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Issues from the Greenhouse
Animated, Autumn 1998. The resonances continue, the debates persist, and perhaps for the first time, the industry's perception of the role of the choreographer, the dance artist, has been a central concern in discussions about the future of dance in this country. Jo Butterworth reflects on one of the issues to emerge from the international conference - The Greenhouse Effect and is left in no doubt that there is so much more to share, and many more doors to open
Despite the fact that we as a steering group tried hard to embrace all forms of dance, and had no desire to be style-specific, many of the presenters spoke about contemporary dance as a norm, and delegates from classical ballet, south Asian dance, afro-Caribbean and community dance networks recognised that perhaps they were not sufficiently well represented. But, most were prepared to engage, to listen and respond generously, and to make suggestions as to the topics for the next Greenhouse event! The consensus was that we should all continue to ensure that choreographic development remains at the forefront of future national and regional agendas.

From all the presentations, some personal highlights for me included the wisdom and inspiration of Bob Cohan, the clarity and humour of David and Ain Gordon, the openness, modesty and good sense of David Bintley, and the intelligence and vision of Rui Horta. I was appreciative of the range of work presented by the platform presenters, and by their ability to explain their respective choreographic processes to the audiences. Each session posed many questions which need to be readdressed on a regular basis, and not just filed away with the conference folder; we need to keep the visions and the debates alive, and the impetus and energy flowing.

The strength of the future of our artform is as reliant on the quality of our inter-personal skills, our social interaction, on communication, argument and the ability to listen, as on the making, performing and viewing of dance. The majority of delegates want the opportunity to meet regularly for reflection and evaluation, and to plan the next strategy together - regional Greenhouses, mini-Greenhouses, European Greenhouses, classical and traditional Greenhouses were all put forward as ideas for possible future gatherings. For me, some of the most important strategies include:

  • More money to ensure security without complacency in the nurturing of young dancemakers

  • Dance education for every child in the country, taught by teachers with knowledge, expertise and a love of their subject

  • More trust, and more respect right across the broad dance map of the UK

  • A career structure for dance artists

  • A strategy for developing even higher quality teachers

  • The development of dance artists who can ultimately take responsibility for educating themselves, withdrawing from dependency, becoming more politically and culturally aware, and able to take control of their several and collective futures.

Perhaps because of my own background as a teacher and educator, and also because of my deep interest and lengthy research into the dancer-choreographer relationship, I have chosen just one of the many rich debating sessions to elaborate upon here in this article - the question of vocational training, with a focus on current practice and future needs.

At the Greenhouse Effect conference, a number of questions were posed to four experienced practitioners: Thea Nerissa Barnes (Artistic Director of Phoenix Dance Company, a former dancer with the Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham companies, and someone who has taught choreography and technique for many years in professional, community and academic situations), Antonia Franceschi (a freelance dancer and producer who formerly danced with New York City Ballet, and is currently teaching young dancers in London), Veronica Lewis (Founder of Cheshire Dance Workshop, now part of Dance Northwest National Dance Agency, and who has been closely and passionately involved with the development of vocational dance training for many years, and who has recently taken up the position of Director of London Contemporary Dance School), and Ann Stannard (co-founder and Director of Central School of Ballet, who trained at the Rambert School, worked closely with Christopher Gable of Northern Ballet Theatre, and who believes that personal and individual development of young dancers is essential).

Debate was stimulated by a number of questions and by the given circumstances of the demands made on professional dancers today, which can cover a very broad spectrum. Those fundamentals range from a requirement for specific techniques in order to be able to cope effectively with the work of particular choreographers, to the ability to improvise, to complete tasks and to share in the process of collaboration in the studio. What effects are current demands having on those who offer vocational training? How do vocational schools ensure that their students engage in preparation for the current job market? And what skills and capabilities will professional dancers require in the next decade?

Some of these questions had been initiated by an article written by Lauren Potter in Dance Now in 1993. Drawing on her experience as a professional dancer in the independent sector to highlight some of the expectations and demands placed on professional dancers by some unspecified choreographers, she wrote: "No longer are dancers just 'bodies in space' or choreographers' 'tools'. Increasingly they have had to become involved in the choreographic process, invent material themselves, and interpret their own dreams and ideas... Yet dancers entering the profession often find both that their training hasn't prepared them for profession demands, and that these demands don't take account of them as individual dancers."(1)

Potter identified an expectation made by some choreographers that dancers will contribute to the generation of dance content, though she also infers that this is not always appreciated or acknowledged by young choreographers, who come from a range of backgrounds and training. And at the time of her own training, the skills of improvisation and understanding of dance composition were not necessarily part of the vocational school curriculum. However, it is also true that dancers have always contributed to the work of a choreographer in important ways.

