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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Environmental issues
Animated, Summer 2000. David Massingham takes time out to reflect on his first year jumping the fence from full-time choreographer to National Dance Agency artistic director
I am glad to be writing this by hand. It makes a change from constantly banging at a computer keyboard. Is the loss of handwriting another nail in the coffin of individuality or part of the evolution to a new, as yet virtually unknown, form of self-expression?

My love of dance is blurred now, but I am finding a renewed interest in art generally. I wonder if it is part of being 40? I have not lost my interest in sex and it has only recently influenced my dance making (what little I do presently). Interestingly with more time between dance works, on the one hand I feel out of practise artistically and yet more prepared mentally to fulfil what I see as an increasingly daunting prospect.

Watching, as I have become accustomed to, I wonder if I really have a big or fragile enough ego to make good dance pieces. Honesty is becoming less of a problem, but I still have not settled on who I want to be. The choices seem so incompatible. I have re-invented myself before, could I not do it again?

Dance is like a destructive relationship, just when you think you should be leaving, it throws you a morsel and holds you to it. Ultimately, it leaves you feeling like a failure because you can never satisfy its demands. Although this is a personal view, I see elements of this in artists' lives around me.

No one told me how I would feel at the end of my career. What end? I am not at the end, am I? There are very few absolutes available to us in the dance industry, but of one thing I am sure. A business that leaves you high and dry between 35 and 40 is a tough one. A life of uncertainty, followed by a period of 'almost definitely' is not what I imagined I was letting myself in for. Perhaps the dance colleges could give out What Next packs on leaving, to be opened on hitting 30-something. There could be a bit of scope as to when you think you are ready to open your pack as you may feel like peeling back the flap at 27. Would it be beneficial for dance to create more opportunities for older practitioners to stay attached to the industry to evolve the Logans Run effect? (1)

I have learnt a lot in my first year as a National Dance Agency (NDA) artistic director. It is not all good though. I worry about the state of dance as an over regulated hobby. My days of indulgence cost me a fortune, I now need a well paid job so that I can pay for my former habit.

Since doing this job I have discovered that I am an organizer, not always organized but fairly inventive about it. I definitely direct DanceXchange (dx) as if I am choreographing. I may not fulfil the final choreography but I set up the context and fill in part of the structure. Perhaps this is where my interest has always been. I never did like finishing pieces off after the last step was made. I now realise this is where dance begins.

I feel as if I work in an industry hell bent on doing things to artists so liberating them is out of the question right now. The geo-political push is making hefty strides in flattening the landscape and this takes time, energy and resources. Would the result be any less beneficial if we simply gave the artists the money? Because we spend so much money talking about dance, there comes a point where it is not worth deliberating the results of spending the remainder. Schemes and pots of money that help the artists do this, that and the other are fine as long as they are attached to a potentially developmental environment.

I do not want to do myself out of a job. I like it. I find it creative and intriguing and God knows it is nice to belong to a group after all this time. We all talk about the problems of dance as if they only appeared yesterday I hope the artform is progressing faster than the arguments surrounding it.

DanceXchange is facing its biggest challenge yet. A new building (inherited) and an expanded remit to work across the West Midlands (self -induced). This is set in a context of working on national and international projects and events produced by us individually or as part of The Association of National Dance Agencies. The tightrope is thin and yet the balls being juggled keep on getting bigger. It is both exhilarating and stress-inducing.

The new dx home will be within a partnership-led building with The Hippodrome and Birmingham Royal Ballet. Hitching an NDA to Britain's largest independent commercial theatre and second largest ballet company is without precedent. The success of the partnership will depend on the personalities initially and the operating agreement thereafter. Resources for the agency are not about to blossom as if in constant spring and the context which the building dictates will also potentially affect the future 'feel' of DanceXchange.

