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Dance, reviews and dance reviews

Feature: Dancers’ Pay Debate

Chaired by Hilary Hadley (Equity) with Nicholas Keegan, Flora Wellesley Wesley; Shanelle Fergus, Dancers United

#DUKfuture, Laban Saturday 11 April 2015

Dancers’ pay has been identified as a challenge for both the subsidised and the commercial dance sectors recently, with social media campaigns such as #paythedancers highlighting the prevelance of low-paid and unpaid work across the industry. This well-attended panel debate explored some of the background to pay issues for dancers, and outlined actions dancers can take to ensure they are paid properly to work.

Independent dance artist Nicholas Keegan introduced the work of the recently-formed Equity Freelance Dance Network, a group founded to improve standards and empower the varied community of freelance dance artists working in the subsidised dance sector. One of the aims of the movement is to instigate a change in dancers’ mentality, explains Keegan: “Dancers are both workers and artists, and we need to move away from the image of an artist working for the love of what they do.”

At present, Arts Council-funded companies and projects are required to pay dance artists at least Equity minimum wage – which does not mean that this always happens in practice; and even National Portfolio Organisations that pay union rates rarely have Equity contracts with their dancers, meaning there is little protection for the dancer in cases of cancellation or injury. According to recent data, only 20% of professional dancers last year were able to live on money earned solely through dance work, and only 15% warned a full living wage. “The responsibility for implementing change is not solely Equity’s,” says Keegan, “it is all our responsibility.”

Why do dancers take on unpaid work? Commercial dancer and co-founder of Dancers United UK Shanelle Fergus explains that few dancers enter the industry in the hope of sitting around on the sofa at home. “Everyone wants to be busy and dancing and improving their CV. If the choice is working for nothing or doing nothing, most will work for nothing.” Unfortunately, this enthusiasm to work leaves dancers open to exploitation, with commercial video shoots and TV spots regulary enticing dancers to come and work for free in the hope of improving their profiles.

“Dance is a profession where you are continually paying – for class, for physio and the gym, to eat well – and the least we should be offered is pay for work,” says Shanelle. “If you go on a shoot, even the runner is being paid – dancers should not be asked to dance for free.” Working with Equity, Dancers United UK have already succeded in improving the pay and contracts on shows including the X Factor, as well as persuading producers to pay dancers on music video shoots.

Independent dance artist Flora Wellesley Wesley acknowledges that it’s not uncommon to take on a certain quantity of unpaid work at the very start of a career, especially when working with friends on unfunded projects, but believes a bigger problem arises when funded projects still expect dancers to come and work for little or no money. “When I see callouts for dancers where the pay isn’t right I’ve starting sending it to Emmanuel at Equity who is in charge of low and no pay work. Because of the scarcity of work and the keenness of dancers – big production houses can get away with these callouts but I think it’s unacceptable.”

Wellesley Wesley also called on funders and commissioners to take part of the responsibility for dancers’s pay – commissions going out to artists for small sums of money mean that there is little funding available for makers to pay their dancers with. “Commissioners and funders and industry bodies need to be clear-sighted about the issue,” she says. “A £1,000 commission will pay two dancers for a week – so commissioners need to understand that and deal with the numbers properly.”

The message of the panel was that change needs to happen at all levels of the industry – dancers need to take responsibility for the work they take on, funders need to work with artists to make sure dancers are properly paid, and producers need to ensure they’re not expecting dancers to work for less money than other professionals engaged on a project.

More info: http://equitydance.org

Report & photos: Lise Smith “Twitter: @lisekit“https://twitter.com/Lisekit

Originally published at www.londondance.com

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April 13, 2015 Posted by | Dance, General Musings, News | , , , , | Leave a comment

Dance: Theatrical clap-trap

Lise Smith asks when did UK audiences start walking out?

