INTERVIEW – STUDIO OWNER
Mike Harrison-Lamond – To the edge of collapse
by Josef Brown
When I think of dance and the edge of collapse my imagination conjures Albrecht in Act 2 of Giselle and his near-death experience d
oing entrechat six. Daring to venture into the forest at night, spurred on by the anguish of a lost love, he’s there forced to dance until dawn and is but moments away from being broken by Myrtha, Queen of the Willis, when t
he powerful love of Giselle saves him from complete darkness.
In its own way 2020, the year that’s been continually described as, unprecedented, challenging and heart-breaking, has brought the Australian Academy of Dance, like so many otherwise vibrant studios around the world, to its knees and the very edge of collapse.
In this, our latest interview we speak with Mike Harrison-Lamond, co-Studio Principal at The Australian Academy of Dance in Melbourne. Mike and his partner Nathaniel have owned their studio for 15 years, and it’s been a constant of the Eastern Suburbs dance scene for over 30. A successful small business, ever continuing to service the needs of the local dance community and grow year on year, and like so many wonderful dance studios around the world, win the respect and devotion of a loyal and committed following.
And though recently Victorians have been able to wake to the happy news of another bagel in the preceding 24 hours – zero Covid-19 cases reported across the State – and it would appear the very worst of Covid-19 might be in the rear-view mirror with positive signs of normality re-emerging, even talking about the tumult these last nine months have wrought brought Mike to tears during our interview as he reflected on some of his darkest moments.
Mike started the year on a high. In the years since he and Nathaniel bought the studio they’d attracted a wonderful line up of dedicated teachers, which their students flocked to, enrolment numbers had been steadily increasing, drawn in part to the focus they place on the many health benefits of dance for both the body and mental wellness, and so they’d taken the exciting step of investing in a new and larger property in order to expand and offer more potential. They managed to secure a 15-year lease on an old Fire Station, and started from scratch building studios, a shop and even its own stand-alone 220 seat black box theatrette which they were going to rent out to small shows, and for auditions etc. They’d extended to four full-sized, air-conditioned, state of the art studios with Harlequin barres and sprung Show Works flooring, and as any Studio Principal will appreciate, the up-front investment was significant. After 7 long months of building, on the 1st of February this year they moved in and started their first classes and the excitement from their community was beyond anything they hoped for or could have dreamed. It was the start of a new era ripe with possibility and potential.
And yet, a few short weeks later, by the end of March a global pandemic had breached the shores of Australia, wheedling its way into the suburbs of the Nation striking fear into our communities. In an attempt to slow or halt the spread of the virus the State Government ordered a lock down and suddenly their studio doors, the smell of paint fumes still fresh on the frames, were shut tight.
They’d taken on a significantly larger rent for the new premises and yet now, with their four large studio spaces empty and silent, they found themselves in the position of having to re-negotiate for their lives. And yet of course, as the days became weeks and the weeks became months things only got worse.
Like almost every studio around the world they adapted as best they could. By the Tuesday after the Monday lock down, just 24 hours later they were already offering online classes via Zoom. Basic, rudimentary, still finding their feet in this new digital landscape, yet it was something. Anything to keep people engaged, to hold onto their community, to give hope to their dancers and the kids some semblance of normalcy and continued connection.
As time went by their online offerings improved. They invested in professional broadcast equipment to provide high-quality online classes, and they partnered with a group called CLI in LA (US$100 per month) that gave their online content more of an edge, made it slicker, more engaging. And yet despite this, still the numbers slowly dropped off, particularly the little ones. It was only a gradual ebbing, yet as Autumn became Winter and the Winter dragged on interminably the spreadsheet told the story. 50% down, which they almost considered a success under the circumstances, yet if things didn’t get better soon …
By July there was a glimmer of hope. They heard studios could start back. And yet as fast as their doors re-opened, they recoiled and closed again after just one short week, and this time it would be worse. Case numbers in Victoria spiked and the State was losing control. In an effort to bring the virus numbers down the Victorian Government then imposed some of the toughest, some would argue most draconian, lock down policies in the world.
For the next couple of months until mid-October Victorians, and Melburnians in particular, would find themselves in the unenviable position of not being able to leave home except for an hour a day, alone, with a mask on and for exercise or essential services – food and medical – only. And even then, never beyond a 5km radius of their homes. All schools, cafes, retail shops, restaurants, gyms, sporting clubs, pools etc. etc. were shuttered and there was no social interaction permitted even between extended families living in the same local area. For months!
Mike explained that, if you haven’t lived through it you can only begin to imagine the emotional impact and toll, and that it’s really hard to fully articulate the stress and anxiety; the not knowing what the future will hold, the uncertainty of constantly wondering if you’re doing the right thing or the wrong thing at any given time because you’re confused about the latest regulations and can’t speak to anyone that knows any more than you do because everyone you do get to speak with is looking at the same site, the same information, and are just as confused themselves.
By mid-November – after 9 months of variations of lock down – when the Stage 4 restrictions finally lifted Mike explained that he felt like a caged animal let out of his bars after a life-time of captivity. He stood on the cusp of freedom, staring out at it, right there in front of him, yet remained frozen with the anxiety of not knowing if expanding into that freedom was the right thing to do. Should he embrace it, or should he remain cautious and hole up inside a little longer?
None of this was helped by the Governments messy messaging to business. Much will be written over the next couple of years about whether the State and Federal Governments did the right or wrong thing – who can really say for sure? – yet in the polls Victorians have consistently applauded their State Governments handling of the situation; grateful that they choose to prioritise the health of their people over the potential damage to the economy and that they refused to bend to the wishes and coercion of other States or the Federal Government.
