Dom Czapski, 26 January 2015

Where are the dancers?

I’m been a dance performer/maker for the past twelve years or so, and I’ve found myself asking myself a lot of questions about this weird profession lately.

On the eve of the National Dance Awards in London, and as the media arm of this strange little microcosm of ours whips itself into a frenzy about the event (and why shouldn’t we celebrate dance after all?), I can’t help but ask myself:

Is dance still relevant?

So I decided to call a session at D&D 10. People turned up, and we had a chat.

I apologise for the overwhelming interrogative form that seems to have forced its way into this report, but, in what is hopefully the sign of a healthy debate, our conversations seemed to raise more questions than they answered.

One of the first things to come up was the notion that to many outsiders, dance is very difficult to understand. A sort of inside-joke.
I remembered when a friend of mine (a non-dancer, a civilian) decided he wanted to take up ballet classes for adult beginners and what he told me after that first class. He

said that the peculiar thing about the whole session was that when the teacher demonstrated what the first position was, or what a *plié* was, “it seemed like that thing was *the most important thing in the whole wide world*. And it’s true that we take our craft very (too?) seriously.

Perhaps this is a problem.

One participant recollected speaking to one of the patrons after a performance at a large opera house, and this patron said that although she thought the dance in the show she’d just seen was “lovely”, she would have preferred “hearing the dancers sing or speak” (for the sake of clarity of intent, apparently).

This raised the point of accessibility, and we wondered whether dance could perhaps only be understood by practicing it. Whether perhaps the only way to understand the beauty of a triple-pirouette was to attempt one.

(Can dance training be applied to other human activity? One participant seemed to think so, and pointed to the work of Anne Bogart (

This conversation then led to the following question: how much should be explained about the context of a dance work? Some choreographers love to explain their work, some loathe it. Is it possible to make a dance work more “accessible” without resorting to explaining it in words?

One participant pointed out that to him, it seemed that dance had developed a sort of schizophrenia. Or that perhaps (contemporary) dance seemed to have grown bored with itself.

(It seems useful to suggest at this point that what is meant throughout the discussion by “dance”, is “contemporary dance” in the largest sense of the word: dance that is made today, be it ballet, contemporary, hip-hop, etc.)

If dance is bored - does this mean dancers are bored too? (It certainly seems that way *to me*)

Is the denomination a problem? A participant sitting next to me, also a professional dancer, mentions that he sometimes refrains from referring to himself as a dance practitioner, but calls himself a movement maker (similarly, I get the distinct impression that people picture me in a tutu when I mention that I’m a dancer. The word “exotic” tends to come up too in (hilarious!) jest).

It seems many of us in the group associate ballet more with athletic virtuosity (gymnastics? Classy(-er) figure-skating?) than with art. Ballet seems to present more of a layering of form (set + lighting + costumes + gymnastics + story, the latter usually about princes and lovelorn beauties), rather than a nexus. It seems ballet fails as a form that might express some sort of insight into what it feels like to be a human being (this is my own pitiful attempt at defining art).

Rambert dance company came up as a benchmark for accessible (but ultimately boring) work. One participant exclaims at this point: “But Rambert ISN’T more accessible! We’re just more used to the conventions it presents to us, but it’s just as obscure as the rest!” Several of us (including me) thought this was a good point.

Is Rambert accessible because it’s *beautiful*? Is that the crux? Is dance meant to be necessarily beautiful?

Is this what people mean when they say Rambert (or other companies) are *accessible*? They mean it’s pretty?

Must dance be pretty? Is this what the critics want too? And who’s to blame for this? The dancers? The critics? The audience?

Are dancers not active enough in making dance interesting to the public? (There were few dancers among the theatre-makers here at D&D, but it’s been pointed out to me by several people that this is getting better, and more and more dancers seem to be taking an interest in discussing their art form. But I can’t help but wonder if this endemic - if dancers tend to not try and mingle enough; perhaps stay too much among their own?)

Is dance too inward-looking? It seems a lot of smaller-scale productions, and independent choreographers are mostly interested in making works that only appeal and are accessible to other dance professionals. Is this true?

Is it a cultural thing perhaps?

Why does dance UK charge £190+ for non-students for a conference clearly aimed at people who don’t make very much money at all?

