Dance Umbrella turns 30 this year, and the world of contemporary dance has grown with it. “The dance landscape has changed entirely,” agrees artistic director Betsy Gregory, “from one where there was very little contemporary dance to one where there is contemporary dance in many venues, every night.”
Dance Umbrella has been instrumental in that transformation: it introduced dance to many London venues, and helped to spread it outside London through tours and regional festivals. It’s thanks in part to Dance Umbrella that contemporary dance is now firmly established in the year-round programming at London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre, South Bank Centre, The Place and Barbican Centre, and that there are many more regional festivals for contemporary dance.
But if that’s just cause for celebration, it also begs one big question: is Dance Umbrella now simply surplus to requirements, a victim of its own success?
It was a moot point for Betsy Gregory when she took over from founder Val Bourne in 2006. “Val’s departure was the single biggest event in Dance Umbrella history,” she says. “And in the current landscape, it marked a point where we had to ask ourselves some fundamental questions, about what we do, how we work, and where we want to go.”
One of the first things she did was to meet with each of the established dance venues to find out exactly what Dance Umbrella was bringing to the table. The answer varied from one venue to the next, “but in every case,” remembers Gregory, “there was a definite added value, be it financial, artistic, or dance-specific expertise. There were always specific reasons for the relationship to continue.”
It was a very good start. But Dance Umbrella is much more than a consultancy to book in for expertise and added value: it’s been a pathbeater, a pioneer. And true to its founder’s pioneering spirit, Gregory was also looking to do what others weren’t, to break new ground.
“One of our most fundamental strengths, we realised, is that we are the most flexible of all the dance presenters in London. That comes exactly from not being part of a venue. So we can present dance whenever and wherever suits both us and the work. We can put anything, anywhere.”
“Alongside that,” she continues, “we had always thought of ourselves as being London-wide. But were we really? We decided to extend our geographical range, to reach out into different areas where perhaps there isn’t so much dance provision, or where it is different from what we had to offer.”
New spaces, new places – those twinned thoughts have had a definitely influence on this year’s programme.
Out and About
Two pieces – Dominique Boivin’s Transports Exceptionnels (from France) and Tiago Guedes’ Matrioska (Portugal) – will have “London mini-tours”, to include new sites in both East and West London.
Festival-goers may remember Transports Exceptionnels from Umbrella 2007: it was the strangely intimate duet for a man and a mechanical digger, performed outdoors at the South Bank. “Actually,” says Gregory, “we invited Transports Exceptionnels back even before it came the first time! We were absolutely sure it was going to be a success at the South Bank, and we knew that in new areas it would provide something that’s delightful, free, and suitable for everybody. It would be visible, as well as able to introduce contemporary dance into areas that maybe hadn’t seen much contemporary dance before.”
This year, the piece will be touring sites in Stratford, Newham and Canary Wharf in east London; in west London, Richmond Green and Ealing Common are proposed.
As well as presentations at The Place, Tiago Guedes’ Matrioska will be at East London’s Stratford Circus, and at unconfirmed venues in west London. Gregory chose this movement-theatre for a mini-tour partly because, being aimed at 6 to 10 year olds, it would bring in a new, fresh local audience. “But also,” she is quick to add, “because it’s a fantastic piece. It’s abstract, and quite challenging. To be honest if I hadn’t sat in an audience full of children in Woking, all loving it, I would have questioned how it would go down with kids. So to find a work of very high quality that we could take to children where they live – that was a real incentive to present it in different places.”
The Smallest Room
Now here’s something different again: a piece that started life as a film set in a private indoor space, and ended up as a performance for a public indoor space for an outdoor audience. Let me explain.
Toilet Tango began as a video by Argentinian Rodrigo Pardo, featuring three couples in confined spaces: a kitchen, a bedroom, and a bathroom. The 2007 Venice Biennale invited him to adapt the bathroom duet for a shop window show. Gregory saw it, loved it, booked it. Then she had to find a bathroom shop.
“We finally chose the Bath Store in Baker Street, because the window was large enough, the pavement outside wide enough, and also because their PR company had such an adventurous spirit – they were really up for it.”
This short duet will be performed over three or four days, three or four times a day. As with Transports Exceptionnels, both Gregory and the performers like the idea of capturing the attention of passers-by of all kinds, people who may never have seen or intended to see contemporary dance in their lives.
The Biggest Room
The largest theatre previously booked by Dance Umbrella was the Coliseum in 1997, for Mark Morris’s L’allegro, il penseroso ed il moderato. Director Val Bourne had been terrified by the scale of the undertaking – though in the event it was a runaway success.
