Build Me An Ivory Tower

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 Michelle Lefevre

Since late 2001, following the opening of The Space in Dundee, the frenzied construction of new or refurbished dance facilities across the UK may have given the uninitiated the slightly misguided impression that dance was a profession minted with large sums of disposable cash.

The reality is of course slightly different and the struggles involved in building these facilities and, more importantly, keeping them open once completed are often hidden from public view.

Creating new spaces for dance has some fairly obvious benefits. For example; The Space was built to be the home of the Scottish School of Contemporary Dance. At that time there were no custom built dance facilities like it anywhere in Scotland and the demands of running a three year dance training program required multiple dance studios, offices, classrooms and a performance space. These demands could not be met by the previous home of the school.

When compared to more recent construction projects the £3.5million cost seems fairly modest, especially when compared to the eye watering £16.5million projected cost of the new facility for Rambert Dance Company in London.

Ric Russell the Design Partner for Nicoll Russell Studios, who were the architects for The Space building project in Dundee, explained;

"We did have a considerable amount of difficulty bringing that project in on budget, they did get a lot of building for the money. The reason why these projects are driven so hard is because they get assisted funding, in that particular case, from the lottery and the lottery agreement was made years before we completed the building. It is of course fixed [the cost] so as building costs change the inflation that takes place doesn't change the funding that you have in the first instance. The difficulty we had was to drive down the cost of the building without losing [its] spirit"

Despite the financial constraints however The Space remains one of the best dance orientated facilities in the UK. The three dance studios and the theatre space are all located on the same level and you can literally walk a path straight through the building from one space to the next without going up or down any stairs and that includes the external walkways. The auditorium itself is configurable from the standard proscenium arch familiar to many theatre goers to either a thrust stage or an 'in the round' set up.

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Students can relax in their own common area or 'buzz space' as the designers called it with a heated floor to keep them warm between classes. The exterior of the building was also constructed with site specific performances in mind. Set away from any major roads with large common areas of grass and trees it all makes for a great place to work and play.

Compare and Contrast

So how do the newer facilities stack up when compared to this? Direct cost comparisons are not entirely reliable because as Mr Russell explains;

"One has to reflect on the time-scales because the building industry in Britain has overheated and there has been so much work around for contractors that getting very competitive prices has proved very difficult. It's going to get worse because of the Olympic Games [in London], so really there is a huge amount of employment out there in the building industry.

The difficulty then is that prices rise. Even in the space of five years it would not be unreasonable to see [prices] rise by [what could be] 10% per year. These projections that you will find for these building will be projecting to the point where the building is complete which will possibly be another two years on. So you're really comparing, say, £3.5million for our Space building and then you are looking at these other buildings and thinking it's actually seven years later."

Indeed Dance Base, Scotland's National Dance Agency, which was built almost at the same time as The Space, cost £4.25million with four studios and no performance space. Being built right in the centre of Edinburgh, just below Edinburgh Castle no less, probably didn't help when trying to keep the budget as frugal as possible.

More recently, Dance City - the National Dance Agency for the North of England - in Newcastle upon Tyne opened their custom built facility in late 2005 at a cost of £7.6million. Featuring 4 dance studios and a performance space as well as numerous meeting rooms and small offices for local dance companies. It is however located in the middle of an urban jungle right next to a four lane arterial road so noise and pollution are a problem.

New buildings under development include Dance East's 'Dance House' in Ipswich that, when completed, will have, at the time of writing, an undetermined number of studios, studio theatre, cafe, shop and other amenities. Dance East have slated early 2009 as their opening date and a cost of £7.9million. Rambert's new facility in London is at the very early stages of development but will include three studios, offices, storage space and various other features for a combined cost of £16.5million.

The Fun Begins

Once a particular building is up and running however the fun really begins because now you have to keep it open and that costs an awful lot of money, a lot more money than the ramshackle building you were operating before. Larger spaces require more staff and more heat and light to keep them ticking over and all of that makes for added expense. They also need to be kept clean, get repainted when they become grubby and the more complicated they are the greater the chances that something is going to break.

