by Neil Nisbet
Janet Archer is the Artistic Director of Dance City, the National Dance Agency for the North of England
Do you think that dance as an art form still has a place in the 21st century? And how do you think the lack of dance and arts education in general in schools is affecting the popularity of dance?
I think that it has become even more important as a means of expression and I think dance whether you call it an art form or not it is a part of mainstream youth culture and in a way it makes it easier for youngsters to latch onto dance in a way they have never done in the past.
I think that art generally is becoming much less media categorised and different art forms are merging with one another in a very interesting way and a very inventive way. I think there is a problem but it stems from something much more deep seated in British culture and you can give children as much dance as you like in a schools context that doesn't necessarily make them into dance consumers or arts consumers outside of the school context, unless you've got an environment where engaging with the arts is something that you normally do then it doesn't matter how much dance you do at school.
How would you like to see the role of Dance City develop as part of the national policy and decision making process?
The role is quite clear because what we are part of is ANDA which is the Association of National Dance Agencies. ANDA is a constituted body setup to draw from the collective experience of the individual NDA [National Dance Agency]. There are at the moment nine NDA’s and one new pilot one that has come on stream in the South West.
We meet every 6 weeks or so to discuss what it means to be a national dance agency as opposed to a regional agency which is what takes up a large part of our time.
So, to a certain extent, we are feeding policy nationally, we do have dialogue with the Arts Council and with the regional offices of the Arts Council as we now call the Regional Arts Boards and other policy making bodies.
That direct line is there, at the moment we are re-investigating the role of ANDA and how it works and that’s our route. It isn’t just Dance City [working] in isolation that is going to have an impact on the [national ness] of dance in this country it has to be accomplished with other NDA's, representing other parts of the country.
Would you like to see artists from this region achieve greater national recognition?
Absolutely. All the work we've done with Liv Lorent has been about demonstrating that it is possible to nurture an artist from another part of the country [not London] and for that artist to have national acclaim and win national awards and be seen for [something] both nationally and internationally as just an artist.
But the work has to be right, we can't throw people out there into the overall British dance context unless they are going to be able to stand up and not be knocked down. I know some people find it difficult for me and this organisation to act as a sieve, but it's an important role and an effective one and somebody has got to do it.
Do you think it is too difficult?
I think it is hellishly difficult but nothing in this world is easy and I don't think it is any more difficult than anything else. We tend to turn ourselves into martyrs because we perceive that promoting dance is more difficult than [promoting] other art forms, but the reality is that if it is something is worth having then it is worth fighting for. And ultimately I think that is what we have all become very good at in this region and out of it comes a great deal of expertise and success.
What do you think National Dance Agencies can do to better support professional dancers?
What I would like to do is produce and present professional dancers' work more often, but that is what we can't do at the moment because in taking on the presentation of work you have to take on the financial responsibilities of taking that work and you have to have a space to be able to present that work in and we certainly don't have the latter. We don't have access to a space with sufficient lighting facilities where artists can spend time experimenting and then show work.
I hope that's one of the things that the new building will be able to give which I think will be fantastic. The quality of work, not that I believe that having space will change the quality of work just itself, but just by giving people the chance to be in an environment where they can play with light, sound and video and they can have time to breathe and try things out and reflect, think about things and then go back to them. Just that, I think, will make a very big difference.
I want the new building to be a place where makers debate and discuss their work and have the chance to get feedback from a whole number of different sources including other artists, audiences and even people who are new to dance. I really believe that by fostering work in that kind of open environment we can change the nature of how work is produced and I look forward to seeing how artists respond to what we are hoping to create for them.
Is there to great an emphasis placed on capital development in current arts policy?
I think in the past there has been and I would say that the funding system understands that things perhaps have to be brought more onto an even keel and let's just see what happens over the next year.
Capital money is diminishing; the amount of money that is available to us for capital is significantly less than it ever used to be. I don't think we are going to see another phase of the huge amounts of money that have been spent over the last 6 years in capital development.
Do you think that similar sums will be spent on the development of the artists?
Well its lottery isn't it and we all know that lottery money is reducing and there is a re-branding of the lottery to generate more sales. History has shown us with the lottery that when it is launched in a country that everybody goes mad and buys lots of tickets then it calms down and the revenues reduce. I don't think revenues will have the same level of funding but there's a case being made at the moment for another increase in the government funding for the arts so we will just have see what happens.
If dance funding was increased tomorrow by £200,000,000 would this have a significant effect on the negative and apathetic perception by the public at large?
