Whenever contemporary dance ends up on television it is never going to end well for all involved. Whether it's a long form documentary or the showing of a piece of work (the rarest of things on network television) the only thing you can do is hold on for dear life and hope the art-form comes out the other end in one piece with its dignity intact.
This was the case with 'Dance Rebels - A Story of Modern Dance', broadcast on BBC4 this past Sunday for all the world to see and, for those in the know, to mock relentlessly, because it's all you can do when confronted with the horrors that lay within. Not since 'The Most Incredible Thing About Contemporary Dance' has this profession been so badly mistreated by so many in such a short space of time.
What happens when contemporary dance comes to television is the same thing that happens when baseball comes to television in the UK. The broadcaster can't possibly treat the audience like intelligent human beings with an interest in that particular subject, they feel the need to explain the thing every damn time. So, you can't just watch the baseball game. What you have to do is watch the history of baseball before being patronised before every pitch as some moribund voice over explains the rules. This is what "Dance Rebels" was all about and, if nothing else, it gave the muggles of this world an insight into what it's like to be a dance student sitting through a dance history lesson on a late Friday afternoon when all you really want to do is sit outside, stare at the sky and ponder the universe after a week of classes.
Isadora is Dead Long Live Isadora
The greatest hits were all there, from Isadora Duncan to Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham, Rudolf von Laban (once hired by the Nazis don't you know? Ed!), a bit of Yvonne Rainer, some Michael Clark, William Forsythe and Pina Bausch. Anna Teresa De Keersmaecker showed up and didn't smile and there was a bizarre detour into Beyonce who, allegedly, ripped off Ms De Keersmaecker in a music video. The Belgian dance maker fought back with her own YouTube project that got lots of people making variations of that work, 'Rosas danst Rosas'.
Most of the show was little more than a potted history lesson of contemporary dance, Wikipedia with moving pictures if you will. Some historians were rolled out in bad sweaters and Judith Mackrell, from the Guardian, said the same things she always says in these films and that, as they say, was that.
Even as history though it all fell flat. The old tropes were rolled out referencing riots at the first showing of 'Rite of Spring' by the Ballet Russes in 1913 (there is no evidence that ever happened), Yvonne Rainer's 'No Manifesto' being some sort of all-encompassing instruction book for her work (it actually refers to just one piece of work she made) and so on and so forth.
Given that the show was made in the UK there were gaping holes in the history big enough to push a planet through. There was no mention of The Place in London, arguably the birth place of contemporary dance in the UK, although Robert Cohan was featured briefly. London Contemporary Dance Theatre was ignored as was Richard Alston, Siobhan Davies and a whole legion of dance makers, and not one single mention of Rambert?
Also missing were Phoenix Dance Theatre, Motionhouse Dance Theatre, Shobanah Jeyasingh, Charlotte Vincent, Lloyd Newson (stop booing at the back! Ed!), Wendy Houston, Nigel Charnock, Scottish Dance Theatre (a huge story in dance all on its own), the list goes on and on. Television is a poor medium for recounting the complex history of anything so why even bother trying?
The Laban Students
Interspersed throughout the programme were snippets of students from the Laban school in London ostensibly re-creating some of the works being mentioned in the programme. That section, in and of itself, could have been an interesting short documentary but within 'Dance Rebels' the whole process was given short shrift.
When the works were actually presented to the audience in a finished format the presentation style, as expected, was so frenetically edited that you couldn't actually watch the work the students had done. We, here in TheLab™, can only imagine that this process was included to make the programme sound more interesting when it was pitched to the BBC but it ended up just getting in the way of the quick fire interview clips that punctuated the film so the director could tell the audience all the stuff they really needed to know whether they wanted to know it or not. Ancient outrage from audience members attending a Michael Clark show at the Edinburgh Festival is far more important to BBC film makers.
The Missed Opportunity
'Dance Rebels' told us everything we needed to know about this show before we had even seen it. The hook was supposed to be that the featured dance makers were outside the norm, they didn't play by the rules, they were, don't laugh, "rebels". What was never made clear was the thing this disparate group were supposed to be rebelling against. William Forsythe, the rebel, was the AD of a state funded ballet company in Germany for years. They didn't make 'Swan Lake' but a lot of neo-classical companies don't do 'Swan Lake'. Similarly, Michael Clark was, and probably still is, a bit of a head case but he's still inside the establishment arts funding system and he always has been. Celebrity friends may donate money but he still fills out the NPO funding applications just like everybody else.
The 'Dance Rebels' programme is mixed in with a series of shows on the BBC entitled 'The Joy of Dance'. Other shows in the mix include Alan Yentob fawning over Carlos Acosta, a radio thing with Sylvie Guillem, a dancer who has been retiring for the last 15 years apparently, and 'Pina', Wim Wenders film about Pina Bausch. Still to come is a, probably, histrionic film about Rudolf Nureyev, a dancer famous for being famous.
All of this is supposed to indicate that the BBC cares about the arts and arts programming. If that's the case though why for 'Dance Rebels' did the producers just sit on their backsides in London or Manchester and pull all the material they could from their own archives and then shoot some soft soap interviews to fill in the blanks?
What they should have done was spend some money and cover dance as it is now, comparing and contrasting dance makers from across Europe (keep the costs down a little) from the small scale to the large scale, throw some students into the mix from a few countries and cover some of the massive amount of education and development work that goes on the world over in service of contemporary dance.
That, however, would have required some effort and some resources to complete and it would have taken a lot of time to finish. Covering just one part of an education and performance programme for one company in one country took us, here in TheLab™, two months to accomplish.
The BBC's arts coverage is, as it always has been, lazy and cheap and 'Dance Rebels' did dance no favours at all.
Top Image - Johnny Autin teaches a workshop for students in Halden, Norway as part of the Tilt project for Panta Rei Danseteater - Photo by Article19