Dance at QUT

In 2017 it was a shock to learn that dearly loved Queensland University of Technology Dance lecturer Susan Caulfield-Leclercq passed away with a rare medical condition. Otherwise known as “Mumma Sue”, Sue had taught classical dance at QUT from 1986 until 2014. Sue was also the rehearsal director of many of the dance performance seasons. Sue had an extensive career as a classical dancer, however what not many people knew is that she also toured with Pink Floyd in 1975 when they incorporated dance into the tour. It has proven difficult to find any photos of Sue, but I remember this image of her that lived on the wall of her office at QUT.

The sudden passing of Sue has seen me reflect on my time at QUT. I appreciated QUT as a student, but as the years pass, I value it even more greatly. For me, QUT dance provided crucial years of intense immersion in dance, dance training, choreographic explorations, and learning about the industry. Upon reflection I realise that I was lucky to be a student at this great time in QUT’s history and to have incredible lecturers, peers, and training. I often say that QUT was as great as you allowed it to be, in that: what you gained from QUT equated to the effort given.

QUT Dance history

The rich history of QUT dance stems back to its establishment in 1979 when it began as a diploma course to train professional dancers. This occurred at the Brisbane College of Advanced Education (BCAE) which amalgamated with QUT in 1990. Since 1979, QUT dance has been feeding the dance sector in Queensland, Australia and overseas. QUT has had a strong line of leaders from its inception and I was fortunate to be there during the last 3 years that Professor Susan Street was head of dance, and for the first year that Professor Cheryl Stock was the head of dance. Both were brilliant leaders, artists, and scholars and had a profound impact on dance at QUT.

More information about the history of QUT is here:

QUT ‘Dancescape’ programme from 1983

Above is the first dance performance programme I have been able to find. Obviously there are more dating back to when the course began in 1979, however it is the earliest I can find to date. This programme is from QUT’s digital collection, which is from Susan Caulfield-Leclercq’s personal collection that was donated to the university after she passed away. This programme is dated 1987, however as the 1984 programme cites various 2nd year graduating students, this has to be the 1983 programme because those students are in first year here. It is fascinating to see the names listed in this programme from 1983:

These programmes can be found in the Susan Caulfield-Leclercq Dance collection at QUT.

It is incredible that Sue kept all these programmes dating back to 1983. Reading the names of both staff and graduate students makes me proud to be a QUT dance graduate.

QUT Creating careers: QUT objectives and challenges

Professor Cheryl Stock was the head of dance from 2000 to 2006. Her 2004 paper Training the Thinking Dancer: creating careers in dance in the 21st Century” presented at Beijing’s In Proceedings Beijing Forum on International Dance Education and Development describes goals and objectives of QUT dance as well as its history and challenges. Stock observes that one of the greatest challenges for dance education is to prepare students for the ever changing landscape dance as she quotes: 

One of the challenges for dance education is to expand the context of students to prepare them for a globalised and at the same time regionalised future. We also need to expand horizons, not just cognitively, but in ways that encompass the affective, imaginative, sensory and embodied knowledge domains that are fundamental to dance and the arts. At the same time, dance and dance training must accommodate and predict new knowledge domains so that our practitioners and students will be equipped to function effectively in the 21stcentury.

Indeed, the ever changing landscape of contemporary dance is evident in the work produced by companies and independent artists. The companies making current work as well as independent artists who bring new ideas to dance are the backbone of the evolution of contemporary dance. QUT as a training institution certainly has held its ground over the years and has produced many graduates who continue this cycle of currency in dance. 

Perhaps a measure of success of student graduates could be seen in any Australian dance programme over the last 40 years where most contemporary dancers biographies frequently list VCA, QUT, New Zealand School of Dance and WAAPA as the training institutions of company members. Add to the equation the number of students who gain employment in overseas companies, and students who become independent artists and choreographers. Additionally, there’s those who move into related creative fields and it should be noted that QUT dance has also produced festival directors, artistic directors, arts managers, producers, costume designers, dance historians, and researchers.  QUT’s output of students who became successful practitioners was what made QUT appealing to me.

QUT from my perspective: My story and experiences

Studio 2, O-Block, QUT, Late 1999/ early 2000. Sans Doc Martens!

After Sue passed away, I caught up with former lecturer Evan Jones who was a classical teacher at QUT for many years. Evan spoke fondly of many students he had taught. It reinforced just how many successful students QUT has produced and how much I value my training at QUT. This appreciation for my training at QUT has lead me to put together some personal memories and moments. Keep in mind, my time at QUT was before the iPhone, before social media, and on the cusp of the digital age. It was also before 9/11.

We were all optimistic, fearless and empowered by the voice that dance at QUT enabled!

I’ve created my story of QUT in 4 parts:
1. Why I wanted to go to QUT
2. Auditioning for QUT
3. Studying at QUT
4. From QUT to the ‘real world’

PART 1: Why QUT?

