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A dance place for the future

Sophie Hansen traces the history of an astonishing London contemporary dance institution

Sophie Hansen is a writer and dance manager working in London with Random Dance Company. Sophie has a particular interest in new media performance work and is currently investigating opportunities for Anglo-Australian collaborations in this field.

The Place, London The Place, London
In May 1998 The Place theatre closed for renovations. Thirty years after it opened, this national powerhouse for contemporary dance takes a breather from the headlong growth which has kept it at the forefront of developments in this comparatively young art-form. While the history of The Place traces a rather adhoc, opportunistic growth pattern, it is fair to say that in these harsh times for the independent arts in Britain its role as a beacon for innovation has never been more solid.

Practically every dance artist in the UK has passed through the swing doors of the old school building in Euston. Even those in far-flung corners of Scotland and Wales, loath as they are to recognise the benefits of the capital’s concentration of talent, will have made the trip to catch one of the world-class performers which this unpretentious stage attracts.

An award of £5.081 million from the National Lottery will transform The Place without changing its role or raison d’être. While the battles to raise the necessary £1.7 million in matching funds rage in campaigns of seat-selling and corporate events, the everyday life of the building races along with its usual erratic energies.

As a National Dance Agency, The Place has both a national and regional role. Arts Council funding for the network of NDAs supplements regional funding to encourage diversity and distribution of dance across the country. As the big brother of the newer NDAs and regional dance agencies, The Place tends to pioneer schemes which are then replicated at a regional level.

The Associate Artists scheme is such an example of best practice. Two part-time administrators manage a pool of emerging artists from well-equipped offices at The Place. Providing a liaison, as much moral as practical, these professionals support the inevitable self-management of young, under-funded artists. Office equipment is supplied free of charge and the artists are also able to draw upon the pool of experience located in the management of the resident companies in the building.

While VTol, Second Stride, The Cholmondleys and the Featherstonehaughs may have gone, Random, Bi Ma and Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company all remain and Richard Alston, artistic director of the School runs his highly successful middle scale company from The Place. Resident artists teach at the school, contribute to special projects and perform in the theatre, generally adding to the sense of The Place as a home for dance artists at every stage of their career.

In the theatre office, director John Ashford heads a team of resourceful managers in the programming of the varied seasons by which The Place stimulates London’s dance audiences. Evolving over time, these initiatives remain fresh through Ashford’s international contacts, which enable him to confidently experiment with his programming. The Turning World, the annual showcase for non-British work, has introduced now familiar names like Vicente Saez, and continues to provoke with cutting-edge artists from across the world. While larger companies such as Les Ballets C de la B perform at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, The Place’s excellent 300 seat theatre provides an intimate setting for artists such as Sacha Waltz.

International artists return to The Place on 2 more occasions in the year. In the autumn Dance Umbrella, London’s largest dance festival programs the Place, alongside Sadler’s Wells, the Southbank Centre and Riverside Studios. Dance Umbrella also features British artists and The Place runs a complementary Dance on Screen festival for work on film during this period. Since 1994, The Place has simultaneously played host to the Digital Dancing festival of dance and technology experimentation, providing a venue for telepresence events such as Susan Kozel’s Angels and Astronauts 1997 performance across remote spaces.

In Re:Orient, The Place programs a week of Asian dance, presenting companies from across the region alongside British artists with Asian roots. This ambitious venture struggles annually to survive, but remains a source of singular pleasures, with productions from artists such as Japanese Kim Itoh selling out year on year.

The Spring Loaded festival, again in partnership with the Southbank Centre, presents the best of new British work at the middle scale. A balance between established companies such as Yolande Snaith Theatredance and lesser known companies such as Bedlam is carefully struck to give a unique snapshot of the current state of the artform in Britain. Every effort is made to include companies from the regions and the event is a highlight for regional promoters who often fill their seasons from Ashford’s selections.

