News: Dance education - the real challenges

Tuesday 21 April 2015 by Kirsty Alexander

ID what_now festival 2014. Photo: Priya Mistry.

Earlier this month a statement by three leading choreographers (Akram Khan, Lloyd Newson and Hofesh Schechter), questioning the standards of UK contemporary dance training, hit the headlines. It appeared to be timed to coincide with the opening of Dance UK’s industry wide conference The Future: New Ideas, New Inspirations – for which over 650 dance artists, programmers, educators and producers had come to London – and provoked heated debate at some of the sessions, particularly on the Sunday, which had Emerging Artists: Training, Creativity & Choreography as its theme. Independent Dance’s Kirsty Alexander and Gitta Wigro, who work with over 2,000 dance artists from their base at Siobhan Davies Studios feel that there are wider issues than the training of elite dancers to consider.…

Last week saw a flurry of claims and counter claims about contemporary dance training in the UK. What other sector would so publicly shoot itself in the foot the month before a general election, at a time when arts funding is so vulnerable? What needs to be remembered is that dancing for the male choreographers of the British mainstream is only one form of employment. It is equally important that our conservatoires develop artists who in turn create their own aesthetic worlds.

The 2,000+ professional dance artists we work with at Independent Dance (ID) work as performers, choreographers, teachers, curators, writers and producers, with increasingly blurring lines between those roles. Some of them spend some of their time dancing in big name companies, others make a conscious decision not to; and others might not fit that particular bill. The independent scene in the UK at the moment is financially impoverished but nevertheless creatively extraordinarily rich. That is why so many of the international students who come to train here decide to stay. Many young artists are finding new ways of working and perhaps most exciting of all there is a sense of political maturity in the choices they make about how they work together. In our experience, UK-based dance artists are not perceived to be lacking by their international counterparts, on the contrary the international artists who teach for us at ID (Meg Stuart, Deborah Hay and Rosalind Crisp, for example) feed back to us that our participants are exceptionally sophisticated, and they always ask to come back.

We are keen to celebrate the artists we work with who have trained here and who teach here – however we do not pretend that everything is rosy. The UK
contemporary dance conservatoires and universities are shaped by the particular educational context they have to work within. Unlike the schools presenting
Models from Abroad at the Dance UK conference, the UK conservatoires operate within a Higher Education degree system that brings with it enormous demands of accountability; it is a system where students are positioned as consumers; and where funding is attached to students rather than schools, which therefore necessitates comparatively large cohorts for schools to be sustainable. Not all of the demands on Higher Education are bad for dance. There is a stronger ethos of fairness and accessibility than there might have been, for example. However, the question of whether the current managerialist stranglehold on education is good for dance, or for that matter good for education in any sector, is a question worth asking.

Educator David Warlick has said: “For the first time we are preparing students for a future we cannot clearly describe.” He was talking about the technological developments of the last decade, but we feel that to some extent an incalculable future has always been, and must continue to be, what artistic practice and art education are all about.

We hope that positive and constructive conversations between institutions and artists can shape a productive agenda for the election and for the new
government when it forms. We also hope that, as an organisation which represents independent artists, the profile of our independent sector is raised, to
acknowledge it as the engine and powerhouse of UK dance that it is.

Kirsty Alexander and Gitta Wigro,
Independent Dance
Siobhan Davies Studios, 85 St George’s Road, London SE1 6ER

Independent Dance (ID) is an artist-led organisation providing a responsive framework to support, sustain and stimulate dance artists in their on-going
development as professionals. It provides a specialist and coherent programme offering opportunities to learn, deepen enquiry, share practice and exchange
ideas as part of an interdependent international community. ID was established in 1990 and has the longest running daily training programme in the UK. It is
based at Siobhan Davies Studios where it acts as a hub to develop dialogue beyond its own borders and aims to expand its advocacy role for independent dance artists.

Photo ID what_now festival 2014, by Priya Mistry

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