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Animated Edition - Spring 2003
Being part of something that is really a profession
Eddie Nixon looks at Dance UK's recent initiatives to support the professional development of choreographers
Choreographers need to be creative and innovative but choreography is also work. To earn a living and sustain a career over a number of years demands a complex array of professional skills as well as energetic, resourceful personal management. So where do you go to learn them and from whom?

Most situations require only one choreographer at a time, so despite it being a people business it can also be a fairly lonely one. Unlike dancers who rely on daily class for maintaining their professional network as much as their physical development, choreographers do not have a regular place to go and refuel. Opportunities to meet with peers, exchange ideas and learn from each other are few and far between. This is unfortunate as choreographers themselves know most about the job. Bringing them together allows them to talk, learn and help one another.

From this need grew Dance UK's ChoreoForum, which began as an opportunity for choreographers to get together and discuss issues that arise right across the profession regardless of context or style. The event attempts to provide a sense of community, or in the words of a participant, makes one 'feel like you are part of something that is actually a profession'. But the event is about more than relieving isolation. It is about hearing what choreographers have to say and trying to address these issues.

Articulating your vision
In the last few months, we have undertaken a series of interviews with choreographers and artistic directors to try and learn more about the problems and difficulties they face. They all have raised the issue of communication. Expressing yourself on a daily basis to dancers, managers, collaborators, funders, promoters, producers and audiences is a major challenge. Not to mention a little exhausting. Many choreographers interviewed voiced a desire to advocate for both dance in general as well as their own ideas and although they possess an innate ability to express their ideas physically or theatrically, more often they are asked to explain their vision through words. This theme was explored at ChoreoForum in November 2002. Independent choreographer Rosemary Lee spoke of the need to constantly examine how her ideas can be articulated into different words, depending on who is going to read or hear them. With promoters or funders the emphasis is on demonstrating her integrity and how the work fits into the bigger cultural picture. When marketing work to audiences, Rosemary feels it is important not to give a misleading impression but rather to interest people without giving too much away. Hardest of all is the dialogue with the performers. Of course it is essential they understand what underpins the work yet Rosemary likes to leave them enough space to own the work. A fine line exists between allowing them to feel connected without blinkering their view or confining their experience when performing the work.

Rosemary's experience illustrates one of the difficulties persistently faced by choreographers. The fear of being misunderstood, misrepresented or simply not being heard, particularly for emerging choreographers. Poor communication frequently leads to a bad working environment, which often leads to the early departure of dancers, collaborators and managers. Experience, it seems, is the key in learning to be honest enough to say what you mean. Quinny Sacks, a theatre and film choreographer, explained that since most of her work is collaborative, it demands a great deal of fluidity and adaptability on her part. But she also identified the need to have strong, bold ideas of your own and to educate those around you as to what you require to achieve them. Employers, dancers and audience are drawn to a particular artist because of their unique creative vision. So the artist somehow needs the clarity and strength to radiate their vision not just in their choreography but in all aspects of the job. A tall order if you are just starting out.

The skills gap
Good communication is just one of the practical skills needed by a choreographer beyond the ability to make interesting movement and theatre. You may find yourself leading a team of performers, running a touring dance company or at the helm of an entire institution. Consequently you need to be a good negotiator and fair employer. You need to understand funding and marketing and manage finances, time and people. You also need to plan strategically your workload and ideas for the months or years ahead. At the moment, most choreographers feel the only way to learn this immense range of skills is through trial, error and their natural passion and impetus to keep going. To a degree, one could argue this system works well. There is no point in stockpiling this knowledge years before, since it only really becomes of any use or relevance at the point you need to know it. Nevertheless, it seems that when this point arrives, more needs to be done to help choreographers or artistic directors deal with the practical aspects of their job. There are many examples in the independent dance sector where the practical strain of trying to operate a small dance company is so overwhelming that the artist just gives up.

Plans are underway to provide both specific managerial skills training as well as facilitating meetings between choreographers to share their experiences and knowledge. The point is to help people be more effective and confident in the job they do, to make the managerial more manageable and free the artist to devote more of their energies to creativity.

