image courtesy of Snoopy.com
by Michelle Lefevre
Encouraging young people to take part in the arts has always been a cornerstone of culture funding in the UK. Any dance company that hopes to get funding without having a well rounded education plan will, in all probability, find themselves on the wrong end of a failed application.
Some dance companies and agencies take things a little bit further and establish entire youth dance companies with one very simple goal. Give young people the opportunity to create and perform dance work in an environment modelled as closely to working in a regular dance company as possible.
Last year it was announced that the National Youth Dance Company would be formed and run by Sadler's Wells Theatre in London. The cost of this endeavour would be £400,000 per year, provided to Sadler's Wells, with the funding coming from Arts Council England and the Department for Education.
The aims and objectives of the company are the same for any other youth dance group, although they might be more elaborately worded.
NYDC's aims and objectives describe "perform[ing] in world class venues", "intensive residencies over the school holidays; living and working as a company" and "tak[ing] part in dancers toolbox sessions to enhance their studies and help equip them for the future".
As far as creative staff are concerned the company has a "Guest Artistic Director" appointed from the ranks of Sadler's Wells own associate artists. Jasmin Vardimon has just handed the reigns over to Akram Khan.
In terms of actual company operating time Sadler's Wells told us;
"The company meets for four weeks a year, during school holidays. Before and during the residencies the Guest Artistic Director meets with the artistic and learning teams to discuss the development of the course and the artistic input; preparation for creating the commissioned piece and development of the company members. The company members will work with the GAD all day for two or three days during the first week; the same or more for the second week and on a daily basis for making the work in the third week and the during the staging / performance days. To summarise, more than 60% of their contact hours will be working with the GAD. In addition, rehearsal directors and dancers that work with the GAD will be present throughout all residencies during the appointed year."
The company GAD is not a paid position but they are paid to create a single work on the dancers for later touring. The theatre described this fee as "probably not as high as it would be for a professional company."
Other dancers and choreographers, not associated with Sadler's Wells, are brought in to teach the, so-called, "experience workshops".
Based on the information received from the London theatre the company appears to have 30 members.
Not Running On Empty
Now, the more discerning readers among you may have stopped short at the mention of the cost of this particular company. The NYDC, at £400,000 per year, is the 7th best funded dance company in England tied with Hofesh Shechter Company.
Taking into account the fact that the dancers don't get paid and have a very limited touring calendar you might be wondering what they spend all the money on.
With regards to the extraordinarily high level of funding Arts Council England told us;
"The total offer of NYDC goes beyond that of a standard 'touring' company and as such, in terms of financial costs, cannot be compared. The NYDC exists to provide a platform to showcase and nurture young people's talent and provide them with opportunities to develop their skills to the highest levels. The extra support and safeguarding for working with such large numbers of young people would also account for the fact that costs may be higher than for standard touring companies. Showcasing is just one of the vehicles used to nurture young people's talent and develop their skills."
You might want to read that again. ACE is suggesting that a dance company, basically made up of untrained kids, costs more to operate than a full time dance company with paid professional dancers.
Professional companies, lest we forget, have far higher touring costs, run parallel education programs and they have to pay their dancers and choreographers along with a lot of other operating costs.
Additionally, ACE explained that;
"Between November 2012 and February 2013 there have been 244 attendances at 11 NYDC Experience workshops held in nine different regions across England, working with 179 young people aged 15-24."
By way of comparison, Candoco Dance Company state, via their website, that they work with up to 12,000 people every year. Candoco are just one of the dance companies that, compared to NYDC, don't cost that much money to run. Candoco, like many professional companies, also have their own youth dance company.
Sadler's Wells explained that almost 20% of the first year costs were "core staff", including a full time manager. So that's almost £80,000 to The Wells. Another 20% is "allocated" for teaching staff with the rest spent on the company's very limited touring activity.
Sadler's Wells also pointed out that the funding is designed to be used "incrementally" over the current three year period. After each year is completed the participants, selected via the "experience workshops" do not have to leave the company.
That means that in the third year the NYDC could have as many as 90 members. Those numbers put NYDC on par with The Royal Ballet which has 98 dancers on its books although some of those are guest artists.
"Potentially there could be up to 90 dancers in the third year who will gain the experience of performing and touring large scale work around the country."
So somebody, somewhere thinks it's a good idea to create a touring monster. A company so large they will be doing something even The Royal Ballet admit they don't do domestically because it costs so much money.
ACE also pointed out that the level of funding is not guaranteed to continue so The Wells could find themselves in a lot of trouble if future funding starts to fall or gets eliminated altogether.
We asked Arts Council England for the documents they created while planning the finances for the NYDC that justified the level of investment.
"The figure was set through discussions between DCMS, DfE and Arts Council England who looked to similar initiatives to reach an idea of suitable costs and used their own expertise to determine a final sum. Because this was determined through a series of discussions there is no documentation to share."
Essentially, they worked it out in their heads and didn't bother to write anything down. That's how you come up with a £400,000 budget apparently.
Fundamentally the NYDC doesn't do anything that isn't already being done by numerous other youth dance companies around the country not to mention dance schools, regular workshops and classes and the CAT programme.
Performing in "world class" venues is a red herring since that isn't exactly the life that most dancers live. For the most part, performance and touring is a relatively small part of the job.
There are also some serious questions about, once again, ACE giving Sadler's Wells yet more money to run a project. If the idea is to give young people a primer to entering professional training then this project should have been placed with a recognised dance school like Laban, NSCD or LSCD.
Placing the company within a dance school would have given the kids access to real dance students on a regular basis (as well as professional dancers) and would have also given valuable teaching experience to 2nd and 3rd year students. The possibilities for learning and sharing would have been numerous.
As for the £400,000 per year price tag? There is no possible justification for such largesse. Professional dance companies will, once again, be under threat of losing their funding early next year as new NPO applications go in with 5% less funding to play with on ACE's part.
If ACE and the DfE wanted to support youth dance in England and spend that amount of money it would have been far more proactive and fiscally sensible to provide £40,000 to ten separate youth companies across the country.
The money would have allowed them to strengthen their programmes and provide a far more focused experience for the young people involved. Far more focused than a potentially ludicrous and unmanageable, 90 member strong youth dance company.
Overall, NYDC smells like little more than a political exercise. Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary, even mentioned the company in the speech she gave during the ill-fated culture debate in the House of Commons a few weeks ago.
NYDC is an extravagant "look at me" project that does nothing that is not already being done all over the country by dance companies, agencies and professional dancers with a lot less resource.
Political vanity projects like this have no place in the arts and NYDC only serves to emphasise the never ending policy failures of both ACE and central government.