One participant asked whether women were well-represented in dance. The consensus was that all though a majority of dance professionals are women, the most successful ones seem to be male. Someone pointed out at this point that amongst the largest programmers, women seem to be well-represented.

Are programmers, producers et al. speaking enough to artists? Do they care about dance artists? YES! was the resounding answer by those programmers, producers et al. present at the session.

One self-proclaimed dance neophyte asked one of the best questions (IMO) of the session (paraphrased):
“I don’t get dance at all. Pina Bausch was brilliant though. I adore Pina Bausch. Are all of these dance companies just trying to be as good as Pina Bausch, but are just a bit rubbish at it?”
(I don’t know why but I thought there was something that struck me about that question).

Do people not understand dance because of the expectations they have v. à v. dance? One participant at this point said that he thought it was because dance conventions (aesthetic and otherwise) had been established by patriarchy. That the very way we even seek to understand dance is dictated by patriarchal shackles we’re barely even aware of (this point also resonated with me—but was somewhat controversial in the debate).

His point was that throughout history, men had tried to make people *get* Art. Should we carry on in this way?

Is there a cult of personality in dance? Is dance an incredibly egotistical art form? Many dance companies sell their director above anything else. A theatre director present at the meeting said that in his opinion, this happened in theatre sometimes, but it was a particularly noticeable trait of the dance world.

I brought up the fact that I hated the word “dance industry”.

Why are there rep companies in dance, and not in theatre?

Present at the discussion: Clara Giraud
Rod Dixon
Hannah Myers

Giselle Ty
Susie Italiano
Jo Crowley
Jo Mackie
Francis Christeller
Lennie Jordan
Sally Rose
Xavier de Sousa
Holly Aston
(and more, whose names I wasn’t able to record)



programmers, dance, Dance, Producers, venues, producers, ART, ART, Theatre, Contemporary, Venues, ballet, THEATRE, theatre, contemporary, Art, patriarchy, conventions, art, accessibility, beauty, Programmers, Ballet

Comments: 2

Susie Italiano, 27 January 2015

Hi Dom,

Thank you so much for calling this session - since I moved to the UK I've been quite disconnected from the dance world, aside from the occasional show I saw (Sylvie Guillem - ah! - and the ENB).

I've been thinking a lot about what we said about it being a language, and it being sometimes difficult to understand, and I've had afterthoughts that I'll try and type down now.

I think that any choreography is created in a context - artistic, historical and personal - and that is relevant to understand the

piece. As you wrote, the ‘prettier’ a piece is (what does pretty really mean after all?), the easier it is to just sit down and watch. But what if there are more meanings behind it? What about all the research that there has been behind a choreography and an entire show?

Some choreographers may hate talking about their piece, but if the intention is to make it accessible and understandable by more people, they need to think about how to share more about their art. If you listen to Ravel's Valse, you might go: ‘Ok, cool, but it seems a bit all over the place and it’s irregular and confusing, am I stupid for not understanding it?'. However if you knew that is was composed by a man that was going crazy, perhaps your way of reading into it would change, and it would open more doors to interpretation. The same thing applies to paintings: how ‘pretty’ is Van Gogh's Chair? Is it technically accurate? No. It was despised at the beginning for this very reason. But we now know who Van Gogh is, and how he used his art to share feelings as opposed to it being descriptive. He cut his fucking ear. The more we know about these things, the more tools we have to understand art on a deeper level, because it tells stories as opposed to forcing our own view on to a bunch of ticket payers. Isn't that what art is? Sharing stories?

I don't know why dancers might be bored in general. In my case I was bored because I felt like a vector for someone else's art, and that someone else was bossy, egocentric, hysterical and took himself incredibly seriously. However he did a good job in explaining what he was doing, and why the music was relevant, etc.

I'd love to (re)connect with the dance world here in the UK. Should we organise to go all together to see shows every once in a while, and talk about what we think there is out there? What's new and what isn't? Try to give answers to all these questions by proactively seeing shows and trying to find out more about them? Thoughts?


Dom Czapski, 27 January 2015

That's funny, I didn't know that about Rave;, but I've always loved those Valses anyway. But then again I enjoy knowing very little about a work and then finding out more afterwards.

Sounds like a good idea re. outings. On that note, I'm doing a small production on Frida at Rich Mix if anyone's around, more info here:

xx Dom