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Real Time

In the Upstairs Studio at Dancehouse, Rosalind Crisp hands me a small card which invites me to “Please sit where you want and move wherever you want.” She motions to the small light fixture on the wall, should I need it, to illuminate the printed text. I hold my card up to the light, following the person before me, and read the second sentence which grounds the first: “while I made 23 contemporary dance pieces for the moment we extinguished 23 Australian bird species for ever . . . ” A warm welcome note with a sobering tail, it sets the tone for an ‘of sorts’ retrospective by one of Australia’s most rigorous and significant dance artists.[1] “The real time it takes,” heralds the promotional material, promises to be celebration of “40 years of relentlessly undoing dance” by the “Mick Jagger of Australian dance.” On opening night, a series of lines from extinction risk status to legendary status hover in the air, and all before I’ve found a place to perch.


Rosalind Crisp: “The real time it takes”


Upstairs Studio, Dancehouse, Melbourne, August 31, 2023


Gracia Haby

Rosalind Crisp, Dance In Regional disaster zones, 2020. Photograph by Lisa Roberts

A series of low display cases over which to peer are positioned about the studio. In one, Crisp’s Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres (Dame of the Arts), awarded in 2015, rests upon a black, padded base. A photo of Crisp alongside it, “looking like a mix between Bowie and Jagger,” comments long-term collaborator, Andrew Morrish. Swagger detectable even in stillness, this photo from then is very much now, as Crisp quietly saunters about the room, and sidles up behind the audience as they take in the mementos. Was it Crisp, herself, who stood nearby and uttered something about the ‘coffin-like’ nature of the display-case? A casket of memories of a full life, still very much in swing; don’t nail it shut yet; I’m still breathing; still tracing lines with my form; still leaving a trail. Or in the process of noticing and connections, am I imagining this?

Projected on the long side walls, archival footage plays. A further two projectors at either end, soon join the assemblage, and make a quintet of Crisps, accompanied by the sound of bare feet padding the floor in “d a n s e.”[2] Crisp, in person, having slipped off her jacket and shoes, makes six, and she moves through the audience scattered on timber benches or stood to the side. As she sweeps through the space, starting at the wings, there is no stage, no designated front, no one way to look, and no one place from which to see it all. This is a continual dance and it is happening all around you. It is in the present, and it is also taking place in memory, as Crisp dances with her recorded earlier selves. In memory of, but not in memoriam, mind. This is not the end.

Rosalind Crisp. Photograph by Frank Post

“Muscles” murmured Crisp. This is followed by “organic matter,” purposefully articulated as if the words have travelled from the soles of her feet all the way up her windpipe and through her voice box. And later, to paraphrase, “why didn’t someone just tell her to stop!” as Crisp looks exasperated at her energetic selves projected on the walls. Looking back at all you’ve achieved is a brutal business. Especially when it is done with such honesty, one sensation at a time, rolling, wave-like, into the next. “If you were expecting a more formal retrospective,” she quips, “you can get your money back, but as not many of you paid . . . ” and the audience chuckles. The body can no longer do what it used to do, but it persists. “The dance only ends when we stop paying attention to what’s changing,” Crisp notes.[3] This could equally apply in this context.

In an artists’ continual process of evaluation, Crisp recounts looking back through her archival footage during recent periods of lockdown. Ever questioning, if Australia has more than 1,900 listed threatened species [4], what have I, in my allotted time, done to help prevent this? For Crisp, it seems, it is not enough to merely be in nature, you need to give back to nature too by caring for it, fighting for the protection of what remains, and raising awareness. Crisp describes the moment she became aware of how she felt when she was in the bush and realised that the feeling was the same as when she dances: a state of complete absorption. Two formerly independent strands are revealed to have been connected all along. She draws up like a sponge, or rather, an elusive Australasian Bittern on the Critically Endangered list of 71 Threatened Birds in the East Gippsland Shire: “how to live with this ruin?”[5]

The dance only ends when we stop paying attention to what’s changing

Upon return from Europe, in 2017, in Orbost, East Gippsland, Crisp formed DIRt (Dance In Regional disaster zones) to bring together artists and ecologists to “embody, understand and respond to the unfolding environmental crisis in Australia, and connect communities.”[6] Particularly in areas destroyed by bushfire or logging, DIRt asks what can dance do? and perhaps it responds: it can communicate. It can convey that habitat loss is habitat destruction through land clearing, native forest logging, overgrazing, which, together with the climate crisis, and the introduction of invasive species has led to 680 vertebrate species driven to extinction.[7] In the face of “but it’s not on the tele, so who cares?” apathy, as Crisp’s own letter to the editor attests[8], dance can speak to “this human environment disaster.”[9] As both Crisp and the Paradise parrot show, Colonial Australia has been a devastating custodian of nature and “vanishment” is but pretty spin. 

An utterly unique and captivating steward of ecosystems, Crisp takes to the middle of the room; more migratory wading bird, the Critically Endangered Great Knot, meets the stage presence of the Critically Endangered Black Falcon than Jagger to me. With several more performances of “The real time it takes” either side of National Threatened Species Day, Crisp implores: stop the ongoing destruction.

Why does Crisp keep going? Because what she communicates is important. Why do any of us keep going? Because what we do is important.

Gracia Haby

Using an armoury of play and poetry as a lure, Gracia Haby is an artist besotted with paper. Her limited edition artists’ books, and other works hard to pin down, are often made collaboratively with fellow artist, Louise Jennison. Their work is in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia and state libraries throughout Australia to the Tate (UK). Gracia Haby is known to collage with words as well as paper.


  1. Rosalind Crisp, “The real time it takes”, Dancehouse Season Two program notes,, accessed August 31, 2023, 6.
  2. Rosalind Crisp, “d a n s e” (2005), Le Fresnoy, France, video recorded by Eric Pellet,, accessed September 1, 2023.
  3. Rosalind Crisp discussing traces recorded after and in response to a bushfire in 2017, near Marlo, in the East Gippsland Region of Victoria, “10 ‘Fragile Earth: Extinction’ conversations: Rosalind Crisp,” Gippsland Art Gallery, August 22, 2022,, accessed September 1, 2023
  4. “More than 1,900 Australian species and ecological communities are known to be threatened or at risk of extinction. In 2021, more species are listed as threatened, or are listed in a higher category of threat (e.g. from Vulnerable to Endangered to Critically Endangered) than 5 years ago — an increase of 8% since 2016.” “Overview: Biodiversity” in Australia State of the environment 2021, Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, Canberra,, accessed September 1, 2023.
  5. List of Threatened Fauna in the East Gippsland Shire, including 71 species of threatened birds (on the Victorian FFG Threatened List 2021), State Wide Integrated Flora and Fauna Teams,, accessed September 1, 2023.
  6. DIRt,, accessed August 31, 2023.
  7. “2023–2032 Save Birds, Save Life: Bird Conservation Strategy,” BirdLife Australia,, accessed September 1, 2023, 5.
  8. Rosalind Crisp, Letter to The Age, August 26, 2019,, accessed September 1, 2023.
  9. Rosalind Crisp in interview with Mirka Eliášová, Lizzy Le Quesne, Mish Rais, ‘A dance practice of ‘choreographic improvisation’: interview with Rosalind Crisp’,, accessed September 1, 2023, 21.



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