The League of Extraordinary Bullshit

by Neil Nisbet

“It’s always impossible to legislate for talent. There are successful younger women out there – Maresa von Stockert, Cathy Marston, Jasmin Vardimon, Kate Prince – but they are not in the same league as McGregor, Bourne et al. Something has to change if the next great female choreographer, whoever she may be, is to make it to the top – and stay there.”

In the paragraph above Judith Mackrell, writer for the Guardian newspaper, unwittingly sums up the entire mess that is the dance profession in the UK, and probably in a lot of other places. Her words were prompted by the communications disaster that usually follows whenever Alistair Spalding, AD of Sadler’s Wells in London, opens his mouth.

If you’re a sports fan imagine that your annual league championship was decided not on one team beating another by scoring more points/touch-downs/runs or whatever but by the pundits waxing lyrical about which team was the best.

No matter how good your players or how profoundly they destroyed their competition it would make not one bit of difference because, ultimately, victory would be decided by retired players and lecherous, perma-tanned TV hosts. Imagine just how frustrating that would be.

Critics, theatre directors, producers, promoters and, to a certain degree, the minions at ACE (Arts Council England), are what we have in place of pundits and lecherous TV presenters. They will all tell you that “they” and “they” alone understand what really makes a good piece of dance tick and the rest of us just don’t get it.

If Wayne McGregor and Random Dance Company, for example, are funded, programmed by a large theatre, reviewed positively by Ms Mackrell and the odd punter puts in a nice comment card or three then Mr McGregor is a member of the elite, no? Even better if you add some international touring to the mix.

Surely all these people can’t be wrong?

Of course, they’re not wrong. But they’re not right either which I’m pretty sure is a paradox so the universe should implode any second now……………………. Good, we’re still here.


Dance makers are elevated to their respective positions, in Ms Mackrell’s imaginary League of Extraordinary Dance Makers, by the decisions of other people. If you think it’s all about talent and skill then it’s time to wake up and smell the strong black coffee. The mantra “you’re good because we say you are” is alive and well and probably living in London.

Dance companies need to create work and they need to perform work. To create work they need money so, in this country at least, they have to turn primarily to ACE and to get programmed they have to turn to venues. In a perfect world these bureaucratic bodies would be staffed with open minded, free thinking individuals willing to take a chance on good ideas presented by smart people.

OK, you can stop laughing now, let’s move on!

Taken to extremes it’s easy to spot the difference between a hardened professional and a first year dance student dipping their toe in the wacky world of dance making. Spotting the difference between Jasmin Vardimon and Akram Khan, in terms of professional quality, is a much harder, if not completely impossible task.

The Sadler’s Wells debacle has served to highlight that, on the one hand, Mr Spalding is an out of touch jackass with a penchant for saying and doing stupid things (YouTube contest anyone?) On the other hand it has highlighted the fact that the upper echelons of the dance world (meaning large scale venues) are nothing more than an exercise in back scratching and pandering.

It’s not hard to imagine long conversations over dinner between Mr Spalding and Mr Khan (or whomever) where cosy agreements are made along the lines of “sure you can bring your solo to the Wells next year, don’t worry about it”. Sounds a bit theatrical? Well this is show business dahling!

Mathew Bourne’s ‘Swan Lake’ is being programmed, again, at Sadler’s Wells because it appeals directly to the “ladies that lunch” crowd who flock to that theatre to see any young male, bare chested and in feathered trousers flapping about the stage (seriously, what the hell goes on in Middle-England?)

It is suitably ironic that the front cover of Ms Mackrell’s book ‘Dictionary of Dance’ (co-written by Debra Craine) features a still image from that particular show.

Here in TheLabâ„¢ we think Mr Bourne’s ‘Swan Lake’ is a load of crap. A stagnant, poorly constructed mess that sullies the good name of an ancient classic. That’s just our view of course and you may feel differently but I challenge you to prove that ‘Swan Lake’ is not a load of crap. It would be just as difficult for Article19 to prove that it is a load of crap though.

It’s that whole “subjective opinion” thing again!

Big Players

What the “big players” (as one of our readers recently described them) don’t want people to realise is that they have absolutely no idea what they are doing. It’s all guess work and pre-fabricated friendships wrapped up in 500 word press releases.

Female dance makers can no more break through this particular glass ceiling than our in-house cat can become President of The United States, no matter how much will power the bedraggled moggy can summon up through his arthritic paws.

They can’t break through because there are no quantifiable steps they can take (pardon the pun) to shift the perspective of people like Mr Spalding. They could of course become more “assertive” which in my mind conjures up images of Ms Vardimon dangling Mr Spalding out the window of a very high building and threatening to drop him on his head unless he offers her a commission. I’ve probably seen too many episodes of 24 though.

Let’s be very clear however. There is no league, there is no metric, no formula, nothing that can be applied by Ms Mackrell, Mr Spalding or anyone else (including Article19) to determine whether or not one persons work is better than another irrespective of the assertive qualities of the choreographer.

You could at least respect people for saying; “we gave it a shot but that didn’t work so we’re going to try something else”. Instead it comes back to the same old red herrings that women aren’t making it and it’s all their own fault. The powers that be seem unable to explain what assertiveness, babies, child-care or anything else has to do with someone’s skill as a dance maker.


What’s the solution to this mess? Well personally I’m all for Mr Spalding being dangled from a window by his feet just for the hell of it (don’t drop him though, that would be mean!) but I’ve got the feeling that won’t achieve much.

ACE could intervene and demand a more eclectic mix of programming at theatres like Sadler’s Wells but it’s hard to do that when you’re permanently inert and programming female dance makers “just because” is not the way to move forward.

It may sound a bit revolutionary and all but if the problem stems from the people in charge then maybe we should replace the people in charge? Replace them with people that are not narrow minded purveyors of risible drivel.

People that neither seek nor care for the favours of others and look at the world with a wider perspective. People that look beyond ticket sales, statistics, dance mapping studies and the never ending stream of un-quantifiable gibberish that pours out of large institutions on a daily basis.

Where are these people? My personal feeling is their currently creating work in dance studios and tick the “Miss” box on application forms.

[ The Jackass ]
[ The Guardian ]