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Animated Edition - Autumn 2007
Life is a cabaret
Brendan Keaney, Director of Greenwich Dance Agency, describes how cabaret nights have brought professional and community dancers closer together
Greenwich Dance Agency (gDA) launched its first cabaret season in December 2006. It was the first of a series of once a month events which took place on the last Friday of each month. They were and still are 'work in progress' we have not arrived at an exact formula. Basically we are still experimenting. However our key concern is that the evenings should be eclectic and although it is not possible to satisfy everyone's taste, we strive to be as inclusive as possible. In addition we have attempted, when appropriate, to feature individuals who have had some association with gDA; artists who regularly rehearse, teach or participate in the gDA programme.

The original notion of a cabaret evening was, in many respects, a pragmatic response to a particular set of circumstances. However as we started to develop the concept it became clearer that they could become a much more fundamentally important statement about who we are, what we do and what we think about dance. Before it is possible to discuss the bigger issues, it is probably best to set the scene and describe what actually happens at a gDA cabaret night.

There are approximately six short free-standing pieces of, predominantly but by no means exclusively, dance. Live music, film, comedy and circus have also been prominent features at gDA cabarets and the line-up for the forthcoming autumn season also includes a range of disciplines such as performance poetry. The audience is seated at tables and chairs in a horseshoe around a performance area. The bar remains open throughout the evening with table service operating during the performances, so if you need a drink, all you have to do is raise your hand and a waiter/ess will take your order!

It is difficult to describe a typical programme as they have been very different. To date most of the evenings have been compered by Pete Shenton and Tom Roden from New Art Club and have included a house band the Alex Wilson Trio.

The inaugural Christmas cabaret kicked off with an acrobalance duet, followed by The Five Andrews. A musical interlude preceded a very short piece by the very brave participants from the gDA Lindy Hop evening adult class; the first half concluded with a specially commissioned piece by Kate Brown and David Waring exploring a distinctly seasonal theme. The second half included Flowzaic (B-girl crew), a solo from resident artist Temujin Gill, a short film from Sioned Huws and a show-stopping contemporary jazz piece choreographed by Rachel Kay.

So why did we embark on these events in the first place?
Given that cabaret evenings have been springing up almost everywhere this year, some people may have already concluded that we rather cynically jumped on the latest bandwagon. However the reality is very different and our original ideas predated the current wave of cabaret type events that are sweeping through the country.

Our first thoughts were prompted by the change in the licensing laws that came into effect in November 2005. The impact of this legislation for gDA was substantial, the net result was that for the first time since its inception, the Dance Agency could be use its building base as a 'regular' place of entertainment. Up until that point we had existed on a strict diet of occasional licences which meant juggling our schedule around a complicated set of rules regarding timing and frequency of events.

This development was a mixed blessing for gDA. Trying to schedule performances around the requirements of the old licensing laws had created a logistical nightmare. There was a great sense of relief when this substantial burden was lifted from the organisation. However the new licensing status raised expectations. gDA was now faced with a whole new set of problems generated by the pressure to increase the volume and frequency of performances/events.

This pressure seemed all the more onerous given the shifts that had taken place in the dance landscape in recent years. There has been a big change in the range and quality of opportunities for companies to perform. Lottery funding had created a number of new purpose built theatres capable of accommodating a wide range of touring dance companies. Essentially the market for dance promoters/presenters in London has become substantially more competitive. This is not to suggest that there is not a vast array of artists /companies still desperate for dates and it is certain that the audience for dance is growing. However the market place is unquestionably more crowded and it is extremely difficult for a relatively small organisation like gDA to command even a very small slice of attention from the dance press.

Another key determining factor that influenced our thinking was the consideration of what we had to offer. The Borough Halls is a space rather than a theatre. This factor had heavily influenced our previous programming policy. Whenever possible we had attempted to present dance work that suited the building rather than simply dance work that had been created for a standard theatre venue. We had established a reputation for presenting site-sensitive installation work, consequently the prospect of supplementing our existing programme with regular touring dance performances seemed a retrograde step. In addition to operating in a highly competitive market we would be attempting to present work that would be better suited to any number of purpose built theatres in London. Basically we needed to do something that was not available elsewhere and to create a package that celebrated the qualities of the Borough Halls rather than highlighted its shortcomings.

Most critically we wanted to do something that might appeal to local people and dedicated dance attendees from across the capital. Although we had always claimed to be a local dance centre with a regional (and sometimes national and international) role, essentially, we seemed to serve to largely separate constituencies. Our community and education programmes attracted mainly local people, who wanted to engage in dance for social, recreational and educational purposes. These people were happy to attend our classes, however it was dedicated dance attendees and dance artists from across the capital who supported the majority of our performances and installations.

Although gDA had curated any number of freestanding projects that brought together these two loose groupings, there was no ongoing programme of activities that genuinely appealed to a real cross section of gDA attendees. To be frank this situation was the source of some personal disappointment. Although it should be recognised that we had not purposely set out to nurture the separate development of our programme areas, history and circumstances seemed to conspire against more substantial integration.

It was also of some concern that the separate nature of our programme areas did not best reflect our absolute commitment to embrace and value a full range of dance activities. It was our view that the gDA cabarets could provide a small opportunity to challenge this situation. We wanted to create an arena where those people who attended our community classes could engage in a much more meaningful way with the artists that take class and rehearse at gDA. Essentially it was time to challenge the categories of gDA users that we had created. Although we need labels like participants, audiences, artists, etc they can also be extremely unhelpful at times, limiting expectations and lowering horizons.

The kernel of the programming idea was generated by our Small Dance event that was part of the Big Dance in July 2006. For this event we invited a number of people to create small or short dance/performance to celebrate the many faces of gDA. The Small Dance event included contributions from our youth group NRgDANCE, a specially commissioned intergenerational piece from New Art Club and existing work from a range of artists and choreographers including Charles Linehan and Jonathan Burrows. What was most impressive about the evening was the respect that everybody showed for the all the very different contributions.

We were convinced that it was possible to push this formula further, to create a genuinely inclusive evening where art and entertainment sat side by side. Whilst Small Dance offered a more traditional theatre experience, it was decided that cabarets would be less formal, celebrating experimentation and enjoyment. We wanted to ensure that both the audience and the artists went home feeling that they had a good night out.

It should be acknowledged that we substantially underestimated the additional work that the cabarets would generate. With no dedicated box office staff, no regular stage crew, it has been a massive learning curve. I will also confess that we have also made any number of gaffs, it is really hard to imagine which pieces will work in what order, and there have been a few drifting moments that are probably best forgotten. Having said that, now that they are better under control, the cabarets have brought a new energy to the Dance Agency and woken us up to whole new index of possibilities.

The autumn programme is nearly confirmed and includes some exciting offers from the likes of Noel Wallace, Darren Johnson, Wendy Houstoun and Probe. We are not yet convinced that the cabarets have provided us with the definitive statement about 'who we are', 'what we do' and 'what we think about dance', but they are managing to do something on a regular basis, that we only managed intermittingly in the past. Any number of artists has been genuinely grateful for the opportunity to try out some new material and have enjoyed the challenge of placing their work in a slightly different arena. Most importantly the cabarets have brought a new audience to gDA and a significant number of people have been watching work that they would never have gone to see had it been sold as an evening of contemporary dance. It is still early days but the cabarets do feel like they are significant step forward in providing a meeting place for the different strands of our work. So watch this space, or better still, come and watch a gDA cabaret.

Brendan Keaney is Director of Greenwich Dance Agency see www.greenwichdance.org.uk

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Animated: Autumn 2007