No, absolutely not. Motivating audiences has to come from artists, who have got to find ways of making work that has a relevance to the audience they want to take it to. Funding is not going to make work more relevant necessarily, just more plentiful. That isn't to say I think that we don't need the funding. I just think the work should come first. And seed funding new experimentation should be top of the list, which actually isn't that expensive.
I absolutely agree that artists should be able to say what they want to say at any particular time and unless they have a burning desire and [the art] comes from within them then there is no point in saying it, you can't fabricate art just for the sake of an audience, it doesn't work and never has done. But at the same time, if you ignore your audience and you don't have any connection to your audience in any way whatsoever then of course they are not going to want to come. And some work does put audiences off. Performance needs to be right for its context, and if it is right then people will come back.
That doesn't mean that it has to be safe, sometimes more challenging work engages with audiences more directly. There have been times when we [Dance City] have presented work that would have been perceived to be very difficult for audiences in the North East to connect with and yet because it has been the right work people have connected with it no matter who they are, or where they come from, whether or not they have had previous experience of dance at all and absolutely loved it.
So that sort of work does exist but there is just not enough of it to constantly feed a hungry dance audience. And often it comes from far away, which means we don't see enough of it because its expensive to present. And local artists making work which is beginning to attract a following are still not funded well enough to enable them to build on their audiences.,.well I guess that's where some additional financial investment could help..so maybe the money would make a difference, I should qualify my initial response by adding, only if it's given to the right people.
How important do you think the role of technology is in developing the accessibility of dance to a wider audience?
Clearly technology is touching people's lives and clearly technology has a future in that hundreds of thousands of people can access something all at the same time. Creatively it also gives you a whole new perspective in terms of the way you can present images and dance is an art form reliant on collections of images and if you can do that in a more interesting and dynamic way that that is very exciting.
I also think that technology is important for us in the North of England because it limits our isolation and it enables you to connect with people. We just could not have the kind of close relationships that we do with artists and organisations in other parts of the country and the world if we didn't have the technology.
It is very important but human contact also very important and communication is one of the things that people look for when they go to a performance. When they see a performer looking back at them from the stage it is one of the things that creates a dance community. I don't think a virtual community can provide the same thing, it supports what we have but I don't think it will take over what we have.
Who do you think will emerge as a new creative force in dance over the next five years or so?
I wish I knew the answer to that one! Very difficult to say, a number of people have theories about how dance evolves, we've seen different stages of lots of people coming out and doing new a very different things and one of the strengths of dance in this country is the diversity that exists within it. We are not like other countries where there is a particular movement that informs a large majority of the country's choreographers. The individual is still able to make decisions and come up with creative ideas. I some times think over the last few years we have not seen a lot of new people coming through and I don't know why that is.
Akram Khan has emerged form the Northern School and Darren Johnson from Laban and probably one or two other people who are starting to confidently make work. But not in the same sort of numbers that we have seen in the past.
I also think one of the problems for many young choreographers is there are not enough opportunities to make work because there are so many established choreographers. I know very well that the Arts Council of England [ACE], if you read their policy document it says very clearly, that what we have to do is to fund our clients who have existed on project funding and get them on revenue funding so that they can actually make work in a proper context.
It is going to be even harder for youngsters coming out of schools who are trying to start their careers to get on the funding ladder. This to me says it is even more important to be aware of other funding opportunities not just the Arts Council and the central funding system. It also gets you way from a sense that if you get money from ACE that it gives you an extra brownie point which I think is absolute nonsense.
Good work is good work. Good work will sell internationally and if I am looking at choreographers I'm not looking to see if they are funded by the Arts Council of England or not I look at their work and see if whether or not there is something to nurture and develop.
In the current artistic, financial and cultural climate would you rather be a policy maker or a creator?
It is an interesting moment to ask me that question because next week I am going to be stepping into the studio for the first time in ten years which is a treat for me. It's something I know I will enjoy and hopefully have something to offer the people I am going to be working with. But I do my day job because I think that it is a job that needs doing, I am absolutely committed to it and I think that I am reasonably good at it . Again it's about categorising people and I'm not sure that people need to take on one role or another.
Do you ever ask yourself, why am I doing this?
No, if I did that that I don't think I would be able to take my pay cheque. It is my responsibility to take on this role to do it the best way that I can.
And money asides, I am passionate about pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved in dance beyond everyones' preconceptions of what is possible, whether that be in relation to geography, resources or the content of the form itself.
I like taking risks and breaking rules and proving that what people think is an insurmountable barrier is actually just a hurdle to negotiate and eventually conquer. We've achieved a lot over the last ten years at DanceCity, and made things happen lots of times which many people have been sceptical about initially. But there are also lots more challenges to win..and lots more opportunities to fight for, here and all over the country.