I commenced high school at ‘John Paul College’ in the late 1980s where I was fortunate to have a teacher with a passion for dance. Mr Peter Hempenstall who was my high school drama teacher from 1988-1990. In the 1980s dance did not exist in the high school curriculum as it does today and I recall Peter having meetings with education boards fighting for dance to be recognised as a board subject. Peter was not a trained dancer, but a former gymnast, diver, drama and english teacher, and toastmaster champion. He could have been a dramaturg, or even a creative director of a company, however I was glad that he was my teacher because he encouraged creativity and challenged us to question art and its meaning in the context of contemporary dance.

Peter Hempenstall 1989

5 key reasons why the John Paul College contemporary dance troupe impacted on wanting to attend QUT:

1. QUT Graduates and Expressions Company members teaching us in the JPC dance group:

John Paul College was big on extracurricular activities. That was fine if you wanted to be in the choir or marching band. I was interested in dance and was at dancing most nights. I had limited time for all of the extra curricular activities expected. However with a passion for contemporary dance, Peter provided something unique that did not compete with my dance training. The school dance group was a contemporary dance extra curricula group where Peter sought guest teachers and choreographers to choreograph on students including QUT graduates and Expressions Dance Company members.  The work created on us was reminiscent of contemporary dance in the 1980s in Brisbane. However for students, contemporary dance was not well received among the dance studios – especially when it came to dance eisteddfods where jazz hands, sequins and Taft hair spray filled the stage.

Deciding that we needed more performance experience, Peter entered us into some competition based dance eisteddfods performing the repertoire created by guest Expressions Dance Company members and QUT graduates, or works that they helped us devise. In some instances our work was well received, but I recall at one competition the adjudicator disqualified our group. She claimed our new-fangled contemporary dance pieces were “not real dance”!

2. School excursions to see Expressions and QUT shows:

Peter organised trips for us to see Expressions Dance Company and to QUT graduate shows at the Woodward Theatre.  I remember seeing Expressions Dance Company in 1989 at Metro Arts and at the Cremorne Theatre and being absolutely in awe. In this piece was Brian Lucas, Deb Saxon and Paul Sullivan.

3. Visiting QUT for feedback and viewing classes:

Peter wanted students to have a holistic experience of contemporary dance and he would take our group into QUT to present our work to the dance lecturers and students for feedback. Our group was able to view the composition work of the QUT students which was very exciting for me at the time. This occurred in G-block which was a large dance space and just one of two studios until 1994 when O-Block was built.

Professor Sue Street was leading the class on the days we visited and I vividly recall how articulately she spoke about choreography as she dissected our work. I remember noticing how the QUT dance students dressed as contemporary dancers in their grey unitards and leg warmers. We were a bunch of try-hard kids in comparison to the QUT students, but the experience of viewing their choreographic work in development was momentous. We were also encouraged to attend their end of year dance performances which we did. As a 14 year old, this had a significant impact – igniting my love of contemporary dance. I wanted to attend QUT. It was an incentive to keep going through the rigours of classical ballet as well as to explore my own choreography, which my dance teacher supported me whole heartedly in doing.

4. Dance Camp:

In 1989 Peter organised a dance camp with our school group and Expressions Dance Company members Deb Saxon and Paul O’Sullivan. Deb Saxon was a QUT graduate (as seen in the Dancescape 1983 and 1984 programmes), and following her time with Expressions dance company had an extensive career overseas.

5. Rialto Theatre performance billed with Expressions Dance Company:

In September 1989 my high school group supported Expressions Dance Company in a double billing at the Rialto Theatre in Brisbane. I think there must have been some community engagement or education incentive for the company to connect with a school group. Peter valued the relationship with Expressions Dance Company and somehow wrangled a combined performance with The John Paul College Dance Company and Expressions Dance Company. This was an incredible experience for the students (and possibly not so ‘cool’ for EDC dancers to be performing a bill with students) but they were inspiring and great leaders.  The programme is below:

As a 14-year old, it was incredibly exciting to be on the same bill with the company dancers. While it may have seemed that we were just a bunch of high school kids (and in fact, we were), for me it was a life changing experience.  To participate in the warm up classes on stage prior to the performances, taught by a company member was very exciting!  I remember thinking it was surreal to have my name on a programme with my idols.  Many of the Expressions Dance Company Dancers were former QUT graduates who spoke highly of their training at QUT and so of course, QUT was where I wanted to study.  