In an email to choreographer Jonathan Burrows sent in 2009, maverick French dance artist Jerome Bel wrote: ‘The first seven minutes of a performance are for free, the audience can accept anything…you can try to attempt something else, to put the audience on a different track than the usual one for the rest of the performance. It’s after those seven minutes that they start to yell at you.’ Reading this (in Burrows’s excellent A Choreographer’s Handbook) I thought, how charmingly Gallic, and how very un-British, to express one’s disappointment with a performance while it is still taking place. But is that national paradigm still true?

Until recently theatres have been a place where people will – generally – politely accept whatever is put in front of them. I recall attending a horrendous performance by a well-regarded touring dance company five years ago; at curtain call there was an agonising ten-second silence that must have felt like an eternity to the dancers, where I genuinely thought that nobody was going to applaud. But then a polite and respectful clapping rippled across the audience and the dancers took their relieved bows. That was as close as I thought British audiences got to expressing censure.

But in recent months I have noticed an increase in the number of walkouts taking place during performances. The critic Luke Jennings blogged last summer about his displeasure at being spat at by one of Dave St Pierre’s company during Un Peu de Tendresse, Bordel de Merde!, noting that the performance had been met with ‘more walk-outs than I’ve ever seen at Sadler’s Wells’. For what it’s worth I greatly enjoyed St Pierre’s piece, but more to the point I am sure I spotted at least as many walkouts from Anna Teresa De Keersmaker’s Rosas Danst Rosas at the same venue a few weeks earlier.  I sometimes find myself wondering what those leaving had actually expected from the performance – maybe naked Canadians are too much for some patrons, but who on earth buys a ticket for Rosas not knowing that austerity and extended silence are De Keersmaeker’s watchwords?

Perhaps as a nation we are developing a little more assertiveness, like our continental cousins. Or perhaps we now feel too busy and time-poor to stick out a performance that doesn’t entirely please us. Whatever the reason, something has definitely shifted in the way UK audiences receive work. We have a little way to go before we start yelling at the performers, as Bel’s colourful scenario has it. But spectators no longer wait for a friendly break in the programme before upping and leaving to express their discontent.

While audience empowerment may on one hand be a good thing, a growing epidemic of walkouts may also indicate a lack of patience with artistic experiment – a willingness to go, as the other half of Bel’s statement suggests, on a track different from the usual. We might have stopped damning with faint applause, but I hope we haven’t also given up the possibility of participating in an alternative journey.

Lise Smith is a dance writer, manager and teacher, and regularly contributes to Londondance.com

Originally published at ArtsProfessional

January 26, 2012 Posted by | Dance, Features, General Musings | Leave a comment

Neunundneunzig Luftballons (in meinem Weg)

When I was training, a group of fellow students and I made a dance which had dozens of helium balloons as a set. We went the whole hog and hired an industrial cylinder of helium with which to fill our coloured balloons. In addition, we purchased yards of ribbon and many pairs of white socks to tie them to, which kept the floating balloons loosely in place in the studio while allowing them to be knocked around by our dancing bodies.

For a student piece, it was a really rather beautiful set, the multicoloured balloons swaying and bobbing in the sunlight like some kind of mad lollipop-forest. And in the dress rehearsal the concept worked well – as we moved through the piece, our limbs and torsos swept some balloons aside, gathered others, and left visible traces in the mobile set like a trail through the balloon-forest. Everyone who saw the rehearsal agreed it looked “really cool”.

Unfortunately, when it came to the performance, we over-egged it with the balloons a bit and stuck them in just about every available inch of studio space. Now, instead of leaving a pretty trail through the balloons like the wake of a boat or vapour from an aeroplane, everybody just got tangled up in the ribbons. The wretched things didn’t sculpt the movement anymore, they just got in the way. A certain number of balloons, we learned, accentuates the movement profile with its gentle echo of what has travelled through; too many balloons just makes a damned mess of your choreography.

All of which preamble is by way of saying: when those large, silver, pillow-shaped balloons kept getting in the way of the Rambert dancers tonight, I probably sympathised more than most members of the audience.

