The EvilImp™ 'Old Man Ashford'

John Ashford, out going AD of The Place in London, has taken a parting shot at pretty much everything before he moves on to pastures new in Europe, where the grass is always, always, greener.

In an interview with Time Out magazine (which Mr Ashford worked for many years ago) he berates British dance for being too "timorous" and "boring" amongst many other things compared to its mainland European counterparts.

Throughout the piece some old, albeit accurate, stalwarts are thrown out there. For example, ACE's meddling in funding policy means dance companies have to set up educational outreach programmes. The bigger the company, the bigger the programme. If the company doesn't have an outreach programme then there is a pretty good chance they won't get funded.

Almost everybody in the arts, dance or otherwise, has been complaining about that for decades. The smart dance makers though long ago embraced this particular facet of obtaining funding from ACE having figured out that if you want to do what you want to do then, to a certain extent, you have to play their game.

Education and outreach isn't going anywhere anytime soon until ACE steps up and tells the DCMS (Dept. For Culture Media and Sport) to back off and let people make work, no strings attached.

Mr Ashford then moves on to the way dancers are trained:

"Fundamentally I would say that if we want to have a cutting edge - and I'm not sure that we have one in London - then we have to notice what Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker is doing at PARTS [Performing Arts Research and Training Studios in Brussels, the hotbed of experimental dance]. We don't have anything like that. What we do have is too much dance education, which is producing people who are not going to have a place in an overcrowded profession."

This statement is probably a bit of a shock to Veronica Lewis the current Principal of the London Contemporary Dance School, based in the same building Mr Ashford has been skulking around in for the last 23 years!

Encouraging people to be experimental is fine, we're actually all for it, but there's a down side. If you're coaxing people to be off the wall, controversial, edgy or whatever then you run the risk of dance makers doing weird stuff just for the sake of doing it. What you'll end up with is the Turner Prize but in a dance context. Pile some bricks in the middle of a room and call it art. The critics will fawn, the public will lay down and cry.

If you want young dance makers, and old ones, to find their way then it has to be their way, not some pre-packaged Experimental™ idea that's been foisted on them by others. Any creative idea is valid but it's a mix of ideas that keeps things fresh, getting creative tunnel vision in the search for something "new" is only going to cause stagnation and boredom (from the audience's perspective) in equal measure.

It's also slightly ridiculous to suggest that young dancers will forever be shaped by their original training. The majority of dancers and choreographers (the good ones at least) are constantly learning and evaluating new methods, new forms and new ways of creating throughout their career. As someone who worked at The Place for 23 years, Mr Ashford should probably know that!

The final knife in the back is a rather cowardly generlisation about a "boring' regional company who continue to get funded just because they tick the right boxes".

Whether or not Mr Ashford had the courage to name the company to the journalist is not clear but it could be anyone of a dozen dance companies that are mid to large scale that are not based in London.

Here in TheLab™ we often make reference to The London Dance Mafia, of which Mr Ashford was a part, which considers any company not based in the nations capital to be, for reasons that are never made clear, somewhat less than. Whenever we hear the term "regional dance company" we consider it to be a pejorative statement, like "children's television presenter" or "tabloid journalist".

With his final comment Mr Ashford really pins the tail on his donkey of half baked rationales. It seems to have escaped his attention that many dance makers (and dancers for that matter) working in the UK are not from the UK and they weren't even trained here.

The very idea that geographic location or the inept ramblings of ACE are somehow preventing the UK from producing great work is laughable when you take a look around and see what's being produced in this country all the time by companies and individuals too numerous to mention, young and old alike.

How can we prove that? Well that's just it, we can't of course because it's all down to personal taste but if Mr Ashford gets his way, wherever it is he's going, then be prepared to see a lot of people sitting around on stage yelling about potatoes.

We wish you well Mr Ashford and don't let the door hit you on the arse on the way out!

[ Time Out ]

  • anonimous

    Mr Ashford spent a live time at The Place and I believe he did his best to get us up dated with the best contemporary dance in Europe . I have studied dance in Europe and had the chance of working with some good European choreographers although there aren't as many opportunities to get work as you get in England, on the other side of the coin in England we have way to many small and middle scale dance companies producing poor work.

    Every time I go to the continent I realizes how backwards we are in England, it is great to have loads of jobs in England but there are too many people creating dance pieces because they had the dream of being a choreographer and in this country if you employ a disabled person, plus one asian, you teach a few classes down the road to the community you can actually get money from The Arts Council to make your own peice and tour it in the U.K

    England is overcrowded with dance companies and John went to the continent to see good dance in opposition to quantity.

  • Pina

    I totally disagree with anonimous, I think the small to mid-scale work in the UK is the most interesting and daring... its the top range that keep regurgitating the same ideas and moves.

  • Getting funding, building a rep and touring work is nowhere near as simple as that, not by a very long way. ACE plays the "Cultural Diversity" card for sure but you're over generalising.

  • Jack

    Anoneemouse, I agree with you on some aspects. Of course it is not about whether he is right or wrong, and I know that he has done many great thing for dance, but somehow I lose a little respect for all of those achievements by reading this article.

