By Josef Brown
Traditions we love.
and the questions we need to ask.
Merde and whistling while you work.
For as long as I’ve been a professional dancer I’ve heard the word, ‘Chookas’ used before performances. Europeans tend to say ‘Merde’ or ‘Toi, toi, toi’ to ward off bad luck or a hex and in the US they use ‘break a leg’, yet to the best of my understanding ‘Chookas' is a uniquely Australian word.
So how did this become an expression of ‘good luck’ before a performance?
As it was explained to me; during the reign of Australia’s foremost theatrical manager, J. C Williamson (August 26th, 1845 - July 6th, 1913) chicken was considered a luxury treat. At this time performers salaries were dependent on the box office take i.e. a successful show would translate as better wages. Better wages meant the performers were able to afford to buy a meal such as chicken. As the mythology goes the term Chookas had it’s origins by people saying, ‘Chook it is’ to signify there was a full house or that they hoped there would be. Over time, chook it is morphed into the more colloquial Chookas.
Another theatre tradition or superstition is never to whistle backstage. I tend to hum or sing to myself and whistle a lot, mostly old geeky favourites long out of favour with popular tastes. As annoying as this is to some, in my early years I would do this backstage before it was explained to me by the great grandmaster of The Australian Ballet, Colin Peasley that it was bad luck to whistle on the performance side of the curtain. Being the somewhat self-righteous, yet also self-doubting young man I was and thinking he was perhaps just one who didn’t like my whistling I countered, ‘why’?
Always ready with an answer to almost any theatre question, Colin explained that in an era before mechanical and digital fly’s, the ropes to move sets and props were pulled by hand and the signals to pull a particular rope at a particular time were provided by whistles from the stage floor and passed along up in the fly tower. It made sense that someone randomly whistling side stage might be misinterpreted and a heavy set or sandbag used as counter weight, might be dropped from above at the wrong time possibly and indeed probably causing injury.
And so like walking under a ladder, it just made sense to avoid whistling and to more easily convince the young and arrogant to abide by the rule, superstitions and curses were established to help imprint the action and or response more clearly into memory.
Tradition can be wonderful. The passing on of knowledge and actions, better understood collectively as culture aid us as shortcuts and help develop within us a deeper sense of time, binding us to one another yet also across generations to our forebears and ancestors.
Another memory I have after joining The Australian Ballet was working on Swan Lake and experiencing for a brief moment the strangest feeling as though I’d dipped into a portal in time. I believe I actually felt what it must have been to be the first to have danced those steps to that music. For a few brief seconds it was as though a worm hole had opened up and I fell through and felt kinetically joined to another time period. For that sliver of time I felt fully present in 1877 before being violently tugged back to my own period and left to reflect on the differences in meanings between doing those steps then and now and how the intervening years had perhaps changed their interpretation.
Not all knowledge is necessarily better and not all that we label ‘progress’ improves our lives. Some of the traditions we have and that have been passed down, at their best, remain powerful and illuminating while others are merely beautiful, quaint and mostly harmless. And yet some hold us back and need to be questioned.
Some of that which is traditional can tend to close us off to being more open, curious and inquisitive. Sometimes culture and tradition can stop us asking those questions that need to be asked. They might stop us questioning authority, challenging the status quo and posing difficult, yet important questions of our culture.
Why that might potentially pose a problem is because we’re not merely training ‘dancers’ in a dance class; we’re working to develop the minds of young people, our future leaders and more specifically young artists, and one of the many important roles that art serves is to challenge the status quo and authority by new and interesting methods and modes.
When Timothy Heathcote developed MDM Dancewear he knew he was challenging the preconceived notions of what foot wear for dance was or perhaps should be. He knew he was going to come up against years of tradition, passed down from teacher to student over and over again, generation after generation. But he also knew it had to be done. Because his years of experience growing up as a dancer, then working as a professional dancer, his close friendships with many, many other professional dancers and later working in the design of foot wear for major international dancewear companies led him to the irrevocable conclusion that there was a better way; a better design available and that we shouldn’t let tradition blind us to the possibilities.
MDM is not merely another foot covering for dance, not merely another cosmetic tweak to get your attention. The MDM range, based on the technology developed in the Dance Base Support is the most significant shift in creative thinking about foot wear for dance since the heel was cut off the ballet shoe to create the ballet flat at the end of the French Revolution 230 years ago.
We love our traditions and we should. But we should always assess which traditions are serving us as individuals and as a society and which are holding us back because they’ve gone unquestioned, make us feel comfortable and secure, when we might better be challenged.
Wanting to ask the question, follow the answer to discover where it leads is the creative driving force at the deep hearts core of MDM.