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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
River of knowledge
Animated, Autumn 2001. An experienced dancer is a river of knowledge, and we can see the currents of influence flowing through his or her movement. Our dancing histories are etched in our posture, dynamics, the focus of our gaze, our use of breath, the way we move, alone or together. Janet Smith, artistic director of Scottish Dance Theatre, reflects on the wider ecology of dance, on issues of heritage and evolution

I am learning step dancing on the Isle of Skye, steps that came back to Scotland from Cape Breton where they had gone with the Scots emigrants and burgeoned, whilst they died out or mutated back in the homeland. Or maybe they were an innovation of the emigrants, created in long sessions holed up by the more extreme winters they met in the New World. Scotland is enjoying the resurgence (or a new surge!) of step dancing and teachers are passing on the remembered steps as well as those recently created. They are also passing on the tradition of improvising or extemporising to find your own way inside the music.

Tradition and innovation are moving hand in hand. The real excitement is about where it can all lead.

I realise this strikes a chord in me with our contemporary dance heritage and how we go forward. In supporting the development of the next generation of dancers, can we enrich the future by drawing together newly evolving ideas whilst consciously carrying forward the strengths and understandings already achieved.

In our training and preparation at Scottish Dance Theatre (SDT), we are seeking a balance. On the one hand, we need the rigour and power available to us through the established but nonetheless continually evolving techniques that have been researched, worked through and codified. We use ballet and also contemporary techniques that have roots in Cunningham and Hawkins and tracings from Limon and Graham, woven through more recent influences gleaned from yoga and Capoeira. On the other hand we need release based work and contact-improvisation that have joined the mainstream more recently, offering a gentler thinking body approach fed by ideokinesis, that encourages awareness of one's own innate animal way of moving and develops creativity. To a certain extent, we can weave elements together, experimenting with form and content to build bridges between different kinds of complementary information. An example of this was a class taught by Russell Maliphant that blended movement and thinking from yoga, ballet and Capoeira into perfect synthesis. It can also be refreshing to approach preparing the body in a completely different way. With Jovair Longo we begin lying on the floor, eyes closed, breathing and listening, sensing internal movement and sourcing a journey to improvisation alone and together. The contrast to holding the barre and feeling your way into first position is vivid but these experiences are not a million miles away from one another - body, imagination, empowerment.

We now have so many useful sources of information and influences to support and sustain dancers and at the same time feed into artform development. Much of this information is about safe body knowledge and has filtered into the evolving teaching of technique, so the content as well as the approach is being adapted to help support dancers for long and healthy careers. We are now in a fascinating era of blending and cross-fertilisation.

It has taken time to get to this point of inclusion. Our history seems to have been built on reactions by individual artists and their disciples to what has been before, from Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham onwards. It is a story of radicals perhaps necessarily and appropriately overturning what has gone before in the hunt for the way forward in a fast-changing world. It has sometimes seemed as though we have been haunted by a religious fervour from the early pioneers and have picked up a habit of discarding our movement heritage even as it forms. Maybe it is partly the need for each generation to forge its artistic identity that led us to cast off chunks of our formative dance histories, letting our influences fall away unacknowledged. And that is fine for the seeker in pursuit of vision but maybe not so great as we pass on our new-found convictions to the next generation in such a way that they are not getting the whole picture.

More recently, I feel there has been a sort of new ageism in dance that could deny young artists the rigour and the grafting that techniques like ballet, Graham and Cunningham provide. Yet, it is these very, techniques that still underpin the work of our most versatile and eloquent performers today. The softer release-based principles are really valuable so I want to find a balance between the newer somatics and what so definitely worked from our roots, acknowledge the worth of the whole and allow it to evolve for the benefit of both dancers and the dance.

It is a challenge to schools, and in ongoing companies like our own, to offer a balance between technical and creative development and preparation. Both are so important, interconnected and feeding off each other, yet they can feel poles apart. Choreographers seek out dancers who are at home in their own movement and in improvisation, comfortable to play with the give and take of weight in dancing with others, confident in offering their own movement and movement ideas in a collaborative process. Yet for a dancer coming out of training an audition can still be the first real experience of improvisation. Seriously terrifying! Or else graduates bring a wealth of creativity and improvisational skills to audition, but lack the technical skills; coordination, strength or flexibility so cannot get through the technique class to show their creative talents.