Dance City is facing numerous operational cost issues not least of which is the expense of power and heating. Dancers have been actively discouraged from using the facilities research 'Lab' for making work because of the cost of turning on the lights. The staff levels have also risen to a rather large 24 personnel which doesn't come cheap.

Arts Council England provides regular funding to Dance City but that funding was not substantially increased when the new building became operational. Therefore, Dance City must secure a large amount of money from other sources to keep their facility running. Images of a hamster in a running wheel spring to mind.

Bizarrely, Arts Council England in their three year funding review, published in 2005, have slated an increase in funding of over £130,000 to Dance East and just under £10,000 to Dance City for the next financial year despite the fact Dance East's new building will not be open until 2009 (if it opens at all, they still need to raise about £400,000). Dance East's new budget will be £500,000 per year while Dance City will be at just £365,500.

Again, The Space in Dundee has a slight advantage because they are part of the much larger Dundee College. This is no guarantee of financial security but it does put them on a slightly more stable financial footing since they are not overly dependent on the whims of the Scottish Arts Council.

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Covering The Cost

Both Rambert and Dance East were asked what plans had been made to cover increased operational costs. Dance East told us via email that; "We have considered all the operational costs in our long term planning". They declined to give any further details although they did hint that the new performance space was being regarded as potential source of increased revenue.

Rambert on the other hand were slightly more expansive, stating;

"One of the primary benefits for Rambert will be the security of owning its building and having a long lease at a peppercorn rent. Rambert is the only large scale subsidised company paying full commercial rent (approximately £100,000 a year but under review) to a private landlord.

The Company has a reducing lease with 17 years to run, reviewed every 7 years, at which point the landlord usually asks for a 100% increase. Rambert appeals against the increase, but there are legal costs involved in the process. Only half of Rambert’s building is owned by the Company.

Clearly a long term peppercorn rent will give Rambert more stability and more security in its budgetary planning.

The new building is located in an area that is much more attractive to studio hirers and this opportunity will be exploited by the company There will be increased opportunities to bring potential sponsors and funders into the everyday life of the company, thereby increasing funding opportunities."

Peppercorn rents are tiny monetary transactions carried out for legal purposes to make contracts binding in law. I should point out however that at a build cost of £11.5million Rambert would be able to pay their rent for 115 years at todays prices. It's probably a relief to them that they won't have to pay back the construction cost of the new building.

Gauging The Value

Thus far The Space, Dance Base, NSCD, The Place, DanceXchange, Dance City, Sadler's Wells, Laban and Siobhan Davies Dance Company, all facilities dedicated to dance, have been rebuilt or refitted at a cost of tens of millions of pounds.

With Dance East and Rambert in the mix and dozens of other building projects large and small either underway or already completed the future for comfortable, clean dance spaces seems assured, at least if you work close enough to one of those places and you can get access to the studios.

As to their actual value to the dance profession the jury is still very much out on that one.

It would be very difficult to argue against having state of the art facilities for dancers to work in considering some of the downright dangerous, filthy or unsuitable places dancers have been asked to use in the past and continue to have to use today.

The huge financial burden of running these projects, never mind building them in the first place, is surely taking money away from other areas however, like paying dancers to actually work!

It was interesting when we asked both Dance East and Rambert if an apparent lack of good rehearsal spaces was the the biggest single concern facing the dance profession in 2007/2008, Rambert said 'yes' and Dance East said;

"There are many issues facing dance but without proper facilities that are dance specific and custom-built we can not move the art form forward and be on an equal footing with our counterparts in music, opera and theatre who all have their own venues from which to develop their art forms."

Which sounds an awful lot like 'they have expensive toys, so we want them too'.

[ Dance City ]
[ SSCD ]
[ Dance East ]
[ Rambert Dance Company ]

[ top image by Stian Iversen ]
The Space images courtesy of Keith Hunter Photography

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