The League of Extraordinary Bullshit

panta rei dans lullaby

Video - Panta Rei Danseteater 'Lullaby'

Norwegian dance company Panta Rei Danseteater, late last year, conducted a little experiment whereby three dance makers created two pieces with the same name based on the same idea, featuring three male dancers and two musicians, to see what the outcome was.

June 2nd, 2016

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by Neil Nisbet

"It's always impossible to legislate for talent. There are successful younger women out there - Maresa von Stockert, Cathy Marston, Jasmin Vardimon, Kate Prince - but they are not in the same league as McGregor, Bourne et al. Something has to change if the next great female choreographer, whoever she may be, is to make it to the top - and stay there."

In the paragraph above Judith Mackrell, writer for the Guardian newspaper, unwittingly sums up the entire mess that is the dance profession in the UK, and probably in a lot of other places. Her words were prompted by the communications disaster that usually follows whenever Alistair Spalding, AD of Sadler's Wells in London, opens his mouth.

If you're a sports fan imagine that your annual league championship was decided not on one team beating another by scoring more points/touch-downs/runs or whatever but by the pundits waxing lyrical about which team was the best.

No matter how good your players or how profoundly they destroyed their competition it would make not one bit of difference because, ultimately, victory would be decided by retired players and lecherous, perma-tanned TV hosts. Imagine just how frustrating that would be.

Critics, theatre directors, producers, promoters and, to a certain degree, the minions at ACE (Arts Council England), are what we have in place of pundits and lecherous TV presenters. They will all tell you that "they" and "they" alone understand what really makes a good piece of dance tick and the rest of us just don't get it.

If Wayne McGregor and Random Dance Company, for example, are funded, programmed by a large theatre, reviewed positively by Ms Mackrell and the odd punter puts in a nice comment card or three then Mr McGregor is a member of the elite, no? Even better if you add some international touring to the mix.

Surely all these people can't be wrong?

Of course, they're not wrong. But they're not right either which I'm pretty sure is a paradox so the universe should implode any second now......................... Good, we're still here.


Dance makers are elevated to their respective positions, in Ms Mackrell's imaginary League of Extraordinary Dance Makers, by the decisions of other people. If you think it's all about talent and skill then it's time to wake up and smell the strong black coffee. The mantra "you're good because we say you are" is alive and well and probably living in London.

Dance companies need to create work and they need to perform work. To create work they need money so, in this country at least, they have to turn primarily to ACE and to get programmed they have to turn to venues. In a perfect world these bureaucratic bodies would be staffed with open minded, free thinking individuals willing to take a chance on good ideas presented by smart people.

OK, you can stop laughing now, let's move on!

Taken to extremes it's easy to spot the difference between a hardened professional and a first year dance student dipping their toe in the wacky world of dance making. Spotting the difference between Jasmin Vardimon and Akram Khan, in terms of professional quality, is a much harder, if not completely impossible task.

The Sadler's Wells debacle has served to highlight that, on the one hand, Mr Spalding is an out of touch jackass with a penchant for saying and doing stupid things (YouTube contest anyone?) On the other hand it has highlighted the fact that the upper echelons of the dance world (meaning large scale venues) are nothing more than an exercise in back scratching and pandering.

It's not hard to imagine long conversations over dinner between Mr Spalding and Mr Khan (or whomever) where cosy agreements are made along the lines of "sure you can bring your solo to the Wells next year, don't worry about it". Sounds a bit theatrical? Well this is show business dahling!

Mathew Bourne's 'Swan Lake' is being programmed, again, at Sadler's Wells because it appeals directly to the "ladies that lunch" crowd who flock to that theatre to see any young male, bare chested and in feathered trousers flapping about the stage (seriously, what the hell goes on in Middle-England?)

It is suitably ironic that the front cover of Ms Mackrell's book 'Dictionary of Dance' (co-written by Debra Craine) features a still image from that particular show.

Here in TheLabā„¢ we think Mr Bourne's 'Swan Lake' is a load of crap. A stagnant, poorly constructed mess that sullies the good name of an ancient classic. That's just our view of course and you may feel differently but I challenge you to prove that 'Swan Lake' is not a load of crap. It would be just as difficult for Article19 to prove that it is a load of crap though.

It's that whole "subjective opinion" thing again!

Big Players

What the "big players" (as one of our readers recently described them) don't want people to realise is that they have absolutely no idea what they are doing. It's all guess work and pre-fabricated friendships wrapped up in 500 word press releases.

Female dance makers can no more break through this particular glass ceiling than our in-house cat can become President of The United States, no matter how much will power the bedraggled moggy can summon up through his arthritic paws.

They can't break through because there are no quantifiable steps they can take (pardon the pun) to shift the perspective of people like Mr Spalding. They could of course become more "assertive" which in my mind conjures up images of Ms Vardimon dangling Mr Spalding out the window of a very high building and threatening to drop him on his head unless he offers her a commission. I've probably seen too many episodes of 24 though.

Let's be very clear however. There is no league, there is no metric, no formula, nothing that can be applied by Ms Mackrell, Mr Spalding or anyone else (including Article19) to determine whether or not one persons work is better than another irrespective of the assertive qualities of the choreographer.

You could at least respect people for saying; "we gave it a shot but that didn't work so we're going to try something else". Instead it comes back to the same old red herrings that women aren't making it and it's all their own fault. The powers that be seem unable to explain what assertiveness, babies, child-care or anything else has to do with someone's skill as a dance maker.