Rainforest
Balloons and some slightly annoyed dancers, yesterday.

My excuse for the balloon error is, of course, that I was a student at the time. Merce’s excuse is, I suppose, that it was 1968 at the time. Either way, you never find out if something works unless you try.

But trust me on the balloons.

May 25, 2010 Posted by | Dance, General Musings | Leave a comment

General Musings: You Know What I Mean?

The intention of the author is neither available nor desirable
– Wimsatt and Beardsley, “The Intentional Fallacy”

The birth of the reader is the death of the author
– Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”

A certain kind of pre-1930s literary criticism occupied itself overly with discovering the intent of the author, permitting this as the only avenue of enquiry available to the reader. The critical question was in these works usually framed not as “What does this work convey?” or “how does it relate to us as readers?” but rather “What did Dickens mean? To say that this was a rather dry and fruitless line of enquiry is, I think, uncontroversial. This didn’t prevent the approach from hanging around well after its use-by date, however, and I think a lot of scholastic education through the 20th century remained on the hunt for the intention of the author. Both Wimsatt and Beardsley in the 1940s and Barthes in the 1960s were concerned to find alternative approaches to appreciating a text, approaches which remain useful to this day.

In a similar way – and until much more recently than in the case of literary studies – dance and dancemakers have been somewhat encumbered by the search for “intention”. Many is the time when, in the bar at the interval, I’ve overheard audience members earnestly discussing post-constructions of the choreographer’s dramatic intentions; many is the Q&A session after the performance that I’ve heard the same narrow-framed questions thudding upon the stage, the same complaints if there’s no programme note to reveal the code. “It isn’t a puzzle to be solved,” complains New Art Club’s Pete Shenton, and I quite agree – but the hunt is still on. Audiences seem to like to be told not only what’s going on, but what it all finally means.

I don’t for one moment wish to suggest that there is no meaning to be found, or that the act of interpretation cannot enrich the experience of watching a work. I simply agree with Wimsatt and Beardsley that the intention of the maker, whatever it might be, is simply not available to us; I would also argue, like them, that this unavailbility doesn’t matter. My partner introduced me to Umberto Eco’s very useful concept of the intentio operis, the “intention” found in the form and content of the work itself, and I feel that is that the experience of the viewer within the performance is the most useful place to begin our analysis of meaning – how do I respond to this phrase, this structure, and why? This is not to shut down meanings, but to explore them, open them, liberate them from the concern with authorial intention.

Barthes argues that meaning resides not with the work’s origin but with its destination, the reader. I would agree that the attempt to discover an unlocatable authorial intention can be misleading, even destructive – leaving the work itself and its relationship with the audience out of the equation closes out what are to me the two most valuable parts of the equation. I believe that the most fruitful place to seek interpretation of in the work and in the experience of the audience within the work.

The thing that responds to the work as comic, or tragic, or tear-jerkingly melodramatic, is we the audience. And once we have looked to the work to ground our interpretation, I don’t really think it matters a stuff what the creator thinks it means. So next time you ask me what that gesture in the middle of my last trio meant, don’t be surprised if I look at you funny – it’s not that there is no meaning to be found. It’s just that it’s you who needs to find it.

March 25, 2009 Posted by | General Musings | Leave a comment

General Musings: Martha and communication

Throughout time dance has not changed in one essential function. The function of the dance is communication.
– Martha Graham

Dearest Martha was always a strident communicator, whether through her chosen performance medium or in her speaking and writing about it. But in many ways, her commitment to communication (and the efforts of other performers and choreographers in this direction) raises more questions than it answers. How does dance communicate, how does movement signify? Does dance indeed have communication as its one “essential function” at all? And if so, how do we learn to understand it?

