Trying To Choreograph

by Rosie Kay

I ‘m sure if you ask any choreographer why they do what they do; they will tell you it is not just because they want to, it is because they have to!” Award winning choreographer Rosie Kay on the harsh reality of creating work in the UK.

It seems that there is no straight and easy path attempting to become a choreographer. There are probably very few careers today that are straight forward and easy, and dance certainly is not one of them. It’s a lot of work, a lot of brazen hustling, and a large amount of luck! Right now things are looking almost promising, but after a few years of false starts and apparent breakthroughs, I ‘m feeling a bit wary and a lot wearier right now.

I ‘m sure if you ask any choreographer why they do what they do; they will tell you it is not just because they want to, it is because they have to! I knew from my early training which side I wanted to be on; what I craved. I didn ‘t want the life of a dancer, although I saw that as essential training, and from childhood I would organise my primary school group to perform large scale productions with children choreographed into large troupes. Listening to music, I would visualise hordes of movement; I seemed to crave a physical representation of what I heard in music.

I hated conventional dance training, some of the teachers seemed to regard fitting in to their ideal of dance more highly than original thought, but I was also intimidated by the talented individuals around me. Looking back I was probably quite insecure, and hated having to be trussed up in black tights and face myself in mirror for four hours a day! Nobody seemed to think this was weird for a teenager. There was very little in the way of training for the real world- I knew that I ‘d have to survive on my own once I left, but the teaching style was very strict. We had no training in self-management, marketing skills, writing funding proposals etc which is ridiculous in this market economy.

I can say that I experienced the “breaking to make you” style from certain teachers. I truly believe this is the wrong way to create sensitive, human artists and choreographers and perpetuates the self-loathing, insecurity and cruelty that exist still in some sections of dance. I believed there had to be a better way to create dancers.

A Potted History

We started this whole thing off several hundred years ago. Article19 was just a single page called North East Dance News or something equally uninspiring. The page was part of DanceserviceUK, a website run by Catherine James of Siobhan Davies Dance Company.For reasons past understanding DSUK vanished without warning and we were left without a home. It was then we decided to form our own magazine for Contemporary Dance and The Lab Rats were born. Yes, when the site first started it was called The Lab Rats, hence the constant references to us being in the “Lab”.

The name was changed because people constantly thought we were in medical research and they didn’t really get the joke so we changed the name to Article19. Article19 refers to the Human Rights act that protects freedom of speech. At least it used to be Article19 because it now seems to have been promoted to Article10, our name will remain the same however.

Heroines and Heroes

My heroines in dance history were Martha Graham (although obviously mad), Mary Wigman (ditto) and Anita Berber, a Weimar German cabaret artist who killed herself surrounded by syringes and crucifixes and immortalised by the painter Otto Dix.

Since leaving college I have managed to combine work as a dancer with choreographic work, teaching and the odd period of unemployment. I ‘m lucky to have a sympathetic family who have not evicted my belongings from my teenage bedroom, so that I have a small base to return to after periods abroad or when contracts suddenly end.

I ‘ve taken some big risks. I left Polish Dance Theatre, a large state company in Poland to pursue my choreographic career. Despite having a nice position in this company, and quite a secure job, I felt that I was not going in the right direction. I was getting frustrated and wanted to push myself further. I applied for the International Solo Dance Theatre Festival in Stuttgart, and incredibly, won first prize for choreography.

I also packed a suitcase and moved to Berlin, with just a few contacts, and managed to find work within a week in a ballet theatre company, and also negotiated my way around the German bureaucracy of finding accommodation, a bank account and police registration, without speaking any German. Later on, I abandoned everything, and went to live in a tiny Southern French village, researching ‘real-life ‘ and setting up a business. Somehow though, my desire to dance and to create work comes back, and I ‘m at my most engaged and happiest while creating and performing.
Life as a dancer has been hugely exciting. I have learnt and digested everything I could from the choreographers I worked with, from process, movement material and style.
I have enjoyed visiting theatres in Poland, Germany and the UK. But nothing compares to creating and performing your own work.

Asking Questions

I do question constantly why I want to do this. It is hardly the most useful skill in the world and certainly a much maligned art form. Which other live art form would get ridicule poured on it from an otherwise intelligent journalist (Rod Liddle, The Times January 2004). And which other art form would consistently not pay or protect its working artists? Somehow because we love it, we are forced to accept the maltreatment and poverty that exists.

But love it I do, however sickly that sounds. Within my own tiny little universe in a studio or theatre I can see exactly what is right or wrong, physically, dramatically, musically, intellectually. For me, I need to be able to express through a physically technical language the great mystery of ourselves.

Of course, one great problem is the funding. Fundamentally I wish that what we do had some kind of financial reality- i.e. that people actually wanted to pay money to see contemporary dance works. But they don ‘t and as a civilised society there is duty to expand and enrich our contemporary arts.

Personally I have had a terrible time attempting to get even a cursory amount from my native Scottish Arts Council. Applications have had be re-written sometimes 2 to 3 times, often with one week deadlines, all to no avail. It becomes very depressing to be constantly refused, despite some success within the profession. As the writer of these applications I blame myself of course. And here lies the problem, until you are a rich enough company or choreographer, you have to do everything yourself, and try and earn enough money to live on without compromising yourself too much. Once past this magical point of success you are taken on by an agent or manager and life becomes rosy”¦.

Most choreographers I have spoken to say that they all started this way; struggled to make work, struggled to get that work seen, most passing though the immortal gates of The Place dance system. The UK way to success is still through these gates and it’s systems of Associate Artist and Resident Choreographers. These schemes seem to be widening, with the likes of Dance Artist in Residence at Royal Festival Hall, Essex Dance and Yorkshire Dance Partners. Artists from outside London are emerging, even if that’s because they ‘ve chosen to get out of London to do that. The lack of any serious artists and respected companies outside of London is a strain to the other NDA ‘s professional aspirations and to any choreographer wanting to work outside the capital, it’s a gamble, but it’s the only way to get funding.

So right now, I ‘m my own administrator, marketing and publicity manager, accountant, manager, choreographer, fitness instructor, teacher and councillor. I ‘ve tried to balance working for others with working for myself, and I ‘ve found that very hard. At the end of the day we all need to pay the rent and bills, and sometimes that means compromising yourself, even if you don ‘t mean to. For me
I found out that too much teaching killed some of my passion, and the teaching must be balanced by performing and choreographic work. Everybody needs to find their own balance.

It’s hard; as we see our friends climb written career paths in other professions, and put deposits on houses, cars and holidays, we dance artists seem to earn the same as we did as graduates. One can have a successful career in dance for many years, but as that last contract comes to an end you ‘re as likely to be unemployed as the day you started. That said, I do not want to give up, certainly, not till I ‘ve done some more work.

Currently I am a guest lecturer/Dance Artist at the University of Wolverhampton. This, after a year of teaching sullen teenagers is satisfying work, with committed individuals. I may not be able to practically help some of those students who told me their ambition is to dance on Top of The Pops, but I hope to inspire them just a little in the skill of movement research and choreography!

I am also about to start work on a new piece, and have been given support from DanceXchange. It is a great luxury to get a decent amount of time in the studio to create, and technical support in the theatre. However I still can ‘t afford the number of dancers I ‘d like, and so the nature of the original idea has had to be scrapped. One day it would be a joy to not compromise. I really want to get to that place.

Rosie Kay is a professional dancer and choreographer working in the West Midlands.