There sometimes seems to be a world of difference between choreographers who are just starting out and those who have ‘made it’. But as I listened to Shobana Jeyasingh – a choreographer most would place in the latter category – describe her own progression from an unknown choreographer adrift in the wilderness of uncertain short-term funding to the well-established and critically acclaimed figure she is today, it became clear that while their are important differences, equally importantly, some things remain the same.
Few people realise that Jeyasingh was touring for a decade before she got what she calls her ‘vote of confidence’ from the Arts Council in 1989/90: three years of annual funding rather than the project-based subsidies on which she had previously been eking out a precarious existence. ‘It was a very slow gestation period,’ Jeyasingh remembers. For good measure, and in case I fail to register the sheer laborious protractedness of this experience, she adds: ‘Long enough for a herd of wild elephants.’ In retrospect, she thinks herself lucky to have been relatively carefree with her life at the time, or she might not have stayed the course.
When the annual funding did arrive, it transformed her situation at a stroke, providing a measure of security she’d never known before. ‘I remember at one point I’d had 25 part-time administrators in about three years. So just getting enough money for a full-time administrator made a huge difference.’
Ironically though, the grant also provided a pressure of its own kind. Coming unexpectedly, it meant galloping from gestation to fully-fledged adulthood with precious little time to prepare. ‘It was a very rapid transition,’ says Jeyasingh. ‘The company had to change, grow and learn very fast in three years’ – a breakneck pace which meant constantly running close to burn-out.
A great support during this crucial time for the company came in the form of John Ashford, director of The Place Theatre, who invited them to become a resident company at The Place. An important boost for morale and confidence, this also provided office space and enabled Jeyasingh for the first time to work within a community of dancers, with the backing of a recognised dance institution.
Above all, though, she respects Ashford for his vision of British dance, a vision inclusive enough to acknowledge Jeyasingh, an Indian from an Indian dance background, as a valid part. This was evident when he commissioned her to choreograph a piece (Configurations) for an evening of dance to music by Michael Nyman in 1989; and later, in 1992, when he included Jeyasingh in a festival of British dance in Brussels, despite resistance from the festival organisers on the grounds of her Indianness, deemed to be incompatible with her Britishness.
Since those days, of course, Jeyasingh has become one of the better known names in British contemporary dance, and has picked up a number of prestigious awards on the way. That elephantine embryonic phase is long past, and she now roams with the small herd of what are considered ‘middle-scale’ contemporary dance companies – a nebulous category, and certainly a very mixed bag, that includes Siobhan Davies, DV8, Ricochet and V-TOL.
Many of the changes accompanying this emergence, however, were administrative, financial, or organisational. But for the core activity of actual dance practice – choreographing, rehearsing, performing – Jeyasingh sees less difference. Facilities for dancers are still depressingly inadequate. The company still uses the same small and under-resourced rehearsal studio that Jeyasingh was using fifteen years ago in 1983. And recently Wayne McGregor, currently working on a piece for the company, had to reschedule rehearsals to ensure getting a studio with a properly sprung wooden floor – a feature which ought really to be a minimum requirement, not an added bonus.
Venues too are often poorly equipped for dance. ‘Contemporary dance tends to be “chamber art”,’ Jeyasingh explains, ‘and that needs a particular combination of resources in relation to theatre size. It still needs the technical resources of a larger scale venue even though it’s performed in a smaller theatre.’ Certainly Jeyasingh has found that theatres in Europe are better resourced for contemporary dance than those in Britain.
Characteristically, Jeyasingh sees these problems not solely as pragmatic difficulties, but in broader cultural terms. ‘There is no public vision for what the mid-scale is about, other than the vague feeling that moving to the mid-scale is a success. But that success is more a value – it doesn’t translate into actual facilities.’
‘Dance is a deprived culture,’ she continues. ‘It has none of the trappings of permanence.’ For example, as for many mid-scale companies, her performances are still overwhelmingly one-off events, just as they would be for a small or new company, and just as they were when Jeyasingh was going it alone in the eighties. ‘For one night only’ might sound good on a poster, but it does no favours to dance. Not only does it hinder audience development, but this stop-start existence interrupts continuity, making it difficult to develop and sustain both choreography and performance quality.
In addition, the management infrastructure within choreographer-led companies is unstable, lacking a continuous, progressive and supported career path, and so valuable and experienced administrators and managers are constantly leaving for better paid and higher status positions with venues or arts institutions.
There are numerous platforms and schemes for new choreography, but less motivation to fan this creative spark into a steadier, stabler flame.
Parallel to this lack of permanence in the performance and administrative strands, and ultimately more damaging, is the sense of the choreographer too as impermanent: choreography itself is not seen as a progressive, sustainable career. There are numerous platforms and schemes for new choreography, but less motivation to fan this creative spark into a steadier, stabler flame. And there is pressure on established choreographers to generate a buzz by doing something different, producing something new; while developing depth and articulation within a personal style is dismissed as old hat too often, too soon.
‘Innovation is prized,’ says Jeyasingh, ‘and certainly getting new choreographers started is exciting and necessary. That cultivation should also extend beyond the new. It is equally valuable to enjoy consolidation: settling down can also be a worthwhile and exciting activity.’
Without a vision of mid-life for the mid-scale, contemporary dance will remain the youth-oriented world that it is today: full of energy, excitement and commitment, but lacking in experience, continuity and consolidation – as bright and as brief as a mayfly. In which case being carefree may all too easily shade into being merely careless; and there will be little incentive to stick out an elephant’s gestation if beyond that mayfly moment choreographers see themselves heading for an elephants’ graveyard.