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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Outward bound
Animated, Winter 2001. As Gregory Nash moves on from The British Council to head up Ausdance New South Wales he reflects on the state of dance in contemporary Britain, UK dance artists on the international stage and the need to create space for new people and new ideas
The view from my desk at the British Council in London is the brown plaster wall of the building opposite. Its colour and texture seem to change with the weather. When it is rain-soaked, dark abstract shapes cluster together and appear to tumble towards the ground below. On warmer days (I fantasise) it is the luscious, warm biscuit of a Roman Villa. I have spent quite a lot of time looking at this wall in the last three and a half years. It has been my think-pad and in a strange way I am going to miss it. The fact that I am swapping it for an uninterrupted view of Sydney Harbour is of course some consolation. But the wall has for me been a daily constant in an organisation whose unofficial motto is 'change is the only constant.'

I joined The British Council in August 1997 following two years at Dance Umbrella. I stopped dancing in 1995 at the end of a British Council tour in South East Asia strangely enough - but carried on teaching for another year whilst I completed an MA in Arts Management at City University.

Three wondrous things happened to me during that time. Firstly, City University helpfully chose to ignore the fact that I had no undergraduate degree and accepted my 17 years in dance as sufficient preparation for an MA. Secondly, Val Bourne, who had presented some of my earliest choreography, asked me to become programme manager at Dance Umbrella and opened many international doors for me. Lastly, The British Council offered me a job precisely for the reason I least expected. Whilst I had specifically re-arranged my curriculum vitae to highlight competencies in financial and project management they were interested in me because I knew about dance and had been an artist.

Initially apprehensive about making the transition from studio to office I found that most of the skills and attitudes I had accumulated in dance were directly transferable to the management of time, money and information. More importantly I learned quickly that even large, seemingly bureaucratic organisations like The British Council can be navigated in the way one would a teaching or choreographic problem. If you prepare the ground properly (research your material), act strategically (develop your motif) and create the right conditions (empower your students and/or dancers in the creative process) even the most seemingly intractable of people or structures will become flexible and receptive. Not that The British Council is intractable. Not at all.

Each year The British Council, with its 6,000 staff in 110 countries, presents or directly supports over 3,000 arts events. Its annual spend on the arts is £9m. It is unique amongst international agencies of its kind in that it maintains a core group of arts specialists across eight art forms at its London base and these 60 professionals provide advice, skill and expertise to a network of colleagues and contacts around the globe. When I joined the performing arts team as the dance specialist, and one of three drama and dance project managers, it was a joy to discover that a significant body of knowledge about dance in contemporary Britain already existed here and that dance and theatre co-existed happily and abundantly in the portfolio of projects. It is a department blissfully free of application procedures, forms and funding schemes. It is a dynamic, experienced team of entrepreneurs totally committed to the 'export' of UK theatre and dance and positively evangelistic about the potential for meaningful cultural exchange to impact on individuals and societies in every part of the world.

In the last few years the Council has undergone a significant transition, moving away from a prescriptive, some might say colonial, approach to the 'promotion' of British culture. One-man recitals of Shakespeare in Africa have given way to the kind of celebration of Britain as a dynamic, multi-cultural society typified by the performance in which Bullies Ballerinas shared a stage with six Southern African dance companies in Durban, last November. This has been one of the journeys I have been most happy to co-navigate.

In some ways this corporate journey parallels the one that British dance has been on for the last three or four decades. Many talented and committed people have made a significant contribution to ballet in Britain in the last 60 years, and without them the landscape would look quite different. But to me it was, and still is, like another country - a country where grown men and women are called boys and girls and where women literally bend to the will of the dominant male. I was lucky, aged 16 and somewhat adrift in the state school system, to be rescued by a different kind of dance. A gifted teacher saw my potential and over the years she and others helped me to find a way to be articulate and independent and to develop an awareness of community as well as of self I found an essentially democratic world, one in which there was equality of opportunity but in which one was encouraged to aspire to achievement. This, thankfully, is the story of many people of my generation and the next. I like to think that our individual contributions have in some way shaped a more democratic dance world - a place where there is equality of opportunity and a recognition of the value of individual skill, talent and vision.

This theme of democracy runs strongly through the various other strands of The British Council's work. Its programmes in human rights, governance, gender and education often interface with the arts work and embrace what are for me the very familiar values of community dance practise: inclusion, mutual empowerment and joint ownership. As a result I have found the ground to be fertile for a highly strategic, developmental approach to dance programming. What I have been able to bring to the table is my experience of the 'nuts and bolts' of this developmental process and a strong sense of who has the potential to help it to happen in a meaningful, sustainable way. There is recognition here that Britain offers some outstanding models of good practise in dance. It is understood that the very human contact that takes place between two people from different cultural backgrounds - in a workshop for example - is of equal value to the interaction that happens between the audience member and performer in a formal theatre environment. For us both are equally important and in some cases inextricably linked.

