The EvilImp™

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Raised by feral wolves in the foothills of the Himalayas he came, back in the day, to these shores intent on wreaking havoc and spreading despair, then he found the dance world and came to the conclusion that mocking people was more fun! It is rumoured, though none will say it, that even the Batman fears him!

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For the most recent Coda Dance Festival in Oslo Ballet de Lorraine from Nancy in France brought a new work from Norwegian dance maker Ingun Bjørnsgaard.

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Staged Stupidity

published on Sunday, 27 July, 2014 | Comments | Make A Comment

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If young people want to become professional dancers then you have to think about more than monetary value or for that matter, value for money.

In the arts some folk may be a little too interested in what others think of them. All you need to do is look at the incessant praise re-tweeting, pull quotes from reviews and caring too much about being reviewed in the first place.

The Stage is reporting (stop laughing at the back) on a "survey" conducted for a dance clothing retailer that concluded a lot of people in the UK think that training in dance is a waste of money.

For the opening paragraph of the piece headlined "Public doubts value of a degree in dance" we have this;

"Fewer than one-fifth of UK residents believe that obtaining a degree in dance is worth the costs incurred while attending university, according to new research."

The actual number is 53% of 1,000 people surveyed. What we need to imagine for a moment is some random polling company calling you on the phone and asking you the following question; "Do you think that training in marine biology is the worth the costs incurred while attending university?"

How would you answer that question from an informed perspective? Well, first of all you would have to know what a marine biologist actually studies and how the knowledge gained at university applies to their chosen profession.

You would also need to know what other professions they can work in using that knowledge and what the benefits are of having highly skilled marine biologists in todays world.

If you are basing your answer on purely financial factors then you would need know how much money a marine biologist earns. Looking at that profession more broadly you would also have to factor in the intrinsic value of the profession.

For example, if a marine biologist isn't paid very much or nothing at all and they discover a way to prevent global fish stocks becoming depleted does that discovery justify the cost of their education even if they receive little or no financial compensation?

Do you think the people responding to the survey about dance training were considering all the relevant factors before answering the questions put to them?

We think you know what the answer is.

The Survey Goes On

"Meanwhile, of the 1,000 people surveyed, 55% of parents said they would be happy to see their child pursue a career in dance or the performing arts."

So, 53% of people think that training in dance is a waste of money but 55% of parents would not object to their offspring training in the arts. Either a certain percentage of parents don't mind their kids wasting money training in dance or a certain percentage of parents are completely stupid.

And then;

"For the dance industry to continue, we need budding performers not to lose sight of the extremely rewarding career path that dance can bring," said ***** ******* head of marketing, Paul Franklin."

Let us not forget that those "budding" dancers will also need to buy lots of tatty dance clothes from the dance retailer this man represents until they figure out that any old t-shirt and a pair of joggers with the elastic bits cut off the bottom will do. Not to mention the socks.

The crazy continues with the man from marketing;

"He also said that there were alternatives to university training for student dancers, such as independent dance schools where young people could learn about dance without such high fees."

You don't go to dance school to "learn about dance" you go to dance school to train in dance. You can learn about dance from a book, training is another matter entirely.

Yes, fees are too high for all the really good schools but as far as your education is concerned you need to look past the fees to see what you're really getting from any particular dance school.

Finally

"...he acknowledged that some "may need to complete a degree in dance" if they want to become recognised professionals."

We don't know what "recognised professional" means since professional dancers don't get a licence to practice but the "degree" part of training in dance is not really a factor in a professional dancers career.

Audition notices do not ask for proof of qualifications. Dance makers want to know who you are, what you have done and what you can do. Having a 2:1 or a first class honours degree isn't at all relevant.

The final thing we should point out here is this. Why the hell should anybody care whether or not the respondents to a survey think what they do with their education is "worth the cost" or not?

Dancers and those in dance training are already pre-disposed to choose the path less travelled so they are going to take their chances no matter what anybody thinks.

This "survey" was little more than an attention seeking exercise by a commercial company looking for some free press exposure using attention grabbing headlines. The Stage should have known better than to publish it (or maybe they don't know any better) and some on social media should have known better than to share it.

[ Direct Link To This Entry ]

Reductio ad Absurdum

published on Sunday, 20 July, 2014 | Comments | Make A Comment

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Batsheva Dance Company in 2001 photo by Gadi Dagon

In 2012 protesters interrupted numerous performances by Israeli dance company Batsheva in the UK for the simple reason that they are publicly funded by their own country's arts ministry.

The "pro-Palestinian" protestors have come up with the fantastically convoluted reasoning that anything from Israel is little more than Israeli government propaganda and should be shouted down if the targets receive public money.

Fast forward to 2014 and it's all happening again but this time the "protestors" ire is aimed at a small theatre company called Incubator Theatre who will be performing in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival at the Underbelly venue.

Thus far the protests are limited to little more than a, somewhat sanctimonious, open letter published in the The Herald Scotland demanding that the Underbelly venue not include the Jerusalem based theatre company it its programme. The letter is signed by numerous actors, directors and writers.

It's not clear if Incubator's show 'The City' will suffer the same fate as Batsheva. That protest involved people standing up at random times in the audience during the show and yelling at the performers. The net result of which was to achieve absolutely nothing for their "cause".

