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.