The Management of African/Black Dance
Dance Africa Lecture by June Gamble
by U. Akalawu
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Managing a Black dance company is no different from managing a white contemporary dance company.
Gamble puts forward that choreographers of African and Caribbean origin seem to be producing much more engaging work than their White British contemporary equivalents. She has witnessed the incremental development of ‘Black dance’ and feels that although it has some mileage to go in terms of visibility and external support, there are many more opportunities now to address these elements which never existed for past practitioners.
The question of what is the strongest influence in the training and practise of Black dancers in the UK, was raised, as the work we saw presented before us seems to be a reflection of the lack of diverse training within dance colleges and institutions, or rather the results of the dominant training. The fact is, African dance is still not included in the education system, which may be a contributory factor to the massive decline of traditional African and Caribbean dance forms practised and performed in the UK. But maybe audiences don’t actually want to see theatricalised traditional African dance; maybe there is an underlying sentiment that it is irrelevant to today’s multi-cultural identity-reinventing Britain; maybe people want to see a different side of Africa.
Yet, in Gamble’s experience working within African and Black dance, bums on seats for traditional performances were never a problem. Her view was that touring is difficult for all dance companies, but African and Black dance seem to fare better for two reasons – as cynical as it may seem – venues do want to tick that box, and, interestingly, audiences like the work.
Gamble is of the opinion that traditional African dance does sell, but significantly, not in the eyes of the funders. Her particular success in this area could be the fact that she never sells work as ‘Black’ work. She would sell a dance company as a national touring dance company – the art form just happens to be South Asian or African, etc. As a consequence, the companies are in direct competition with Contemporary dance companies, and aren’t at risk of being ghettoised. Gamble perceives that those not so successful are those that try to operate under a certain label.
To return to the public funding issue, if this is a route a traditional African dance practitioner wants to take, Gamble is of the opinion that it is a naïve and ill-advised one. However it must be realised that traditional African dance is not static - it has evolved as much as any other dance form. However, as much as it is prodded and poked or forcefully moulded, it will never evolve into what we in the West understand as being Contemporary dance – the roots are completely different, as is the framework, as is the journey of evolution.
The recent impact of Arts Council's new funding system and how this may affect dance in the future.
With regards to Arts Council England’s current funding system, Gamble talked about how it may affect dance and management in the future. ACE has made many individuals complacent because of the level of support received in the past. The harsh effects of this new system are felt by many, but unfortunately, few are aware of all the changes and how to navigate them. This is not something that an artist learns whilst undergoing training. Maybe it should be. In brief, ACE merged 18 months ago, resulting in redundancies and shifted objectives. So, in swept a new system along with a brand new ‘simplified’ application process. The situation with the application process is such that success at receiving funding seems to rely more on luck than quality of work.
According to Gamble, the national touring application has a similar procedure. To give an example, 15 – 20 dates for a tour used to be good enough to justify assistance, but now one needs in excess of 30 dates. Not every dance company has the resources to organise that many. For a company to survive for a number of years, stability from the outset is fundamental. Furthermore, theatres only have a limited number of slots for dance, and venues tend to be somewhat anxious about programming dance. With those limitations, trying to achieve 30 dates is unrealistic for some, and impossible for many. The truth is more so than ever - that even with the best application in the world, it can not guarantee any financial assistance from the Arts Council.
The way Gamble has worked with particular companies was very strategic and fitted the system; she is of the opinion that if you give the artist enough space to develop artistically in a healthy way, the product will be of particular quality which can be sold, and subsequently there can be incremental advances forward. Gamble believes that overall artistic quality is dissipating because the artists are not being enabled to develop over long periods of time. In addition ACE would now rather speak directly to the artist rather than involve the manager in much more realistic and strategic discussions. Gamble’s role as a talent scout and a producer has essentially been abolished, and suggests that the Arts Council seems to want to exclude the important role of the dance manager, and take on the role of producer itself.
In terms of training for dance managers, there have been various schemes put forth by ACE, ITC, and others, but ACE has no intention of developing dance management training, and is of the opinion that it is not successful or important enough to warrant further investment. In terms of training new managers and administrators, the problems which have arisen have been around retaining them within the arts once the training is completed. A lot of Black managers have been trained and have done great work, but were hounded out - the sector just could and would not support them, which may explain the current dearth.
It could be Gamble’s reputation as a manager which has stood her in good stead. If the venue likes the work, they will book the company, and Gamble has operated in a certain and effective manner, contacting the right people at the right time of year with the right information, etc. There is also a high quality level of work of the companies that she has managed. Her key role is about strategy and long term vision; seeing where the artist wants to go, and making that possible. The first thing she tells people who come to her for advice is that they should apply for support from the Arts Council, but at the same time work out how they can feasibly manage without that money.
Suggestions for the way forward for African/Black dance artists and managers
• It is not enough to rely on ACE as a sole source of funding. Artists need to work out where their work fits in with other initiatives and opportunities, whether it’s local authorities, schools, regeneration areas and potential partners.
• If the artist’s focus is facilitating training, he/she can devise a model out of which a dance technique can emerge, and then identify people and organisations that would be interested in preserving, maintaining and developing it. Do the research, get the model right, get the proposal right, and get out there.
• Get people involved who are not necessarily from within or are products of the system – work should be created for particular communities, but not just communities defined by their ethnicity. It is important that the artist finds a niche for his/her work through garnering support from local communities and local authorities. Work with children and youth groups with the purpose of capturing their attention, which will create demand for more provision. This gives the artist’s audience a sense of ownership, thus increasing the likelihood of support.
• In terms of preserving something for posterity, artists should be finding a sense of commonality and then deciding collectively how it’s going to be developed and passed down.
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