I’ve been thinking about these questions a great deal recently, in the contexts of dance for the theatre and my own teaching work. I think there are a number of broad ways in which dance conveys meaning to an audience. The first and most direct form of communication is generally found in classical dance forms worldwide, which often retell stories drawn from myth, folktale or other existing narratives already known to the audience. Performances of this form include both pure dance sections and narrative sequences which take the form of conventionally understood mimes or readable gestures.

In Western classical dance, we find mime sequences portraying the narrative element of story ballets; likewise hand gestures (mudras) convey stories from myth and epic in Oriental forms such as Bharatnatyam. In either case, the traditional expectation is that the audience are trained to read the movement conventionally, just as signers are trained to understand sign language. In this kind of formal movement, as well as artistry in the structure and performance, the work has a functionally communicative level somewhat akin to reading literary prose.

Dances which do not directly retell a narrative might still aim to communicate a particular mood, character or emotional state. Without resorting to direct mime or gesture, dancemakers might choose to evoke a specific ambience or tone through the choice of actions, use of space, dynamic qualities and relationships between dancers as well as sound score, costumes and lighting.

A dance containing slow, smooth-flowing low-level actions in a limited space performed by dancers who do not look at one another will read very differently to a dance containing lots of fast, energetic leaps and dancers throwing one another around the stage. In either cse, there may not be a full narrative in the story-ballet mould, but the dance will still communicate a particular feel (mood, bhava) on an expressive or suggestive level. The work is understood by sensation rather than conventional “reading”, and communicates affectively rather than literally, similar to the way we might read poetry rather than prose.

There are works which aim to be completely abstract, rejecting narrative, theme or suggestive image. Graham’s own former dancer Merce Cunningham has said, “I don’t work through images or ideas. ­ I work through the body… When I dance, it means: this is what I am doing.” It is, however, unusual to find a dance with no conceptual subject matter at all – even Cunningham’s works occasionally suggest referents outside the dance itself, as with Pond Way, in which the dancers perform as amphibian and insect pond creatures (that can do triplets, tilts and twists); or the recognisably pedestrian actions of How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run.

If we can conceive of a spectrum from completely abstract to completely narrative, upon which the signified of a given dance work can be plotted, most points will be scattered somewhere along the middle of the range – suggestive and evocative rather than completely prosaic, somewhat abstracted from the narrative or dramatic theme, using the languge of movement playfully and suggestively as well as functionally. The audience, for its part, is invited to participate in the meaning-making process by reading the available structures – the movement vocabulary, the space, dynamics and relationships; the affective as well as the informational content. The locus of meaning is not solely in the choreography or in the performance on stage, but in the effect of the performance upon the viewer.

Graham passionately believed in dance as a universal language that could communicate across cultural, national and gender boundaries, and as an experience common to all humanity. But communication for Martha was not purely formal or purely functional; rather it is the kind of communication that provokes an emotional, rather than a literal, response . “My dancing,” she told American Dancer in April 1935, “is not an attempt to interpret life in a literary sense. It is the affirmation of life through movement.” It’s a manifesto in which I find much to celebrate.

March 4, 2009 Posted by | General Musings | Leave a comment

General Musings: Do ya, do ya like it?

Tom Roden of New Art Club was recently quoted in the Metro newspaper, talking about dance and dancemaking ahead of their recent London shows. He says, “Good dancing is not caring if anyone likes it, including yourself.” It’s the sort of flippant-yet-profound observation that the boys are known for, and it made me think.

As teachers, we spend a lot of time encouraging our students to exercise quality control – explore possibilities first, then select and refine and rehearse until you have a good dance. I sometimes need to remind some of my charges not to leave absolutely all of their composition work until the last minute, to allow for the editing process as well as drafting and to ensure all performers are confident with the material created. But the act of “not caring” what an audience or anyone else thinks can be profoundly liberating for an artist – and not caring oneself can be the hardest, yet most liberating step of all.

