MY STORY Growing the art form, step by step
The new chair of trustees of one of our leading contemporary dance companies, Siobhan Davies Dance, is Emma Gladstone, a former dancer and now the artistic director and chief executive of London’s international dance festival Dance Umbrella
You have done practically all there is to do in contemporary dance, and in October you will be running your fourth Dance Umbrella. Why is this the right time to take on a new post? Any decision to take on something new is based on my excitement about the people involved, their ideas, and whether I think I can make a difference. Running an organisation over the past few years has inevitably meant I have learnt more about raising funds, strategic planning, and realising artistic ambitions, so when I was approached Sue and I talked a lot about how she wanted to move things forward. She and her team have a clear vision about their direction of travel, both in and outside of their amazing building, and I felt I had the experience and enthusiasm to contribute to that journey.
Siobhan Davies is one of the great innovators, not just through her choreography but her studios in Elephant & Castle which have become a cross-disciplinary arts centre. What can you bring to her artist-led set up? One of the things I believe I can bring is that, while working regularly with a range of creators, I am not an artist. Much of my job is talking with choreographers to find the best way their work can be framed and shared with audiences, and - having worked in dance slightly longer than I care to remember - I also know the scene and its networks here and abroad well. Of course, having watched Sue’s body of work over many years I hope that history will lead to useful conversations about her plans for the future in a slightly more formal way. We both share a passion for artist development, and connecting with other art forms, so there too I hope to bring ideas, suggestions and questions to the table. Combined with the strategic elements mentioned earlier, my strong desire is to work with Sue and the board to make the most of their ambitions and my learnings over the next few years.
Dance is traditionally the Cinderella of subsidy-funding. Is that still the case, and if so in this time of mixed private-public funding in the arts does it matter? It’s such a funny phrase, isn’t it? Especially for those of us working in the modern world. Dance continues to grow apace, including how many companies and organisations are funded through ACE - just look at the latest round of NPO announcements - and there is not a company or choreographer I know who is not working, like everyone else, in a mixed economy of raised funds, earned income, sponsorship, donations, Theatre Tax Relief, gift aid, and all the rest.
Has the dance audience changed since you were a dancer? Luckily when I was dancing I was concentrating on doing just that, so would nd it hard to comment. Now, as a rather sadly obsessive audience watcher for 20 years, and having more comparisons to make, I would say that even in numbers alone, yes, it’s changed hugely. Over 500,000 go to Sadler’s Wells each year now, an undreamt of figure even 15 years ago. The range of styles including the growth of hip hop, the spread of venues programming dance, the levels of high quality participatory work, the popularity of Strictly, means on pretty much every front I would say the audience has changed. Whether this will continue given the depressing news of decline in arts subjects being studied in the recent Education Policy Institute Report is hard to say.
Street arts are a growing form now, in everything from theatre to circus. Is site specific choreography going to replace theatre-based contemporary dances? Don’t think this needs to be an either/or situation, actually. The freedom to present work wherever the artists’ imaginations take us is great for us as audience members, and there is clearly an interest in shows performed in a variety of spaces. There is no question some choreography shines in the quiet concentration of a theatre, or needs nuanced lighting to fully reveal its power. But recognising this doesn’t detract from those creators who are energised by using public spaces or outdoor locations to share their work. Audiences find their way through the richness of what is on offer, which is as it should be. The liberation from theatrical presentation as the sole way to experience art does not mean the death of it.
There have been announcements lately of measures to redress the gender inequality in theatre – 50-50 casts at the Globe, a whole season of female directors at the RSC. Is there a male hegemony in dance now too, or is it the other way around? There have been many debates, protest letters, summits, articles, pro- active commissioning programmes and more raging for the last few years around this topic in dance. Patriarchy is not art form specific. At Dance Umbrella this is something we are very aware of and try to work on throughout our programming. I’m happy that this year we have 12 women choreographing pieces in the festival (which is 2/3rds of the programme).
Should there be a national theatre of dance, as Sadler’s Wells once had ambitions to be, featuring all dance disciplines, and if so would you like to run it? Mmn. If Sadler’s Wells (ACE investment currently £2.5m) was supported to the same level at the NT (ACE investment currently £17.2m) how interesting that story would be. And thanks for asking, but running DU and having the honour of becoming Chair at Siobhan Davies Dance this autumn, I am very happy where I am.
Dance Umbrella 2017 runs across London from 11 – 28 October www. danceumbrella.co.uk