The Single Issue

What happens in these situations is that entire countries are defined by the actions of small groups within those particular nations. For many, all Israeli's are defined by their government (or hard line elements within that government). In the minds of the protesters an Israeli citizen can't get out of bed in the morning and make breakfast without thinking of new ways to hate people.

For others the Palestinians are defined by Hamas, Russians are defined by Vladmir Putin and his demonstrably corrupt government and their venal polices and many Eastern Europeans are defined by increasingly hysterical stories printed in the UK press that feel the need to demonise immigrants.

What gets missed are the people in the middle of all of this. They're just people who want to go about their lives doing what they do just like everybody else in the world. The entire population of Israel is not obsessed with the issues surrounding the occupied territories. Every Israeli artists doesn't have to make work that is defined by the issues that the media in western Europe choose to report about that country.

Art is fundamentally about free expression and the idea that a dance company, a theatre company or any artist should be denied that fundamental right (and it is a legally protected right) because of the actions of their government is absurd.

These armchair protestors claim that simply being funded by the Israeli Ministry of Culture is reason enough to vilify a theatre group for staging a rap based, murder mystery comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe. What makes this nonsense all the more ridiculous is that the people writing this letter are all artists.

Letters

In their open letter the protestors say;

"The state of Israel uses the international ventures of its artists to attempt to lend itself a sense of cultural legitimacy and to distract attention from the brutality of its illegal occupation"

Who is being distracted exactly? Not a day goes by without extensive coverage of the situation between Israel and the Palestinians. It's on the air and online 24/7 across hundreds of outlets.

Protesting Incubator Theatre is like German citizens protesting Rambert Dance Company in Berlin because of the UK's involvement in the invasion of Iraq.

If you want to take it a step further then you need to protest the entire Edinburgh Festival because it's partially funded with public money that comes from citizens all over the UK. Why not blame the organisers of that festival for all the dreadful things that have happened in this country over the last four years?

How about other countries? Is an African American comedian only allowed to tell jokes about racism and rap music? Will protestors be yelling at American artists at the Fringe because of the recently revealed actions of the NSA and the CIA?

Theatre companies are no more responsible for the actions of their government than polar bears are to blame for fluctuations in the stock market.

Harassing arts groups for no other reason than they are Israeli and publicly funded, attempting to deprive them of their livelihood, buying tickets to their shows just so you can ruin it for them and their audience is bullying, plain and simple.

We would say that the signatories to that letter need to grow up but most children can demonstrate a far greater ability to think and behave reasonably so that would be an insult to children.

[ Incubator Theatre perform 'The City' at The Underbelly from July 30 to August 25th in Edinburgh ]

[ Direct Link To This Entry ]

Shredding Money

published on Thursday, 17 July, 2014 | Comments | Make A Comment

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Phoenix Dance Theatre 'Catch' photo by Brian Slater.

In our ongoing tussle with Arts Council England to obtain information concerning the much maligned "Space" project the funding monolith made the following comment in response to questions about spending over £8Million on a website vs cutting the companies in the NPO portfolio.

"With regards to the national portfolio; turnover in the portfolio is healthy."

The language is tortured to say the least but the idea that anything happening with the National Portfolio is healthy is demonstrably false. Unless you work for a big ballet company or New Adventures, recipients of a new £1.3Million per year grant, that is.

As far as the dance profession is concerned most of the NPO received cuts. From dance companies to dance agencies almost all of them have a lot less money than they did four years ago. Not quite the rosy picture painted by Guardian writer Judith Mackrell recently.

On top of that, touring funding is still a colossal mess and a lot of touring venues are running on life support. ACE's response to all of this is to use the word "strategic" a lot while continuing to pay their top executives six figure salaries.

Elephants in Rooms

The other elephant in the room is a complete lack of protection for any of the NPO members from inflation (currently hovering around 2%). As prices rise, as the cost of renting accommodation rises, as travel costs rise, wages for a lot of people working in the arts are going to go down over the next four years.

A lack of year on year increases to counter inflation is bad for the arts in general but it is particularly bad for professional dancers, a group not burdened with generous weekly pay packets to begin with.

Funding stagnation creates pressure on the wage bills of companies both large and small. As costs rise to cover touring and other activity within a company then you can forget about pay increases or more full time contracts for dancers across the industry.

If the wages for professionals remain at their current levels (by no means guaranteed) then it is, essentially, a three year long pay cut of approximately 6%.

Dancers could also face reduced on-contract periods if they are lucky enough to have a long-term contract to begin with. There will also be fewer opportunities for part-time employment through dance agencies because almost all of those have the same inflation problems to go along with the cuts they have received over the last few years.

Phoenix Dance Theatre who receive £428,510 per year, one of the more generously funded contemporary dance companies in the UK, issued a statement on the day of the NPO announcements;

"However the level of investment will create significant challenges for us coming so soon after the cuts of the last round which put Phoenix very close to tipping point.
As a dance company whose sole purpose is to create and tour a diverse repertoire of high quality dance we have historically brought the talents of a wide range of high profile artists to the region including some of the biggest names in dance today. We are also proud to be the only middle scale dance company in the north of England employing a full time company of dancers.
Phoenix represents incredible value for money with subsidy at less than half that of peer companies in Wales and Scotland but as our Catalyst funding comes to an end and our overheads rise by over £20,000 per year we will effectively be £85,000 per year worse off by 2015. As we are already stretched to capacity, this impact can only hit straight at the heart of our creation and touring programme."