Due to open in spring 2001, the new facilities will offer the dance world expanded studio space and a dedicated dance performance studio theatre called The Patrick Centre (long story). The trick will be to fill this space with wonderful opportunities for both the public and professionals and yet not become building-centric to the exclusion of expanding the work of the agency outwards geographically. There is a certain amount of conflict within the present remit which needs careful orienteering. Each of the agency's key constituents wants us to develop in their direction, which may or may not suit the demands of running a key national arts resource.

DanceXchange is currently a five strong team including myself. I feel lucky that the workforce is highly motivated because they have to be. I do less dance classes (2) than all the other staff who are committed to both their responsibilities and their own development. Artistic decision making can be shared in this environment, even if I have to take the final punch if it all goes bonkers.

Aligned to being practitioner-led, dx glues itself to the coalface of the industry in an attempt to put more artists in touch with potential employment. The agency is committed to a series of projects which are designed to both fulfil a goal of increasing participatory opportunities and yet open the eyes of the world as to what makes the artform and artist tick.

This autumn we will be touring Raising The Roof Road Shows. These are a bit like a mini festival, in which the public get to do taster workshops and see short performances back to back in a one-day event. West Midlands based performers therefore get to perform and teach, showcasing their talents to potential employers and audiences. One such performer is dx's own dance development officer, Anna Brown. For venues it brings the public into their buildings on a Sunday, breaking down young peoples' perceived barriers to theatre based performance.

DanceXchange is working toward insuring that all our projects focus on opportunities for artists to develop. A good example of this is our children's hospital schools project called Dancing From The Heart. Led by two renowned practitioners in the field, Peppy Hills and Louise Glynn, this three year initiative has two major strands. The first is to build sustainable dance projects in different sections of the school, both on wards and in classrooms making dance a central experience for the children whilst being educated and cared for. The second is the development of a larger group of artistic professionals able to deliver the work through paid training opportunities.

My wish for the agency is that we nurture both the artform and that part of the industry that can provide stable employment. After all, we have a population that thought they would be doing one thing when they left college but end up making ends meet by doing another. Dx needs to find a way of accelerating the process of making good dance by better management for the artists; cutting the quandary time an artist goes through in the struggle for survival. I believe my career as an artist has suffered from being seen and perhaps being an 'all rounder?. For me, part of this problem is time to do both attached to the right circumstances at the right time.

Within the next two years, dx will establish a network of dance artists working across the region. The artists in residence will have a brief to both deliver dance activity to the community and explore their own artistic ideas with time allotted to make work and have choreographers to work with. Another desire is to offer working artists the opportunity to have project management experience that fits with their existing performance or choreographic schedules to help dilute the 'what next' effect.

We are establishing two seasons a year with a summer school at the centre. An important aspect of this work is an improvisation series called Live Action led by the artists and facilitated by dx. There is little opportunity outside of London to explore improvisational skills as a means to nurture personal movement potential. The West Midlands has a strong critical mass of artists and is centrally situated to attract artists from further afield.

What sort of artist is dx trying to develop by doing this? Experience has shown me that most artists want more opportunity to perform and/or make work but it is this aspect of dance activity that the venues think there is too much of or it is not of high quality. A lack of structured opportunities throws dancers into the creation of their own company without the experience necessary to provide a strong foundation to choreographic pursuit. Someone once said to me, "you can not stop artists wanting to make work". But as managers we should be able to better refine the structures in which this happens and define the purpose of making the work. Perhaps much less of the created material should be intended for performance.

Is it not a case of elevating the making of art in the public consciousness whilst equipping those that want it with a wider berth of experience and the potential to develop into other careers at a time when they want to or have to, whichever come first. DanceXchange is working towards the creation of a dynamic axis between these. After all, can we really go on saying all that dance artists need is space and somewhere to perform? There is a life form attached to that artistic concept you are watching.

David Massingham, artistic director, the DanceXchange: National Dance Agency. Contact +44 (0) 121 622 3253

1 A 70s sci-fi film in which members of society had to voluntarily leap into a psychedelic abyss at 30 as there was not enough room in a space limited world
2 Statistical analysis warning from Sally Francis, the assistant director. David Massingham has only done one class in the last year

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001