It is a lot to take on board, but with so much knowledge, information and awareness in our come-of-age dance culture we really can help equip dancers to find a balance. The more facility and range a dancer has the more power and freedom, possibility and choice for nuance of expression. An experienced dancer is a river of knowledge, and we can see the currents of influence flowing through his or her movement. Our dancing histories are etched in our posture, dynamics, the focus of the gaze, our use of breath, the way we move in the larger space, alone or together.

Dancers assimilate and integrate movement information from many sources. It is a process of constant evolution as what we carry in us engages with new challenge. 'My body will make sense of it', a young dancer says to me, speaking of the diversity he has already met in his training. It is a creative and playful challenge.

As a repertory company, SDT can enjoy a role in this evolution, developing training patterns to help the dancers maximize their powers and potential for artistry to best serve their own developmental needs and support career longevity, whilst also serving the needs of a range of new work from a variety of choreographers. The dancers appreciate a breadth in training and are well able to transfer information between techniques, allowing us to carry forward a body of knowledge informed by diverse movement philosophies. I find the dancers want and are genuinely excited and empowered by a varied and inclusive diet; this opening of doors and linking up between what could be seen as separated and closed parts of a whole picture.

Speaking of repertory, someone said to me recently that rep companies are not the way forward, like they have had their day. I guess it is true they largely went out of style, and it has been mostly left to the ballet companies, and large-scale contemporary companies like Rambert or Nederlands Dance Theater to offer audiences the variety of, for example, a triple bill. Visiting companies like The White Oak Project, which featured at this year's Edinburgh Festival with a programme of seminal post modernist works from the United States, provides a range of choreographers within one evening. But these performances are few and scattered, visiting only large venues in major cities.

I am interested in the shift from repertory to single choreographer companies. I think each has a role and function in a healthy dance ecology. Certainly as I currently work and tour with a rep company of eight dancers I see the value of what this kind of middle scale company can offer to audiences, choreographers and the dancers themselves. A rep company of this size can give audiences beyond the reach of large-scale venues access to a range of work. Some of the venues we visit in Scotland's Highlands and Islands, for example, get to see very little dance. So it is great that a visiting company can bring them work by perhaps three choreographers from different cultures and backgrounds.

Mixed-programmes, wherever they are shown, can help introduce first time audiences to dance with the aesthetic range offering a chance to please all of the people some of the time. In this way too, regular dance audiences can be introduced to new or international choreographers whose work they could not otherwise come by.

I know only too well how tough it is for choreographers struggling to make and show work and am convinced of the value of companies like Diversions, Phoenix Dance and ourselves to lift some of those burdens and help support the work of independent dancemakers and bring it to a larger audience. Relieved of the responsibility of finding funding and administration, and involvement in all the other considerations of rehearsal, production and promotion, he or she is free to focus on simply making the work. There is support at hand on all levels, both within the company and through the collaborators that a guest choreographer may have chosen to bring on board.

Some of our own guest choreographers feel they have been able to make their strongest work in this situation and that it has best promoted their work. Jan de Shynkel is currently mounting She Is As He Eats, (created for SDT in 1998), on Singapore Dance Theatre, following our presentation of the work at the last British Dance Edition. Jan, like many independent choreographers, does not yet have the resources to present and tour a programme of his own work, but already, as part of our repertoire, it has been sects by audiences in Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and at the Kuopio International Dance Festival its Finland. This puts me in mind of the spectrum of rep companies, both small and middle-scale, that flourished in the late 70s and 80s which through commissions gave choreographers of my own generation the chance to hone their skills in a supportive environment. A rep company can be a producer, promoter and indeed an ambassador for choreographers.

For dancers in a rep company there is a tremendous opportunity to develop through sustained collaboration. Working together over an extended period, training, creating, rehearsing and performing is an ideal way for younger dancers to learn from the more experienced how to focus their energies and refine their performance skills. At the same time, everyone benefits from the fresh energies and ideas of young people at the start of their careers.

A dancer can feel typecast through constantly working with one choreographer or artistic director and yet fearful of letting go of the situation, and going out into the unknown. A different choreographer coming in will perhaps draw out new qualities from that dancer offering the chance to begin afresh and address their dancing anew.

