The Training Issue: A Struggle for the Soul of British Dance

by lukejennings1

The Laban Conservatoire

The Laban Conservatoire

It’s a spring morning, and I’m watching a contemporary dance class at the Trinity Laban conservatoire in Deptford, East London. The studio is large and airy, one of thirteen such spaces in the building designed by the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, and the students, in their late teens and early twenties, watch as the teacher demonstrates the moves.

It’s a familiar scene to me. I trained as a dancer, and performed for ten years before becoming a journalist. I’ve been in and out of studios like this for most of my life, and the teacher’s words “Pull up… Hold your backs… Feel the floor…” are the same as they always were. Except that in the nineteen seventies they were as often shouted as spoken. And if our limbs weren’t in the right place, teachers felt free to reposition them, sometimes forcibly. “You’re all gutless!” the school principal would snarl, as we balanced at the barre, legs quivering with strain.

Here, though, all is tranquil. Teachers don’t shout at students any more, and they’re not supposed to touch them, either. But these are far from tranquil times in the British contemporary dance world. In April, a triumvirate of choreographers – Lloyd Newson, Akram Khan and Hofesh Shechter – issued a press release raising grave concerns about standards of training in the three main contemporary dance conservatoires. Specifically, Trinity Laban, Northern School of Contemporary Dance (NSCD) in Leeds, and London Contemporary Dance School (LCDS) in Euston. These publicly-funded establishments, supposedly flagships of the government’s Music And Dance Scheme, produce about 150 graduates a year. And apparently they were failing.

The choreographers announced that they were “increasingly dismayed by the declining standards they witness when holding UK auditions”. Newson, artistic director of DV8 Physical Theatre, said that he and his colleagues wanted to employ graduates from the conservatoires, but found that the students, more often than not, “lack rigour, technique and performance skills”. In consequence, Newson said, he and his colleagues had to look overseas for dancers of the necessary calibre.

The timing of the press release, on the eve of the Dance UK conference, was incendiary. It overshadowed everything on the agenda, and there was heated discussion of the issue in the press and on social media. Opinion was sharply divided between those who praised the choreographers for speaking out, and those like Neil Nisbet of the online dance magazine Article 19, who damned them as “incredibly arrogant”. Matthew Bourne, of male Swan Lake fame, defended the overall standard of UK-trained dancers, but admitted that of the last hundred dancers he’d employed, only five came from the contemporary dance conservatoires. The rest were all trained at ballet or musical theatre schools, which produced “better all-round performers.”

Unsurprisingly, the principals of the three conservatoires were angered by the attack. “I’m open for discussion” Veronica Lewis of LCDS told me. “But I don’t want to be head-butted”. The furore, it rapidly became clear, was more than a disagreement about training methods. It was a no-holds-barred struggle for the soul of the art form.

Australian-born Newson, 58, has been making dance for three decades. He’s attracted to complex issues – social, sexual, political – and his unflinching approach has won him several awards and an OBE. He has spoken out, he says, because of “the continued lack of urgency in addressing and improving the quality of UK contemporary dancers… There’s a critical lack of body-awareness”. His words are echoed by other senior practitioners. Jasmin Vardimon, a director-choreographer known for her physical theatre productions, says that dancers leave the conservatoire schools unable to adapt and work in a multidisciplinary way. “There’s a lack of theatrical skills; the schools don’t give them the tools. They’re not versatile enough”.

“For me it comes down to one word: rigour” says Arthur Pita, a choreographer whose productions include the award-winning The Metamorphosis. “We’ll look in years to come and say: what happened? It all went flimsy.” Like Newson, Pita trained at LCDS. Looking back to his student days in the 1990s he remembers “classes driven by passion and intelligence. It was like being in church.”

Arthur Pita

Arthur Pita

It’s not like that any more, says a choreographer who recently visited LCDS to audition graduate-year students. “The attitude was so lackadaisical it was laughable. They looked like they couldn’t be arsed. And once the project was up and running there were constant problems with absenteeism. One student requested compassionate leave to recover from the emotional trauma of learning my work.” A guest teacher at LCDS, who has given professional classes all over the world, encountered similar attitudes. “The students don’t believe you when you say it’s not good enough. Don’t take on board how hard you have to concentrate in class. Don’t warm up. Don’t get that you shouldn’t have to tell them more than twice. They just don’t really listen.”

These are dismaying testimonies, and I was offered many others like them. But why would students submit themselves to such demanding and expensive training (three-year BA dance courses cost £27,000 in fees alone) if they lacked motivation? What was going wrong? For Ian Garside, a former Laban student, it was the teachers’ too-soft, hands-off approach. “As a dance student, you need a kick up the arse. And we didn’t get one. I felt I was never going to reach the heights I aspired to.”

A teacher who has worked at all three conservatoires tells me that the problems stem from the sidelining of demanding disciplines like ballet, and the techniques evolved by Martha Graham, José Limon and Merce Cunningham, in favour of exercises like somatic release, which is as much a healing therapy as a performance discipline. “There’s a theory in contemporary dance that you can get away with it by ‘finding your own way'” says Pita. “But deep down we know that’s wrong. The art form has got fragile. It needs muscle.”

While dance-specific, these lamentations have a familiar ring. They echo those concerning the death of grammar teaching in mainstream education, the neglect of drawing in art colleges, and the phasing-out of competitive sport in schools. According to this narrative, feel-good activity has displaced hard-won craft and skill. But the conservatoires, and others in the contemporary dance sphere, see things very differently.

