What is the Place Prize? Press notices have compared it with the Booker or the Turner Prize, and true, its cash value (£25,000 for the winner) certainly places it right up there with those awards. That is part of the intention: a high-profile, big-bucks competition to highlight dance as a current and creative force. John Ashford, the long-standing and ever-resourceful director of The Place Theatre, conceived the prize in partnership with the sponsors Bloomberg, an international media and finance company with a long record in supporting arts projects, including dance.
But where the Booker or Turner nominees are selected on the basis of work that has already been made or published, the Place Prize pieces are commissioned by its own selection panel. From the 198 initial proposals, a Europe-wide panel of 30 judges drew up an initial shortlist of 40, from which 20 were then invited to make a 15-minute work, with rehearsal space and £3000 towards the production provided by The Place. These 20 ‘semi-finalists’ showed their work over five evenings at The Place Theatre in September. A diverse panel of judges – Jan Younghusband (Channel 4), Iwona Blastwick (Whitechapel Art Gallery), Guy Cools (Fondation Jean-Pierre Perreault, Canada), David White (Dance Theatre Workshop, New York), Keith Khan (Rich Mix) and John Ashford himself – then chose four of these for the finals, which were shown the following week over four consecutive evenings. There was also a nightly £1000 ‘audience award’ – in both the semis and the finals – where the audience could vote for their favouite using electronic handsets, just like in a TV games show. The overall winner of the semi-finals audience vote made up the fifth of the finalists.
the high-art bubble has been well and truly popped
The first of the finalists, Tom Roden and Pete Shenton, were undoubtedly the most off-the-wall. The Short Still Show – with Shenton substituted by Anna Williams due to illness – beguilingly lampoons po-faced, conceptualist contemporary dance. Williams solemnly extols the transcendent, almost mystical qualities of absolute motionlessness as Roden skips and skitters about, happy enough if somewhat unnerved by Williams’s earnestness. A recording by the Balanescu Quartet provides a portentous, scraping score, and Andy Finn’s clever lighting, full of blackouts and flashes, catches the dancers in dramatic, cinematic freeze-frames. Williams breaks off a heightened moment of immobility to admit, matter-of-factly, that “it’s crap being still”, and the two simply pack up and abandon the stage. We’re left cheered and amused – if not much edified – that the high-art bubble has been well and truly popped.
You could almost see the piece as an image of Butcher herself, following her own minimalist path through the shifting landscapes of contemporary dance
Rosemary Butcher’s Hidden Voices is serious, conceptual and resolutely minimalist – just the kind of dance that Roden and Shenton’s piece gently mocks. But veteran choreographer Butcher is no easy target, and Hidden Voices was arguably the most powerful work on show. On the surface, almost nothing happens. Elena Giannotti begins on a diagonal, her feet slapping the floor as she rocks back and forth as if running on the spot. And there she stays, for 15 minutes. But as she repeats and recycles her phrases, you start to notice every nuance and variation, and they begin to take on huge significance. The way she rocks her arms can suggest fatigue, aspiration or resolve; a repeated duck of the head to one side comes to indicate a distraction that keeps tugging her attention. Though she stays in one place, the shifting slants and washes of light and the almost tidal swell of the soundscore – muffled cries and whispers embedded in a wavering matrix of electronic noise – suggest a constantly evolving environment. In the end, you get an almost palpable sense of a tenacious life force driving Giannotti forward on a journey through changing surroundings, but with no ending in sight. Hats off to Giannotti for her powerful performance of a difficult part; and to Butcher for her audacious singularity of focus. You could almost see the piece as an image of Butcher herself, determinedly following her own minimalist path through the shifting landscapes of contemporary dance.