An £85,000 shortfall does not suggest a national arts infrastructure that is in any way "healthy".

As we and many others predicted years ago ACE's plan to mitigate public funding cuts with greater levels of philanthropy through the Catalyst Arts programme has been a complete failure.

You should note from the statement above that Phoenix Dance Theatre were a recipient of Catalyst Arts support.

If your reading this as a dancer, an administrator, a choreographer, an ACE employee or a regular member of the public it really doesn't matter because the prognosis is the same.

England's national arts funding body is a completely delusional, incompetent, basket case. ACE as an organisation is incapable of making even the most basic, rational decisions with regards to funding the core infrastructure of arts activity in this country.

If your house is falling down you don't install a brand new kitchen. You shore up the foundations and fix the leaks in the roof. You keep yourself safe from harm and live to fight another day and keep cooking from a hot plate.

As it stands right now Arts Council England is essentially throwing £20 notes into a shredder while the arts bleed to death from a thousand tiny cuts.

[ Corrupted Space ]
[ Dance NPO Data ]
[ Phoenix Dance Theatre Statement in Full ]

[ Direct Link To This Entry ]

We Know What You Did This Summer

published on Wednesday, 2 July, 2014 | Comments | Make A Comment

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Doing more and getting less, Motionhouse Dance Theatre in 'Broken'. Dancer: Daniel Connor

Yesterdays announcements by Arts Council England of their decisions concerning National Portfolio Organisations came as some relief to the wide world of dance.

Most established companies and organisations survived along with a few new companies being added to the mix. Of the 3 NPOs that failed to get renewed we know that at least two of them did not even apply. The funding announcement covered grants from 2015 to 2018.

Beyond the headlines though the results of the funding decisions from the Big Bad hide a deeper malaise within the world of the publicly subsidised arts.

9.4%

First of all one number doing the rounds, we think it was started by The Guardian newspaper, claimed that dance funding had increased by 9.4%, a number that, at best, is completely misleading and at worst gives politicians and ACE political cover they don't deserve.

The truth is that of the 30 dance companies in the NPO portfolio 15 of them have seen their funding cut between 2011 and 2015. Of the 27 agencies or "other" dance organisations from the NPO portfolio just 2 of them them saw real increases in funding with the rest receiving cuts to their core grant.

Many of the dance company increases were very modest, Balbir Singh Company for example got a 3.8% increase to £150,460 per year. 2Faced Dance Company, helmed by Tamsin Fitzgerald in Hereford, received a 96.6% increase from 2011 but that takes their funding to just £192,000 per annum. It might sound like a lot of money but when you have to run a touring dance company for a year it actually doesn't go very far.

The vast majority of the headline figure of the 9.4% increase went to big ballet companies. Birmingham Royal Ballet with a 3.4% increase to more that £7.8Million per year and Northern Ballet with an 18.4% bump to more than £3.1Million.

Mathew Bourne's New Adventures company came from nowhere to receive a staggering £1.29Million per year. So we can all look forward to more productions like 'Lord of the Flies' in the near future along with endless re-runs of the male 'Swan Lake'.

Application of the Application

Arts Council England does not release the details of how much money each company would have asked for in their application so it is entirely possible that organisations applied for less money.

However, given the fact that NPO applications are made in close consultation with ACE, it is probable that any application for less money was made because of a recommendation from an ACE advisor.

Scaremongering about the lack of funds available is a good way to keep people from asking for more money whether they need it or not.

Khan

The biggest overall increase for any dance company went to Akram Khan Company with a 122% boost to more than £500,000 per year starting from 2015.

It's an increase that is particularly galling considering Mr Khan was saying, just 2 years ago, about how the arts were being "fed too much money". What he must have meant was that everybody else was being fed too much money and his company wasn't getting enough.

When you place this increase alongside the reductions handed down to others then it becomes more apparent still that ACE's funding strategy suggests the funding monolith doesn't know what the word "strategy" actually means.

Two small dance agencies, Merseyside Dance Initiative in Liverpool and Dance Manchester received hefty cuts (33.5% and 49.3% respectively) to their already modest budgets.

The decrease to those two agencies looks like it paid for the increase to Mr Khan's company. What is it that Mr Khan couldn't do before with his current level of funding that required two agencies in the north of England to be kicked in the shins so viciously?

Narrative Nonsense

Throughout the day ACE was spinning the line about how they were doing a lot with much reduced budgets from central government. That is, in part, true since the Department for Culture Media and Sport under the current government has been particularly vicious.

It is not the complete picture however. Dance companies such as Candoco Dance Company based in London and Ballet Lorent based in Newcastle have taken cuts over the last few years for no other reason than "just because".

Candoco have dramatically changed the way they commission and tour new work recently to make themselves more nimble and adaptable while being one of the few fully inclusive dance companies in Europe.

Ballet Lorent, with their shows like 'The Night Ball' and 'Rapunzel', have brought audience participation and dance education to a whole new level across the UK.

And yet, they both receive cuts. Why?