PART 2: QUT Audition

QUT was a notoriously competitive course to be accepted into. My first attempt was at the age of 17 and I didn’t take it seriously enough. My sense of ‘self-expression’ probably didn’t need to extend into an audition context wearing a black velvet leotard, black slashed up tights, black pointe shoes, and long black hair in a bun, with the long red streak flaming out of the middle of the bun. White make up and heavy back eyeliner. I enjoyed the audition immensely but only had myself to blame for the outcome. I was also a very young 17 year old. My medical report showed I was still growing and the growth plates in my hips yet to fuse and I was still needing to wear my back brace as much as possible. In hindsight, it was probably best that I didn’t go to QUT straight out of school. Following this, I was gently convinced to purse the ‘safe’ option and commenced studies to become a high school home economics and film and TV teacher, training at QUT (Kelvin Grove campus). 

At the time Kelvin Grove was known for fine arts, theatre, dance, fashion, and film degrees. The campus was filled with alternative and bohemian sorts and it was an amazing campus to be at even if I wasn’t studying what I wanted to. I was still taking dance classes at night, teaching dance, and completing a few final dance exams.

At university I would often walk passed the dance block and would hear the piano or bongo drums from the studios. My heart would sink. While I enjoyed the education studies, I had an overwhelming sense that I was on the wrong path.  At the end of the 2nd year of education studies, I decided I’d had enough, put my hand up in a pattern design class (that I enjoyed very much), and numbly stated that “I need to be in a different course” and literally walked out as jaws dropped from fellow students around me.  Lecturer Melinda Service later told me that she was not surprised and thought I was more suited to the likes of dance or visual arts.

I did enjoy the design and creative aspects of home economics as well as film theory subjects. I was not good with a camera and would hire it out for my younger brother to experiment with or to help me with! The editing suits were daunting as large clunky prehistoric analogue machines as we were editing on U-matic tape. From memory, they looked something like this.

I never thought that one day I would be editing using the transportable and digital software that I use now, let alone be making dance films or editing my live work. I do have to laugh thinking that my 1994 student film made for QUT film studies was aptly named ‘Path of Doom’.

After departing QUT education, I took a gap year and then auditioned for QUT in October 1996. This time I did everything possible to prepare myself for the audition and had even requested to view classes at QUT where I remember watching a class that Janet Donald was teaching. By 1996 the course had become more popular, competitive and I observed a greater number of people attending the audition. The audition was still nerve wracking, but I was calm and was prepared. I was thrilled to receive my letter of offer in the mail a few weeks later signed by Professor Susan Street. I kept the letter as it was a moment that I will never forget. 

PART 3: Studying at QUT

QUT was hard, but rewarding. I loved doing so many classes and appreciate the numerous experiences we had. The others in my cohort were beautiful people and talented dancers and many from my year had incredible careers in the arts following QUT. I should note that the course I studied was usually 3 years, and students specialised in performance, choreography and dance administration/ producing areas. I needed to take a break in first year, and rather than graduate mid-year, I enrolled in additional units adding an extra semester to devote time to choreographic electives. Essentially 3.5 years over 4 years at QUT.

The opportunities to extend my skills in choreography at QUT shaped how I created work. Somehow my peers and staff identified that choreography was something I excelled in and by 3rd year students were asking to be in my pieces which was flattering. In detailing some special moments of my time at QUT, I will share a few of my choreographic pieces from QUT because these experiences, particularly the New Moves programme were pivotal at the time.

The Fetish 1998

In 1998 I created a totally warped and frantic piece called The Fetish that saw personalities of furry animal slippers possess the dancers and eventually murder them. Presenting this in a studio space, I had slippers rigged up with fishing line that glided across the floor. The movement was like a film glitching with short staccato twitches in a 6/8 tempo that was also syncopated. I remember everyone in stitches laughing as the slippers grew personalities and attacked, but I was terribly nervous as it was a bold piece to present for my first composition work at university. The piece was later reworked and presented in QPAC’s 5 to Midnight Festival in 1999.

New Moves: Transparent Dangling Carrots 1999

The New Moves programme was for students in their final year who took the composition electives. Taking every opportunity possible, I was able to present work two years in a row. After the wackiness of the previous piece, I thought i would present something a bit more serious and the piece titled Transparent Dangling Carrots was quite dark and included film thanks to my brother who was studying film at the QCA. I remember making the costumes which were purple dresses for the woman, and hand red hand prints cut out and stitched over them. Sadly, I don’t have any images or footage of this piece.

New Moves: Strictly QUT 2000

I remember that the final year composition students had a $500 budget each for costumes which was a lot of money at the time. I designed my costumes and carefully budgeted for the fabric and then made the costumes which were grey heavy stretch jackets with specially printed bar codes that used velcro to attach to the jacket. The coloured tops underneath were all unique and were made of coloured lycra with mesh inserts, top stick overlocking and fluted overlocking. There was also op-shopped bits and pieces as well as the lab coats.

Strictly QUT was a narrative piece about all the idioms of QUT and explored tertiary dance from the audition to the refining of technique to finding our own voice. Below is a cast photo from when we remounted it for the Cement Box Theatre for “Fuse” show.

