by Neil Nisbet
Peter Royston is the Director of Dance at the Scottish School of Contemporary Dance. The school is based in the recently constructed Space. A custom designed and built professional dance school and theatre for training contemporary dancers in Scotland.
What do you think that the Scottish School of Contemporary Dance offers to student dancers that other schools may not offer?
I think that we have developed a creative way of working that is quite unique. It involves students being creative from their first day of training which I don’t think is being delivered in other places. But that is irrelevant because that isn’t the reason why we did it. We did it because that is what I believe is the best way to go.
We have 3 years to train people as performers and I believe that performers need to perform, not leave performing until the end of their training. It’s all part of the process. So the creativity that we involve in the course is pretty adventurous and pretty advanced.
Each year group performs three times a year and everybody is involved in the creative process. Second year students make site specific work on the first years students, first years who obviously become second years and make work on the next first years so right from the beginning they are involved in the creative process.
I think with so few students, we have 20 in each year group; we have the opportunity to nurture the student’s creativity and give them lots of time and mentoring. Every person can develop at their own speed and in their own way. I think we do by the end of the three years, develop creative artists, thinking creative artists and not technical automatons. Of course we want to produce the best technical dancers that we can but it has to be a compromise between these two things.
How do you balance the working day between technique training and creative study?
To a certain extent I think it has a natural way of sorting itself out. In the morning we do technical classes. We do two technical classes every morning. That is about as much as a body can do in a day in technical terms and in terms of learning.
Then it is a question of what we do in the afternoon and I think it would be the same in most schools. But what we do in the afternoon a great deal is create performances, create opportunities for creativity alongside other things. The students do have to do anatomy and physiology and other things but it is kept to a minimum.
I think it is no different to any other schools but I do think that we utilise the afternoons to very good effect. It is also very intensive, I’m not sure other schools are quite so intensive in terms of working from 9am – 4.30pm every day. When I say intensive it doesn’t necessarily mean it is exhausting, but some of the creative work is obviously time thinking, time making, which is not full out dancing.
Is it an advantage for the tutors and teachers to have close working relationships with the students?
Again in a school that has fewer students it is almost inevitable that we get to know the students better and I think that’s to everyone’s advantage. Students here have a weekly tutorial which is fairly extraordinary.
It can be a one to one situation but often it is a group situation, students have a lot of feedback from lecturers. We also go through an emotional and difficult three years together and that involves people’s personal problems. It involves them as people.
I don’t think when you are doing a dance course that you can hide these things. Inevitably you are opening up and showing people what you have inside when you are creating work and when you are trying to do artistic things. Everybody has to reveal parts of themselves, it is inevitable. For us to not to get to know the students in that way would be to their disadvantage. We can guide them and help them as they go on an extraordinary journey.
Does SSCD do a good job of preparing students for the realities of professional contemporary dance?
It’s difficult for me to comment on other training institutions. What I do know is that we are trying very hard to train people for the industry. The very reason we stat preparing for performance as soon as student s come in [at the start of the three years] is so that when they leave here they are performers.
They are not dancers who have trained in technique who then have to go and train to be performers. They already have lots of experience behind them in terms of their stage craft, in terms of their ability to relate to other people and in terms of their own personal creativity. On a completely different sort of tack, we try and make them aware of what’s out there.
We have people come in and talk to them about opportunities, for instance, how to access funding from the Arts Council, how to run a company, how to write a CV, how many companies there are, what the opportunities there are and just be honest with them. I would also say that not all the dancers that we train use their dance experience to become performers.
For example; a graduate from here two years ago is now the full time education officer at Scottish Dance Theatre. She obviously teaches and uses her dance experience in a different way and she couldn’t do that job without the experience that she had at the school.
We start off with the intention that everyone will be a dance performer and some will. But there are other avenues that people can follow with the experience that we give them.
Does SSCD have ambitions to run a graduate dance company in the same way as Laban has transitions for example?
Absolutely! It’s been planned for a long time and I’m about to start to discover how to bring that about within the college [Dundee College]. It probably won’t be a year long experience. The plan is to do a three month project in the first instance where we would have visiting choreographers. We would make work and then we would take it out on tour. Maybe it would grow into something bigger and a bit lengthier with a longer experience and that is certainly the intention. Students would need to pay for that as they do with other opportunities but I think it would be very reasonable.
I don’t want to make it difficult for people to access. I want to try and keep it to a minimum so I believe it will costs much less than is currently the case in other institutions. I think it would be the icing on the cake of what we do. Also, it wouldn’t be just for the SSCD it would be open auditions. We would of course be hoping that there would be Scottish dancers that would be good enough but it would be open. That would benefit everybody. If we formed a company of dancers from all over the world students would obviously see that and have access to that and would benefit from that.
What are the plans for the immediate future of the school?
The most important thing is that we need to have a degree. We are in a college which doesn’t have a degree at present so that is something of a pioneering path. I am working very hard too bring that about as soon as possible. We already do degree level work but we don’t have the qualification.
We are at a disadvantage because of that because other dance institutions have a degree and any parent is going to send their child to a degree course. People should have some recognition for the work that they do. Later in life a degree is very important so that is something that we have to do very soon. Other than that a graduate company is something else that we want to do. And we’re working hard in looking for opportunities to collaborate with other institutions. Scottish ones at the moment include this week where we are working with Dance Base and with Gill Clarke.
At the moment we are looking for European partners and possibly further a field to do exchanges with. I’m involved in a European project at the moment that would involve bringing 3 partners together from Arnem, Dundee and Helsinki. We would exchange choreographers, we would make work on each other and we would then perform it at the Space. This is hopefully going to attract European funding and that’s something that is already underway.
Again, it is a matter of reaching out and collaborating with other people. It is a vital ingredient of what we’re doing so we don’t become isolated. We’re quite isolated in Scotland anyway so we have to look for all the opportunities that we can to expose students to these different influences.
Is the Space and SSCD everything you hoped it would be?
It’s everything I hoped it would be and more but it’s like the beginning. We have fantastic facilities, we need to have fantastic students and fantastic graduates and we’re getting there. The building inspires us to have the very best and be the very best at what we do. There is certainly a way to go in producing dancers that can go and work with Nederland Dans Theatre for example, but that’s the vision.