The simple answer is because, as already mentioned, ACE doesn't have a real strategy at all. Neither Candoco nor Ballet Lorent needed to be cut, not even a little bit.

More modest increases in funding for big ballet and a lot less generosity toward New Adventures would have provided the money to strengthen the core organisations in the wide world of dance, the mid-scale and the small-scale. That includes both of the companies mentioned above.

Need we remind you that the £8.1Million that ACE has committed to the colossally incompetent Space project (money that comes from lottery funding) could have not only mitigated cuts across the entire NPO portfolio but also provided a massive boost to touring funds for the performing arts in general.

It's not that there isn't enough money to go around, it's that ACE is a terrible steward of that money.

Finally

Motionhouse Dance Theatre, based in Warwickshire, received a 19.4% boost to £338,306. An increase that was well deserved considering the massive amount of national and international touring the company does with multiple productions across multiple scales.

Our old friends Random Dance [Company] also received a funding bump of 3.8% to £515,212. In 2014 the London based company will have performed just 4 times in the UK, 3 of those times in London.

The company that does more gets less and the company that does less gets more. That's the story of the NPO funding round of 2014.

[ NPO Funding Data For Dance ]

[ Direct Link To This Entry ]

Nobody Knows Anything

published on Thursday, 12 June, 2014 | Comments | Make A Comment

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Data is a character from Star Trek, not a way to decide what work should be made by companies or programmed by theatres. Photo by JD Hancock

It's one thing fighting off the right wing absolutists when they spew their ridiculous rhetoric regarding arts funding it's another thing altogether when you are crossing swords with people who are supposed to understand the arts.

Step forward Harriet Harman, Shadow Culture Secretary, and Simon Mellor from Arts Council England.

In a speech to some people who had gathered at the Roundhouse Theatre in London this week, Ms Harman was, ostensibly, talking about young people and the arts.

She started well enough with this;

"I come to this as someone who believes that the arts are fundamental to what it is to be human. For how each individual develops and understands and sees themselves and the world around them. For how we understand and interpret time and place."

Before carrying on by debunking the idea that economics should be the driving factor behind funding culture and stating that young folk have a right to access the arts and "explore their artistic and creative potential".

The hyperbole continues for several paragraphs as Ms Harman waxes lyrical about great cities, great artists and lots of other things that are apparently "great".

It's after this, somewhat predictable opening, that the wheels start to come off the wagon however.

The False Equivalency Gambit

"But there is a democratic imperative for the arts to show why the hard-pressed tax payer - struggling with the cost of living crisis - should fund the arts."

When you read things like that it makes you fear for your sanity. The line from Ms Harman's speech attaches the "cost of living" problems in the UK to arts funding for no other reason than to use the phrase "tax payer".

The fact is however that (according to ACE) the amount of money contributed by each individual citizen towards the arts is just 14p per week or £7.28 per year.

In real terms that's the costs of, approximately, three large boxes of cornflakes. If you want to put that into politician friendly terms then you could tell Johnny Public that he can either have an extra £7 in his pocket per-year or pretty much every cultural institution in the country will be closed down... choose now or shut up!

Also, tax payers are "hard pressed" because of stupid decisions made by clueless, self-involved politicians, why don't we talk about that for a while?

Ms Harman doubles down though on false equivalency with this;

"When the NHS is struggling, and councils face agonising choices about cutting care for dementia sufferers - public funding for the arts is only sustainable to the extent that the public know it matters for them."

The budget for the NHS is over £125Billion per year but the current ACE budget is under £400Million, that's a £124.5Billion difference. People are not losing health care because of arts spending and they never have lost health care because of arts spending.

Ms Harman could just tell folks that, she's not a stupid person after all, but you don't want to upset the "voters" with actual facts now, do you?

There is also the completely nebulous suggestion that the arts can only be funded if they "matter" to the general public.

The problem is that you can't justify spending money on something if the metric you're going to measure is "does it matter", because you can't measure how much something matters.

The how much it "matters" equation is tied together with two bullet points that say this;

"1. What is (sic) public funds are being put into it and 2. What they are getting out of it."

As obstructive as ACE can be at times you just need to ask them who they give money to and how much they receive, often times they will publish big lists for you.

When it comes to what you get for the money? Well, a dance company gets funded to make and tour work and deliver education projects. That's what you get. What an individual takes from any of these experiences is entirely up to them and their own intellect (or lack thereof).

Made Up Mellor

Simon Mellor, the "executive director for arts" at ACE, which sounds like a completely made-up job but let's move on, also gave a speech to some people who, very obviously, had nothing better to do.

Apart from being a portent of doom about arts funding and the future of the subsidised sector, which ACE is supposed to counter because, you know, that's their job, he said stuff like this;

"Arts and cultural organisations need to become much better at sharing data about audiences and aggregating and mining that data to better understand their audiences: who they are; what they like (and don't like); what they think of the work they are seeing; who they don't reach etc - and to work together to build a bigger and broader audience for publicly funded arts and culture as a whole."

Just like Ms Harman, Mr Mellor wants the arts folk to understand the unquantifiable about "their" audience. For many touring organisations "their audience" are really just random groups of people who show up for an evening of entertainment at each venue they attend.