They see a sector starved of funds, and deeply divided. Its most visible stars are choreographers like Newson, Khan, Shechter, Wayne McGregor and others whose work is subsidised by Arts Council England, showcased at venues like Sadlers Wells, and toured internationally. Beneath the radar, however, there’s a myriad of less celebrated practitioners. A vast cohort of performers and choreographers moving from project to project, often working in an experimental vein, far from the major dance houses. In its diversity, this alternative tendency is comparable to the indie music scene. A few work regularly enough to make a living, but most are forced to find alternative sources of income in order to survive. Wages are low – many dancers are prepared to work for free, rather than not at all – and every year new graduates and dancers from overseas swell an already overflowing pool.

With the gap widening between dance’s haves and have-nots, the sector has become damagingly polarised. Many feel that as increasingly deep cuts are imposed, the few are favoured at the expense of the many. The producer Chantal Guevara notes that while smaller-scale enterprises are starved of funds, “We’re inundated with Akram, Hofesh, etcetera. It’s a boys’ club.” This year, ACE awarded Newson, Khan and Shechter a total of £1.3m.

Charlie Ashwell, the editor of online dance magazine BellyFlop and a working professional dancer, articulates the sense of grievance felt by many of her colleagues. “For too long a few have gained acclaim, money, runs at the National, MBEs, by treading the rest of us into the mud.” These privileged few, she continues, have colluded in dancers’ job insecurity, while practising “humiliation dressed up as character-building artistic process.” By referencing the audition process in their press release, the three choreographers touched a raw nerve. “It amazes me how little the ethics of auditions are called out” says Ashwell. “Holding auditions asks dancers to give up their time and energy for free with absolutely nothing guaranteed in return. Auditions are always exploitative.”

Whether you agree with Ashwell or not – and many in the contemporary dance world would contest her words – it’s clear that life for conservatoire graduates is desperately precarious. Most, given that the supply of contemporary dancers far outstrips demand, will have portfolio careers. At different times, they might find themselves performing, choreographing, producing, publicising, teaching, writing about dance or involved in dance therapy. As all three conservatoire principals emphasise, this expanded skill-set necessitates an updated schooling approach. “We’re not offering you a glittering five-year career before you retrain” says Laban principal Anthony Bowne. “We’re offering you a lifetime career in dance”.

Almost all conservatoire graduates will have to start from scratch, assembling creative projects with like-minded colleagues, and competing for crumbs from the funding table. This can be daunting, but creating from scratch is what young British artists are good at. Matthew Bourne was a Laban graduate who launched his career by putting on small-scale shows with colleagues. None was a memorably brilliant dancer, but as a group they were bursting with inventiveness. Today, many conservatoire graduates would rather do their own thing than work for a big-name choreographer. As one puts it: “If I was a fine artist I wouldn’t want to do someone else’s painting, so why as a dancer would I want to do someone else’s dancing?”

Sophie Unwin (left) & Lydia Cottrell

Sophie Unwin (left) & Lydia Cottrell

Watching that Laban class, I realise how much has changed. There’s none of the blazing competitive tension that I remember from my own student days. There’s no sweat on the studio floor, and the students are all shapes and sizes. But as Lydia Cottrell and Sophie Unwin of the performance duo 70/30 Split explain, the new wave of practitioners is not interested in dance based on virtuosity and technique. “There’s a hunger for small-scale, undefinable dance, DIY-style” says Unwin. “It’s completely valid and more interesting.” Ordinary, imperfect civilian bodies, like those of Unwin and Cottrell, are central to this new-wave vision, and appropriate to an interdisciplinary sphere in which the boundaries between dance, theatre, and other performance arts are dissolving, while whippet-thin, balletic physiques are associated with what they call “old-style contemporary dance”. The gulf between old and new, the pair say, has widened to the point where the two cultures find it hard to communicate with each other. As Guevara confirms: “Neither funders nor schools understand what contemporary dance is now.”

Even the hiring process is changing. “I don’t believe in auditions” says Theo Clinkard, a popular new-wave choreographer. “I teach classes and workshops so I can meet people and see them dance in a non competitive environment. (This) keeps me in touch, let’s me know which dancers are around and helps me find out what is moving them at any given point.” Clinkard is keen to do away with “the old school dancer/maker hierarchy”, and says with reference to Khan, Newson and Shechter: “I want to pull the rug from the power structures these chaps are clinging to.”

Personally, I’m torn. I get, completely, the notion of dance as a human-scale thing. As approachable and imperfect, rather than hyper-refined and “other”. But the trained dancer in me mourns the death of old-school rigour at the conservatoires. I remember the tough love offered by the LCDS teachers when Newson and Pita trained there, and the drained faces and sweat-drenched bodies of the students after a hard Graham class. Today, the training is infinitely broader, and the LCDS students learn, amongst other skills, how to write a business plan. On the day I visit, the final-year students are undergoing diversity training.

“We can’t turn the clock back to a time when we were fantastic for some students and others failed” says Janet Smith, principal of NSCD. “We have to ask: to what extent can we open up their full potential, and joining a traditional dance company is not necessarily the way.” The students at Laban appear to agree. As Bowne says: “Doing steps for Matthew Bourne doesn’t appeal to the majority of our graduates.”

Smith is right: you can’t turn the clock back. But the three choreographers are right too: something fierce and vital has been lost, and this needs to be faced by the conservatoires. Essentially, Laban, NSCD and LCDS have become broad-spectrum dance universities. Might there be room, somewhere in the conservatoire system, for a dedicated, top-level training strand, with fewer peripheral activities, for those with exceptional promise as performers? Without such a strand, we have to accept that British contemporary dance is more likely to produce conceptual game-changers than elite dancers. It shouldn’t be impossible to nurture both.