    Regarding Resolution!, I presented work in Resolution! this year. I am not writing it off, I wouldn't have applied otherwise, but the point I am trying to make is that it is not useful to be judged and criticised if the person(s) doing so isn't willing to be constructive about it, for example offering sugestions as to how you can develop your work and experiment, and sure, during his work at the place I know he has done that, but such a public article and generalisation is for me, not useful at all, and British dance is often like this.

    I don't know, we have to play games and follow the rules, but it makes me wonder who we are making work for. Shouldn't we care more about what audiences think? Or perhaps what we ourselves think? Otherwise things become about pleasing specific people, which then dictates how sucessful we are and becomes less about the work, the art and the reason we want to create in the first place.

  • Anoneemouse

    Wasn't sure whether to leave this here or on Grotto's blog so assume this applies to both...

    Not that I'm sitting on the fence or anything but I think it's too simplistic to talk about whether he's right or wrong. But he's started an interesting debate.

    There is some really interesting and challenging work being produced in Europe. There is some really interesting and challenging work being produced in the UK. He's perhaps right to suggest that the latter is less well supported, and it's appropriate for him to say that given that The Place, under his watch, is one of the few places that has supported that work and is prepared to take some risks on relitively unknown artists. However, there's also some...errr...average work being made in both Europe and the UK too.

    Funding structures are culturally different as much as anything. Italy and France don't have vast amounts of editorial written in national newspapers on the scandal of 'wasting public money' on risky, unsuccesful or controversial arts projects (compare the MPs expenses press with Berlosconi's various scandals and their coverage in Italy), so there is more incentive to take risks. It's the culture of the UK, and the civil service funding structures we are stuck with. I can't see that changing, however the Arts Council changes. We love accountability in this country, and being able to show why something is worth funding and why something isn't. So you need the sort of structures the Arts Council has, and any changes to those will be tweaks. But I could go on about this for ages. Basically, we need to deal with it and play the game.

    Ironically, The Place has done that over the years and this has led to a lot of great artists coming out of the performance opportunites that Mr Ashford has given them. I think it's unfair of both Grotto and Jack to write off The Place Prize and Resolution respectively as producing poor work. A lot of great work has been tried, tested and developed in these platforms (and Spring Loaded, Choreodrome, Touchwood etc). There are over 100 works shown in Resolution each year. Of course most of it will be unremarkable. If you expect anything else then you have a very skewed view of the UK dance industry.

    The man's tried. Where else is giving this many unknown or emerging artists performance opportunities, production time and the opportunity to make work, show it to an audience, make mistakes, try things and try again? We should applaud him for that, wish him well, listen to his exit interview and take what we want from it.

    But that's just my very humble opinion...

  • Kema

    I don't have a problem with wild experimentation in choreography but don't do it when I am expected to pay for it.

    If you have some ideas you want to play with, invite some people to a sharing and take feedback. If you want to perform it to a paying audience consider the feedback then create the work.

    There are lots of experimental theatre platforms, maybe we need more for dance.

    There was a good one in Manchester in March

    Experimental work which gave people a chance to have their work watched, receive support and evening create an audience for their particular kind of dance.



    Manchester,Mid England

  • Jack

    I think coming out with such things at at time when he is leaving is incredibly cowardly. Don't you think it would have been far more useful, intelligent and inspiring for emerging artists to be exposed to this kind of opinion whilst he was actually there and in a position to make a difference? Saying this kind of thing will only leave everyone feeling bad about what they do in a profession that is already hard enough to actually get anything done in the first place, so thanks for that.

    Working experimentally is about developing dance, how it's made, how it's viewed, how it's constructed and perhaps questioning what dance is etc, and you can't force that.

    It annoys me that he says such things and contributed to the programming of potentially "timirous" and "dull" work by staging pointless platforms such as Resolution! which churns out endless pieces of bad work and none of it is given any feedback on how it can be developed and experimented with, and the work that is discovered as 'the next big thing' is often in my opinion no experimental. It's all fine judging everyone and telling us that what we do is boring and timirous, but what about actually doing something by helping people to develop and experiment whilst working in a job that has power and influence?

    As a Dancer, Choreographer, and Artist, I'm interested in looking up to people and taking advice from people who are not afraid to give me their advice and their wisdom and who actually help me to experiment and develop. What use do negative statements about British dance serve when you are just about to complete your job and it's too late? It is not a service, it is an absolute insult.

  • hannahbuckley

    I totally agree! Try and make people experimental and it will be contrived and boring. I once had a girl from Laban pull up her nose at me when I said I had a place at NSCD. 'But do you want to go?' she asked 'yes' I replied. 'Oh, but isn't really technical?' which i believe she thought meant that I would come out an uncreative machine (we were at a contact festival close to the German/Polish border while having this debate..). I felt it was stupid and insulting to me as a artist to assume that my school would be who I was for my whole dance career. Living in berlin I did see a more experimental approach to dance. But some of it was so conceptual the dance ceased to exist. Literally... So we all have our weaknesses! but insulting and running wont help...perhaps if he'd been harboring these thoughts doing something about it would have been much more helpful to emerging artists.

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