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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Made in Scotland
Animated, Spring 1998. Despite producing some of the finest dancers in the UK it has been impossible to train in contemporary dance in Scotland. Now six years after a major feasibility study was undertaken - the new Scottish School of Contemporary Dance is about to be born, based at Dundee College... Peter Royston unfolds the remarkable journey from his early days as a classical performer to founder of Dundee's first foundation course and the final multimillion destination of an international state-of-the-art Contemporary Dance and Theatre Centre

Once the need was proven for a dedicated centre the question remained - where was it to be housed? I decided that day that the solution could lie in a very unlikely place, a Further Education College (FE)... in Dundee. It was a solution that would perhaps not have occurred to the 'great and the good' of Edinburgh and Glasgow because it wouldn't (they thought) carry the prestige. The more I thought about it, the clearer it became - this was indeed a very sound idea.

That a college could deliver the 'solution' may be an unlikely possibility in many people's eyes, but for some even more unlikely is that this new, international, dance theatre should be sited in Dundee and not Glasgow or Edinburgh. However, with an annual turnover in excess of £20 million, Dundee College has marketing and finance departments, state-of-the-art equipment, attracts European Funding, has a commitment to the community it serves and, all importantly, already offers a foundation course in dance. How many arts organisations or private schools for that matter, can rely on that sort of backing and support? Dundee... With the resurgence of Scottish Dance Theatre (SDT), Scotland's only revenue-funded contemporary dance company - under the direction of Janet Smith, a convincing argument was in the making - Glasgow and Edinburgh were not the only places where 'the arts' can flourish. In fact, the size of Dundee has allowed us to gain the support of all parties and move forward apace. Against all the odds yes, but right? Absolutely.

How then could I be so sure? My own journey to Dundee has been unwittingly and inextricably bound to the development of this initiative and is one that informs where I am today and my vision and aspirations for the future of the school. It also serves to demonstrate the diverse and fulfilling career available to a dancer.

Against a classical and cosseted background as a Royal Academy of Dance Scholar - performing with The Bolshoi and Kirov and the old Festival Ballet when I was 12 and later as an artist with The Royal Ballet of Flanders and the Scottish Ballet, I harboured a deep interest in contemporary work. Inspired by Nederlands Dans Theater, Pina Bausch and Maurice Bejart, I took every chance to experiment with my own choreography and was afforded regular opportunities by Peter Darrell, Director of the Scottish Ballet. In total I made three pieces for the company repertory. A significant step in my development was when I embarked on The International Course for Choreographers and Composers - I began as a dancer and on completion really believed I was a choreographer - it was brilliant. This unforgettable experience served to compound my belief in the need for choreographic training and the craft of collaboration. This spurred me to spend a further three months in New York studying at the Cunningham and Limon studios.

I was desperate to get out there and do it! I left Scottish Ballet and launched my own company. If only I'd known then what I know now. The work was good, the dancers were good, but I was so naive about how to run a company. I moved on to become Dance Artist in Residence for the Borders Region, working exclusively with young people in schools and the community.

Finally, I arrived at Dundee College where I was given a completely free hand to create a foundation course - I was guided very much by the students - their reactions and needs. The vast majority wanted to train as performers and most didn't have any technique to speak of. This instilled in me a belief that we needed to develop the whole person, both creatively and emotionally, and try to inform them of the wider dance picture - to inspire them and reinforce their commitment to becoming dancers. A tall order in one year, yet I know from former students that we did get a lot of things right! The Dance course at Dundee started alongside the Theatre Arts course run by Sheila Allan. The chance to exchange skills between the two disciplines has led to an atmosphere of innovation. We commission writers, designers and composers and use a professional theatre - making full use of flying and video projection, to create complex performances which are memorable and unique experiences.

The lack of any other existing advanced training in Scotland has been at the forefront of my thinking during my six years as Director. I have constantly considered the development of the course and taken into account the students who did not want to leave Scotland, those who have returned disappointed with their training in England - bemoaning the lack of creative development afforded them south of the border. I also had a personal sense of frustration that after such an intensive year the students had to leave and train elsewhere. Many failed at that next hurdle because they were too young to cope with the change of circumstances and being so far from home. For others the pressure of funding became too much.

At one time I too wasn't convinced that a FE college could possibly deliver the solution to the dilemmas facing dance training in Scotland and questioned whether those in charge could ever understand what was required. Dundee College is an exceptional place however, and the Principal, lain Ovens has been very supportive of our vision. It was a hard road and there are still battles to fight and win, but last year the announcement was made that Dundee College was to be awarded £2.3 million from the Lottery which would go towards building a £4.6 million state-of-the-art Contemporary Dance and Theatre Centre which will house the Scottish School of Contemporary Dance. This solves the problems being encountered by so many Scottish students. Dundee College will become the one-stop training venue and instead of having to move on they will stay here for a full three years. And, every student who auditions successfully will be eligible for a college bursary (as long as they haven't already received funding at this level or above).

To consolidate and build the community outreach - we already run a range of evening classes in street dance and contemporary and our youth groups are flourishing, and in line with the Scottish Arts Council's strategy for dance development - a dance agency will be established to extend the programme and infrastructure. Thus, the training, the agency and the venue will all interlink and benefit each other. An Artistic Director will be appointed to develop the programme for the new theatre - the first custombuilt dance performance space in Scotland. With seating for 200 - its flexible format will expediate from proscenium arch to catwalk performances, allowing students, community groups and touring dance and drama companies to work there.

Apart from the benefit of having SDT in the city, Dundee City Council is also committed to the arts. We recently formed Dundee Dance Partnership (Dundee College, SDT and Dundee City Council) to help co-ordinate all dance events in the city. This partnership is working brilliantly and is seen as a model of good practice in achieving cohesion and co-operation.

Our National Dance Forum, held on 26 February 1998, brought together the whole dance community of Scotland, with input from Stephanie Jordan, Wayne McGregor and a performance by SDT, to debate the ethos, direction and content of the Scottish School of Contemporary Dance. This is the first of many such events to ensure that the school belongs to the dance community of Scotland as a resource, an inspiration and a centre of excellence.

In the words of Professor Stephanie Jordan: "This kind of educational development must be the right kind of beginning towards making Scottish Dance culture significant, not only to the nation itself, but internationally. Now is an opportunity to consider existing models for training institutions and to think about the most exciting fresh alternatives that are best for Scotland today"

Peter Royston, Director of Dance, Dundee College of Higher Education. Contact +44 (0)1382 464000.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001