Before Spring Loaded comes Resolution! the forum for new work, which is open to those with no professional experience and encourages experimental, mixed media work as long as movement is a major component. Resolution! operates a box-office split for the 3 companies performing each night and supplies technical and promotional support to the fledgling artists. A real mixed bag, Resolution! is nevertheless renowned for its rollercoaster extremes. Highs and lows. Recently the season has been broadened to include 2 new and complementary strands. Evolution features companies returning from earlier seasons and Aerowaves presents international work of a comparable standard. Mixing the 3 strands into each evening builds audiences by spreading the risk of what is always an intriguing gamble.

Alongside all this performance, The Place supports the creation of new work. Studios are hired to artists and projects such as the annual Choreodrome offer space at a reduced rate as well as mentoring and documentation of the creative process to selected artists through an application process. Workshops run on an ad hoc basis, with recent offers including video production with Elliot Caplan, independent US filmmaker of Cunningham fame.

Dance Services, which manages projects for professionals at The Place, operates a membership system which provides a monthly news magazine, Juice, an enquiry service for funding and performance opportunities, a library of periodicals and reference material, and advice surgeries for artists and administrators alike. In conjunction with Dance Services, the Video Place keeps an archive of work on film and records every performance at The Place as well as offering reduced rate recording services.

The London Contemporary Dance School keeps the cafe smoky and loud as students from all over the world work hard in intensive terms, benefiting from the teaching of Richard Alston and professional guest teachers. LCDS provides a 3 year full-time vocational training in contemporary dance and has nearly 170 students in diploma, degree and postgraduate courses. 4D, the graduate performance group of the school charges students to tour tailor-made work by a range of choreographers, gaining a sort of apprenticeship to the professional life.

Education and Community Projects is a small unit which offers high quality teaching and special projects to schools across London. Operating a database of contacts for the sector, E&CP is a state-of-the-art resource to the community and produces videos, teachers’ packs and support material for dance in the curriculum. Special needs groups are serviced by experts and projects—such as the recent White Out initiative with over 200 boys from London schools–are unprecedented examples of the ambition of the unit. The Evening School offers classes at various entry levels to the general public, regardless of age or experience. Each year, 13,000 individuals attend classes at The Place and 31,000 attended performances in the theatre in 1997. The Young Place offers an early introduction to dance training and the Youth company for 13-18 year olds meets twice weekly to make performance works.

The Place has come a long way since philanthropist Robin Howard bought the old schoolhouse in 1969 and invited Robert Cohan of the Martha Graham Dance Company to set up the London School of Contemporary Dance, from which emerged London Contemporary Dance Theatre. Artists such as Siobhan Davies, Rosemary Butcher and Ian Spink launched their careers to small and excitable audiences at The Place, then and now, the only theatre in England dedicated year-round to the presentation of dance. With the extended studio space, new catering and administrative facilities and enlarged stage, the Place looks set to take the millennium in its stride, slotting back into the changing dance provision of the capital without missing a beat.

Changes are afoot due to the national Lottery as venues line up to grab the fast dwindling cash for capital. This Autumn the new Sadler’s Wells opens with a fanfare program of greats, the Laban Centre begins its refurbishments and Greenwich Dance Agency puts in its bid for growth. A new rehearsal venue comes online at The Jerwood Space and Siobhan Davies Dance Company evaluates its lottery-funded feasibility study into the acquisition of a purpose built rehearsal and office space. The Peacock Theatre continues to program commercial dance and The Barbican nurtures its developing relationship with dance with an invitation to Merce Cunningham’s company. As debate rages over the Royal Opera House and the future home of the Royal Ballet, the precariousness of The Place’s ambitious target for matching funds seems pleasantly achievable and quite in context with a tradition of upheaval and innovation.

Sophie Hansen is a writer and dance manager working in London with Random Dance Company. Sophie has a particular interest in new media performance work and is currently investigating opportunities for Anglo-Australian collaborations in this field.

RealTime issue #28 Dec-Jan 1998 pg. 36

© Sophie Hansen; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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