Regardless of anyone’s personal feelings about this – and there are strong arguments to be made on both sides – the reality is that when it came to the dance industry, and the arts industry more broadly, the pandemic has been nothing less than devastating. As Mike said, “we were the first to shut and will be the last to reopen”.
While some industries have managed to adapt and weather the hardships, particularly with the assistance of Government schemes in the form of JobKeeper, and Cash Bonus etc., the truth is that arts have been decimated. Dance studios have been closed since March and are only starting to tentatively reopen, performing arts company seasons have been non-existent and the messaging from Government has been at times contradictory, biased and/or confusing.
Born of this frustration, many Victorian dance studio owners started a conversation via a Studio Owners Facebook group, which migrated into emails and phones calls and soon they formed the Dance Arts Alliance.
With a membership of 200 studios across Victoria, guided by a ten-member board (see link below), Dance Arts Alliance organised in order to better speak as one voice to Government. To lobby on behalf of the dance studio sector that assists in generating 10,000 jobs for the state, servicing 150,000 young people in after school activities each week – the single largest activity for girls – and contributes $300 million to Victoria’s GDP.
While sports often have some Local or State Government funding, integration and/or oversight, after school dance is almost entirely privately run by individual studios, of which there are as many as 1000 in Victoria alone. And yet as popular as dance is, it currently has no voice and little connection at the Government level and so is typically lumped in with gyms or sporting clubs, with which they share only a superficial similarity.
Mike is now the founding Chair of the Dance Arts Alliance and sees its mission as to better make the case for why Government should be interested in learning more about dance, understanding both its young practitioners, it’s employees, the GDP it generates for the State, and the many, many health and well-being benefits that flow from being engaged in dance, which in turn flow back to assisting the workforce be more productive.
Mike is well placed to chair this mission. While he has some past experience in the performing arts, the vast majority of his life prior to meeting Nathaniel 12 years ago, was spent engaged in marketing and communications where he often liaised with Government bureaucracy and thus understands the information they’re looking to hear, and how to speak their particular brand of typically non-emotive language.
This almost seems odd given how emotional Mike is himself. Wearing his heart on his sleeve he readily talks about how he broke down talking with parents during the lock down when they called and asked how he was. Their simple acts of kindness and compassion brought him unstuck. Hearing him tell this story I asked if there was ever a time, a moment when he thought; this is it. We can’t keep going, we’re going to have to close.
He sat on the question for a few revealing seconds before explaining that while he was certainly close, he never gave up. He couldn’t. He simply couldn’t. There was too much at stake. His whole life was now committed and so they simply had to make it work. Regardless of how difficult, they would have to find a way.
I couldn’t but wonder if it wasn’t simply an unwavering denial that kept the complete darkness at bay during this period. When at his lowest, stressed, when there seemed to be no light at the end of the tunnel and the Government was continually moving the goal posts, was it just that a tough, gritty doggedness of the soul that was all that pulled him through. He simply refused to admit to himself that perhaps he had lost faith. And yet thanks to that stubbornness he did keep the faith, and they pulled through to fight another day. I suspect there are many, likely too many, Studio Principals who’ve experienced something similar during this time.
For all the anxiety and despair the last months have brought, there appears to have been some good generated too. Arguably, the positives that have emerged required some kind of external crisis to finally motivate action. For many years people have talked about our dance industry needing a voice at the Government table; a representative organisation that can lobby on behalf of this private sector and its many small businesses, to help policy makers better understand the workings and needs of the industry and how, while there are some oh-so-obvious similarities, that dance and dance studios are significantly different to gyms, sporting clubs or athletics.
There is much that needs to be addressed in this space and Mike’s hope is that Dance Arts Alliance will now build in Victoria off the momentum they’ve developed during this period, yet also be taken up in every State and Territory of Australia to have a voice at the National level as well.
On top of that, much that they’ve learned by being forced to move online will now be adapted, once back in the studio, and continue to be used to help assist students in becoming more engaged, safer, creative and bonded as a community.
And even their teaching staff has become closer. If Mike and Nathaniel didn’t recognise it before – and they did – they’re certainly aware now just how incredibly dedicated, passionate and creatively adaptive their teaching staff are. They were teaching tap in their hallways, moving furniture to make way for improvised studios in their lounge rooms, in garages and bedrooms while quickly assessing and working out what dance could and could not be done safely in the diverse home environments of their students.
We’re all of course hoping the worst impacts of the virus are behind us. In Australia, New Zealand and a few other fortunate countries around the world the virus does seem to be under control enough to begin to establish a new normal. Yet for many places around the world they remain in the throes of the pandemic, still experiencing variations of lock down, unsure how long it will be before they can start to reimagine normal. Most of us are now awaiting the promise of a vaccine that will relegate Covid-19 to the relatively non-threatening level of a standard annual flu or less.
Yet when, or if that happens, another virus will come along eventually. Maybe it’ll be 100 years, perhaps shorter, maybe longer, yet humankind will in all likelihood experience something similar. And when it does, we can at least take some comfort, draw some strength and hope in knowing we’ll be better placed to deal with it next time. We’ll feel a greater confidence that, even in our darkest moments, we’ll remain resilient and able to adapt creatively and re-make ourselves as Mike, and so many studios have done. And thus, not merely endure, yet rise to be better, more empowered and more bonded as an arts community by the experience.
If you’d like to know more about Dance Arts Alliance, click HERE.
From MDM – Thank you Mike for sharing your beautiful and powerful story with us.