The dance world versus John Ashford

Last week, outgoing Place theatre director John Ashford told us that British dance is ‘timorous and therefore dull’ compared with what’s going on in Europe. Here’s what some prominent members of the London dance scene had to say in response

  • Janet Archer, Arts Council England

    ‘There are hardly any contemporary choreographers in this country who haven’t been influenced by John Ashford at some stage in their career, so it’s a shame he thinks British dance is boring. ‘I disagree. We’ve seen amazing artists develop in this country – Shobana Jeyasingh, Wayne McGregor, Akram Khan, Hofesh Shechter and more – and it’s great that they’re not all producing the same aesthetic. We’re a diverse nation, and our dance culture reflects that. Audiences think so too, and we have the figures to prove it. And export of our work is also up significantly.

    As for peer review, we’re in the middle of a pilot scheme. The new system will roll out early in 2010. What John says about Arts Council funding simply isn’t true. Young artists have a wide range of funding and support options. Every year we put £8m-£10m into agencies like The Place, across the country. Around two thirds of those agencies put professional development at the heart of their work. ‘And the criteria for Grants for the Arts funding place innovation and excellence at the top of what we expect delivered. We don’t ask everyone to get involved in community or education work, but we do ask artists to know their audiences and provide evidence that they are going to engage them – reasonable, given that we’re talking about public money. ‘I’m not sure we’ve got training right yet. And we’ve not seen much new world-class choreographic talent emerge lately. But that’s a worldwide issue, not just a UK one. It’s a tough discussion for our schools and universities, but it’s one we’ll face up to. Maybe we’ll come out leading the way, and the rest of Europe will look to us for inspiration.’


    Temitope Ajose-Cutting Choreographer

    ‘John’s moving on, so he can say what he likes! He’s seen a lot of work and maybe he has been bored to tears. But it’s about his preference. My preference is more European, too, but a lot of people can’t stand that work; they see it as self-indulgent. ‘He makes some good points, certainly about having to do education work to get funding. I know it’s a struggle for many choreographers having to tag that on to the back on their projects. The lack of funding makes it near impossible to make work, and when you finally do get money you’ve got three weeks to thrash something out. It means young choreographers don’t have the time to find their identity. I’m having to push a couple of jobs, I’m a teacher on the side, because I’ve only been funded once and I’ve made five pieces. ‘But is British dance boring? I’d say no, because there’s so much going on here and London’s changing so much. It’s a provocative statement, and maybe the backlash will be something fantastic. Art should be provocative, and maybe people will start to ask: “Am I boring?”’

    Pete Shenton New Art Club

    ‘There are no borders to boring dance or inspirational art. I think John’s being selective; I’ve seen some pretty crap European dance over the years. But it’s true to say that the UK’s got a bad reputation overseas, which makes it very hard for companies like us. And if you look at internationally renowned choreographers from other major European countries, or artists whom we produce in this country in visual arts or music, you might think there’s something wrong with the infrastructure of dance in this country.’

    Martin Hargreaves, Laban (training institute)

    ‘While I would concur with John’s boredom with most high-profile British dance, I would square the majority of the responsibility with him and not with either a lack of artists or a conservative audience. There are exciting experimental performance-makers based here, and people eager to engage with their work, but in London these have often not been given space within the main venues such as The Place. For too long programmers have supported unadventurous work, promoted populist gimmicks and played safe with the old warhorses rather than risk work that has pushed at the concept of what dance can be.

    John’s initiative of The Place Prize has been a horrendous development artistically, squeezing choreographers into a restricting format and inviting fatuous audience participation. Meanwhile, organisations like Dance4 in Nottingham or Independent Dance here in London have established precisely the meaningful European exchanges and interdisciplinary dialogues that he says are lacking. To point the finger at training is not the point – courses at Laban, for example, are truly international and engage with contemporary developments to produce high-quality dance-makers who interrogate the form. It’s just that until recently their work hasn’t been shown properly in London. But things are changing, and now is an exciting time for dance in the capital. Hopefully, boring dance has had its day.’

    Alexander Whitley Dancer and choreographer, Rambert

    ‘Is British dance boring? In a word, I’d have to say no. It comes down to what the individual’s understanding of “exciting” is. I love seeing strong, talented dancers performing breathtaking moves, and I find that incredibly exciting. But John has seen so much, I guess the dazzling dancers thing probably isn' t that interesting for him. I agree that it seems audiences over here just aren’t that accepting of more experimental and conceptual dance. Jonathan Burrows, for example, has created some of the most interesting conceptual dance in Britain, and there just doesn’t seem to be an audience for it here. He’s forced to go over to Belgium in order to get work.‘But sometimes with the more challenging work it’s harder to see what’s really interesting about it, unless you’ve spent a lot of time watching conceptual dance from that European tradition.

    It would be great to have a dance institution like PARTS in London; a more experimental education that not only trains dancers but also choreographers, in depth, rather than just getting choreographers to churn out work that’s going to make audiences clap. But, of course, that’s the reality of running a dance company and keeping bums on seats and keeping funding.’

    Read John Ashford on British Dance

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