Variety in rep gives opportunity to try out different ways of moving and approaches to choreography and performance. Experienced dancers can continue to be stretched and challenged as performers in this environment and at the same time enjoy developing their coaching and mentoring skills as others look to them as role models. Participating in the creative process with different dancemakers feeds the development of the choreographic eye.

We have a massive heritage from London Contemporary Dance Theatre (LCDT), which was founded by Robin Howard and took both inspiration and its artistic director, Robert Cohan, from the Martha Graham Company, but soon found its own strong individual character under that leadership. So many fine dancers and choreographers emerged through its years of stability and range of repertoire.

The long list also includes teachers and leaders, many already with their own distinctive voices, who have made great impact in the world of dance. This speaks of the lasting value of repertory companies for individual professional development and indeed the development of the profession as a whole.

An interesting phenomenon in terms of rep has been the dancer-led company, Ricochet, proving how much dancers value the developmental opportunities in working with a range of choreographers within the stability of a single, on-going company setting.

Though we are now in a period dominated by single choreographer led companies it cannot work as a formula for all. There are not enough venues, audiences or funding for each choreographer to run a company and it is a huge undertaking and responsibility in order to create work and bring it to performance. Choreographers who successfully achieve this in getting projects together need time out to refuel and so lay off dancers who will have inevitable disruptions to ongoing training and development. It is not every choreographer that is willing or able to direct a company in order to make their own work but, apart from making student pieces, that is the main outlet for dancemakers to progress.

Shared programming, like The Place Theatre's Spring Resolutions that platforms emerging work, or the evenings of mixed work curated by an individual artist presented at the South Bank can work well for audiences and choreographers alike and have in common that both offer a mixed bill. But the experience for dancers is very different of course; waiting and keeping warm and keyed up then meeting perhaps a very different kind of audience for one brief part of the evening can feel frustrating and disempowering. Fine for the short term but restrictive to long-term development.

I realise that the term repertory is problematic in dance implying many possible meanings and even negative associations. A company could gather a wealth of original dance pieces created on its dancers to be revisited over time and brought to new audiences. It could buy works already created in different times and places to be remounted by the choreographer, assistant, an original cast member or choreologist. The tendency is for smaller rep companies to be working on the former model creating original works. Montreal Danse, Montreal's repertory dance company, has coined the by-line 'a creation company' to distance itself from the notion of a repertoire of revivals with that association of last year's fashions, coming out of the moth balls or bringing back from the dead. Obviously, a single choreographer company can also build a repertoire and I am particularly looking forward to Michael Clark's programme at this year's Dance Umbrella because it will offer me the chance to see the range of his own repertoire including new work alongside revivals that I missed when they were first shown.

There is a notion of a repertory company as something impersonal, without its own identity, that cannot have the strong signature of a single-choreographer company. In fact, rep companies I can think of just now began with a home-based choreographer who chose to include the work of other artists. Netherlands Dance Theatre has three different companies, each with its own distinct identity. Developing any company identity takes time. It may start with a vision but drawing the people who can share it philosophically and embody it aesthetically and creatively, just does takes time. It grows out of all the people drawn in and the investment together in process, performance and sharing the corners of the day.

I realise how much we at SDT are influenced by the choreographers and teachers that visit and offer their insights, passions and the flavour of their personalities. Their offerings pour into the melting pot with all that we have already within the skills, talents and personalities of our eight dancers - things are blending and sifting, shifting and blending. From this melting pot I get to watch, on a daily basis, the crystallisation of our own particular identity and the emergence of not only fine performers, but also of teachers, coaches and future choreographers.

We need a balanced ecology and, in underlining the value of the rep company, I see it as part of a whole spectrum along with a host of different kinds of companies and individual artists. There is so much to gain, to complement, in letting our different strengths and discoveries play along together in our dancing.

I like to think that we are emerging from an adolescent culture of discovery and discarding, to one where the flow between past and future, heritage and innovation can be honoured and we can celebrate a richly diverse dance culture.

And so back to Skye and some new old steps.

Janet Smith, artistic director, Scottish Dance Theatre. Contact +44 (0) 1382 342600.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001