Here's the submission I sent to the Committee: SUBMISSION to the CULTURE MEDIA AND SPORT COMMITTEE
NEW INQUIRY (19 April 2004 No 19):
ARTS DEVELOPMENT: DANCE
I write as the European Director of CriticalDance, an international performance dance website comprising an active forum and the monthly online publication "Ballet-Dance Magazine": The URLs for our two websites are: www.criticaldance.com www.ballet-dance.com
We currently receive around 50,000 hits per day and while the USA, France and the UK are the strongest countries for CriticalDance, we also have correspondents in Italy, Canada, Estonia, Lithuania, Germany, Singapore, and regularly have articles and comments from other countries as well. We cover all forms of performance dance, including ballet, contemporary, South-East Asian dance, African dance, musicals and a host of other dance styles. One of the interesting points of websites like ours is that they provide an opportunity for artists and audience members to come together online to discuss performances and issues. In the UK, for the past three years we have worked closely with Dance Umbrella to provide an online discussion forum for the festival and dance writing competitions. We also have good links with other UK dance organisations such as Rambert Dance Company and Dance UK.
In addition I write for "Dance Europe" magazine and am a member of the Critics' Circle. Thus, I comment on the themes raised by the Inquiry into Dance from my experience of writing about dance, attending over 100 performances and seminars each year and with the international perspective provided by the discussions on our website.
To start with a current example, at present I am in Vilnius, Lithuania reporting on the British Council Next Step II Dance Showcase featuring 12 UK contemporary dance companies. The event is a great success, with many performances sold out and local audiences applauding loudly. As a snapshot of the current UK dance scene, many of the delegates I spoke to at the festival were impressed by the quality of the dancing and the range of styles and choreography on display. This included large, well-established groups, such as Random Dance, to young solo artists, such as Eddie Ladd and ranged from abstract virtuoso dance to humorous dance theatre. Like music, dance is an art form that crosses international boundaries with its non-verbal communication and Next Step II is a fine advertisement for the UK and the dynamism of its current arts scene.
With the melting pot of national groups that live together in the UK, it is not surprising that we also enjoy a wide spread of dance styles that originated in other countries. For instance, in South-East Asian dance, we not only have fine classical artists, often born and trained in this country, but also innovators such as Akram Khan, who is developing a new dance form combining elements of South-East Asian and Western contemporary styles and is much in demand both in the UK and overseas. Such companies and those performing in other international dance styles increase diversity in the arts, enrich our culture and provide positive role models for those in minority groups.
In 2004, the major UK ballet companies seem more stable and successful than was the case a few years ago. Since that time, new Artistic Directors are in place at the Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, Northern Ballet Theatre and Scottish Ballet and dancers, audiences and critics are pleased with the resulting changes. In addition, Birmingham Royal Ballet continues to thrive under David Bintley. Performance standards and audience appreciation are high for ballet, but the UK shares the problem, widely acknowledged in the rest of the world as well, that there is a shortage of top class ballet choreographers to replace the previous generation of Ashton, MacMillan and Cranko. The Regional DanceAgency, DanceEast, addressed this issue and others facing ballet at their Rural Retreat on the theme of "Ballet into the 21st Century" with 25 of the leading Artistic Directors from around the world. The discussions willl be resumed at a follow-up event in 2005, but there are no easy answers.
The generally positive situation for UK performance dance has not come about by accident, but has been greatly assisted by the support infrastructure established here, largely driven by the activities of the various UK Arts Councils, such as ACE. Looking at infrastructure in more detail, the UK has several top-class dance schools, some providing dance education to graduate and post-graduate levels and attracting overseas as well as local students. A second vital factor is the grant system administered by the UK Arts Councils, which is essential for the survival of most of our dance companies and although the overall level of funding remains lower than that seen in many continental European countries, it is orders of magnitude higher then the USA. While the private and commercial sponsorship model seen in the USA works very well for the largest companies with social cache to market, the smaller and experimental companies there suffer from the shortage of public funds. For example, the leading American artist, Mark Morris, was able to start making large scale dance works, now seen as masterpieces, because of a three-year residency in Belgium with a funding system similar to that in the UK. It is very unlikely that these works would have been made if he had remained in the USA, owing to the lack of significant public funding for dance and the arts generally.
Another aspect of the dance infrastructure that is well-developed in the UK is the network of National and Regional Dance Agencies around the country which provide facilities for professional dance companies, showcase new work and reach out into the local communities with non-professional classes and educational work in schools. The largest of these, London's The Place, also houses a top-class contemporary dance school and several directors of overseas dance houses have told me that they view The Place as one of the most important dance institutions in Europe.
Regarding audience figures, the report of the Policy Studies Institute from 2001 showed that, of the various art forms, contemporary dance was alone in increasing its audience in the period from 1993-94, to 1998-99. While I do not have access to more recent figures, my impression is that various UK dance companies are performing in larger venues and several times I have seen the 1500-seater Sadler's Wells theatre sold out for contemporary dance, which would have been a rare event few years ago.
Turning to ballet, my impression is that there is a great hunger for this dance style around the country, but the problem remains how to satisfy this demand given the problems of scale associated with much classical ballet. English National Ballet and, more recently, Birmingham Royal Ballet are to be congratulated for taking high quality dance, performed by smaller scale ensembles from within their companies, to towns which would otherwise see little live ballet. George Piper Dances has also been very successful in taking modern ballet of an international standard around the country and through their TV Ballet Boyz persona they have brought new audiences into theatres, while presenting challenging work rather than the classical favorites.
Thus, overall there is much to applaud in UK dance and its associated infrastructure. Turning to what can be improved for the future:
- UK dance continues to be a lean art form and many high quality companies, especially outside of ballet, rehearse in poor and sometimes unsuitable premises. Further, top dancers in these companies receive poor salaries. In 2001 at the "Paying for the Privilege" seminar, Emma Gladstone (Producer and programmer for The Place and freelance), told the participants that she had surveyed a number of dance artists on the subject of pay. Their maximum income from all sources was £14,000 pa, including those at the top of the independent dance profession. This compares with the average starting salary for a graduate at that time of £18,000 pa. While funding increases since then have started to address this problem, levels of public arts funding closer to those seen in countries such as France and Germany would enable a fairer salary to be paid to these fine artists who often represent the UK around the world.
- While UK ballet is popular and provides a fine product to its audiences, few commentators would disagree that there is greater creative energy and internationally recognised success from the choreographers working in contemporary and other dance styles, such as Wayne McGregor, Russell Maliphant, Henri Oguike, Akram Khan and others. Thus, while it is appropriate that ballet continues to receive the bulk of UK dance funding to sustain the major companies essential for the large-scale classics, the majority of any future funding increases for the dance sector should be concentrated on contemporary dance, the companies based on techniques from other cultures and the new hybrid dance forms, to capitalise on the creative drive of these sectors.
European Director, CriticalDance