Retreats Don’t Add Up

by Neil Nisbet

Documents made available to Article19 under the Freedom of Information Act have shown that your average meeting of dance makers can cost an awful lot more than you might imagine. Such is the case with DanceEast’s “Rural Retreats” which over the next two years will cost a staggering £260,000. Arts Council England ‘s contribution to this effort that will almost certainly achieve absolutely nothing is put at £100,000.

According to Dance East the aim of the Retreats is to “put dance at the forefront of arts leadership and strategy “€œ for once, dance is leading the way, provoking discussion and debate that is having an impact around the globe..”

The second of these Retreats took place last month in the woods, somewhere in the East of England. Although the first two retreats were for ballet company directors the subsequent four will focus on varying subject matter all equally puzzling as to their eventual outcome. The next Retreat entitled “Access Without Compromise “ states its aims thus;

“The Retreat will allow key artists from around the globe to share their differences within different cultural contexts on how cultural policy is or isn ‘t affecting artistic products and how they can best develop their work and their audiences in our globalised and hyper-conscious world”

Such heady language suggests that a good time will be had by all (that’s sarcasm right? Ed!), considering £6,500 is being spent on food for the attendees they should have a very good time indeed. DanceEast admit in their application proposal to Arts Council England that they themselves have little or no idea what the outcomes of this project will be. When we reported on the first retreat two years ago we commented in particular on the closing statement of the press release;

“The Directors agreed that certain issues were of concern to all companies represented at the conference, and that these could most effectively be addressed through working together. To that end, an informal, international network of Artistic Directors was established.”

“Informal network” is a suitably neutral phrase because we all have informal networks with our friends and colleagues wherever they are in the world. It’s merely an unwritten, unspoken agreement to keep in touch because we either want to or need to on a fairly regular, irregular basis. We have informal networks with our local shopkeepers and petrol station attendants.

What’s An NDA?
DanceEast is part of ANDA the Association of National Dance Agencies of which there are nine across England.

Each NDA has a responsibility to the region they are based in. NDA’s provide access to classes, facilitate professional development and a whole host of other services, at least in theory.

The other NDA’s are, DanceXchange, DanceCity, Dance Northwest, Yorkshire Dance, Swindon Dance, The Place, Dance 4 and South East Dance.

You can read details of each one an the ANDA website by clicking on the link below.

It makes very little sense to go to the time and trouble and someone else ‘s expense to gather in the woods, agree you all have the same problems, exchange phone numbers, do the whole thing in secret and then saunter back home having enjoyed nice hotels, good food and free beer!

Ask The Question!

When we asked Assis Carriero the Artistic Director of DanceEast and the coordinator of this project to provide documentary evidence of the benefits of the retreats she gave us the following response;

“A full report is produced at the end of the Retreat and all participating directors complete questionnaires which are used by DanceEast and the facilitators to develop future Retreats.”

We have yet to receive our copy of the report for the first retreat but Ms Carriero ‘s response does not paint a very encouraging picture. It would seem the only benefit of the Retreats is to garner feedback to provide potential material for more Retreats.

Participant feedback forms are confidential, so like a meeting of the G7 we are largely unaware of what they really thought of the gathering as a whole. One would imagine they are media savvy enough to keep their mouths shut at the press conference and be very careful not to speak out of turn. One comment we were furnished with by Dance East stated the opinion of an unnamed director;

“The job of directing is often very isolated and therefore a lonely position. You are expected to motivate, inspire and yet have very little chance to find personal support, advice and to regenerate your own personal motivation. This gathering plays a significant role in rejuvenating the directors and strengthening communication and support net works.”

So the poor director is feeling a little bit lonely (awwww, big hugs all round! Ed!) Well then here ‘s a tip, PICK UP THE PHONE!

Critical Shortage

Here in The Lab it is not lost on us that at least one aim of these meetings is to improve communication and build connections with others with whom you would normally have no contact whatsoever. Communication is a wonderful thing and meeting new people can be both inspiring and energizing.

But dance is critically short of money in almost every respect so to waste time, energy and fund raising clout on what amounts to nothing more than a series of motivational management seminars akin to those in the plumbing industry is a mistake, a very expensive mistake.

Arts Council England East is no less culpable in this situation for agreeing to hand over the money in the first place. Without it this project would almost certainly have fallen flat on its face.

In response to the funding question DanceEast’s response was predictable;

“It is not an either or. The Funders who have given us this money gave it too us for this purpose. We spent a great deal of money in our area employing professional dancers.”

It is very true that the money was raised specifically for this project. It is also equally telling that DanceEast sought only £40,000 from ACE East to support their Snape Dances project, a full £60,000 less than the amount awarded for the Retreats.

It is also important to mention that DanceEast refused to tell Article19 just how much the Retreats were costing them as an organisation. That we had to secure the information under the FOIA indicates that at some level DanceEast is a little uneasy about the number of zeros in the final total.

National Dance Agencies do not just exist to support and promote contemporary dance. They exist to support all forms of dance. However, classical ballet receives the vast majority of the dance funding available from ACE in England so for the moment we think they can fight their own battles.

We are also not sure when it became the responsibility of an NDA with regional responsibilities to start solving the problems of ballet companies throughout the rest of the world when dancers in the UK are treated so badly by their own profession.

Ms Carriero stated her organisation ‘s membership of DanceUK and receipt of funding from ACE as suitable proof of DanceEast’s position on supporting fair pay and conditions for professional dancers;

“DanceEast is a member of Dance UK and is funded by ACE. Both ACE and Dance UK take proactive roles in improving pay and conditions for professional dancers. The Dancers that are employed by DanceEast for various performances and projects are paid fair and equitable rates”

We would challenge DanceEast right now to provide us with a written statement from a single contemporary dancer anywhere who thinks they are paid “fair and equitable rates.” For the vast amount of work they are asked to do either by a company or any type of dance agency.

DanceEast is certainly not alone; all the NDA ‘s remain completely silent, at least in public, about levels of pay for professional dancers. DanceUK, to date, has produced just one report on the level of dancers pay or rather the lack of it.

We would helpfully suggest that DanceEast focus its energy on funding their dance performance related programmes like Snape Dances, also mentioned in the application material.

In a world of high-speed Internet connections, free video conferencing for all with iChatAV, message boards, interactive online communities and the good old telephone there is no earthly reason why these meetings should happen at all.

The lack of reasoning or tangible benefits and the large costs involved make these Retreats a luxury that dance can ill afford. There is little or no reason for ballet directors to feel “lonely ‘ or “isolated” but even if they do it’s always good to talk and to talk in person but like the Rolling Stones said a long time ago “You Can ‘t Always Get What You Want!”

Fauston is a research fellow specialising in communication for the Amsterdam Research and Science Enterprise.