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Animated Edition - Autumn 2006
Challenging assumptions
Looking back over a career spanning the introduction (at London Contemporary Dance Theatre) of education as a major element in company practice to the first appearance at national level of the ideas of community dance during his period in the Dance Department at the Arts Council, Dick Matchett highlights, issues which the dance profession just loves to chew over - without, reaching any clear-cut conclusions
In case it is not clear when you are reading this piece can I state here and now that this is not about my opinions. They are not what is important here. The drive behind this article is about YOU always challenging your own opinions. And yourself. And the world of dance. Ask is it possible his tongue may be hovering in close proximity to his cheek at some points. Don't judge this as the usual gruesome 'gurns' of some grumpy old man. Remember instead that to challenge means both to call to account and to summon to a trial of strength. Let the challenge commence.

A friend asked me how I stayed committed to my core beliefs in this changeling world. And the answer to that is so simple - by constantly challenging myself and by extension the dance world I operate in.

I would like to share a few of my challenges with you in the hope that they in turn will challenge you. Remember a difference of opinion is not always a bad thing. After all mightn't progress come more from disagreement than sweet agreement?

I recall speaking to a member of the Arts Council Dance Panel in the late 1970s. He complained that he was reluctant to remain a Panel member as nothing ever changed. I pointed out the major developments which had occurred in the dance sector over the previous decade namely
  • The growth of contemporary dance
  • The creation [at the Council] of a sub committee to support new work
  • The extension of the Council's support for classical ballet beyond the confines of the Royal Ballet Companies.
Now as I look around the dance scene in 2006 I can appreciate more how he felt (perhaps even in contradiction of the facts) - the overwhelming impression is of a scenario in which nothing of importance seems to have changed for ever so many years. Therefore what I would like to do in this article is to issue a series of CHALLENGES to the dance sector in the hope that this may clarify for us whether what we are in is in a period of constant stasis or not.

Big beasts
In the 1970s there were a small number of activists campaigning for dance who were significantly effective at the top tables of decision-making. The results of their activities were noticeable; indeed you could argue they changed the whole geography of the art form. Earth shakers such as Robin Howard, Peter Brinson, John Drummond, Val Bourne, Marion North. They didn't just raise arguments - they struggled until they achieved their goal. Today I look around in vain to discover their successors.

So my first challenge is who is making the case for dance at the top tables nowadays and where are their successes that we ought to be celebrating?

New kids on the block
Last week I was looking at a citation on an Award for Dance from the 1980s. It listed the people who had been responsible for choosing the winners of the award. Nine out of ten of these selectors were still active in the dance world and still would have been on the selection panel if a similar award were to be held today. Should we not be concerned at this stultification? Might it not be argued that any sector that relies on the same leadership after 30 years could be heading towards the Terpsichorean knackers yard? So my second challenge is where is the leadership coming from to carry the sector forward into the new century?

Recently I was researching the early days of the Royal Ballet and I was amazed at the variety of jobs artists of that company undertook to make a living - they danced in the West End, in nightclubs and were part of popular culture from Panto to sea-side summer shows. On the other hand nowadays the whole dance profession prefers to keep itself to itself. I am reminded of the saying 'what do they know of England who only England know'. Substitute dance world for England and do we have a perfect summing up of what's out of order with the dance profession in Britain 2006? So my third challenge is to hear from the dance world of any example of dance companies who are interacting with popular culture to survive [not including pop videos].

Re-engagement with large audiences
TV audiences for popular dance reality shows are, in my opinion, misleading dance activists into thinking that dance is re-invigorating itself with the grass roots. But is this no more than a mirage? The real picture (when you look at what contemporary or classical creative artists are producing) is the exact opposite - there is very little attempt whatsoever to learn from what is being uncovered by these television shows. The art form seems to believe it can attract the audiences without altering the content of their programme in any way. There is much lip service paid to Accessibility - but very few choreographers or dance organisers are alert enough to understand what this means when it comes to programme content - they want the outcome without the change. If we wish to make dancing for others a large part of the sectors ambition we must take account of what the public wants and not merely 'do our own thing'. When black students were admitted in large numbers to the American university system the content of courses studied had to reflect this new intake. And change. So my fourth challenge is for the dance sector to think seriously about the changes that the implementation of a policy of Accessibility requires and to come to terms with such changes. Or argue against them.

The killer instinct
The dance world is well balanced - dance training develops self-discipline and controlled emotions. I wonder if this has been to our disadvantage when in contention with other art forms for limited funds. We all talk about our passion for the art form but mostly we lack the killer instinct. If the Lilac fairy were to come to the christening of the Dance world 2006 I would request her not to bring gifts of Forbearance and Even-temperedness. The dance world already demonstrates these qualities in abundance. Instead it might be better for the art form if she brought along the Fairy of Righteous Anger and the Fairy of Persuasive Disputatiousness. So my challenge in this area is would the dance world be more effective in making a successful case for the development of dance if more of us were to be less obliging and more passionately argumentative.

New things to say
There was a time in the 1980s when the leading practitioners in other art forms were interested in British dance ideas but this no longer seems to be the case. The general art programmes on television rarely present a dance item because outside its own confines the debate that Dance is having is mostly with itself and is of little or no interest to anyone else. Even in those areas where our process is exciting haven't we lost the enthusiasm to carry this excitement without the boundaries of the dance world. The same ground is being tilled as was tilled 20 years ago. Truthfully how many debates/discussions have you attended where you were hearing what you heard in most of the previous debates you attended? All menus need new ranges on them or they become uninteresting and unnoticed. Therefore my sixth challenge is how can we find new things to say as well as new people to say them.