Moving beyond our personal comfort zone and breaking out of old, safe habits really requires a leap of faith in oneself and the ability to turn off the inner voice that says, “What if that’s rubbish?” Pushing on with a new approach, even if it feels uncomfortable, can lead to fresh new ideas and processes and help us to develop as artists, rather than staying with the same old way of making work. From time to time, I think it’s really important to shake ourselves up and step outside boundaries that we might have unconsciously imposed on ourselves, by worrying about whether something is “good”.

“Good” for an audience is, in any case, a problematic, culturally-bound concept. For an discussion of how audiences develop responses to art, Pierre Bourdieu’s The Rules of Art is detailed and provocative – I agree with Bourdieu’s general thesis that pleasing a crowd with popular material has never led to innovation, and that art requires an avant garde to plough new furrows without popular acclaim. On a simpler and more personal level, I’ve often found myself surprised by what a given audience will like or dislike, and trying second-guess what will please anybody seems often to please nobody.

If I were to sound one note of caution, I think there’s a difference between the voice that questions if something is good and the inner voice that asks, “Does this work?” I think it’s still good practice when creating to check with oneself that a new work is coherent, readable, inhabitable by the performers and authentic on its own terms. A work can be disturbing, dissonant, discordant or downright unpleasant and still “work”; it might not be easy to watch or pretty or wholesome but it can still be effective as a work. It’s liberating not to worry if a piece is good, but it can still be of a piece with itself.

A final word of warning – when Lou Reed decided not to care what anyone thought, he made Metal Machine Music. Perhaps there’s a point to quality control after all?

January 7, 2009 Posted by | Dance, General Musings | Leave a comment

General Musings: What does it all mean?

If I could tell you that, I wouldn’t have to dance it.

– Isadora Duncan

It is a vice of second-rate art to come with its own eloquent explanation attached. If an artist can translate the meaning and purpose of a work into easily understandable words, it means one of two things. Either the artist is lying, in order to ease the way with patrons and funders; or the artist is a fool. And if dishonesty is the reason, that too is something that vitiates art. No serious art is easy to interpret. Nor is there ever a single valid interpretation of art. If art is good, there are many things to be said about it and much that will remain unsayable.

Does art need explaining, asks the Guardian Arts blog? Well, I think it’s probably right on both counts. When it comes to pragmatics – writing funding applications, persuading venues to show the work, attracting an audience – then I think it is useful to be able to provide some kind of “explanation” of the work as a coherent set of ideas. What is the artist doing, and how? Why would people want to see it? Venue managers want to know they’re not going to be housing the work in an empty building, and funders want to know that the work meets their particular funding remit. The artist-as-business-manager needs to be able to state the case for the work, or the work probably isn’t going to happen.

However, is this kind of “explanation” really a satisfying insight into the work-as-art? This I doubt. Great art – whether literature, theatre, cinema or visual art – is perhaps characterised by its ability to sustain more than one interpretation. This is why great art endures – it speaks to audiences in different historical and social contexts. A great work can be returned to by the same viewer (listener/reader) and yield new layers of interpretation each time – its message is not blandly monofaceted but complex, manifold. Great art invites multiple explanations. The artist-as-critic may have an explanation of their own work, but if this is the only interpretation available then we are probably looking at a rather dull, simple, redundant piece of work.

This is not to resist criticism. It is always illuminating and interesting to find out details of how a work was produced, its background and context; indeed, when I enjoy a work, I very often want to find out more about how it was made and what else was happening at the time. What the original blog post is advocating (and I largely agree with) is a resistance to providing easy explanations for gallery programmes and press releases, that misleadingly suggest to an audience that this is all that can be said about a work.

When I view a dance work, I’m aware that my view is informed by my own training and experience of making work as well as of seeing other professional works, and that I probably see the work very differently to somebody with a different background. That the work speaks to both myself and a non-dancer in different ways is a strength of the work. I would hate to think anyone in the audience felt limited in their interpretation by a pat statement in the programme.