It has, of course, got to be a two - way exchange. When I asked RJC to visit Southern Africa in 1998 it was as much in recognition of the company's potential to grow from the experience as in their ability to deliver a great project. I do not mean this to be patronising. I studied at The Place with David Hamilton and have watched his ongoing exploration of dance styles in the years since. I saw an opportunity for the company to connect directly with the common roots of these styles by visiting Africa and working alongside dancers there. It has been interesting to see how this visit has affected its work and how it will feed into the return visit they will make there next year. Robert Hylton's performance in Johannesburg in February impressed audiences with its subtle clarity. But the visit, and the people he met there, has also inspired him to confidently move on to his next project and to think boldly about where he goes from here and with whom. It has been equally fulfilling to witness the way in which Fin Walker has set out with producer Bill Gee on an international site-specific collaboration following our assistance with some well chosen forays into European venues last year. And to see Akram Khan - whom Val Bourne and I presented in Percussive Feet in London in 1996 - step so assuredly onto the international stage following our support of his year as part of the X Group at PARTS in Brussels. As an artist who so confidently embraces pluralist influences and practises, Akram may well symbolise the British choreographer of the future.

International presenters can sometimes provide a useful cultural mirror and be enormously influential on the way we view ourselves. In this way some strategic European cultivation has led to the long-deserved recognition of Rosemary Butcher as a major British choreographer and, with her beautiful piece Scan, she is finally taking her rightful place on the international stage.

What I hope my colleagues and I have achieved here in the last few years is a breakdown of an old order. When I was a choreographer I worked on the basis that international touring was the pinnacle of professional achievement - you made it into the 'elite'. Now, as increasingly happens in the wider dance 'industry', there are various entry points and after excellence and innovation (and we take a much more pluralist view of this than we used) fitness for purpose is the most important criterion. Now that we embrace many different points of view more people are talking to us. It would be great if this was reflected in the national funding system and in venue programmes.

So if the British Council is so good why am I leaving? Well for myself really. The move to Sydney offers me an important opportunity for professional development and a chance to 'cut my teeth' as a senior manager in a different environment. I start work as executive officer of Ausdance New South Wales at the beginning of January. Ausdance is a national network of service providers for dance - a sort of amalgam of the Foundation for Community Dance, Dance UK and the Place Dance Services. Its remit is, therefore, both broad and highly inclusive and is delivered by a small but committed team. Its funding, from the Australia Council and the New South Wales Ministry for the Arts is modest but secure and, importantly, given with the confidence of these bodies in its ability to achieve its goals and extend its impact.

I am going to miss the wonderful people I have met working with The British Council and those I have grown up with in the dance world - two extended international families. I have learned lots and have been lucky to travel a great deal. Half of my job here has been managing drama projects and the opportunity to expand my knowledge of theatre and to meet and work with its many brilliant characters has been invaluable.

Currently dance in Britain seems to me a little like a work in progress. This is borne out by the surprising outcome of the Jerwood Choreography Awards this year. There was no winner of the principal award and the two smaller awards went to promising, but largely unproven, artists. I am wondering if, by the time I return in three years, it will have constituted itself quite differently. I welcome the way that previously inflexible Arts Council of England funding structures have adjusted to allow artists like Jonathan Burrows, Wendy Houstoun and Jonzi D to take active time out, to reflect and develop ideas away from the pressure to tour. I am optimistic that the devolution of funds to the English Regional Arts Boards will allow some outstanding artists (who have chosen not to live in London) to properly realise their ambitious. But at the same time I would caution against using geographical location as the principal or sole criteria for the support of any artist.

In 2000 the Catalytic Conversions seminar series brought leading dance practitioners together with cultural thinkers to explore issues pertinent to the development of dance in this century. If this level of critical debate is maintained I believe we can look forward to the emergence of a new, less insular generation of dance artists. Artists of this generation will be better networked across art form sectors and less obsessed by their relationships with time principal funding bodies.

I am excited by the fact that three of our most prominent choreographers Lloyd Newson, Shobana Jeyasingh and Siobhan Davies are in the process of re-assessing the way that they work, and by the fact that their venue partners, funders and boards are prepared to support them on that journey. I will be watching with interest to see how John Ashford and Emma Gladstone develop the programme at The Place over the next few years and whether the opening of the wonderful new Dance Base building in Edinburgh will finally galvanise the disparate dance communities of that country.

I hope too that some new opportunities will emerge for our more senior managers and artistic directors - those inspirational individuals who have made an extraordinary contribution to British dance and to its international profile. Most of them have now hit a kind of glass ceiling and as a result there is a stifling of upward movement of people and ideas right across the profession.

And that, of course, is another very good reason for moving on from here.

For more information about Ausdance New South Wales see: www.ausdancensw.com.au

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001