by Susan Cunningham
Susan Cunningham speaks to the Artistic Director of Dance Base in Edinburgh, Scotland's one and only National Dance Agency. A few years ago they moved from their cramped home in Edinburgh's 'Assembly Rooms' to a brand new facility in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle. How has the transition gone and how much support have they been providing the profession?
Has your vision, when Dance Base was in the Assembly Rooms, of what it would be like in the Grassmarket, been realised?
It's exceeded itself actually. It's so much more fabulous than I ever imagined it would be. I was excited that we'd have this many studios. I imagined that there would be an atmosphere but I didn't know what that would be. The way the building has been designed, it never feels too full, there's always this lovely sense of space.
Do you think you've lost any of the community feel of being in an old Edinburgh building?
You mean people walking through my office before they went to class? (She laughs) No actually we've gained it, because the community classes we had then were all over Edinburgh, some in Palmerston Place, Tollcross and different places around the city so actually there wasn't a community feel. But now you come out of your ballroom class, you walk past a studio where the African’s going on or the ballet is happening. So people will start talking to each other about the different classes that they've been doing, which they never would have been able to do in the Assembly Rooms.
How does Dance Base support dance companies. Do they get special rates?
We pay them. They don't pay us! I put together a professional dance programme which has a budget attached. In that there is money for people who come and use the studios. If they are funded I will give them studio time for free. On top of that there is a professional training budget so that subsidises all the classes that happen - two classes a week are free to professionals and the others are at a reduced rate, and on top of that I invite dancers to curate.
For example, this term Ross Cooper is the curator and he's brought in someone from Nederlands Dance Theatre and he's created small bursaries for some graduate students to have a term of classes free. But nobody pays us!
How do you see dance companies in Scotland becoming established and full time along the lines of Scottish Dance Theatre?
That's a big question. That's more of an Arts Council question because it's down to funding. It would be fantastic if there were more of them in Scotland. Speaking on behalf of the professional dance community it's a fabulous idea.
In terms of Dance Base it would be hard for us to have one company in residence the whole time. Even if they were funded. Because I want to give everyone a kick of the ball as much as possible. So if one company had a studio then we would have three studios, only.
Where does the funding come from for Dance Base?
The Scottish Arts Council backs the professional part of the programme only. Then the Council give us a little bit of money which helps overheads of keeping the building going but the community programme is almost like a business of its own. It kind of pays for itself.
Which is why it breaks my heart to do it when we have to cut a class that only has three people in it because we can't pay the teacher. Then we've got the Outreach Project, which is funded from trust and foundations and any fundraising we can do.
You say it breaks your heart to cut a class, is there no way it could be supported by other classes?
Not really, after a while. I have run classes that have small numbers in them but it is soul destroying to be a teacher to teach a small class. We do what we can but maybe it’s not the flavour of the month.
Do you support SAC funded health insurance for dancers?
Well I don't have any dancers. They are not my dancers! (dodge the question alert!! Ed!)
What about the teachers?
The teachers are freelance so they look after themselves. Companies that come in residence, we have public liability insurance so is something happens while they're in the building, they are covered. But their own personal health it's up to them. We're not the Arts Council and I don't have a company of dancers.
How does Dance Base actively support dancers?
Dancers should be supported as much as possible which is why they don't pay to come here, why we pay them and offer free classes and studios to professionals, why I'm on the phone like a doctor on call almost to support dancers in any way I can.
How about psychologically?
It’s a huge part. You are dealing with people in a pretty vulnerable state most of the time - because you are removing layers of yourself in order to create something from within you. Dancers and choreographers especially are very vulnerable people and highly sensitive because they are artistic and creative so yes I put up with all sorts of mad behaviour! You have to be able to judge who needs what.
You take it on very personally but are there people that come in from outside to help?
We have a treatment room and invite physios and masseurs who are good with dancers to come in and use the room. We give them the room free so they can offer a much-reduced rate to the dancers. But we don't have a budget where we can say, "here's a free physio". But we offer phone numbers and a free room.
How are you planning for the future? Where do you go from here?
What I would like is for Dance Base to have a production arm so we are able to commission and produce dance work.. Because every fortnight, in the studio, I see a new piece of work and sometimes it's fantastic and it really needs some more money or time put into it, or I want it to be seen by more people and we can't take it any further. It's up to the dancers themselves to apply to the Arts Council. Sometimes the moment is lost if you have to wait for two or three months to see whether you've got the money to take it any further.
So I would like us to have a production house. I would like to start a big partnership with Nordic Countries, where Scotland is the southernmost point of a big Northern Continent with Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland.
They are all small countries and have a fairly similar set up to Scotland, which also means they also have the usual suspects dancing in each other’s work. It would be fantastic if we could open that up into a really big pool of dancers and choreographers all working with each other under the banner of a northern vision for choreography.
Do you feel there is enough collaboration within Scotland i.e. with the Aberdeen and Glasgow dance agencies?
Of course! We are always talking on the phone and there is something coming up that I can't talk about right now that is a definite collaboration. Karen Wood of the Dance House (Glasgow) is fantastic; in fact if it wasn't for Karen, Dance Base wouldn't exist, she was one of the first artistic directors. She really brought it on and nurtured Dance Base.
And it's a real jewel in the crown to have Ian Spink in Aberdeen. Whether Aberdeen fully understands what they've got? - but we do! And the dance community is now responding to the fact that Ian's there. I'd really like to see something happening in the Borders - there's not a lot of money for the Arts at all in the Borders.
How do you keep your finger on the pulse? (e.g. having a Dance Film programme just as there is a resurgence of popularity of films, such as Dirty Dancing)
This is sort of a general statement to anyone - which I say to myself constantly is to always be curious about what's going on, just because you think you know it all, you never do!
top image by Elnur Amikishiyev