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Animated Edition - Spring 2008
Excellence in community dance: a response to the McMaster report
by Kate Castle Director of Dance South West
Within the McMaster report on 'Supporting Excellence in the Arts', despite many pertinent recommendations, there lurks an implicit, unanswered question: who and what is an artist in the 21st century? The proposition that drove the inquiry leading to this report is that those working in the arts should (in the words of James Purnell) 'strive for what's new and exciting rather than what's safe and comfortable' in order to produce excellent art or excellent culture. I' m not sure the question can be answered unless we entertain a very flexible model of what of an artist is and does. As I read the report, I became increasingly concerned that the image of artists it evokes is that of autonomous, 'driven' individuals whose intentions tend to be misunderstood (especially when they engage in 'risk-taking', one of the themes of the report), whose freedom of expression may need to be protected from the hostile reactions of members of the public, and who are, above all, 'innovative' (another theme). Furthermore, according to this model, the onus for enlivening and enlightening the possibly rather drab and passive audience rests solely with the artist.

This somewhat romantic image is at odds with the artists I encounter - well-trained and serious crafts people, often having a strong sense of vocation, working closely with different people and communities to realise their vision, and taking part in an active dialogue with their audience.

McMaster says in the Foreword that 'the arts are driven by individuals'. Well, yes, up to a point. But in arriving at their destination, these individuals have been shaped and developed by many other people and their output is the result of complex, often delicately poised relationships. Artistic achievements (even novels - look at the acknowledgements in some of them) are the products of collaboration as well as of isolated inspiration. It follows that achieving excellence and becoming 'world class' (whatever that means) implies support for, and understanding of, every aspect of that complex enterprise.

Excellence in dance cannot just be about 'excitement and innovation' or 'new, innovative and risky work'. It is also about the consolidation, dissemination and assimilation of existing (but often still very exciting) ideas and experience. In my view the dance sector often fails to value the past, to build on success through effective knowledge transfer, and to collaborate and share expertise rather than overprivileging the innovations of a few. Consider the vast number of works and projects created relative to the number of performances. What do we learn by constantly throwing away and starting again? We need to look at how well we are accessing and building upon the knowledge and craft of the dance pioneers.

It is ironic that dance, which is arguably the oldest art form, is a relative newcomer to the national cultural picture as defined by the Government and by arts funding bodies. Dance is written deep in the nation's body and psyche, but we are still in the position of needing to justify ourselves, arguing for our 'fair' share of resources, insisting on our value, and endlessly providing evidence of efficacy. It's as if there has been a collective denial of an essential part of human nature. Small wonder that sometimes the profession feels isolated; that instead of a continuum of dance experience there are many separate, often competing initiatives; and that a small but vocal minority of 'experts' believe that their dance is the dance.

Another challenge for dance is that it is expected to do so much for so many. Through dance we celebrate the heritage and future of the many different ethnicities now present in the UK. Dance is also part of the cultural offer for young people, an 'entitlement' to take part in and enjoy an art form. It is believed that dance can help develop more entrepreneurial, 'creative' citizens who will be better equipped to take part in the knowledge-based economy. Dance can help enliven and renew communities and inspire urban regeneration through capital development; it can help prevent crime and disorderly behaviour; and, of course, it can help improve physical and emotional health. It can even be used to help improve cultural and trade relations with other countries.

Such a proliferation of objectives makes it increasingly difficult to establish objective standards of judgement. I offer this example. In a 400-seat rural venue in the South West I recently saw a performance by a well-established, regularly funded company, strongly rooted in community dance. I did not much enjoy the evening (I was tired and cranky), thinking it under-rehearsed and too loud, with somewhat crude production values and imagery. But the audience of mostly young people went wild. If their rapt attention and animated conversations afterward are anything to go by, this performance may have satisfied McMaster's definition of excellence in culture as 'an experience [that] affects and changes an individual' and 'goes to the root of living.' (But how would I, or anyone else but that individual, know whether such a life-changing experience had occurred?)

To arrive at an 'objective judgement about excellence' in this case, I would have needed deep knowledge of the genre and experience of a range of comparators. I would have needed to meet with the company and find out what their original intentions were. How had these been compromised by budgetary constraints? What difficulties had been experienced in the months leading up to the performance (a dancer injured, technical failure, a change in administration)? How had the show as envisaged become the one I attended? How did it fit within the history of the company? How did they evaluate it themselves? What did they plan to make next?

I would also have needed to organise a peer review by people working in the same genre. An education expert would have been useful in evaluating the effectiveness of any workshops. Ideally, the artistic director would have had a mentor, who could also have provided input.
And then I would have wanted feedback from the promoter and the audience. What had the programming and audience development policy been? Why had this company been selected? What type of ongoing relationship was envisaged? The audience sample would have needed to be balanced between newcomers and regular attendees, old and young, and different ethnicities.

Finally, it would have been important to remain aware of the tension between an artist's right to fail and the fact that this particular performance might have been the only opportunity, ever, for some young person to experience dancing (no second chance!). In these circumstances, would you have wanted to be the person responsible for assessing the 'excellence' of this performance and thus perhaps determining the fate of the company - especially in a the current climate of cuts and reallocations?

In preparing this article I have been influenced by a new book, The Craftsman, by Richard Sennett. An American sociologist who lives in London, Sennett analyses the difference between craft and art and looks at the history of the separation of the two. He describes craft as 'an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake'. For him, 'craftsmanship focuses on objective standards, on the thing itself'. Faced with conflicting objective standards of excellence, however, 'the desire to do something well for its own sake can be impaired by competitive pressure, by frustration, or by obsession.' There are many resonances in the book with the community dance sector, not least concerning the existence of a guild of outward-facing practitioners who share their highly developed skills with others and transfer tacit and implicit knowledge, value experiential learning, and establish a tradition of networking and mentoring. (The national fascination with 'Strictly Come Dancing' is surely not mainly with its dated choreography and kitsch costumes, but with that very transfer of knowledge or craft and with peer appraisals of outsiders by acknowledged 'masters'.)

In absorbing the implications of the McMaster report, we may need to articulate more clearly what we mean by 'community dance', examine how we relate to and overlap with the rest of the dance sector, and clarify how the many presenting agendas could be managed. We may also need to work towards strengthening the notion of a 'guild' (with high standards of practice evolved from a deep awareness of context and history) that uses its past to build its future, doesn't confuse innovation for its own sake with making deep and meaningful connections with those it serves, and has collectively arrived at a consensus on what constitutes excellence.

In short, by all means aim for 'world class' status - as encouraged in the McMaster report - but don't dis' the craftsmen on your own doorstep!

contact kate.castle@dancesouthwest.org.uk

References
Sir Brian McMaster, Supporting Excellence in the Arts: From Measurement to Judgement (January 2008). The McMaster report can be downloaded at www.culture.gov.uk
Richard Sennett, The Craftsman, Allen Lane (London), 2008.

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Animated: Spring 2008