Even if you take a detailed survey of each audience member and assume that they tell you the truth about a show what possible use is that information? If they don't like the show is the company supposed to change it? Will the company never be booked again by that venue? Should artists start making creative decisions based on the likes and dislikes of the "18-35 demo"?

If so expect a lot of dance productions about love-lorn vampires who express themselves with stares and sparkle in sun light.

Characters Not Welcome

If these two characters get their way then the culture scene over the next few years will devolve into arguments based on false equivalency along with incessant polling of audiences, meaningless data analysis and creativity by numbers.

Ms Harmen and Mr Mellor are supposed to understand the arts given that one of them works for Arts Council England and the other one could be Culture Secretary a year from now.

You can gather all the data you want, and there are plenty of people willing to take public money to do just that, but the truth is simple and cheap, as William Goldman said; "nobody knows anything".

In the very broadest terms we can tell, sort of, what's good and bad in the wide world of dance, Rock the Ballet vs The Royal Ballet for example. But nobody knows what will or will not appeal to any particular group of people or whether or not the work you present them with will have any kind of emotional, spiritual or intellectual impact on them at all.

If anybody could figure that out then every single movie, musical, pop song, play or whatever would be a financial and critical success. Is that what happens?

Given the complexities of the human condition anybody claiming to have that kind of knowledge would have to be a psychotic egomaniac.

Arts and culture is a guessing game, you pay your money and you take your chances and everybody needs to accept that.

The suits at ACE can't accept that because the suits in Westminster demand some demonstrable rationale that can be translated into a chart to convince a public, that does not need convincing, that funding the arts is a good idea.

If ACE (including Mr Mellor) think they do need convincing then we refer you to the graphic below, which comes from ACE.

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source: Arts Council England

We need better leadership than this.

[ Simon Mellor (ACE) Speech PDF ]
[ Harriet Harman Speech ]

[ Direct Link To This Entry ]

We Are Awesome

published on Sunday, 18 May, 2014 | Comment | Make A Comment

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Twitter is all set to for a new level of absurdity with the introduction of a mute feature

Here in TheLab™ we imagine that it all started with a conference somewhere, probably from the Arts Marketing Association. A well dressed hipster takes to that stage and proclaims, using forced confidence while holding an iGadget™, that if a Twitter follower sends you a message containing feint praise then immediately re-tweet it to your own followers.

Telling other people who like you that other people like you will make more people like you and those people will buy tickets for whatever you're selling. Which of course they won't but the cost of hitting a button is nothing at all so what does it matter?

And so it started, the mind-numbing practice of "praise re-tweeting". You almost dread it when a company you are following on Twitter does a live performance because you know what's coming next. As many as a dozen tweets from their followers telling you something that you really don't want to hear.

It's the electronic equivalent of the "pull quote", one-liners from reviews that too many plaster all over their websites, videos and promotional literature.

Some companies have taken to filing their praise tweets into a single place using services like Storify but, at present, they are in the minority.

A Link To Nowhere

To give you some idea of just how ridiculous Twitter is becoming consider this. A few days ago the Twitter account for the International Dance Festival in Birmingham sent out a message linking to a video.

The video was an interview with company director Luca Silvestrini apparently discussing his new work 'Border Tales'.

Several people re-tweeted the message and a few favourited the post and, presumably, the video.

The only problem was the video itself was private and nobody, apart from the YouTube account holder, could watch it so what exactly were people re-tweeting and what were they favouriting?

It took a further three days for the video to be made public.

The Other Side

If you are on the receiving end of a praise re-tweet flood it reads like this;

"people think we're awesome, people think we're awesome, people think we're awesome, people think we're awesome, people think we're awesome, people think we're awesome, people think we're awesome, people think we're awesome, people think we're awesome, people think we're awesome, people think we're awesome, people think we're awesome."

Just exactly what kind of person do companies imagine will want to read something like that?

It completely ignores the fact that somebody the company interacted with just wanted to send them a nice message. What they didn't do was send the company a marketing opportunity for them to exploit without their permission.

Companies receiving nice messages on Twitter should respond with a simple thank you and be done with it.

That message is telling the recipient that they are doing something right so keep doing what they're doing and those people will probably tell their friends about the company and their work all on their own.

Mute

In the coming weeks Twitter will be rolling out a new feature that will enable users to literally mute accounts they follow. This means they will not see any tweets from the muted account for as long as they specify in the settings for each mute request.

This particular feature has been available in third party Twitter clients for years, like Tweetbots, and is ideal for temporarily silencing noisy accounts.

From the perspective of the praise re-tweeter though you won't notice any difference. There is no way to tell if your tweets are being muted by one of your followers.

Essentially, that "follower" number that everybody seems to think is so important will be almost completely meaningless. Article19's Twitter account follows people we actually want to hear from and interact with but many Twitter users don't use the service like that.

There are many companies in the arts and individuals that follow others for no other reason than to be followed so they can broadcast their links and praise. The mute feature will allow them to make it look like they care about what you have to say without actually having to bother listening at all.

The reverse side of that scenario is that the companies that just want to broadcast could be muted by many of their followers. So what we end up with is a large number of arts organisations all tweeting messages that everybody is muting.

Everybody will be talking but nobody will be listening. It's almost what we have right now but with an added level of absurdity.

