In the largest bequest ever made to contemporary dance in Australia, 20 performers will receive a share of $2 million from the estate of the former chair of the Clean Energy Regulator, Chloe Munro.

North Melbourne dance company Lucy Guerin Inc, where Munro served on the board for a decade, will receive $500,000 and the remainder of the money will go to individual artists handpicked by Munro. Ten mid-career artists will each receive $100,000, and 10 independent artists will each get $50,000. The majority of the recipients are based in Melbourne, with artists in Sydney and Tasmania also included.

There are no stipulations for how the artists are to spend the funds.

Some of the recipients of the newly announced Chloe Munro fellowships for contemporary dance gathered at Lucy Guerin Inc in North Melbourne.Credit:Simon Schluter

“It’s a really direct and powerful investment in the art form [and] I feel like it will give these very hard-working artists some breathing space to properly reflect on their practice and their art form,” says artistic director Lucy Guerin.

“Ringing each of those artists and letting them know about what’s happened was just incredible. There were tears, there were screams, there was speechlessness. It was just absolutely life-changing.”

Performer and fellowship recipient Luke George says: “I’ve never received a phone call like that ever.” The artist’s most recent work was at Rising Festival, and involved using rope to suspend AFL players from the ceiling of NGV’s great hall to recreate a famous speccy.

Still Lives, a work by Luke George and Daniel Kok, saw a historic moment in AFL recreated in the NGV.Credit:Rising

“I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that many times I’ve thought about throwing it in and pursuing another career option, or finding stable work that I would have a salary from. And it’s things like this [fellowship] that mean that I don’t necessarily have to be that extreme,” George says.

The news is still fresh and, like the other recipients, he is still deciding how best to use the money. “I think the first thing is that I can take a breath and know that everything’s going to be OK.” He pauses. “I feel quite emotional when I say that because I think, so often we spend so much time worrying.”

Independent artist Ngioka Bunda-Heath says the fellowship “will allow me the freedom and the support to dream big”.

The dancer and choreographer points to the challenges that often come with applying for funding. “It’s very time-consuming as an artist, and it’s often very difficult,” she says, then adds with a laugh: “I like to dance, not talk.

“Putting your ideas and dreams down on paper – it’s confronting. So it’s so lovely that this was just a beautiful tap on the shoulder.”

Dancer and choreographer Ngioka Bunda-Heath is one of the recipients of a fellowship for independent artists.Credit:Simon Schluter

Dancer and choreographer Stephanie Lake, who is also the director of Stephanie Lake Company and knew Munro well, highlights the ripples this bequest will have through the contemporary dance community. She plans to take some time to think through the specifics of how best to use the funding but would like it to go towards infrastructure as well as creating new projects and employment opportunities for other artists.

Chloe Munro photographed in St Kilda in 2018.Credit:Arsineh Houspian

“For some of the younger artists in particular, this will be absolutely life-changing,” she says. “It will mean … they can pursue the projects that might not necessarily make them lots of money but they are passionate about – and they’ll have that financial underpinning which makes it possible.”

Munro’s son, Fred Backler, says: “Without the arts there’s no building empathy, there’s no building connection to people. I’m just very grateful to have been able to connect with my mum through the art that she loved so much, and to see it have an opportunity to continue is really significant on a personal level.

“I think that there are going to be ongoing benefits that we don’t even know yet.”

Those who spent time with Munro recall her commitment to contemporary dance behind the scenes on the board of Lucy Guerin Inc, where she served as chair, and as an audience member who attended performances big and small.

“She really got to understand the trajectory and the pathways that need to be created to form a healthy dance ecology, and so this was her way of supporting that,” says Guerin.

“I predict a renaissance of contemporary dance in the next few years.”

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