Incompetent bastardry

The Peter Principle holds that employees in any organisation are promoted up to their level of incompetence, and then cling relentlessly to a job they’re incapable of performing. It’s a phenomenon especially evident in the Northern Territory. Much of the population is so mobile and transient that mediocre time-servers who stay in one place long enough end up developing contacts and support networks that allow them to occupy positions to which they could never aspire in larger, more settled places.

Jen was the victim of a particularly virulent manifestation of the Peter Principle on Friday night. She’d written, choreographed and produced a brilliant 7 minute dance/drama piece called “One Wrong Move” for a national “story-dance” contest called the Wakakirri. It’s sponsored by Johnson & Johnson, whose website explains the contest’s purpose in these terms:

Wakakirri, an Aboriginal word meaning, “to dance,” is an apt name for the Australian national story-dance competition sponsored by Johnson & Johnson Pacific. The competition is the only non-profit event of its kind in Australia that provides children with opportunities to combine creativity and social responsibility within the performing arts sector. The aim of the competition is to encourage teamwork among the children. It is an opportunity for them to balance creative communication skills with sound environmental and economic attitudes. Every school must stage a performance that is three to seven minutes in length, incorporates music, movement and drama and tells a story in the most imaginative way. Teams are not judged on technical dancing ability or the extravagance of sets and costumes, but rather on the originality of the story, teamwork, creativity and innovative use of reusable materials.

This was the first year there’s been a high schools component of Wakakirri. Until now, at least judging by the NT primary schools entries, it’s merely been seen as a primary schools version of the hackneyed Rock Eisteddfod concept, where little kids caper around a stage to very loud rock music and have lots of harmless fun.

Yet the artistic potential of a genre that combines music, movement and drama is so much greater, and it’s that potential Jen sought to explore with her high school dance/drama students. And she succeeded superbly. “One Wrong Move” is an incredibly powerful, dramatic anti-drugs statement, realised in the form of dance, creative movement and acting by an amalgam of dance/drama students and high school-level black belt martial arts exponents. A teenage girl, whose relationship with her mother is troubled, dies after taking an overdose at a dance club. Her friends are too frightened to take her to hospital while she could still have been saved, instead dumping her outside the emergency department. The denouement, where the mother mourns her daughter lying dead on the stage, left the audience awestruck and silent for a long moment of grief, before breaking into rapturous applause.

This was story-dance with bite and dramatic impact, in a class of its own on the night. Jen managed to elicit performances from her kids that were dramatically tight and exhibited an almost professional standard of grace and beauty in creative movement.

The only other high school competitor was an item by another Catholic high school called “Elvatrons”, where a bunch of kids ponced around the stage for a few minutes in Elvis costumes. There was no evident plot, no choreography and the kids made no attempt to dance. It was, frankly, an embarrassing joke as a production by senior high school students supposedly studying dance and drama. One of the kids explained to the compere that the story had something to do with a mad scientist trying to clone Elvis, but the experiment went wrong. You would never have known from the performance itself.

As you’ll have worked out by now, the Elvatrons won. The audience was so obviously shocked when the result was announced that the senior judge felt compelled to explain. The judging criteria required that the story be conveyed through dance and not “narrative”, she said. Yet the published rules say no such thing. They say, as the extract above shows, that the story must be told through a combination of creative movement, music and acting. That’s precisely what Jen’s production did. The dialogue element was less than a minute out of a 7 minute performance. Outside the theatre, audience members talked of little else but how unfair and absurd it was that O’Loughlin didn’t win.

It’s certainly true that no other school incorporated dramatic dialogue in their presentation. As I said, it seems the genre has in practice been interpreted as a junior rock eisteddfod where kids dance to rock music and don’t speak. But that’s not what the (published) rules and very specific judging criteria actually say. The NT judges have added an unwritten rule: thou shalt not speak. One suspects that the real reason is that they felt that a raw, powerful, dramatic anti-drug message was somehow out of place in a contest where everyone else was just there to be silly and have a bit of fun on a theatre stage.

