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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Call me old-fashioned, but...
Animated, Autumn 1996. Has the kernel of dance choreography faded? Is there a creeping disenchantment with contemporary dance? And, are we talking dance anyway? Nikki Crane fuels the debate
It has been a real thrill in recent weeks to turn on the television and see the likes of "Strictly Dancing" and "Absolutely Dancing'. I would love to know what the ratings are - I fancy they'll be pretty high. It is so refreshing to see dance that is unselfconscious, spontaneous and full of that good old fashioned feeling, the joy of dance. May there be much more of it, especially on Television.

And, for me, this only serves to highlight, yet again, a creeping disenchantment with contemporary dance - the lack of vitality, the increasing abstraction and confusion in the work that I see. But are we talking about dance anyway? There is a good deal of watering down going on, both in the content of the work and in the way in which it is presented. We call it dance theatre, physical theatre, collaborative work - anything except dance it seems and more and more companies are keen to squeeze in everything from film to text and theatrical elements of all descriptions. Is the kernel of dance choreography fading fast? Are we modifying ourselves out of existence?

These days I shudder when I think of cross arts, collaborative work, or whatever the latest buzz, word is, because I am less and less confident that artists can deal with one art form let alone two or three. Isn't it time for more innovation within the art form rather than prematurely introducing outside elements to paper over the cracks? I am not campaigning against collaborative work, I am merely suggesting that we make sure we are reasonably secure in our own discipline first. Good dancers are ten a penny, talented choreographers are few and far between and directors who can take on board multi-disciplinary work are a rare species indeed.

So apart from too much dilution what else could be having a debilitating effect on dance? There isn't space to examine all the contributing factors but here are a few thoughts and questions. Lloyd Newson talks about the lack of intellectual training of dancers and for me this is born out only too clearly in a frighteningly large proportion of the work I see pedalled around many venues in the Eastern region, especially small scale. The word pedestrian comes to mind. Sir Earnest Gombrich's concern about theory taught in art schools has a particular resonance for dance..."Young artists are being inducted in an ideology both of self expression and of what Karl Popper called historicism. Everything's based on the idea of doing something new, attracting attention, and of the media making you famous for a day or sometimes longer..."

Again, I am not suggesting that we put the damper on innovation and stagnate, it's about keeping it in some kind of perspective. Placing too much emphasis on innovation inevitably throws other factors out of balance - the ultimate quest for quality, time to reflect, the need to consolidate at times in order to progress... And the big question is, are we in danger of producing dancers of a lesser stature by, in general, an overly liberal approach to the training of dancers?

For me, some strong leadership from the front of the class is what we need more of. I am not suggesting we go as far as the Guru Shisha model necessarily but it may be high time to swing the pendulum a little further back in that direction - discipline and respect for the teacher's expertise, alongside dialogue and experimentation. This is assuming of course that we are confident in our teachers' abilities, alongside dialogue and experimentation. If not, this is where we should be attacking the problem.

John Adair, Britain's only professor of leadership studies expounds "Today we are more egalitarian and liable to produce nice men and women who fit in without giving offence... but the buck has to stop somewhere... we need to grow more leaders".

If we get the balance right in our training programmes, far from cramping anyone's style we should be opening up individual potential further. A teacher who is prepared, metaphorically speaking, to put his or her stake in the ground, at least gives us something to react to, kick against, keep its on our toes. Leading by good example is the key.

Which brings us on to the craft of choreography - and by this I mean knowledge and use of the tools, the ingredients or the know how of building dances? Doris Humphrey in Art of Making Dances talks about using "the right materials" and knowing "how to adjust the gears to make the desired product". After all, good dance is out just about having an interesting idea (although to talk to some artists these days you could be forgiven for thinking that it is). It is about the translation and the interpretation of the idea... and that means thought and analysis.

The fact that some young choreographers are set up with their own companies far too soon just compounds the problems outlined above and is the subject of another thesis. Remember we are not just talking about the work here but the whole business of running a company and how to relate to the outside world. In the region, as elsewhere, agencies and promoters are caught up in a serious world of survival and there can only be room therefore for controlled experimentation.

Partnerships are the key to healthy dance development and making these works takes experience and maturity as well as team skills! Recognising the expertise of those at the receiving end of touring work - agencies, animateurs and other promoters - is a good start. It would be helpful if more opportunities were available to artists to learn their trade more thoroughly under some kind of apprenticeship rather than being east out to sink or swim at everyone's expense including their own. Take the whole crucial area of publicity and marketing...

A recent example of how not to run a partnership runs as follows: Artist and region establish long term partnership to encourage in depth exchange and development. Huge amounts of funding, time and energy ensue and we think we are talking each other's language... our region has a particular character, this is what we can offer and vice versa, etc. Then comes the bolt out of the blue. Artist refuses to compromise at all over some very sensible suggestions on the publicity (and we're talking subtle adjustments here) - all offered in the spirit of making the tour a success for all concerned. The artistic integrity line is reeled out again and the weight of opinion from a dedicated group of highly expert marketers, talented promoters, and up-to-the-minute, audience aware agencies seems to be of little consequence. If this is partnership bring back the one offs, it's a great deal less hassle.

Some artists would do well to come and spend some time seconded to a venue or agency and have a go at selling a show on an obscure, inert, image that is supposed to speak volumes about dance. And this coupled with what could only be described as pseudo-intellectual copy, which is appealing neither to press or punter.

The artist is not in a private world, he/she depends oil community, and some of our greatest artists, Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens, to name but two, were most conscious of their market. Let's try harder to get under each other's skin otherwise it is simply a case of swapping a studio space in London for one out here.

We've all seen the tidal waves of energy and enthusiasm that spread far and wide when dance really hits the right spot. This is why it is worth complaining bitterly about. The above is only supposed to act as a shopping list of areas I feel need urgent attention and if we are to make progress on these, we need to work together, each in his/her own field. My final wish list therefore is for more, strong and intelligent leaders, respect for their expertise, getting back to the craft of choreography, a shift towards the apprenticeship training model, a focus on site improvement of partnerships, and above all let's get back to dance and concentrate on doing this to the best of our ability.

Nikki Crane is Dance, Mime and New Circus Officer for Eastern Arts Board. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the RAB.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001