valls’ wise financial management which, despite difficulties in securing consistent funding from state and federal funding bodies, enabled the company to present seasons of dance for over twenty years. Moreover, Sietsma’s mentoring provided young artists such as Natalie Weir, Graeme Watson, Garry Stewart, Jacqui Carroll and Brian Lucas with an opportunity to set work on a professional company. The education programs that underpinned Expressions’ activities introduced their unique kind of dance and dance theatre to regional Queensland.

Richardson’s work casts Sietsma and Valls as true artistic underdogs fighting to sustain a dance company against all odds. Unfortunately, (and perhaps unfairly) Queensland audiences are dismissed rather disparagingly, with Richardson emphasising that at the beginning, there were fears that the city wasn’t “intellectually ready” for a contemporary dance company, and that “no-one gave the company any chance of succeeding.” These kinds of comments are counterbalanced by Expressions’ undoubted success, as demonstrated through their many awards, overseas tours, and sheer longevity.

At times, Brookes Street to Brooklyn, reads like an almost aggressive attempt to prevent Expressions’ original founders from being forgotten in light of the many up-and-coming contemporary dance artists and organisations in Queensland that threatened to overshadow it in recent years. There seems to be some residual anger about Sietsma and Valls’ almost forced resignations, and this frustration comes out in various oblique references to the importance of sustained leadership in contemporary dance companies.

This book should be a great read considering the varied elements Richardson had to work with, such as the company’s extensive international touring, the interesting biographies of the dancers and the breadth of the company’s repertoire. In addition, she had the opportunity to interview Sietsma about her research-based methods for articulating concepts onstage, her use of text with dance, and her methods of choreographic collaboration with her dancers. Despite the richness of all this material, Brookes Street to Brooklyn is fairly dry. Richardson outlines the chronological events of Expressions’ history in great detail, yet with little serious analysis or external context. The flow of the narrative is occasionally disrupted by typographical and punctuation errors that should have been picked up in the editing process.

Although Brookes Street to Brooklyn mentions the company’s repertoire, Richardson provides minimal description of the choreography, aesthetic or style of the works, making it difficult to keep track of the individual pieces throughout the book. An explanation of how the choreographers who began their careers working with Expressions Dance Company developed as artists, or how their experiences working with Sietsma impacted on their subsequent work, would have been a valuable addition.

Although this book is clearly not designed as an academic text and should not be evaluated as such, Brookes Street to Brooklyn is still a full-length dance history that needs to be more carefully sourced and referenced. Richardson relies heavily on oral histories and interviews for her information, and while such sources may be expedient, they can also be deeply biased. Richardson also looks to newspaper and magazine reviews to give a sense of the audience and reviewer reactions. The use of these sources fails to adequately capture the depth of information required to provide a complete picture for this kind of project.

The extensive choreology in the index and the list of company members since Expressions’ inception in 1984 in Brookes Street to Brooklyn is valuable, as are the number of interesting photographs that chronicle the company’s extensive twenty-five year journey.

In all fairness, because Expressions Dance Company commissioned and published Brookes Street to Brooklyn, it comes as no surprise that Richardson has delivered a one-sided narrative. Unfortunately, there are so few books that chronicle the history of Australia’s major companies that each publication (whether it is aimed at an academic audience or not) has to fill an enormous gap in the public knowledge. Unfortunately, this book falls short in taking its opportunity to make a significant contribution to rigorous dance research in Australia.


This review was written with contribution from Stephanie Glickman.


Brookes Street to Brooklyn: Expressions Dance Company 1984 - 2009 by Denise Richardson is available by calling 07 3257 4222 or visiting www.expressions.org.au


Jordan Beth Vincent has completed a PhD in twentieth-century Australian dance history from the University of Melbourne. She holds a postgraduate diploma in choreography from the Victorian College of the Arts, and undergraduate degrees in dance and history (with a minor in classics) from the University of Washington. She works as a reviewer for Melbourne’s The Age newspaper and Dance International magazine.
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