by Zoe Boden

September 15th 2004. The Place Prize finals begin Wednesday 15th September until the 25th September and five choreographers battle it out for the £25,000 first prize. We talk to Director of Artist Development at The Place, Theresa Beattie, about the public perception of British dance and our future in Europe.

Article19: You’ve been involved in the Place Prize since John Ashford conceived the idea, can you explain it in your own words?

I think it’s a unique event for the UK in that there hasn’t been a choreographic competition on this scale before for contemporary dance. One thing that’s exciting about it is that five to ten years ago you couldn’t have done a competition because I don’t think it would have been accepted or of as much interest to the profession and the fact that we had 198 entries shows that we were lucky enough to hit on the right time to do it.

The other thing that is special about it is the actual selection process. Firstly that the artists applied by video rather than in writing, there was no written application form at all, they were expressing their choreographic idea through video. The second stage of the process where we [Guy Cools, director of Fondation Jean-Pierre Perreault in Montreal, John Ashford, Theatre Director, The Place, and Theresa] short-listed 40 artists, each of who came in and gave a 10 – 15 minute presentation about how they would develop their idea.

After each of those presentations we spent about 10 minutes talking to the artist, so they had a good amount of time to make their pitch. We then had the difficult job of getting down to the 20 who were finally commissioned.

We recognise that £3000 is not a huge amount of money for a 15 minute commission, but because we provided studio space here [at The Place] they weren’t having to pay for that. So we tried to maximise the money of the commission for them. In summary it’s about balancing this notion of being overtly competitive and saying yes this is a competition, we’re not trying to say this is something else, but at the same time trying to ensure that each of the 20 is a winner in that if you’re a semi-finalist you still have a 15 minute piece which has been viewed by full houses, including international promoters. We had over 20 international promoters here last week, so hopefully that’ll lead to other things for those artists.

Article 19: What were you looking for from the entries?

Our primary concern was the quality of the choreographic idea and when we got to the short-listing stage where we had 40 people, we really wanted to establish whether the idea, as expressed in the three-minute video, could expand to 15 minutes. Some people came up with very beautiful ideas that really needed only to be three to five minutes long, and at the other end of the scale we wanted to check that the ideas didn’t really need an hour.

We were also looking for the artist to challenge themselves in some way, we wanted to have a programme in the semi-finals that was diverse in itself, but also where the individual artists were doing something that was moving their own work forward, because the overall aim of the prize is to put contemporary dance on the map. We didn’t want the competition to be somewhere where the artist played safe and did what they knew.

Article 19: It was important for The Place to get the Bloomberg sponsorship; do you think it’ll set a new precedent in dance?

We hope it will in that Bloomberg are very interested in doing again in 2006. Our aim thereafter is to do the Place Prize every other year and to do Choreodrome, our research and development programme, in the year in between. So we alternate between production-based activity and research-based activity. I think it would take more money than Bloomberg have given us to have the kind of impact that the Turner Prize has had on visual art, but it took a good many years for the Turner Prize to reach the status and the kind of press coverage it has now and to become the sort of magnet that it is for commercial support.

This is the first time that we have done the prize and it’ll gather momentum on its own. I think it has the potential to be an important component in changing the profile [of dance], but it’s early days yet. Though of course it’s hugely gratifying to get a very substantial article in the Monday Guardian (September 14th 2004), how often do you get that? It is starting to work, but we’re all too aware of how much there is to do.

Article19: Does the Place see itself as a leader in British dance?

I think it’s one of the leaders. The Place Prize is the Place’s idea, it’s John [Ashford]’s idea – he first had the idea about 10 years ago and he’s stuck with it in trying to make it happen ever since. I think The Place Prize can only happen because of the context in which the Place is working, our relationships with the National Dance Agencies, with other dance agencies and regional agencies, the networks that exist around the country with which we were able to work to encourage artists to apply.

We also hope the Prize will have an effect on the Robin Howard Dance Theatre at other times of the year. We have first option on presenting any subsequent development of the work. We hope come next spring into early summer we’ll have some programmes of work that have grown out of the Place Prize, perhaps with the 15 minute pieces as a component of the programme, or perhaps as the nugget out of which a bigger piece has grown.

Article19: You mentioned the ripple effect occurring in Britain, do you believe that because the Aerowaves partners [31 European promoters] were the original judges, that effect will spread to Europe?

Yes and the Aerowaves partners all looked at the three-minute entry videos… they looked at them and scored them without knowing who they were by. Then those scores were taken into account in the selection process. A large number of those Aerowaves partners attended the semi-finals last week and many of them are interested in some of the work they have seen. So yes, we hope that that ripple effect will extend abroad, with the partners and the other promoters who came picking up the artists and inviting them to their respective countries.

