by Susan Cunningham
Janet Smith is the Artistic Director of Scottish Dance Theatre and has been for several years now. Susan Cunningham talked with Janet in December last year to find out what the company is doing and the particular challenges of running a company in Scotland.
Article19: What was your background prior to joining Scottish Dance Theatre?
Way back, I studied dance from being a child and then went to Dartington College of Arts in Devon before training in the States. When I came back to the U.K. I made solo work and toured in collaboration with a musician/performer. I then went on to form my own company, Janet Smith and Dancers based in London. We toured internationally throughout the eighties until we had a funding crisis in 1988 when the best way forward seemed to wind up the company.
After that I made projects (under the Janet Smith and Dancers name) whilst working at The London School of Contemporary Dance and freelanced as a teacher and choreographer until 1993. I then went to work at Bretton Hall before I came to Scotland in June of 1997.
Article19: What made you want to work specifically in Scotland or was it just that the job came up?
Well, it was partly the job came up! There are very few jobs as an artistic director of a dance company in the U.K. Contemporary dance companies tend to be directed by a lead choreographer.
It was a rare opportunity which I would have looked at anyway. However, when I was freelancing I was invited by Tammy McClorg( the director of what was then called the Dundee Rep Dance Company) to make a piece. I saw potentially a very supportive environment tucked away in Dundee where you could just get on with it.
Far from it! SDT is a fairly regular contemporary dance company doing all the things that make contemporary dance what it is today.
Back in the day they used to be called Dundee Rep Dance Theatre but fortunately that name was consigned to the dustbin of history and SDT was born.
In days of old the company would tour small, darkened rooms in non-descript places to make their living and show their wares. It is therefore particularly encouraging to see them lining up to perform at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh, probably Scotland's most prestigious theatre!
(sidebars are written by Article19's editorial team and not the author of this piece)
I think the borders and boundaries thing is less interesting to me because it can tie you into something that feels parochial and not excellent. The problem we have at the moment in terms of employing Scottish dancers is we're behind. This is a story of funding and enterprise. What we are missing is the gap in further education at a professional level, with dancers having to go south of the border to further their training. Whether or not they come back to Scotland, that's the thing!
I tend to think that when we get dance in the school's curriculum like it is in England and when we fill in the gaps in terms of professional training then we should get an above average amount of Scottish dancers.
Article19: What is the best thing about your job- what gives you a buzz?
I get a big buzz out of the dancers that I work with and seeing them develop; you bring in the choreographer or you put them in a situation that they say yes to and just take it and run. I take a risk with whoever I bring in [wondering] how will the chemistry work?, how will they develop? That's really exciting for me.
I also get an opportunity in this role because of commissioning to help choreographers who struggle to make work because they are responsible for the funding, finding rehearsal space and advertising it themselves. I get a great buzz out of the leg up and support I can give to independent choreographers who come in to make work.
Article19: What are you working on at the moment?
We are working on our programme for the spring- taking on board two new pieces, one by Michael Popper who for half the year is an assistant director. He's one of the independent artists so it's a perfect opportunity. He's also a director and has a great deal of experience in theatre, so it's a great opportunity for the dancers to work with him, not just as someone who is rehearsing with them, but creating his own work on them, so he's challenging them with different ideas and tasks that come from working in theatre.
He has the advantage of knowing the dancers rather than coming in to work with strangers and then at the same time we've got another choreographer, Willi Donna, from Vienna who's working with them, which is quite challenging asking people to really dig into themselves.
At the same time we're planning ahead for the Edinburgh Festival, and planning to take the company to Portugal to premiere a piece by Rui Horta who has worked with the company once before.
We're looking to move to the Gateway Theatre in Edinburgh, which is going to be offering a programme of quality Scottish work and becoming part of that platform.
Article19: What developments have you seen in the contemporary dance world over the time that you've been involved in it?
It's been through different movements from modern to post-modern and 'post-post-modern' if you like, much more open-ended. There are so many different styles of work that attach themselves to different movements and so the eclecticism of it [is what] I'm really interested by.
There are one or two particular aesthetics which dominate the scene in Britain, but obviously because of more and more international touring of work, you can see a range of other kinds of aesthetics and so I kind of enjoy the breadth of it now and I find my tastes quite catholic. I like to see issue-based work and more abstract work with a different type of aesthetic.
Article19: Do you feel the use of technology in theatre has enhanced the medium or do you think it distracts from the dance itself ?
It depends how it's used; I think it can be absolutely wonderful- I've certainly seen some wonderful work that integrates video and different types of technology and equally sometimes it can seem labour-some. It's just like working with props really, it's how to be empowered by something and not overpowered by it.
Article19: Do you think that funding for dance in the UK is improving or is the situation getting worse ?
If you think that in England there are so many companies which make work and although there's more funding and some companies have got three-year funding and away from the project situation, the funders are always having to make difficult decisions. I know of several well-established companies who have recently lost their funding but one would hope that if they were theatre companies they would have more security at this stage.
The thing about funding is that historically, since the welfare state began there has been a notion of culture being something we should pay for in order to benefit society.
At the point it began there were certain key players in there and the art forms which have developed more since, the more recent art forms, have had more of a struggle. I know that if you look at Scotland the budget for dance has certainly increased, which is fantastic, and funding has increased to theatres to encourage them specifically to programme dance.
Historically there are more theatre companies because it's an older tradition. It's the same with music so it's more difficult for us to make a mark. In contemporary dance's young history funding has been poor. If you think of funds for the arts altogether, the cake is divided and in dance it's always been ballet that had the biggest share and then what's left is for contemporary.
I think this poverty has led to a fearfulness for people to cling on to what's different about them and not to embrace others. So it's not always felt like a really generous culture but I feel that the efforts that are being made in Scotland suggest that we're growing up an growing out of that. There's a real desire amongst the key players in the different dance agencies in Scotland to try to bring dance for everyone much further forward; so not to sit back and leave it to someone else.
I feel very heartened by this. It is a positive moment for dance - the Scottish School of Contemporary Dance is up and running and it's starting to attract more dancers from further afield who bring different experiences with them on the one year course. That's influencing the dancers who are already here with less experience and it's opening their eyes to the discipline of dance and what dance can be.
Article19: So Community Dance must be important to you - getting out into schools especially?
Well the big thing that needs to change in Scotland is to get dance integrated into schools and not just in the odd school where there are teachers with a special interest. It's part of making us a fitter society because dance is the art form that gets you to move around.
For artistic reasons as well it's an art form that crosses language barriers in a multicultural society. I think it's a key player as an art and for participation at a community level it's something that can build confidence and trust. It helps break down difficulties with interpersonal connections and relationships - it's an expressive art form that can release our pent up tensions.
Article19: It can tackle issues that you wouldn't perhaps want to raise in a classroom but you can explore through dance?
Article19: What personal ambitions have you yet to fulfil?
I struggle with that one at the moment; I'm not sure how personally ambitious I am. I suppose at the moment I am really connected to the Scottish Dance Theatre, the dancers and the people that I am working with. I just want to keep improving the quality which I feel is good.
Also getting the work out more internationally to be seen and recognised and building our audiences here in Scotland. I suppose on a personal level, in terms of my own creativity, I'd just like, when I give myself the time to make work, to feel that I am still developing creatively and can make good work.
I don' t have big job ambitions. It's about quality really, artistic creative fulfilment - just to keep pursuing my own creativity wherever that leads me and at the moment it's here.