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Mark Baldwin

Dance UK Choreoforum 2004

by Yael Loewenstein

January 18, 2004 -- Laban, London

Image - Mark Baldwin, keynote speaker at Choreoforum 2004

A rich day of panel discussions and networking opportunities, ‘Exploring the choreographic sensibility’ was the theme for Choreoforum 2004. Delegates gathered at Laban in London to listen to and share choreographic experiences with a range of practicing artists. Ian Bramley Director of Dance UK introduced the day by posing the following questions:

•  What is the nature of choreography?
•  Why is it unique?
•  What are new routes in choreographic practice?

Key-note speaker Mark Baldwin, Artistic Director of Rambert Dance Company, delivered an animated speech. Mr. Baldwin acknowledged the difficulty in pin-pointing and defining specific choreographic sensibilities. By drawing parallels to artists in others fields, he concluded that as a choreographer, shifts and changes in perceptions are to be embraced in order to find a choreographic sensibility of today. Essentially Mr. Baldwin suggested that choreographic sensibilities are for us to make our own conclusions about and redefine continuously.

Following on, Ian Bramley’s presentation entitled ‘The Choreographers’ Tales', asked each individual to share with the group ‘what choreography means to you.’ Wrestling with their thoughts, the delegates boiled down their responses to under a minute. What followed was a torrent of diverse and colorful ideas of what choreographic practise means. Responses ranged from the spiritual to the logistical creation of ‘steps’ and illustrated the uniqueness of a field to which so many people dedicate themselves.

In the next session, the participants were split into smaller groups of five or six people. Each group was presented a question to brainstorm:

•  What skills and talents does a choreographer need?

•  Why is choreography important in the 21 st Century?

•  How do you see choreography evolving in the future?

•  What are the unique characteristics of choreography as an art form?

•  Can choreography be taught?

After this brief exercise, which generated some interesting and realistic ideas, the lunch hour was filled with a buzz of conversation as people shared ideas and made new contacts.

The afternoon’s programme offered dynamic panel discussions with top artists in the field. The first session chaired by Claire Russ included short presentations by Alexandra Reynolds, Arlette Kim George and Bill Bryden CBE. Mr. Bryden inspiringly spoke of looking for the truth in what is seen as well as looking to work that is generous in nature and contains both spirit and joy. He noted the importance of the physical geometry of the stage and the ability of a choreographer to lend this crucial understanding to production. To describe what he believes as solid collaboration between choreographer and director he suggested looking back to musicals which are movement based and where storytelling, popular appeal and craft are bound seamlessly together. Despite his obvious enthusiasm for such integrated work, Mr. Bryden offered realistic advice later in the day about the extreme demands inherent in following such a career path, which often provides mere survival and very occasionally great success.

Mr. Bryden’s realism and enthusiasm was echoed by Alexandra Reynolds, as she proceeded to speak of her choreographic work in the commercial sector. Ms. Reynolds told us about her work in the fast-paced environment of commercials, music videos and fashion and the distinct processes and hierarchal structures involved. Ms. Reynolds described her choreographic options as usually severely time constrained and the goal was not the best possible option, but rather a good option, speedily achieved. She continued to speak of the practicalities of working in the commercial realm, the value of her choreographic background and the excellent financial rewards.

Adding a third and unique view into the working life of a choreographer, Arlette Kim George offered insight into the work of a dramaturg and this role within a theatre context. Ms. George’s particular experience as a mentor helping an artist realize a piece of work, as well as her experience as a choreographer and theatre director, enabled her to reveal the distinct and often misunderstood role of a dramaturg. Explaining the traditions of the function of a dramaturg, Ms. Kim George described the role as ‘allowing a director to reach the fullness of their vision.’ The presentation revealed the intimate relationship a dramaturg would ideally have with a director, infusing the work with a heightened sensitivity to the geography of the space and movement within it.

The three panel members each offered a well-informed, enthusiastic, yet realistic account of various strands of the choreographic profession. With the floor open for questions and discussion, some key points raised included:

•  Truth in creative work

•  The role of craft and skill

•  The broader spectrum of challenges presented to a choreographer

It was noted that dance as a culture is in fact supportive of itself and outsiders are actually interested. As Mr. Bryden maintained: it’s just a matter of ‘printing the invitation properly!’

After a break, Alistair Spalding, Director of Programming at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, chaired the Chat Show which included the speakers: Francesca Jaynes, Jonathan Burrows, Stuart Hopps and Wendy Houstoun. Each artist spoke briefly of how they came to be choreographers. Some trained first as dancers, others trained with esteemed choreographers and each person described finding their choreographic voice by way of a unique path. Since both Mr. Burrows and Ms. Houstoun work primarily in the contemporary dance realm and Ms. Jaynes and Mr. Hopps in theatre, opera and film production, what became clear was that although the skills necessary to be effective choreographers were similar, working experiences within different genres can differ greatly. Expectations (whether those of the audience or those involved in production) have distinct agendas, financial implications and the nature of the working process. Scenarios varied from, ‘you-have-half-an-hour-to set-the-work’ to processes that take years to unfold. The deep question that seemed to provide an undertow to the conversation was how choreographic sensibility affects personal sensibility and how this differs between artists working in the different genres of contemporary dance on the one hand and the popular theatre, opera and commercial production sectors.

In all these realms the concept of collaboration reigns as a potential treasure chest and lifeline to the work. All four panel members spoke fondly of various collaborative experiences and each described the distinctive ability for choreographic sensibility to enhance work in a multitude of forms. However Mr. Burrows and Ms. Houstoun also expressed the sharp reality of working as a contemporary dance choreographer and as Mr. Burrows described, the financial strain it can mean. The lack of development in the area of choreographers’ rights including royalties results in those choreographers not working in the commercial sector earning notably less than their counterparts in other artistic fields.

Once opened to the floor, conversation revolved around how to gaining the support that artists of other fields can expect. Listening to the variety of speakers throughout the day, both the possibilities and restraints of the profession were made clearer. As the day came to a close, a feeling of motivation as well as a deep sense of reality resonated. There is still much work to be done in order to find choreography as a profession honored at the levels of other career paths, be it through shifts in attitude or evolution of the infrastructure. A comment from Mr. Bryden summed both the magic and the reality as the day came to a close - this business is one of the toughest, most demanding and often has very little pay back, but it is also one of the most enchanting and exciting fields to be working in.

Choreoforum 2004 ended with informal drinks and an opportunity to discuss the day with fellow delegates. The feeling was one of inspiration, professionalism and potential for choreographic sensibility to have a place in the 21 st Century.

Edited by Stuart Sweeney

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