Article19: Do you think having judges from such diverse places [Iceland to Portugal] was reflected in the work that was chosen?

Yes I think it was. Also having Guy Cools there was very important because he brought a different perspective. He wasn’t familiar with a great majority of the work ,whereas John and I were familiar with quite a lot of it. What was very interesting was that in terms of the entries that accrued the most scores from the Aerowaves partners, there was a very small number that got a lot of marks, then it was very spread. Having met the Aerowaves partners, they do have extremely diverse taste, so I think it was quite a relevant way of doing it, and we certainly found that it influenced our decision-making.

We were absolutely delighted looking at the semi-finals programme, that having selected on the basis I have described with the quality of the idea as our primary criteria, it is incredibly diverse. It is culturally diverse, where people are from, the levels of experience, in fact all of those factors were represented, but we didn’t go in saying we’re going to have this many people from abroad etc. It just worked out that way.

Article19: Can you say a few words about the finalists?

Tom [Roden] and Pete [Shenton]; it’s a very dry, humorous piece looking at stillness as the name suggests [The Short Still Show]. On one level it could be interpreted as a piss-take of dance pieces that don’t have any movement content in them, but on another level, it’s looking at the effectiveness that stillness can have theatrically and how important it is for each of us to have some stillness in our lives.

Hofesh [Shechter], he worked with Batsheva [Dance Company] for quite a long time. It’s quite a physical almost virtuostic piece, intense, quite dark as the name ‘Cult’ suggests.

Rosemary Butcher- this is quite an extraordinary piece of work. It’s made on Elena [Giannotti] who is the dancer she’s worked with for three pieces, and it’s like a marathon in 15 minutes. On the surface it looks like she’s repeating the same rocking movement, but it’s a big rocking movement so that her whole body is engaged with her arms her back her legs, but there are really subtle variations.

Bawren Tavaziva; this is a piece that he’s created in memory of his sister who died so it’s a very personal work. Like Hofesh he made the sound score as well. It’s for five dancers including himself and Hofesh also dances in this piece.

Rafael [Bonachela] He was the audience choice. He scored the highest number of marks. It’s a duet, different again to the previous work of his that I’ve seen. It’s about a relationship where there is trust, there has to be because of the way that the dancers support each other, but there’s also a huge amount of tension and tenderness, it’s sort of like watching the map of a relationship with all the different tones.

Article19: The final panel of judges is very diverse, and not necessarily who you would expect to see on a contemporary dance competition jury – how did you pick your panel?

We wanted to have a mixture of dance people and people who were specialists in another discipline and who had a sympathy for and interest in dance. One reason for that is to do with the overall purpose of the prize; the repositioning of contemporary dance. Jan Younghusband, from Channel 4, is used to watching endless footage of dance and making quick decisions about it, she has this real knowledge and understanding of dance on film and we thought it would be very interesting to get her perspective and her acute visual eye applied to live work.

Similarly with Iwona [Blazwick], the Whitechapel [Gallery] under her direction is so adventurous in its programming with site-specific and installation work, and we were interested in her perspective on how choreographers used the space. We wanted David White [Dance Theater Workshop’s Producer-at-Large] because he brings that whole North American different cultural dance perspective. And Guy [Cools], because he’d been involved in the selection process but then had had no contact with us until the finals.

Article 19: Your press release describes it as the new ‘Turner’ prize for dance - do you think the Place Prize could ever be as controversial as the Turner Prize, or have as much impact on British, and world culture?

The Turner Prize equals controversial; it’s part of its brand. I don’t think we’d want to be purposively controversial. Though we wouldn’t baulk at putting on a work that was controversial in some way. Looking at this year, Tom and Pete’s [piece] some people find very controversial; a lot of it’s in darkness, a lot of it’s stillness, sitting and talking. Rosemary’s you could say – it is rocking with variations I would like to think that it could eventually have an impact, but it will take a decade if we do it once every other year. It would depend on the rest of the dance ecology developing and growing as well.

Article19: What do you hope for the winner?

I would hope that the winner would use the £25,000 for what they would want. They are genuinely not required to use it for anything, so I hope they would feel free to do that. I would hope that in two years time they would be presenting and touring a programme of their work, and I would hope that they would have as a result of the prize some international recognition that they wouldn’t have got otherwise so it would have significantly improved their positioning.

I would hope that one of the finalists had been commissioned by one of the Aerowaves partners or one of the international promoters who attended. I think all the pieces that have got into the final are of such high quality that I would expect something significant to have happened for each of them.