American dancer Douglas Dunn shuffles on his back around the stage of London’s Riverside Studios. Someone in the audience stands up and yells: My intelligence has never been so insulted! You stupid man, shouts another, you don’t know a good thing when you see it! A general ruckus ensues. Dunn, terrified, ends his solo clinging to the back wall, quite possibly reflecting on the sole nugget of advance warning he’d been offered: don’t expect much response because the British are very reserved.
Gestures in Red opened the first night of the first Dance Umbrella festival, in November 1978. The splash it created was an entirely suitable beginning for a festival that has been making waves ever since. Now a major event on the global stage, Dance Umbrella celebrates its Silver Jubilee this year, having variously witnessed, tracked, nurtured, and not least made 25 years of dance history. And from the beginning, it has been steered by the vision of one woman: Val Bourne.
‘I’ve had the best possible time,’ Bourne enthuses. Little did she know: the festival was initially conceived as a one-off event. At the time, contemporary dance in Britain was a relatively new phenomenon, stimulated by visits in the 1960s by American pioneers such as Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham. In 1966 Ballet Rambert had changed focus from classical to contemporary work, and London Contemporary Dance Theatre and School were founded the following year. In the early years, London Contemporary Dance School in particular fostered a climate of creative experiment, from which emerged a stream new choreographers and companies. By the mid-1970s these had grown sufficiently numerous to form an alternative movement to Rambert and LCDT, which had by then become the mainstream face of modern dance.
The ‘New Dance’ movement, as it became known, was represented in two London festivals in 1977 and 1978, and continued to develop in the Dartington festivals until 1987. Both festivals were non-selective, sharings rather than showcases. From the outset, Dance Umbrella had a different aim: to put contemporary dance on the professional stage. Though produced on a level well beyond its means (with one salaried member, on an 8-week contract), the first festival was successful enough, both critically and commercially, for the team to moot a second outing. ‘At the time,’ Bourne remembers, ‘there was a feeling that, apart from an insider coterie, there wasn’t an audience for this kind of work. We showed that there was.’
It was a historic beginning. Umbrella was formed as a charity, produced its second festival in 1980 (since when it has been annual), and also set up an artists’ management service, which ran until 1987. A mark of the service’s success is that many of its clients simply outgrew the level of provision that Umbrella could offer, and went on to develop independently. The list of companies either managed or regularly associated with Umbrella over the years reads like a roll-call of the artists who have shaped, defined and invented British contemporary dance: Richard Alston, Rosemary Butcher, Siobhan Davies, Ian Spink, Michael Clark, Lloyd Newson, Laurie Booth, Yolande Snaith, Lea Anderson, Matthew Bourne, Jonathan Burrows, Shobana Jeyasingh, Russell Maliphant, Matthew Hawkins, Akram Khan…
Dance Umbrella has also organised tours, regional festivals (in Manchester, Leicester, Newcastle and Woking), conferences and workshops, and it also manages the Jerwood Choreography Awards. As such it has been pivotal for the growth of a professional infrastructure and audience development, and for stimulating independent dance programming – a field which has diversified considerably over the years. But at Umbrella’s heart, where it belongs, is the artists’ work. Bourne’s tastes may steer Umbrella, but they are nothing if not eclectic, and the festival has happily embraced a multitude of styles, from neo-classical and mainstream contemporary dance through to physical theatre and multimedia performance. And while Bourne’s openness to artistic styles and trends has enabled Umbrella to reach a diverse dance audience, her commitment to artists has won respect from dance practitioners (Richard Alston, Stephen Petronio and Merce Cunningham have all dedicated pieces to her).
Among her many personal highlights, Bourne recalls site-specific commissions such as Stephan Koplowitz’s events at the Natural History Museum (1996) and the British Library (1998), as well as her first opportunity to present Trisha Brown, in 1983. And, like many who were present at the time, she fondly remembers the spellbinding impact of Fase in 1982 by the then almost unknown Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. But perhaps the biggest risk she ever took was in 1997, with Mark Morris’s masterly L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato at London’s Coliseum, a far bigger and costlier undertaking than Umbrella had ever managed. In the event, the season was a huge popular and critical success – to Bourne’s undying relief. ‘It’s not exactly nice of me,’ she laughs, ‘but I used to go and just look at the queues outside the box office.’
The road that Bourne has trod has often been precarious, but never uneventful. And Dance Umbrella has not merely survived, but thrived – picking up a string of awards in the process. That is plenty of cause for celebration, and this year’s exceptional jubilee programme will do just that. There’s a chance to sample work from many different choreographers in two special birthday events – the opening Birthday Gala (28 September), with contributions from Bill. T. Jones, Mark Morris, Matthew Bourne and others, and the Silver Celebration (22-23 October), showing excerpts from choreographers closely associated with Umbrella, such as David Gordon and Valda Setterfield, Richard Alston, Siobhan Davies, plus the first UK screening of a new film of Akram Khan. The season will also include performances by many Umbrella regulars, including Trisha Brown (reviving the wonderful Set and Reset), Michael Clark, Saburo Teshigawara, Stephen Petronio, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker (in two separate programmes), Russell Maliphant, and Laurie Booth. It will also be the last chance to catch the Frankfurt Ballet under the innovative directorship of William Forsythe, who leaves the company after this season. And by way of finale, Merce Cunningham Dance Company performs a special event at the Tate Modern, celebrating not only 25 years of Umbrella but also 50 years of the Cunningham company. Regular dancegoers already know they’re in for a treat; for newcomers, there’s been no better time to find out why, who and what has made Dance Umbrella a world-class event.