Text Message

Twitter is little more than text messaging on a grand scale. It is an ideal, short-form communication method for people and companies to talk to anybody they want.

Of the accounts we follow, mostly dance companies and agencies with some individuals thrown in, we rarely see the companies and agencies actually talking to each other, never mind the general public.

Some do make the effort to have Q&A sessions along with a little conversational back and forth but, as mentioned, they are absolutely in the minority.

Day after day all we see is the relentless and completely charmless marketing machine at work. Using Twitter for most is just one more thing on the to-do list that has to be crossed off.

"did we use Twitter today? Yes we did, so job done!"

An opportunity is being missed to be genuinely engaged with dance students, the public and anybody else who may be interested in what's happening in dance.

If an individual wanted to find out about dance in general or a dance company and all they had to go on was a Twitter feed the overwhelming impression they would get is "marketing, marketing, marketing".

Dance companies need to imagine their Twitter accounts are a performance and performances need to be entertaining.

A little more chat and a lot less of the electronic equivalent of pizza delivery flyers tumbling through a letter box and we might start getting somewhere.

[ Direct Link To This Entry ]

Essentially Worthless?

published on Wednesday, 30 April, 2014 | Comments | Make A Comment

It was suitably ironic that following our feature piece last week concerning the problems with professional dancers trying to find properly paid, full-time jobs an audition landed in our inbox from The Royal Opera House in London.

This particular audition, seeking 6 female dancers for the staging of an opera called 'Anna Nicole', was offering a weekly pay level of just £358.72.

The situation echoed a previous incident from 2012 when English National Opera was caught out paying professional dancers even less per week. On both occasions the weekly amount and the additional, also very poor, performance fees were negotiated by Equity, the performing arts union.

Article19 published the audition notice to highlight the comically bad pay level, particularly for dancers working in London. Ultimately it has to be a dancers decision whether or not to apply for a job but in this instance the pathetic amount of money being offered needed to highlighted.

Unusually, The Royal Opera House responded directly on Twitter when Article19 and many others pointed out the poor level of pay;

You know you are on the wrong side of a particular argument when your only defence is little more than "yeah, we know this is terrible but these other guys said it was ok so don't blame us".

The defence deployed by the communications team at The Royal Opera House is one typically reserved for commercial corporations caught dumping toxic waste in a river. Yes the waste was toxic, they would say, but the regulator says it's ok as long as we only dump a little bit of toxic waste.

Irrespective of what a regulator says surely we can all get together and agree that no amount of toxic waste dumping in a river is ok?

The salaries of senior executives in large scale organisations like The Royal Opera House are determined by "renumeration committees". Essentially, a group of people have a long chat about what a particular individual is worth.

At some point the renumeration committee at the ROH decided their Music Director Antonio Poppano was worth over £700,000 per year. Mr Poppano is the conductor of the opera that wants to pay 6 professional dancers a basic wage of just £358.72.

The Royal Opera House receives more than £20Million in annual subsidy from Arts Council England and at some point a meeting was had that determined these 6 professional dancers were pretty much worthless.

Poverty of Ethics

Following the publication of the audition for the ROH we received two further notices from project based companies, one based in the UK and one based in the Republic of Ireland.

Both of those companies were offering pay levels in excess of £500 per week and, in one instance, accommodation costs for those not based in the company's local area.

Why is it that project based companies with incredibly tight budgets can afford to pay more than the mighty Royal Opera? The answer is fairly simple.

The choreographers on those projects ignore Equity and all of the other advisory bodies and budget their dancers pay at a level that is as fair as they can possibly make it given the constraints of their budgets.

More often than not the dance makers sending out these auditions are dancers themselves and know only too well the problems of low pay and trying to survive as you move from job to job.

Determining the level of pay for an individual is just as much of an ethical and moral decision as it is a financial one. As one individual said during the recent furore over dancers not being paid to appear in a music video for Kylie Minogue; if they don't want to pay you, they basically think what you have to offer is worthless.

Dancers living and working in London have to cope with some of the highest living costs anywhere in the world. Even a single room in a house share can cost in excess of £800 a month. It is these simple and irrefutable facts that make the Royal Opera House's pay offer even more pathetic.

Today Article19 received an email from the Chorus Manager of the Royal Opera; Dermot Agnew. He asked us to amend the notice because they had received a large amount of interest in the jobs being offered.

This is as depressing as it is predictable.

In the job market the dancers are always at a disadvantage and employers like the ROH know this. It's how they get away with it.

Mr Agnew said he had a "lot of girls inquiring". He was informed in no uncertain terms that not only was the notice not going to be amended, but referring to professional dancers as "girls" was something he shouldn't do ever again.

The complete and utter lack of respect is palpable.

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Play Fair

published on Tuesday, 15 April, 2014 | Comment | Make A Comment

iv2.jpg

Picking dancers out of a crowd is kind of your job, so cut audition applicants some slack. JV2 'Tomorrow' from Article19

Professional dancers taking part in the audition process over the last few years will be very aware of the increasing demands from companies and choreographers to provide video material of their abilities in advance of being selected for attendance.

Some notices go so far as to request solo material or material that clearly shows the dancer during a live performance absent any other dancers so the choreographer/company can get a good look at you.