The Pendulum has swung too far?
All Empires fall eventually - so it seems do standards if you listen to the older generation. But the problem with today's dance world is that this perennial question of falling standards has become entangled with the question of social engineering in the arts. As a consequence, assessment of artistic standards has become a very confused area of debate.

There is a standard against which a company (or individual) can be measured - for example if it presents a programme using the Cunningham technique. In contrast by introducing the Cunningham technique to a socially excluded area is not a standard more a political imperative of the present funding system, which you ignore at your peril.

Yet these totally different activities have become entwined (at least in the eyes of the artist) in the present assessment system until the artist is not sure whether they should take a sociology degree or a dance degree as their initial training (joke!). It may seem fair that every artist should be judged against the same criteria in all categories - but is it? Couldn't it be argued that it is easier to be objective about certain criteria (you either work in a socially deprived area or you don't) and therefore judgements in the areas can be confidently undertaken and scored. But in the area of artistic excellence the subjective element comes more to the fore and judgements and scores may be, as a result, more cautious and in the middle rank. The present assessment system seems designed to eliminate the subjective; but shouldn't the subjective be at the very heart of all artistic judgements? It is dangerous certainly and relies on people instead of established criteria. But its what the arts are about isn't it?

The arts and established criteria on the other hand are antipathetic one to the other. No artist worth their salt cares for established criteria - they walk alone and to the accompaniment of their singular drum. Instead 'established criteria' are in danger of draining away the lifeblood from the art form.

So the challenge in this section is to ask yourself the question whether it would benefit the art form more or less if artistic standards could be judged in a stand alone way. Could artists who wanted to work in social inclusion do so without loosing artistic kudos - and could artists who were not challenged by introducing their art form to the deprived area be supported without being punished for their want of sociological intent? A difficult challenge this one and not easy to judge - however may not the pendulum have swung already too far in the direction of social engineering? And what can you do about it if you think it has?

Challenging assumptions
Recently I was speaking to a Bharatya Natyam artist, Chitra Sundaram; she brought to my attention an opinion which I find deeply worrying. She argued that it seemed to her that the dance scene in Britain found it much easier to deal with diversity of colour than to deal with diversity of opinions. It is true that the sector dynamic tends mostly to the conservative - we prefer to cover over differences rather than take them forward in a dispute. The personality required to challenge the establishment is very different to the average dance personality.

The dance personality would prefer to make things right by self-correction as opposed to changing the world through conflict and the clash of principle. But isn't it true that the form has moved forward most when people have had the strength of belief to challenge what is taken for granted - for instance state funding being restricted to classical ballet or community dance being held to be outwith the purview of the state funding system. So my challenge is to wonder how can we structure the sector to ensure a greater variety of views can come through - because isn't this the only way forward movement can be guaranteed for the art form?

Embrace the new
The British love new films, new theatre even; in the visual arts The New is embraced with fervour and the televising of award ceremonies. Dance in Britain, however, is less welcoming to The New. Is this because of a history of under funding? Is it because the dance audience mostly prefers 'to stay put' rather than ride on the rails to uncover exciting but recently discovered trends? Is it because nobody stays around long enough to be revealed as representatives of The New? Whatever the cause it does seem to me that it is much harder to break through in our art form and this needs to change. So my next challenge is to wonder what would be the most successful tactics to bring about such an outcome.

I am very fond of quotations - exploring past wisdom or the thoughts of people who achieved much is for me an excellent way of coming to terms with one's own uncertainties or mistakes. The words of Mahatma Ghandi (1) have given me much to ponder in relation to the present situation in dance.
  • 'Satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment'
  • 'Strength does not come from physical captivity - it comes from an indomitable will'
  • 'Honest differences are often a healthy sign of progress'
  • 'Cowards can never be moral'.
These sentences cannot help but give everyone much to think over. Therefore if ever you get annoyed at someone or something in the dance world you just have to take a quick look at a book of quotations and before you know it you can be arguing with the Mahatma's ideas and you will have forgotten the silliness of the moment. So this challenge is for you to consider what Confucius could have meant by: 'Never give a sword to a man who cannot dance?' (2)

Too many trees in the forest
From the eighties onwards the dance sector has seen many areas develop (of which the community dance sector has been one of the largest). All that expansion made for a feeling of 'Heady Days.' But today - now what? Is it possible that all this growth has been absorbed without high standards being established? When I started touring with LCDT there were no small size or middle size companies. Today I get the impression of hundreds with new ones appearing daily. Then one person could be aware of all (or at least most) dance activities nationwide. Today such a proposition is laughable. All growth is not necessarily good. Ask Alan Titmarsh. My next to last challenge is to question whether there are now too many trees in the forest which risks crowding out genuinely outstanding new arrivals.

Who cares?
Watching a recent television programme on China what struck me was that here was a society, which was trying to instil challenge for all levels of its society. What I can't forget was the scene where the Chairwoman of a peasant farming village was chased into the fields by an urban bureaucrat demanding from the chairwoman that the villagers pay more attention to their political or social development. Admittedly all this activity did have more than a touch of Orwellian menace to it. But there was also a sublime understanding that everybody was worth bothering about - and also that things would only get better if somebody took the trouble to bother. Do we need to find a way in modern day Britain to unlock the time, the money, and the commitment to provide such intensive care for all levels of the dance world? Now wouldn't that be a challenge worth undertaking (but without the Orwellian overtones naturally!?)

Dick Matchett

1. Ghandi, M. featured in the DVD support booklet of Richard Attenborough's film Gandhi (USA) 1982

2. Confucius featured in Analects of Confucius (analect is a collection of extracts) The Scotsman, 2005

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Animated: Autumn 2006