What's the solution to this mess? Well personally I'm all for Mr Spalding being dangled from a window by his feet just for the hell of it (don't drop him though, that would be mean!) but I've got the feeling that won't achieve much.

ACE could intervene and demand a more eclectic mix of programming at theatres like Sadler's Wells but it's hard to do that when you're permanently inert and programming female dance makers "just because" is not the way to move forward.

It may sound a bit revolutionary and all but if the problem stems from the people in charge then maybe we should replace the people in charge? Replace them with people that are not narrow minded purveyors of risible drivel.

People that neither seek nor care for the favours of others and look at the world with a wider perspective. People that look beyond ticket sales, statistics, dance mapping studies and the never ending stream of un-quantifiable gibberish that pours out of large institutions on a daily basis.

Where are these people? My personal feeling is their currently creating work in dance studios and tick the "Miss" box on application forms.

[ The Jackass ]
[ The Guardian ]

  • tatigu

    this reminds me...

    has anyone seen the series 'The Wire' (now on BBC2), in particular season 3?

    Statistics can cover up painful truths.

    And I think there is nothing positive about positive discrimination - it's still discrimination!

  • Kema

    "The Mackrell Effect", "The Saatchi Effect", "The Parry Effect"

    Just because Judith says a piece is good it must be!!

    If Saatchi buys your pile of old bricks it's an amazing piece of art, if he doesn't it's just a pile of bricks.

    If Judith/Parry/Crisp don't really understand your work but don't want to slag it off they will talk about how innovative it is; i.e. Dance Technology, neurologists and choreographers working together, Wow how original !!, Abstract Dance Workshops with Primary children never been done before!!.

    Matthew Bourne makes work for a Mass Audience that is why Swan Lake can run and run. Stomp !! is still running the same show that still has the brush braking through the section!!

    Hofesh Shechter could very easily make a show that could run in the West End forever, flash a bit of male flesh. Get a good Judith review, " Innovative all male contemporary full length show!! " It would run forever.

    Big audiences do not equal quality content.

    If you had a TV programme with Sylvie Guillem, Juliet Binoche, Akram Khan in it, I think when your show comes on, you will get that BBC audience in to watch it.

    Ballet Boyz, basically a couple of dancers who managed to get Arts Funding to buy Rep Choreography, and who by their own admission can't choreograph for toffee. How did they get to be high profile? was it the quality of work? or was the Royal Ballet Documentary and then the Channel4 commissions. Make your own mind up.

    Can you imagine the meeting.

    Hi Mr Arts Council we want some funding!!

    Can you choreograph? Nope but we want to buy some Forsythe, Maliphant, Cunningham, Burrows moves... oh and we have been on telly!!

    Oh that's all right then,here you are have some cash!!

    In the early 90's I met Clement Crisp in Manchester at Michael Clark performance which at 7.55pm was running 25 minutes late. After the perormance i asked him how it was for him. "Music was rather loud, impeccable technique though."

    Some critics focus on things they like, or if they don't understand it and don't want to look stupid they talk about how innovative it is.

    Thank you

    Kema: Manchester

  • Owen Ridley-DeMonick

    Well yes, any experience of dance performance is subjective, and yes, specific performance attendance may be influenced my any number of variants, and yes, the promotion of dance work of all kinds is essential. There may well be inequality and prejudice alive within the dance world but I don't see how ending your argument with a clearly sexist statement is anything other than hypocritical.

  • Yes, women out-number men in dance by about 80-1, have very few of the top jobs and are getting patronised by silly old men, certain NDA Directors and Guardian journalists, ACE is mute and it's the last sentence of this editorial that's outrageous!

  • Owen Ridey-DeMonick

    Well, to me this seems to be tackling two separate issues, which in this instance don't sit particularly well together...

    I agree that the commercial success and exposure of certain choreographic works (and dance companies) may be questionable in relation to quality/artistic integrity (yes "subjective opinion") and the process in place for presentation at large scale performance venues...but my god the sheer volume of crappy dance i've witnessed regardless of the gender of the choreographer is slightly disturbing...

    The insubstantial feminist argument isn't convincing enough for me, re: "Tick the "Miss" box on application forms". The afore mentioned Jasmin Vardimon recently showed her work "Justitia" at the Peacock theatre (of Sadler's Wells...) to a half empty auditorium; the ticket sales perhaps a reflection of the half-baked narrative with a heavy air of deja vous...

    Choreographers don't always get it bang on; and yes if there was a better system in place which allowed artists to explore work with a hell of a lot more support, the dance climate in this country would be much richer for it.

    And of course "critical acclaim", favouratism and general dodgy dealings get tiresome when all one wants is to see some truly life-changing dance, which blows the contents of one's brain all over the chic industrialism of Sadler's Wells interior, but to directly attribute this possibility to the genitalia of the people responsible for this is not really the point.

  • and yet you apply an insubstantial metric to the success of a particular work. ie: "half empty auditorium". Ticket sales might be attributable to poor marketing, high prices, bad weather or simply that people might not want to go to the theatre on that night, or any number of other things. Also, how would people know the narrative was "half baked" if they didn't go to the theatre in the first place?

    This is issue is larger than one piece of work or the relative success of that work in terms of ticket sales.

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The Politics of Women