It sounds like a reasonable enough request in this age of the internet video. How hard can it be for a professional dancer to get good material of them performing uploaded to YouTube?

Even though dance companies in general have taken big strides towards improving the quality of their online video material we, here in TheLab™, would still rate the dance profession's collective effort at a lowly 2/10.

Take a trip to the website of any big company and, more often than not, there will not be a great deal of video material for you to watch. Even if there is, good luck finding it.

Dancers, even the ones with history of working with big companies, struggle to get their hands on good video material. In fact, the bigger the company, the harder it is for them to get access to anything at all to use in their own portfolio.

Even if the dancer did get access to footage it's a big leap of faith to imagine they have the technical skills to take some raw, ProRes 422 footage and edit and title that material and compress it into the correct format to go online.

Not every professional dancer has a video editor they can call on for help.

What about recent graduates? If experienced professionals struggle to get good footage than recent graduates can find it almost completely impossible. Yes, they can get into a studio with their cell phone and record a solo. However, is that going to be the same as a fully rehearsal directed and professionally choreographed, 3rd year graduate performance with a full company of dancers? Of course not!

If anything, the "selfie solo" could actually hurt the applicant because they are not performing at their best, absent the adrenaline rush of a dance performance replete with lights, music and a live audience.

We would strongly recommend that video material should always be an optional extra and the absence of that video material should not determine an applicant's suitability to attend the audition.

The Open Audition

In some ways the open audition might seem like a fairer way to do things. Just publicise a date and then let the dancers rock up with their CV and take their chances.

The open audition only works for both dancer and dance company though if you can be sure a reasonable amount of people will show up across multiple audition dates across a particular country or region.

If the audition is flooded with hundreds of dancers (not as rare as you might think) then just how much of a chance do you think the dancers will have to shine? Conversely, how much of a chance will the choreographer/director have to spot the dancers they really want to work with?

An open audition is really more of a lottery and getting a job in a dance company should be about personality and skill and that's not really going to come through with hundreds of dancers squeezed into a dance studio.

We have also seen open audition notices that stipulate dancers may not be auditioned at all if too many people show up. That is simply unacceptable when dancers may have to pay a lot of money to travel there in the first place.

Looking through hundreds of CVs and application emails might be a drag, but that's what you signed up for when you started a dance company.

We recommend nixing the open audition.

The Application Form

We have written before on Article19 about the growing trend of dance companies using application forms in their audition process.

It's worth re-iterating here that dancers are nomadic folk. They move around a lot and not everybody has access to a laptop with the ability to edit a Word document or a PDF properly and send it back to you.

Application forms do little more than introduce an added layer of complexity for the dancer. There is nothing that can be written in an application form that cannot be written in an email or one page CV.

We would also suggest that you set up a dedicated account (using Gmail, Yahoo Mail or Outlook) to receive audition applications. That way your normal email address will not be overwhelmed and crash. You can also setup a simple auto-responder so the applicants know that their email has been received.

A special place in hell is reserved for those companies that require dancers to apply for auditions using postal mail.

Again, if you don't want to receive lots of applications to audition from professional dancers then you might want to get out of the dance company game.

Play fair......

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The Lost Arts

published on Thursday, 10 April, 2014 | Comments | Make A Comment

The Guardian newspaper published a by the numbers puff-piece last week based on a press release from the BBC proclaiming that the publicly funded broadcaster was going to champion the arts or, you know, whatever.

Said press release, loosely translated by John Plunkett (totally made up name or what? Ed!), proclaimed that;

"Nearly £3m extra will be spent on arts programmes across TV, radio and online in the coming year, with BBC director general Tony Hall, the former chief executive of the Royal Opera House, promising "more arts on the BBC than ever before"."

Alarm bells immediately start ringing because Tony Hall is a former over-paid bottle washer from the subsidised arts sector who is now an over-paid bottle washer at the BBC.

"The arts really matter. They are not for an elite or for a minority. They're for everybody," said Hall. "I worry the arts could become more marginalised unless we do more to reach out to children and young people. To inspire them."

It's always lovely when very wealthy people who can afford to do anything they want tell the rest of us that we can have everything they have and it's all thanks to them despite the fact that the "rest of us" are the ones who paid them all the money to become wealthy in the first place. But we digress.

Of course, when Mr Hall says "the arts" are for everyone he doesn't actually mean all of the arts. What he means are the kind he oversaw when he worked at the Royal Opera House. The really "big" arts with all the posh costumes, big orchestras and big venues. The kind of arts run by his well funded friends.

The advisory group being put together to inform this shake up of arts coverage includes Nicholas Serota from the Tate in London and Nicholas Hytner the soon to be ex-AD of the National Theatre , also in London. Outlined for coverage by the BBC will be a lot of Shakespeare, Glyndebourne Opera and stuff made by folks like Sam Mendes (director of the last James Bond film).

There is little or no room at all for any of the scruffy regional folk working in dance companies that receive less than £1Million per year in annual support. Just so you know, that's pretty much all of them. We feel sure that the usual suspects will appear somewhere at some point if they happen to do something for The Royal Ballet.

Also set to return is The Space, the ill-advised and massively expensive media channel for the arts run by the BBC with their partners in crime at Arts Council England. Given their track record of appalling dance coverage and profligate spending we see no reason to expect anything different when it re-emerges from the swamp once again to impress absolutely no-one.