Let me take an example; Susan Leigh Foster in Reading Dancing describes the choreographic methods of Martha Graham, and acknowledges aspects of the dancers' contribution: (She) "produces a script, commissions or finds a musical score... she begins to choreograph, shaping the movement to fit musical structure and relying on music for insights into her theme. After working alone for some time, Graham begins to work with the dancers in her company, who often suggest movement she might fashion or edit to fit her vision... To perform the role of a character in Graham's dances, the dancer must find the experience of that character in his or her own psychological life, grow into that experience, and become completely identified with the character."(2)

Effectively, Graham's choreographic process, her philosophy of the training and rehearsal required, together with her expectations concerning viewers' responses were distinctive and coherent. But her methods demanded more of her dancers' interpretation of her choreography than in much choreographic contribution of their own. Currently, other choreographic methods developed by choreographers such as Siobhan Davies, Pina Bausch and Lloyd Newson, tend to allow the dancer a greater contribution to the making of the language and stem from different initiatives.

In Jann Parry's article Steps are Out, experienced choreographers Davies, Newson and Bausch all acknowledge a debt to their dancers. For Davies, the choice of mature dancers ensures a fund of knowledge upon which she can draw. "They are longing to make their own decisions. The more they have authorship, the more they communicate their understanding of their mate-rial to the people watching."(3) Essentially these methods adapt the role of the choreographer to one of facilitator, creating "the atmosphere in the studio in which this kind of research can take place."(4)

Newson too acknowledges that his work is only as good as his choice of contributors." I need highly skilled dancers, but ones who haven't had the personality drained out of them - not easy to find."(5) Pina Bausch asks questions of all her dancers "to bring our their responses, their own gestures and memories... it's a long process, finding the right questions to provoke the right material. Then I select and rearrange, and finally I find what might be the beginning and the end."(6)

This kind of identification, of verbal articulation and facilitation of ideas is conceptually and stylistically different from traditional visual or 'step-based' approaches. Here are the distinct traditions and conventions which determine the various demands made on professional dancers during the making and preparation of a work, and it follows that professional dance training has to embrace these differences.

Potter remarked in 1993 that some dancers enter the profession to find that their training has not fully prepared them for current demands. Is this still the case in 1998? What then is required within the dancer's education? In the presentations given by the four speakers - Barnes, Franceschi, Lewis and Stannard, it was very clear that a great deal of thought and reorganisation had been going on in the last few years. A clear consensus was expressed that a more flexible approach to training was desired and in many cases this was already being implemented. Improvisation and composition take their place in the curriculum of many vocational schools together with contextual studies and a broader understanding of the arts; the profession requires not just physical prowess and extensive movement memory, but a range of skills that are integrated and personalised; awareness, responsibility, sensitivity and self-motivation, and the elimination of parochial and negative attitudes.

Pragmatically it is impossible for each dance course to offer too broad a range of options, but most are very clear about their priorities and structure and market their programmes appro-priately. Gone are the days of technique taught through mimesis, or of learning choreography by osmosis; today's student dancer must be able to cope with a phenomenal spread of dance styles and modes of performance, must understand and take care of his or her own instrument, must understand craft and be able to use it with intelligence, be both generous and independent, able to be a group member and an individual. It is a great pity that - judging from the recent Women's Hour programme on The Greenhouse Effect - the media still tend to perpetuate the old attitudes about dancers as commodity: that is, the notion that the dancers' only function is as a body, a tool of the choreographer. It is evident that much advocacy is still to be done.

The most important issue to emerge from this particular session at the conference was a collective need to ensure the development of high quality teachers who can inculcate appropriate attitudes and standards, not through fear but through understanding and experience; the class it was felt should offer a real dance experience and give a dancer all the tools required for audition, rehearsal, repertoire or new choreography. At the same time it needs to be a place for physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth.

The next question, then, is what strategy needs to be created in order to produce the quality of teacher required, and how to create an infrastructure of support? Possibly the subject of the next Greenhouse...

Jo Butterworth, Head of Centre for Dance and Theatre Studies, Bretton Hall.

References
1 Potter, Lauren, Where Does Responsibility Lie?, Dance Now, Dance Books Ltd, London, 1993.
2 Leigh Foster, Susan, Reading Dancing, University of California Press, 1986.
3, 4, 5, & 6 Parry, Jann, Steps are Out, the Observer Review, London, 1995.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001