Value vs Cost


by Neil Nisbet

Here at Article19 we are quick to comment on Arts Council England and large dance organisations when it appears they are not doing their jobs quite as effectively as we might expect them to.

We rarely pass comment on the failings of choreographers, particularly those new to the field, when they make mistakes or are flat out incompetent in the running of their fledgling companies. That time has passed however since we can ‘t hold ACE and NDA ‘s to a high level of professionalism and not expect the same of our new dance makers.

As you read this piece you may be confused as to why it is written in general terms with no names being mentioned. That thought has weighed heavily on the Lab but the decision was made not to do so. We are not trying to protect those dance makers that have erred but to prevent guilt by association for the dancers involved in those projects that are the basis of this writing.

As we all know, or should know, the very foundation of this profession is made up of the professional dancers that, for the most part, make the art form work. No matter the talent of any choreographer or the sweeping aims of a particular education programme it is all for nought if the dancers are not there to execute the work.

We have often held the view at Article19 that what you see on stage is a dancer ‘s interpretation of the dance makers ideas and that work will fundamentally alter as you change the dancers since no two are exactly alike. This is what makes the art form, in general terms at least, so varied. If you can imagine a dance company as having a brain then the dancers are certainly it.

Experienced dance makers, for the most part, understand this and develop a working method based on mutual respect and constant communication. You would imagine that it would be almost impossible to create a dance work in the 21st century without establishing a solid line of communication between dancer and choreographer where each and every person in the studio was an equal participant. It is not a matter of who is in charge rather how do you want to arrive at your chosen destination.

We would expect contemporary dance to be a cut above the antics of early evening ‘talent ‘ shows and the bad old days of ‘don ‘t do as I do, do as I say! ‘

Unjust Rewards

Sadly, with some new dance makers at least, this is not the case and worse still, aberrant behaviour is being rewarded with further support and further funding from organisations that should know better.

We have evidence that new dance makers are treating dancers as no more than a commodity to be used and cast aside as they see fit. Far from building a company from the ground up based on mutual respect some new choreographers are approaching their projects as if they are the owner of a mill during the industrial revolution and the dancers are expendable employees, a simple irritation that needs to be shouted down and verbally abused if necessary.

Article19 has seen contracts that provide, legally questionable in some cases, absolute protection for the company but no recourse for the dancer should anything go wrong or the company make a complete mess of the entire project. Everything is focused on the dance maker getting what he or she wants with scant regard for the well being of their ’employees ‘ or the practical considerations required for dancers working in the present jobs climate in contemporary dance.

Of course dancers working on short projects do not take such poor treatment lying down. When they realise that a working situation is going bad they make their feelings heard and if things don ‘t change they get to the end of the project and move on. The chance to build something is destroyed and an opportunity is wasted not to mention tens of thousands of pounds in funding.

Not all new dance makers make such mistakes of course. We have seen many instances of those new to the choreographic field diligently working their way through their project ensuring that not only the end result is something worthy of the time and money spent but that all concerned are treated as any individual would expect to be treated in a working situation, with respect and consideration. It is this type of working process that those with the power to do so should seek to support and nurture with funding and resources.

Article19 is not suggesting that people should be punished for making mistakes, everybody makes mistakes. The problem is when the dance maker and the support/funding bodies refuse to acknowledge there is a problem and continue their support with nothing more than a slap on the wrist and hollow promises from the perpetrator that they will get better.

Decisions to both fund and support a particular choreographer need to be made based upon more than whether or not a person fits a chosen demographic, can tick all the right boxes or simply has a face that fits. It is insulting to anybody involved in this profession to keep up the pretense that this does not happen, we all know it does!

Lacking Oversight

Within dance and the arts in general there is a staggering lack of oversight into how large sums of money are spent and managed by the companies or individuals receiving them. For new dance makers, a company is literally the choreographer and the dancers and nothing else.

Just how much information and assistance is available is debatable but in the experience of this writer good quality advice is hard to come by and there is little or no reason for the choreographer to follow that advice if things are not going well when the the rewards, in terms of finance and support, just keep on coming.

Cosy meetings held behind closed doors are not the same as focused budgetary analysis, progress evaluation and mentoring by people qualified and passionate enough to do the work. Handling a dance company is no simple task, even for the simplest of projects, so access to high quality information and advice on tap is essential for the budding choreographer to make the most of the opportunities that lay before them.

Experienced dance makers should be willing to give up some time to meet with new company ‘s to offer information and advice not only on the pragmatic side of running a dance company but the people skills side as well. Article19 would argue that is probably of most importance.

However much information and advice is available the dance maker ‘s themselves must be willing to take full responsibility when things go wrong and be willing to change their working practices. If not then the evaluation and oversight process (should one ever exist) would highlight those that simply lack the appropriate skills to run a dance company and make that clear when their follow up funding application is rejected in excruciating detail.

National Dance Agencies throughout the UK should be at the forefront of providing the oversight necessary to evaluate and assist new company’s in every way possible. If resources are not currently available or they are being targeted elsewhere then they must be re-directed or new resources made available.

It is easy for the overly bureaucratic dance infrastructure in the UK to tell us the cost of everything. It is a more subtle skill to see the value in things way beyond the financial outlay. There is tremendous value in well supported, informed and equipped young dance makers with funding to match and there is endless value in young choreographers appreciating just how powerful a weapon they have in a small group of highly motivated, professional dancers that know their voice is being heard and their skills and commitment are being acknowledged.