It is possible that audiences of the same work see images of birth, death, love, betrayal, cycling, picking one’s nose or shopping. They might even see nothing beyond the materials of the work – the paint and canvas, the moving bodies, the words and music – and be satisfied. That a work can sustain different understandings is to me a strength and not a weakness. For art to be explained does not stifle the production of art – artists need to give a practical explanation in order to obtain the practical means to create and show work. But to close down meanings to one given explanation limits the audience’s own engagement and closes down the life of the work in the public imagination, and this may indeed be the enemy of art in terms of its celebration and duration.

July 22, 2008 Posted by | Dance, General Musings | Leave a comment

General Musings: The play’s the thing

The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.
– Carl Jung

As I often explain to my young (and not-so-young) charges and to others I encounter in my employment, a large part of what I do each day is not so much connected to the teaching of material (ie sequences of movement to be replicated by a class of students). Rather, my focus is often guiding students in their own compositions, helping them create material effectively and passing on the tools of choreography as well as the technique of dance. But what exactly does this mean in practice?

There are (broadly speaking) two ways in which one can lead a creative workshop. One approach would focus on the skills of composition – the shaping and refining of material into a structure. In songwriting terms, this would probably involve a verse/chorus type structure. If it were a choreography workshop, we would look at ways of shaping material using compositional devices (unison, canon, contrast) and motif structure (ABA, ABC and the like). There is of course value in teaching compositional structure as a set of skills – the structure of a piece governs the relationship of the audience to the material, and good composition presents material to its best advantage. Most students need to learn structural tools in order to create effectively.

But structure is not the only thing that might be taught in a creative workshop. Students also require guidance on how to create material in the first instance. Unless we subscribe wholly to the Romantic principle (with which I have never had much truck) of inspiration as some kind of semi-divine, unconscious experience that rises up before the artist and drops a poem/painting/global Number 1 hit into his or her brain fully-formed, then it is always artistic good practice to find new ways of creating material from an idea or mood.

The bolt from the blue is nice when it happens, but I think it’s also important to recognise that inspiration (rather like intuition, as argued by Malcom Gladwell) is as much a product of experience and learning to recognise an idea that works as it is unconscious “inspiration” in the Romantic sense – maybe even more so. We can certainly learn to recognise the good idea when it comes, by playing with as many ideas as possible and seeing what happens. New ideas for the creative processes can be introduced in a workshop, just as structural and compositional ideas can be. Sometimes the most satisfying learning experiences can come from somebody outside of ourselves suggesting a new starting point and offering feedback, leaving the rest of the exploration to us.

What might this play look like? To begin a new creative strategy, an artist might set themselves a particular challenge that forces them to think in a new way – like translating a phrase of movement 90 degrees around the body to create a new movement vocabulary; or creating a phrase on the floor, then translating it to a standing phrase; or deliberately choosing different body parts to begin with. A student with lots of ballet training, who often uses upright movements and classical balances, could be challenged to create a phrase entirely on the floor. A student with a jazz or street-jazz background who uses lots of isolations could begin with a pathway rather than a series of actions, and find new ways to fill the space. We might simply start from a different place – beginning with the end of a motif, or working up from the rhythm rather than down from the melody.

There comes a point (or points) during a career where it’s important to throw out everything you thought you knew and have a stab at something that’s completely new and rather uncomfortable. I think it’s important to embrace the idea that the resulting work might not immediately be your best, but you can learn new things in the process that carry your creative work forward. Artists of all forms with successful careers often show distinct periods following a particular development or paradigm shift – whether the artist is Picasso moving from Impressionism to Cubism, or U2 changing tack from The Joshua Tree to Achtung Baby. Artists who don’t experiment and embrace new processes tend to stagnate and produce work that, however well-crafted, feels very samey.

Deliberately deconstructing one’s usual working practice in order to find new ways of making can be extremely challenging, especially if one has found a comfortable and familiar process that seems to work. But the results can be extremely satisfying.

Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.

– Scott Adams , ‘The Dilbert Principle’

July 8, 2008 Posted by | Dance, General Musings | Leave a comment