I told Jen afterwards that they could probably successfully sue the Wakakirri organisation if they wanted. The rules of natural justice apply to such a situation, and changing the rules unannounced in the middle of a contest is a clear breach of procedural fairness. But the reality is that O’Loughlin College is highly unlikely to want to sue Wakakirri. It would leave a sour taste in everyone’s mouth anyway, and a court victory still wouldn’t restore the joy and public recognition to which those kids’ hard work and excellence entitled them.

If there’s a positive element of such a disgraceful fiasco, I guess the whole experience has taught Jen’s kids some lessons we all need to learn eventually anyway. Life’s a bitch; it isn’t fair. It’s full of small-minded, incompetent, nit-picking, joy-sucking fools; creative, achievement-oriented people simply have to find effective ways of dealing with those sorts of people. The university where I work has more than its fair share of them. But you just have to find ways of sidestepping them, and picking yourself up when they kick you in the guts because they’re too stupid and insecure to be capable of acknowledging or supporting excellence.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
This entry was posted in Life. Bookmark the permalink.
10 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Peter Ransen
Peter Ransen
2022 years ago

“One Wrong Move” sounds excellent. Was it filmed? I’d love to see it.

Ken and Jen, may I share a little of my experience of arts in Australia. What you’ve described here Ken is so completely common, but of course that doesn’t make it less painful. We want recognition for those who put in the effort, and when it is not provided we hurt not only for what those people suffer now, but also for what we know they will suffer in having to draw more deeply when they are called to give it once again.

When a powerful artistic experience is included in a competition, unless it is fashionable, that is, panders to fashion, it will not win. You can be sure of that. It’s a phenomenon here and probably worth studying, with deep consideration, rather than jumping to the usual conclusions.

From what I’ve observed closely over the years, it’s simply that when the public is affected by a powerful artistic experience, the judge(s) will regard that public effect as an award in its own right. It is seen separately from the thrust of the competition, as Ken so well describes for us in this example.

There are many reasons I’ve observed for this. Too often, perhaps most often, judges feel some sort of need to be themselves perceived by the public as having a greater insight, and once the public receive the award of the artistic gift of excellence, this leaves that self-seeking judge able to justify another selection. Sometimes, too, the excellent artistic experience is left unrewarded as a kind of bizarre acknowledgement, a kind of unspoken celebration of it, as though it must remain alone from the competition in all ways, and left alone with the public in its depth of reception. There is of course, also, the generic disregard for wanting to reward artistic excellence publicly in Australia, though we have to be careful about cliche here: in fact, Australians are very ready to reward in private and in person anything of artistic excellence, and are warm and profuse in that. It’s the public recognition of it that holds the problem.

The key to healing for those hurt by such an experience is to remember that it is the giving and receiving (at the time of enactment as in this case) between the artist and the public that matters, and matters all, and in many ways this helps sort the real artists from the would-be’s.

But that is no excuse for something that needs redressing in this country. It’s part of a greater problem where ‘art is seen and must be seen as elite’. This is a problem engendered from the very top, and seeps into the most local of endeavours. That the average person in the street has no self-regard for any artistic sensibilities (that is, that they humbly and strongly deny any ability themselves, and yet they still proffer acknowledgement to others’ work so readily!) is part of this wrong purveyance of artistic elitism, and denies our country the ability to be the truly creative country we could be.

Jen
Jen
2022 years ago

All inspiring artistic endeavors are a collaboration. My collaborator has not been mentioned in this article. What a woman – don’t fuck with a martial artist mentality. Listening and watching Sharon taking that production manager apart was a work of goddam art -patience- by the bucket load way past the point where I peel out of petty shit – she addressed this injustice with the dignity a fight against rank injustice merits. She perserveres long after I’m falling about laughing at myself for thinking that I could legally throw the emphasis a new way. But no – the judges are muggles and those kids and me ‘n Sharon we are magic. Yar! My she was yar! Anyway god to the rescue. On Friday the most outstanding and the runners up will perform again, same venue, side by side for the catholic schools arts festival. My job now to work out with Bob – colleague and Elvatron controller – how to deflect this silly judgement from the confidence of all our performers. The Wakakirri has made itself a joke – how tiresome! I just want to sing! and laugh! A storm in a teapot you may think – yes but injustice isn’t not ever.

jen
jen
2022 years ago

parish you been fucking with my computer again?

