by Martin French

DanceUmbrella, the largest UK dance festival, enters it's 25th year with some brand new work and some old favourites waving goodbye to pursue new endeavours. We talk to Val Bourne the festivals director and creator about the struggle for young choreographers and just how an unknown American choreographer almost put and end to the festival in its opening year.

Article19: What are the highlights for you at this year’s festival?

We have 3 special birthday offerings if you like. One is the gala which kicks off the whole shebang on the 28th September and there are a number of artists in that who have become very special to us over the years. They include Tricia Brown, Bill T. Jones and Mark Morris but also some British artists as well.

Then we have a Silver Celebration that comes further along in October, which also includes artists who have been important over the years and are not otherwise in the festival. [There are] two British artists Richard Alston and Siobhan Davies, an American Sarah Rudner; who was in the very first festival in 1978, two other Americans, David Gordon and Valda Setterfield, who have been performing in the festival regularly over the [last] twenty years. [There is] also a younger artist; Akram Khan. Akram is not with in person because he’s touring in the States but there’s a film that was made last year in France and hasn’t previously been shown here.

Article19: Is the Silver Celebration a kind of retrospective?

Sort of! It was a way of representing artists that were important to us that weren’t otherwise visible. Then there is the actual birthday itself [that] falls on November 7th and that’s when we are at Tate Modern with Merce Cunningham.

Article19: did you imagine that you would still be working with Merce Cunningham after all this time?

No absolutely not! I mean the first festival we thought it was just a one off, lets see if we can pull it off you know? Certainly if you would have said ten years I would probably have laughed.

Article19: What are the biggest changes you have noticed, creatively since the festival began in the 70’s?

At the beginning when we started out we were a showcase for the British independent dance scene. [The UK dance scene at the time] was 12 companies and four soloists and that was it and now there are 300 to choose from. So there has been an explosion if you like in terms of just the activity and interest. I think now there is a much greater diversity of work here than there was then. In that first festival, for example, most of the artists performing came from one of two schools. One was the London Contemporary Dance School and the other was Dartington College.

To a discerning eye they didn’t look the same but to joe-public they probably did look rather similar because they came from the same background and the same training.

That’s why in our first festival when we had these four American soloists it was a very welcome injection of diversity because they came from such different backgrounds. The British scene is very rich and diverse now and there is lots of choice here which in some ways has made our job more difficult. You do have too make choices and we have made a rule for ourselves that DanceUmbrella wouldn’t bring artists here from overseas that duplicated what we have here. We felt that they either had to be completely different or much better and that has gotten much more difficult as British artists have become more experienced, adventurous and imaginative.

Article19: When it began DanceUmbrella was seen as being very avant-garde with one performance in particular causing a stir with a dance shuffling around the stage on his back for a very long time!

That has actually become quite a legendary performance. It was a guy called Douglas Dunn and he was one of those four Americans that I mentioned. To be honest I hadn’t seen it [the piece]. I had met him but he was chosen by Jan Murray who was the dance editor for Time-Out. Jan had been sent by the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art) to put together a week of soloists at the ICA and she chose Douglas and Sara and two other Americans. When we discovered that her week and our two weeks were at the same time we decided to combine the two. Overnight we became international but the original festival had been planned to be just British.

When Douglas did this solo at Riverside Studios and he began by completing a rather slow circuit of the stage on his back people didn’t know what to make of it. One guy thought he did know what to make of it and shouted out that this was a disgrace and essentially he thought his intelligence was being insulted. At which point someone else stood up and shouted back and said he obviously didn’t know what he was talking about meanwhile poor old Douglas was completing his circuit. He had also been told [Douglas] that the English were very quiet and he couldn’t really expect much reaction and suddenly here are these people screaming over his supine body.

He didn’t let it faze him though and he continued. Afterwards there was a kind of mini-row in the foyer and we [DanceUmbrella] were threatened with the withdrawal of our grant if this was the kind of thing that we were going to put on. Then Peter Gill who was the artistic director of the Riverside at the time leapt to our defence, it was practically fisticuffs at dawn, it was really quite amazing.

We then went back into the studio because Richard Alston was also in that first show and his work was also quite new and different because he had just come back from New York but it wasn’t as controversial as Douglas. Then somebody had the brainwave of introducing Douglas to two or three of the critics in the bar afterwards, the reviews came out the next day and they were very good and no more was mentioned about the grant.