This year tops that: Gregory has booked the Royal Albert Hall.
2012 Overture, directed by Royston Maldoom, will be performed by 120 young people from London, aged 8 to 17, and is accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra. “We looked at many many venues,” says Gregory, “and the only one that was actually big enough for 120 dancers and a near 100-piece orchestra, and with low enough ticket prices, was the Albert Hall. So that was it.
“With this piece,” she continues, “we also really wanted get the word out across the country – not just to dance groups but to people from everywhere – that we want them to come and see this piece. Because it’s such a big statement about youth dance and the power of youth dance. That’s also why it’s in the Albert Hall.”
Is she confident? “Yes. And yes, it’s scary!”
New people, new experiences
Part of the reason for taking dance out and about is to make contact with new audiences. But there are two ways of thinking of new viewers: taking dance to new people, or bringing new people to dance. Of course, those aren’t entirely separate undertakings; but think about it for a moment. If you tailor dance to a target public, there’s a danger that you’ll end up with a kind of product marketing that ultimately undersells both the artform and the audience. In which case, the audience won’t come back. If, on the other hand, you know you’ve got a quality product, then you can draw new people to it; it’s a question of who, how, when and where.
Absolute belief in the quality of the project was certainly Gregory’s motivation for Royston Maldoom’s piece; the Royal Albert Hall was simply the consequence of that conviction. Having worked with Maldoom on youth projects at The Place for five consecutive years, Gregory remembers that “from the time those kids walked in to the time they performed two and half weeks later, the transformation was extraordinary. Every time. Each project was an incredibly inspirational as well as a powerfully theatrical experience. When they came to an end, Royston didn’t have much work in this country, and went abroad. But I said to myself: I’ll do something big with him if ever I can. And this is it.”
It was the evidence of her own eyes that convinced her about Tiago Guedes’ Matrioska: she had seen a theatre full of children who were enthralled by it. Its effectiveness comes at least in part because Guedes didn’t specifically target the 6 to 10-year-old age range he was given. “We were commissioned to make a piece for children by the [french theatre],” he explains. “I hadn’t done that before. And I decided to work as I normally would, but to make a piece that children could also watch.”
Guedes and his collaborators started by thinking about childhood memories. “It’s about fears of things that you don’t know about,” explains Guedes, “the things that make you scared. Like shadows, or strange sounds. But it’s also about discovery, finding out about new things, seeing familiar things in a strange way. But the ambience is a little bit dark.”
What kind of reaction does he get? “Often the children all react at the same moment – they point, or gasp. And they talk to each other about things they see – but all very quietly. It’s not a piece that makes them energetic and excited. They are very quiet.”
Matrioska was designed to include children, but adults certainly find it captivating too. The outdoor pieces at this year’s Umbrella are designed to include – well, practically anyone. It’s one of the things that Rodrigo Pardo enjoys about Toilet Tango. “It’s always a very mixed audience. You grab the attention of people who normally don’t go to theatre. And you get a more spontaneous reaction.”
Pardo echoes Guedes’ thoughts about seeing familiar things in a new way. “On the surface this piece is like a little joke,” he says, “but underneath I am also saying something more serious. We tend to have defined roles for everything – so it’s strange to see this piece, Toilet Tango, in this place, the Bath Store. It opens certain doors of awareness about what is real and what is possible. You think, where does the piece start and ‘real life’ leave off? You start to see the city in a different way.”
Philippe Priasso, who performs in Transports Exceptionnels, has similar stories to tell. “The audience could be anyone – old, young, families, people from anywhere. It’s great for me to perform thinking about those people who would never go to the theatre or see contemporary dance. I like to think they will have been touched by something. Then a form that could be seen as elitist becomes something offered to everybody, because everybody can understand it.
“One thing I’ve noticed is that the digger can represent everybody, or anybody. The audience projects their fantasy onto the digger – it becomes an animal, or King Kong, or a person. It’s strange, because that makes it a very intimate piece between me and the digger; it’s not just a machine.”
“Everybody experiences the environment as part of the piece: whether it’s hot or sunny or stormy, whether the sea is behind you or the city. A lot of men cry. More than the women. I’m not sure why. Once, we were performing in some fields in Bourgogne, and along came about 30 to 50 cows and watched. We could only see their heads because of the slope. They were just standing there, with those big eyes, all still and quiet.”
Of course that wouldn’t happen here because London isn’t full of herds of animals, it’s full of – oh. Herds of people. I take it back. It could happen.
It could happen here. That’s the beauty of it.