Butcher’s work, though, was never going to win the audience vote. Instead, the popularity polls put Rafael Bonachela on top in the semis, a position he shared with Hofesh Schechter in the finals. Bonachela is Associate Choreographer of Rambert Dance Company with several classy works under his belt, but having choreographed Kylie Minogue’s 2002 Fever tour and her current single I Believe in You, he is perhaps fated to be forever feted as ‘Kylie’s choreographer’. His Place Prize entry, E2 7SD, is a duet for Antonia Grove and Lee Clayden – both superlative dancers – who knot, tug and grapple in jigsaw interlockings and angular mismatches, their splayed limbs as spikily unpredictable as their highly charged relationship. It’s backed with an edgy score of synthesised sounds injected with samples of the dancers’ voices, which ratchets up the intensity as the piece develops. The work certainly grips its audience; it is also finely crafted and composed, and (as with Butcher’s piece) you see more in it second time round.
Hofesh Shechter’ Cult also delivers some high-octane dancing, but it doesn’t quite have the substance to sustain a second viewing. On first sight, though, it generates a poundingly portentous atmosphere for three women in slinky red dresses and three men in suits. ‘In the beginning,’ says the title screen, ‘there was darkness.’ The ominous voiceover has apocalyptic overtones, and the dancers jerk and flail with a feral energy that is held in check by their drilled technical discipline. The pace quietens to reveal a man in a gorilla suit, impassive at the back of the stage – oddly, unsettling – and Shechter himself departs from the group for a scene in which he seems to see the light (literally – it’s a cone of light into which he looks upwards). But this is no moment of revelation, for ‘in the end’, as the titles say again, ‘there was…’. Blackout. It’s hard to tell what this tale of sound and fury is getting at or why, but there’s no denying its visceral impact.
aims for emotional directness, openness of spirit and human warmth – not qualities often seen, or indeed aspired to, in today's contemporary dance
Last came Barwen Tavaziva’s Umdalo Kasisi, inspired by memories of love and death, and set to a warm score of African voice and music arranged by Tavaziva himself. Following its opening solemn procession, the five dancers unwrap their headscarves and let the billowing material fly freely as they spin and pitch across a floor that brightens to a dappled cornflower yellow. The overall feeling is of communal commemoration rather than isolation: a group supports the feet of one dancer as she steps out; a moment of mourning is shared by all. The style weds an African-influenced weight and bounce to a fairly standard modern dance vocabulary; the composition, too, is nothing out of the ordinary. What is out of the ordinary – and you only notice in retrospect – is that the choreographer aims for emotional directness, openness of spirit and human warmth – not qualities often seen, or indeed aspired to, in today’s contemporary dance.
Given the choices available, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Bonachela’s work would win: more popular than Butcher’s, more artful than most, delivered with professional production standards and interpreted by excellent dancers. It is a very good piece – but not an exceptional one, and this raises questions about the award itself. First, there is a certain ambivalence about its criteria for judgement. Originality? Vision? Professionalism? New talent? Pulling power? The prize is new and yet to establish an identity, but a clearer idea of the values it rewards would help to define what it is for, both for its audience and for potential applicants.
Second, the oft-repeated comparisons with the Booker and Turner may lead to false expectations – that the prize is for the best of contemporary dance in the UK, when in fact it is for the best of the Place Prize’s own commissions. Actually, it is hard to see how the prize could be organised differently if the goal is includes a performance series. It is simply not possible to put on a seasonal showcase of the year’s best dance, because dance performances are not products that can be gathered together and passed amonst putners, or mounted like pictures in an exhibition. To be fair, Ashford has counteracted that innate but probably inevitable sense of insiderism (an award for the award committee’s commissions) by emphatically stressing that entry is open to any UK-resident choreographer, regardless of age or experience. He has also made the initial application procedure anonymous to encourage this openness, and brought in a wide, international panel of judges.
And this brings me to the final point, which supersedes the previous questions. This year’s prize delivered a fascinating snapshot of the diversity of styles and subjects in current contemporary dance; but also, disappointingly, a snapshot of the diversity of its quality. For the next prize, in 2006, is there some way of ensuring a much higher standard for the works produced, particularly in the semi-finals? (Some of this year’s semi-finalists were real duds.) A more keenly contested competition would also be a more interesting one. Let the panel change its criteria each time, let the prize go to an insider or an outsider, a crowd favourite or a surprise newcomer – I’d happily ditch those considerations if the competition were, in a word, hotter.