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

I posted from your laptop last night, and forgot to change the cookie back to your name. I’ve fixed your comment now in the editing function, so it read as being yours.

Peter Ransen
Peter Ransen
2022 years ago

Jen, is it at all possible to film (properly) the production on Friday night? This work sounds like it needs to be put to VHS at least, and be made available to the wider public.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Peter

O’Loughlin apparently doesn’t possess any video camera equipment. I tried without success to borrow equipment from CDU for last Friday. I might have more luck with a bit more time. I might even try phoning the local Channel Nine manager (who I know), and see whether they might send a cameraman (although I don’t like my chances on a Friday night). Any offers of assistance from Darwin readers with access to a decent digital movie camera would also be gratefully received.

The Wakakirri organisers filmed the event and will be making an overall video available. But there are obvious copyright issues there, and the problems involved in seeking permission from them in the circumstances are obvious.

We should also mention that the germ of the plot came from a play Jen’s Year 11 students are studying this year, called “X-Stacey” by Marjorie Ford. But Jen has condensed, changed and adapted it so drastically for the 7 minute Wakakirri story-dance format (and written wholly original dialogue) that it doesn’t now bear much rsemblance to the original play. Nevertheless the influence should be acknowledged.

Peter Ransen
Peter Ransen
2022 years ago

Thanks, Ken. If you can get Channel Nine to cover it you are laughing. Cameramen will work on community projects at any time, often enough. However, it has to be part of a valid news story if you want to go commercial like that. If the production of itself is just not going to make it to the news there, which it may or may not depending on lots of things, then look to place it in a wider context. What is the aboriginal context there? Is it topical? No? How can you make it topical? Who is known and newsworthy who can speak up for it? If no joy there, look for the controversy angle. It’s not about law, it’s about the people. Is someone there suffering from a drug issue locally, and wants to have a say, also? These are the sorts of things to look for and snap into place. The idea here is to get exposure for the production. Then, with that, try to get the cameraman to film the whole thing, deal with copyright later and from what follows.

Alternately, seek to use the stage for a private filming, and put the production to tape in private. If not, there must be somewhere where the production can be filmed.

Try to use this productively. There is a lot of energy in it by the looks. Who can speak up against it? Use it (it’s coverage!). Set up a challenge behind the scenes which you can then put to work publicly, by, perhaps, challenging the judge, or having someone affected (in the community, not in the production) by the issues raise challenge the judge, or challenge another example of inertia or fear of the issues the production raises. Try to get the issues into the paper from these community/real people perspectives into the local paper first, if needed, to spark it up a bit.

Peter
Peter
2022 years ago

ps. I’ve never had experience operating under a “donation” system; but wondering, what if the production were disseminated on that basis, for private use, does this infringe on copyright?

David Tiley
2022 years ago

Sue the buggers. At least do the initiating letter so they can show cause.

As Peter says, this sort of crap does have wider ramifications. You can’t change the rules after you start a competition. Lotta people slog their guts out only to find out they never stood a chance.

As an ex-insider to arts bureaucracies I can tell you it does go on.

jen
jen
2022 years ago

You lot are great. Yes we will film it, we have the stage on friday and we’ll do it during the tech runs and again during the show. Parish will post it here when we’re done. I will address the issue but what I really want is to create a series of cautionary teenage tales using this format. My daughter is 9 and out there already now – I’m preparing myself and her for a eyes wide open teenage try and kill yourself – and fail situation. Fail because you know about edges and respect them. A mother’s sensibility in a dance/drama teachers role.