Effective leadership
Whatever the context, choreographers are leaders. In the words of one 'leadership accounts for about 95% of what you do.' But knowing how to choreograph does not guarantee you possess the ability to be an effective leader. Historically, large repertory companies provided a secure environment for choreographers to learn not just their craft but also to gradually understand their role as leaders through Associate/Assistant Director positions. Some of contemporary dances most respected figures such as Richard Alston and Siobhan Davies, cut their teeth in this way. These days there are fewer such companies and opportunities. Contrast this with the world of theatre where many repertory and producing houses such as The Donmar Warehouse and Royal Court Theatre offer assistant director traineeships to aspiring talent. In the Winter 2002 edition of Animated, Duncan Fraser pointed out the lack of provision for developing and nurturing inspiring, creative leaders in dance.

Surrounding yourself with the right team appears crucial to successful leadership. Choreographer Micha Bergese explained how he has learnt to 'build a family' who will act as his 'fire brigade' in any emergencies. Good leadership is also two-way. You need to offer your management, collaborators and dancers support as well as expecting it in return. Cathy Marston, believes that 'the best leaders are constantly training people around them to be leaders themselves. That way everyone learns to be a leader'. These discussions tend to throw up more questions than they answer and are probably just scratching the surface. The challenge is to provide more opportunities for individuals to deepen their understanding of themselves in their role as creative and hopefully inspiring leaders.

Observing others
The focus of most of these activities is on peer group learning. This extends to the observership programme. It grew directly from an idea expressed by choreographers themselves at the first ChoreoForum in 2000. They identified the difficulty of extending their work into different arenas due to a lack of familiarity with different working cultures and contexts. For an inexperienced choreographer, an opera rehearsal room with its' hierarchies and codes of behaviour can already be intimidating even before you have begun to tackle trying to get the chorus to move the way you want. The observership scheme enables experienced choreographers to spend a few days observing a colleague working in an environment unfamiliar to them. The observers may already have an idea of where they want their career to go and hopefully the scheme helps provide the knowledge to make it happen.

Initially the scheme was voluntary. Unfortunately, if observers were offered paid work they invariably had to drop out and earn a living. Thankfully, the scheme is now supported by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and both choreographer and observer are paid for their time, so they can make participation in this kind of development opportunity a priority as opposed to a luxury. It provides a chance for choreographers to decode and demystify the skills needed to work in a new field and hopefully gives them the confidence to seek creative opportunities in this new area. Susan Crow who observed Denni Sayers working on The Bartered Bride at the Royal Opera House explains 'All in all it was extremely useful to have the opportunity too observe objectively, free of responsibility to make or do. It enabled me to analyse and understand far more clearly the methods and mechanics of the particular choreographic assignment, the role of the choreographer relative to other members of a production team, and the contribution that a choreographer can make to a wider theatrical production.'

The scheme has been extended to provide assistant choreographer placements. The aim is to allow choreographers to recruit an assistant to work alongside them on a specific project. The scheme provides the funds and hence the opportunity for a dancer or relatively inexperienced choreographer to not only learn the skills required to be an assistant but also gain hands on experience of the conception and realisation of a project from a new perspective. The choreographer also receives payment for the time and effort spent nurturing and developing their appointed assistant. Frances Newman who assisted Stuart Hopps on Welsh National Operas new version of Die Fledermaus talks enthusiastically about the personal benefits. 'Throughout the rehearsal period I watched and listened very carefully and tried to be ready and available to Stuart. Often it was working alongside him, spotting where choreography needed tightening, jumping in to sort it out. In addition to this I was asked to spend time with one of the principals who needed assistance. I worked with encouraging her to get deeper with her work, to make appropriate choices and to develop her confidence. Great fun. Working with Stuart has given me an insight into choreographing for opera and the opportunity to build a relationship with Welsh National Opera.'

Stepping stones
Both these schemes, together with ChoreoForum and other proposed programmes are aimed at developing practical and leadership skills by encouraging the spread of good practice through the profession. They deliver the skills necessary for choreographers to manage their lives as well as providing opportunities to further their careers.

There remains a need to facilitate ongoing dialogue between choreographers, so that the profession can guarantee its' own health now and in the future. Many choreographers remark that the existence and support of role models early in their careers proved crucial to their successful development. The lack of help and advice or the fear of asking for it stalls many promising creative talents.

Choreographers need stepping stones to negotiate their careers, to realise their potential and do their job effectively. Perhaps people are born to be great choreographers, but we must endeavour to provide the means that enable them to reach greatness.

Eddie Nixon is a freelance performer and has recently worked on the Professional Development Programme at Dance UK.

For more information about Dance UK's programme for professional choreographers please contact Adrienn at Dance UK on + 44 (0)207 228 4990 email

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Animated: Spring 2003