Interview: Emma Gladstone: 'There’s nothing that I’ve put on in four years to tick a box. There’s so much good work out there, so it’s not hard'

Thursday 28 September 2017 by Siobhan Murphy

Emma Gladstone by Foteini Christofilopoulou

When Emma Gladstone took the reins of the Dance Umbrella festival in 2013, the event was in need of a makeover. Gladstone, an experienced dance programmer and producer, obliged, with experimental ice dancing, radical flamenco, hip-hop dance on a grand narrative scale and a focus on work to appeal to children – all in just her first year in charge.

Gladstone’s fourth Dance Umbrella feels just as exciting, and the capital seems to be embracing this international contemporary dance celebration as its reputation swells once again.

“I felt a sea change last year in terms of audiences,” says Gladstone. “It’s not that we’ll appeal to everybody – but the people we do appeal to are starting to know about us. We don’t have a venue, we don’t have a studio, all we have to sell is the reputation of the quality of our programme.”

Part of the appeal may well be how Dance Umbrella, precisely because it’s unfettered by having its own venue, can take dance across London and into unconventional spaces. This year the festival opens with the Paris Opera Ballet-trained dancer and aerial circus artist Satchie Noro performing Origami, a dramatic “duet” with a slowly unfurling 40ft shipping container, which is being staged at five venues, along the Thames and in Croydon (Gladstone’s first venture in Zone 5). Charlotte Spencer Projects, meanwhile, will present Is this a Waste Land?, a large-scale immersive work on disused land in Silvertown Quays, east London.

Origami featuring Choreographer Satchie Noro. Image by Karine de Barbarin

Of course, as Gladstone is quick to point out, people have been taking contemporary dance out of theatres since contemporary dance started to coalesce as a genre. “But I think thanks to a lot of the rest of theatre, people like Punchdrunk and Slung Low, there is a flexibility now in the public as well in as the makers about where things can happen. It’s a totally different landscape. It’s not that it’s new but I do think the public are excited and interested to try out different ways and different places to look at art, and that’s great.”

Gladstone has made the choice to go for “depth and quality rather than range” when it comes to programming, she explains – this year the festival comprises nine shows, as well as a wealth of peripheral activities. “In a funny way that constraint helps me know what the edges are,” she says.

“I don’t like themes, because of setting the frame so tight. I don’t trust them anyway; you create a bucket, then you have to fill the bucket.“

Charlotte Spencer Is this A Waste Land?. Image by Pari Naderi

“I felt liberated when I made the decision that I didn’t want to invite the artists who were already coming often to the city. I’m so interested in so many different styles, so there’s always going to be a mixture in the festival, and that also helps to define things. And usually two of the shows are for younger audiences because I feel very strongly they are our audiences of today, not tomorrow, and they deserve good art now. Obviously I try to have a mix of countries – although for some reason I think I’ve ended up with three French companies this year – I obviously wasn’t quite keeping my eye on things!”

It’s striking how many female dance-makers are on the bill – from the trio of ground-breaking choreographers working with Lyon Opera Ballet, to the Korean psychedelia of Eun-Me Ahn, to the return of the avant-garde flamenco talent Rocio Molina (who was nominated for an Olivier award for her previous Dance Umbrella show). At a time when some of dance’s more august institutions are being scrutinised for the lack of opportunities offered to women choreographers, Dance Umbrella is brimming with female talent – and deliberately so.

Rocío Molina Fallen from Heaven (Caída del Cielo). Image by djfrat

“We don’t trumpet it anywhere, but I suppose my politics is in my programming and some of that is in good old-fashioned gender diversity,” Gladstone says. “There’s nothing that I’ve put on in four years to tick a box. There’s so much good work out there, so it’s not hard. But I think anything to do with diversity is about going the extra mile to look a bit wider – and it’s about consciousness.”

This year, a new lecture strand starts – Liz Lerman will explore the topic of how we watch theatre and dance differently, at the Cottesloe Room at the National Theatre. And, as the creator of Sadler’s Wells’ Wild Card programme, Gladstone is also keen to encourage different artistic visions within her own festival. Hence this year’s takeover of the Bethnal Green venue Rich Mix: Out of the System has been created by Freddie Opoku-Addaie, who will collaborate with Dance Umbrella for three festivals.

“It’s basically like a night out; you walk about into different spaces and see different shows and you can have a drink,” says Gladstone. “He’s bringing in some artists I’ve never heard of; he’s got bands – it’s not what I would have done, and that’s very enjoyable.

“There’s a pleasure in inviting someone else’s vision into the mix. And it’s really good for artists to be on the other side and take control. I think people often give us [programmers] a lot of power and I always feel like it’s good to share it.

“The French have really got it right with their Centre Choregraphique: you have a maximum of ten years [as artistic director] then someone else has to come in. I think it’s a good way to operate.”

But before Gladstone can think about handing Dance Umbrella over to the next visionary, there’s the small matter of the festival’s 40th anniversary next year. “Don’t!” she wails. “It’s weighing on me so heavily! It’s keeping me up at night. It feels such a weight of history – it’s how to pay it due deference while looking forward. But we’ve got some ideas already…”

Dance Umbrella 2017 runs 11 – 28 October 2017, discover the full programme here.

Emma Gladstone spoke to Siobhan Murphy. Siobhan is a freelance writer and editor, who also contributes to Dancetabs and Time Out. Find her on Twitter @blacktigerlily

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