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Making It Visible

by Elizabeth Schwyzer

January 2005

Visibility in contemporary dance - is it a good or bad thing? Does it enhance dance by broadening its audience or just produce less challenging work? With prizes such as The Place Prize for choreography encouraging greater exposure for contemporary dance, Elizabeth Schwyzer asks three choreographers about their experience of entering work into
competitions …

Visibility is a thorny issue in contemporary dance. Choreographers and promoters, venue managers and dance administrators spend a good deal of their time searching for ways to bring work from the studio to the stage and pull in viewers.

Many now feel that for the sector to flourish, dance needs to be as visible as possible; it needs to be marketed to and seen by broader audiences. It’s this conviction that led John Ashford, Director, Robin Howard Dance Theatre at The Place, to initiate The Place Prize: the UK’s high-profile professional choreographic competition, inaugurated this past year [2004-ed.].

The phenomenon of the choreographic competition, still a controversial topic in some circles, has been steadily developing on the continent and internationally for over two decades. Yet until this year, Britain had no dedicated, large-scale competition for professional contemporary dance choreography. The Place Prize, sponsored by Bloomberg, a global 24hour communications company, boosted the profile of contemporary dance in commissions and cash prizes, with 14 public performances over the course of 18 days the prize attracted an audience of 3160 people.

Though the scale and intensity of The Place Prize exceeds the scope of many of its predecessors, its aims are similar to other competitions: to celebrate and support high quality choreography, to increase the art form’s visibility and attendance, to revivify the dance community and to provide opportunities for networking.

Though they share common goals, every competition offers a unique emphasis. Copenhagen’s annual choreographic competition, Dansolution, includes a second round, where three winners are supported in producing a piece of new work, while the Biennial International Solo Dance Theatre Festival in Stuttgart showcases pre-existing solo works and awards cash prizes. Types of awards and support range widely from one competition to another, as do requirements for entry.

Predictably, there are detractors, some choreographers feel oppressed or insulted by the concept of a competition for choreography. Objections include the concern that competitions will encourage only the most crowd-pleasing, popular works, stifling work that is more challenging. Others question the importance of increased visibility all together, preferring to make work for a more limited, knowledgeable audience.

In order to get a sense of the benefits and pitfalls of competitions from the artists’ perspective, I spoke with three UK-based choreographers with experience entering their work in competitions in Britain and abroad. Their responses reflect many of the current issues in contemporary dance, including its growing visibility and inherently competitive nature.

Originally from Sydney, Australia, Liz Lea trained at the London Contemporary Dance School and at Akademi, South Asian Dance UK.

In 2003, Liz entered her first competition, Germany’s Solo Dance Theatre Festival, with her solo work, ‘Inland’. The competition whittled 200 applicants down to 27 finalists, awarding seven prizes overall. Liz left the competition with the audience award and one of three prizes for performance.

“It was a massive confidence boost,” Liz reflects. “I had come out of working on a difficult group piece, and tucked myself away to make a solo, saying ‘if this works, I’ll continue my career, and if it doesn’t, I won’t.’”

For Liz, the real benefit of the competition wasn’t the 3,000 €prize money (which bought her flight home and paid for a root canal), but the recognition and support she received for her work. “It was a great experience to have that kind of affirmation early in the life of a piece,” she comments.

This year, Liz entered The Place Prize competition and was selected as one of twenty semi-finalists. The Place Prize commissions new work by providing a grant of £3,000 to each semi-finalist, Liz therefore decided to make a work she might not otherwise have had the opportunity to create. Her advice to those considering entering a competition for the first time:

“Just do it. When you’re making the work, you have to listen to your own voice. The competition shouldn’t make a difference.”

London-based choreographer and arts administrator Nikki Tomlinson has a slightly different take on the effect of competitions on the creative process.

Nikki entered her solo, ‘Saw/Sore/Soar’ in Masdanza, the Spanish choreographic competition held each April in Gran Canaria in 2003. Though she enjoyed the experience, she admits, “I’m not sure about introducing competition at the level of presenting work. There’s so much competition embedded in the system anyway, in terms of getting funding and opportunities.”

Yet Nikki also sees the benefits of entering work in international competitions. “It can be quite liberating to have your work seen outside its usual context, especially abroad,” she remarks, but adds, “I’d rather put my work in festivals or programmed evenings of work - I’d be concerned if I thought competitions were taking over from festivals.” Nikki’s advice to those new to the competition circuit is to “go in knowing what you want from it, and go in the spirit of joining another community and a wider scene.”

Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter is currently Associate Artist of The Place.

Hofesh danced with Jasmin Vardimon for two years before deciding to make his own work, and feels choreographic competitions made it possible for him to launch his career. His first entry was to the Kuopio Dance Festival in Finland, where he presented his duet, ‘Fragments’. Inspired by his experience there, Hofesh entered The Place Prize, making it through to the finals with his group piece, ‘Cult’, which over ten nights of performances, won five of the ten audience awards.

“I think the essence of creating art is not only saying something, but saying something that people will understand - I don’t think being accessible is a bad thing.”

Instead of feeling creatively stifled by the pressure inherent in such a competition, Hofesh sees the artistic benefit of competitions.

“If you like to dance, put on music and dance in your room. Fine. But if you want to communicate, an event that gets your work seen is essential. This is not pressure - it’s the essence of what we do.”

Hofesh acknowledges the challenge of staying focused on his artistic vision without being sucked into competition, but affirms the value of the experience.

“It’s almost like the dance world wants to prepare itself behind closed doors, but you improve by doing the real thing, not a simulation of preparing a dance piece.”

Hofesh went on to win the International Serge Diaghilev Competition of Choreography Art in Gdynia, Poland in 2004, with an adaptation of ‘Fragments’.

Among dance makers, attitudes towards choreographic competitions vary widely, but all agree that competitions provide a visibility for their work. There is little doubt that events like The Place Prize raise awareness and appreciation of contemporary dance in general. The growing profile of dance indicates an increasing willingness on the part of artists to create work that communicates directly to the people who come to see it.

Whether or not you're a believer in the importance of visibility and accessibility of contemporary dance, it's hard to argue with events that increase opportunities for creating and performing work. Even those of us who aren't strictly dance makers might benefit from Hofesh's advice to emerging choreographers:

"Do things that get you out there. You learn from everything you create. It's important to do as much as you can - if you like it."

Key International Choreographic Competitions

1. Dansolution Young Choreographers Competition, Copenhagen, Denmark. Scheduled for October 2005.

2. Masdanza International Contemporary Dance Festival of the Canary Islands, Spain. Scheduled for April 2005.

3. International Solo Dance Theatre Festival, Stuttgart, Germany. Scheduled for 2006.

4. Kuopio Dance Festival, Finland. Scheduled for June 2005. Open only to Nordic choreographers.

5. International Serge Diaghilev Competition of Choreography Art, Gdynia, Poland. Scheduled for October 2005.

6. 19th International Competition for Choreographers, Hanover, Germany. Scheduled for March 2005.

7. The Place Prize, London, England. Scheduled for September 2006.

[Reproduced with permission from Juice magazine, issue number 77, January 2005. Juice listings magazine is a benefit of subscribing to The Place Artist Development. To subscribe to Juice magazine, click on the 'Juice' logo on The Place website.]

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