If they're lucky some dance companies may get a few scraps from the table after all the "licensing" and admin money has been spent.

No Surprises

None of this should come as too much of a surprise to folks in the wide world of dance or the arts in general. Mr Hall was appointed to the top job at the BBC just because. There was no open application process or even an interview, he got the job because he used to work there before working at the Royal Opera House and his old friends gave him a new job with a bigger pay packet.

Once installed in his new position Mr Hall appointed at least two employees with no open application process or interview. Anne Bulford, who worked with Mr Hall at the Royal Opera House, was given a £395,000 per year job in finance. Former Culture Minister James Purnell secured a £295,000 role with a job title that sounded completely made up.

It is this mentality that pollutes the commissioning process for what will be featured in the new BBC push for greater arts coverage.

There will be no Motionhouse, Candoco, 2Faced, Scottish Dance Theatre, JV2, Verve or so many others because they don't have friends in the right places. They have no history with Mr Hall and his cronies and as such, they simply do not exist.

Of course the irony is that the companies that would benefit the most from some national exposure on a national broadcast television network are the ones least likely to get it.

Perhaps the "regional" arts folk can make do with the utterly incompetent and thoroughly patronising local news coverage that always makes everybody cringe when it goes to air. Scraps from table dear readers, scraps from the table.

This favouritism has always been the case and it won't change as long as the same people are given the same jobs because they do have friends in all the right places.

We have mentioned the rapid onset of a two-tier arts system in this country before and if this nonsense doesn't stop soon, aided and abetted by the faux arts media, then the poor will just keep getting poorer.

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Shell Game

published on Monday, 31 March, 2014 | Comments | Make A Comment

The budget delivered by the Chancellor of the Exchequer is often a snooze for arts folk unless they are expecting arts cuts, the norm for the last few years.

However, this time out there was, allegedly, some good news for the creatives when George Osbourne announced some tax breaks for both touring and non-touring theatrical productions, subsidised by Arts Council England or not.

According to ACE the tax relief;

"... applies to both commercial and subsidised productions and will include theatre, ballet, dance and opera, musicals and other live performance. The Chancellor announced two rates of relief; 25% for touring productions and 20% for all other productions."

So, does this mean that making your show just got 20% cheaper? Not so fast there skippy because this is tax law and nothing is ever simple when it comes to tax law.

ACE's own description of how this works requires more tax law expertise then most mere mortals can muster;

"The calculation of this is as a percentage of eligible capitalised expenditure (broadly one takes the capitalisation of the project, and the eligible portion comprises most categories excluding marketing and advertising, running costs, contingencies and any finance costs). The tax relief is then applied to 80% of this eligible expenditure. The mechanism for claiming the relief will be covered in the forthcoming consultation."

Strictly speaking, if you have the administrative moxie to pull it off, then you could save some money on your new show. The problems begin because the relief is applied to corporation tax and almost every subsidised company in the UK is a registered charity, not a corporation, so they don't pay any corporation tax.

The funding monolith has a plan though saying, via their press release on this scheme, that;

"The majority of theatre companies that receive funding from Arts Council England are charities and are not usually liable for corporation tax. It is envisaged that in order to benefit from the tax relief a charity will create a trading subsidiary that is liable for corporation tax through which it will make the production and benefit from any relief."

Basically what you do, if you're a mid-scale dance company, is set-up up what amounts to a phoney corporation so you can then become liable for a tax you never had to pay in the first place so you can get relief from said tax.

Larger companies with sufficient expertise on hand and the money to pay for it may find setting up dummy corporations very easy but most people and most companies probably won't be so lucky.

Should this scheme actually bring in more money that it costs to set up then you are good to go but to us, here in TheLab™, it all sounds an awful lot like the kind of tax avoidance schemes being used by massive corporations like Apple, Google and Amazon.

Schemes which these companies have been hauled before government committees for using and schemes that are blamed, in part, for causing a lot of the massive budget cuts currently being endured across this country and beyond.

We suppose that the motto "if you can't beat them join them" was ringing in the ears of both ACE and the DCMS when they heard about these shell corporation shenanigans.

Sticky

There is also the rather sticky issue of the financial problems being faced by many arts organisation actually being caused by the very government that is pretending to hand them some tax relief.

The powers that be have taken what was a very simple system (sort of) by providing funding to ACE who then fund arts organisations and turned it into cutting direct funding to the bone and adding in a huge layer of bureaucratic paper shuffling to create corporate tax liable entities that may or may not save you less money than they took away in the first place.

It would almost certainly have been far simpler to allow registered charities working in the performing arts to simply claim an exemption from VAT, which in the UK is set at 20%.

It is still to be made clear what happens to charitable organisations working in the arts that set up these "trading subsidiaries" only to find some rule change or bureaucratic red tape means they are not eligible for the "tax relief".

When that happens would they then become liable for large amounts of corporation tax? We would ask ACE, the DCMS or The Treasury but we already know what they are going to say... "we don't know!"

Such tax relief schemes will, in all probability, only benefit the large scale. Small and mid-scale will probably look at this and figure it's not worth the effort and the expense of setting it up even if they could save a bit of money with it.

It is all the very weakest of sauce.

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