Post Grad show: Invitation Only 2000

Looking back I can see the value in the opportunities that QUT gave students. Following the New Moves season, I was invited to make another work for the QUT post Grad season.

PART 4: From QUT to the ‘real world’

In the 1990s QUT was mostly focused on producing company dancers, however I knew I wanted to pursue the pathway of the independent artist.  I suppose looking back, venturing into making work as an independent artist at that time in Brisbane was quite brave. Since QUT my independent practice has shifted between creating my own shows, choreographing music videos, and more recently dance films. However as a QUT graduate my first big job was choreographing the Savage Garden Affirmation World Tour in 2000. This is an old press photo taken at QUT.

Savage Garden Affirmation Tour photo for the Courier Mail in 2000

QUT did its best to prepare us for the world ahead when we graduated. Recently I found some old head shot photos taken at QUT in late 1999. It was surreal to think that at this time in 1999 I had no idea how much the 4 years of study at QUT would be of value to me.

I should also note that most of the head shots were more conservative because that majority of students were wanting to become company dancers. However I wanted to do something a little more self-expressive (what a surprise) and at the time, the dance staff encouraged individuality.

My time at QUT was mostly positive so finding these photos brought back fond memories. The disco vibe might have pre-empted my Hey Scenester and Slowdive shows that drew from nightclub culture. 

Looking at these old head shot photos, I was reminded that one was used for a QUT programme. I was no longer at university in 2001, but my headshot/ movement photo made the programme. The programme’s images were always made into a large poster and hung in the QUT dance hallway and it was a little bit special to make it onto a QUT poster. I recall seeing the block mounted poster up at QUT when rehearsing for something after graduating and feeling quite proud because I certainly didn’t think I was anything special or ‘poster worthy’ at university.

Looking at old programs also remind me that I created a piece for QUT in 2006. Titled Zombots, it was a futuristic piece inspired by patterns and aesthetics of video games. Creating on the QUT students was wonderful and I can see that it was valuable for students to connect with graduates who were working the in field. In the years following, I employed some of these students in my own projects or on music videos jobs. Their cohort was a strong year and many went on to work in companies in Australia and overseas.

Zombots 2006

Subsequent engagements with QUT

Choreographing Zombots wasn’t the only time I was invited to choreograph or teach at QUT. As an alumni and independent artist, I’ve been invited back over the years to teach in various areas including alternative technique with a series of my fusion movement I was developing in the mid 2000s, choreography for the education students in 2006, 2007 and 2008. For many years I was invited to teach an annual lecture about commercial dance practices from the perspective of choreographing music videos. Finally, with my brother and his partner, we facilitated the dance film unit in 2007. It was always an honour to be invited back.

In addition to the times I have been invited to teach/ choreograph/ lecture at QUT, I have also employed countless QUT graduates over the past 20 years in my independent projects or in music videos.

Rehearsing for Megan Washington’s Rich Kids video 2010

Above: Rehearsals for Megan Washington’s Rich Kids occurred at QUT in 2010. The audition saw about 90 dancers attend and 4 QUT graduates got the part.
Front: Megan Washington, and Left to Right: Kirri Webb, Jake Harrington, Jake Kuzma and Bridget Stewart.

Below: Still frame from the video

Full circle: students accepted into QUT dance performance

In addition to my choreographic practice, for many years I’ve taught students in dance studios and this was the case with Kirrah Jobst and Maddison Campbell who I taught for 10 and 5 years respectively at Mill Street Studios. Drawing from the people who inspired me, I also encouraged students to see as much work as possible and over the years organised trips for students to see companies touring to Brisbane, to attend the QUT dance performances, and introduced student to other QUT dance graduates and industry professionals.

I was incredibly proud to see my students accepted into the QUT dance performance degree (Bachelor of Fine Arts Dance – Performance) commencing in 2018. I flew back from Melbourne to see Maddie and Kirrah in both 2018 performance seasons at the Gardens Point Theatre. Attending this season twice a year almost annually for 25 years, it was quite surreal to see two students I’ve taught for many years on stage in the QUT dance performance season where many great dancers have come from – many who i’ve worked with over the years and many who go onto have amazing careers. It was such a special and proud moment in my life.

Kirrah and Maddie’s cohort is a strong and promising group and I am certain that many will have fruitful careers in dance and the arts.

QUT spaces and memories

In 2016 $88 Million dollars was spend on a new creative precinct that included 3 state of the art dance studios. You can read about that here:

While these studios are incredible, I hope that the financial investment continues to go into the course and training rather than just the space. To be honest, I loved the older studios in O-Block and especially G block, probably because of the memories created there: memories of walking down the QUT hall, checking the dance news board, the smell of the studios. Most of all, the many, many creative hours in the dance studios are where I find my fondest QUT dance memories.

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