Article19: So DanceUmbrella became an international festival by accident?

Yes it was, because in the beginning it was conceived as a domestic showcase. For the first few years we had to prove that we weren’t spending any Arts Council money on foreigners. When we presented our accounts we had to show that we had received money from elsewhere to support the foreign invasion. I think things are very different now; it was quite a parochial little Englander mentality at the time. There was so little money available for dance or contemporary dance that people were very protective of it.

Article19: Do you think DanceUmbrella may become a standard bearer for Cultural Diversity, particularly in the eyes of Arts council England?

They may have a very much narrower vision of cultural diversity, meaning colour. We do bring in artists of colour obviously but that’s not why we bring them it’s because they are so good. In our first festival we had, not performing, but teaching and making a piece for one of the companies called Masked Movers, John Jones. He was one of the first black dancers in New York City Ballet and he was a wonderful dancer and a great teacher. I think that we are a flagship for cultural diversity but that may not be how it is interpreted here in a very PC [politically correct] situation.

Article19: Is the cultural diversity issue a problem for the arts and dance in particular?

This is a very personal opinion but I feel sometimes that the arts generally, not just dance, are used as a kind of social sticking plaster, the arts has to compensate for all the other things that our society does not do. I feel that is a really heavy burden and unfair. I have noticed that the arts are seen as the flag bearers for all this stuff and that sometimes it does get in the way of excellence. I do agree that there should be positive discrimination but sometimes it gets crazy.

The arts has been asked to shoulder the main burden of it [by the government] and society is not. We’re supposed to be working with old people, people with disabilities, people of colour and refugees. Of course the arts should be part of that but it can’t do it on its own.

Article19: Why doesn’t DanceUmbrella mix the old with the news as far as choreographers are concerned? (with Jasmin Vardimon as an example)

The interesting thing about that is we also manage the Jerwood Choreography Awards and we produce projects and Jasmin was one of those winners so we worked very closely with Jasmin for some time. But I’ll tell you one of the reasons is that we’re not the only producers in town any more. Obviously there is a very lively program at The Place with the Robin Howard Dance Theatre and another one at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Sadlers Wells will be doing more with the Lilyan Baylis [Theatre].

Jasmin is a favoured artist at The Place and someone like John Ashford who is the director there will offer her dates in the Spring and then come the Autumn she wont have any programmes because I can’t repeat it so it’s practical really.

We try to always be showing new work so it doesn’t mean that she’s not supported. We do include younger artists in the programme. At one time we used to do big [programmes] called things like “Made in Britain” or “Best of British” and things like that [laughs] in order to give the younger artists a platform because there wasn’t anywhere else.

But now there are other places, John Ashford presents a programme in January at the Place for almost a hundred choreographers called Resolution. Jackson Lane is also another place that gives younger artists a platform. So in a way, other people have taken on our initial role.

Article19: So you think it’s a good idea to keep them separate?

No, not necessarily, but its just worked out a bit like that. I do think that within the same building if you were to show a very young artist next door to a very experienced artist that wouldn’t be terrifically helpful because comparisons would be made and it would be unfair.

I think that it would be very dangerous if you put a young artist next to somebody who has an international reputation. Other people have different views but that’s what I feel. We do see a lot of young work and we keep up with [what’s going on].

I mentioned earlier Akram Khan. Well we put on Akram in 1996 in something called Percussive Feet would you believe. He was young and hadn’t even finished his training and his rise has been quite meteoric because he’s up there now with the big guys but a lot of other people have taken longer than that.

Article19: Is the development curve to slow for young artists?

I’m sure it must feel that to them but Trisha Brown said it took twenty years for her to get recognition. So in the scheme of things perhaps ten years is not so long. What has been voiced to me by several of the younger choreographers is that when you start out there are a lot of people out there ready to help you and you can get grants for £5k or £7k and all of that.

Then suddenly when you have been going for about five or seven years you suddenly realise you are not flavour of the month anymore [and] another new wave of people have come up. You [the choreographer] are trying to develop your work and you need a bit more money and that’s when it gets really tough because it’s cheap and easy to support youngsters.

I was amazed to hear that somebody like Yael Flexer [Bedlam Dance Company] who I think of as a young choreographer has been choreographing for 10 years. She said she feels sometimes that people see her as past her sell by date and I’m horrified [by that].