Stepping out … Scottish Dance Theatre performs its biggest hit, Luxuria (2005)
For years, Scottish Dance Theatre struggled to survive in the isolated and sometimes harsh terrain that was contemporary dance in Scotland. But with careful nurture of both the company and its environment, it has thrived, and blossomed.
First, let’s get the names straight. The Scottish Dance Theatre was founded by
Royston Maldoom in 1986. Originally called Dundee Rep Dance Company, it’s not to be confused with another company called Scottish Dance Theatre, which was founded in Glasgow by Peter Royston in 1985.
Maldoom was an enterprising choreographer who had made pieces for several modern dance companies before moving to Scotland. His own company launched with just three dancers and two apprentices, but toured widely throughout Scotland, focusing on its community programme as much as it did its performances.
Maldoom left the group in 1988 (going on to become a leading international figure in youth and community dance), and was replaced by his colleague Tamara McLorg until 1994. Under her directorship, the company expanded both its community and performance programmes. But the Scottish contemporary dance scene was fragmented and often alienating, and the vacant post left by McLorg was viewed as a poisoned chalice. Neville Campbell dared to take it in 1995. As the former director of Leeds-based Phoenix Dance Company and founder of the Zimbabwean Tumbuka company, he had a good track record. But he failed to achieve either critical or popular success, and left in 1997, with some bitterness (Farewell to Whisky, his parting piece, featured “pointed jibes at a culture trapped in its own tartanalia”). His lasting legacy was the name Scottish Dance Theatre, following the disbandment of Peter Royston’s company of the same name.
SDT director Janet Smith introduces the company’s 2008 programme
Janet Smith ventured into the post in 1997, despite dire warnings from her colleagues. An accomplished choreographer who had previously led her own company, Smith saw a lot of potential in the group. Critics were doubtful: they’d seen a lot of “hot starts, then hiccups and blind alleys”, but Smith quickly proved her worth. She improved morale and unity (not only in her company, but in the wider field of Scottish contemporary dance), raised technical and artistic standards. Her mixed programmes of works – some her own, most by guest choreographers – deftly balanced adventurousness with accessibility. Audience figures improved dramatically; critical appraisal too. The company is now well established, and tours widely throughout the UK as well as, increasingly, the rest of the world. Scotland has finally got the flagship dance company it was looking for. While Smith tends to give credit to her dancers and co-workers for that, they often give it to her.
Watching Scottish Dance Theatre
Smith commissions a wide range of choreographers who work in very different styles. One of her programmes featured an introspective piece by herself, a stark psychodrama from Dutch/Israeli duo Johan Greben and Uri Ivgi, and a work by Candoco founder Adam Benjamin for an integrated cast of disabled and able-bodied dancers. Underpinning all of her repertory is a fine balance of entertainment and experiment. Smith likes to connect with audiences; she also likes to push them. Not just her audiences, but her dancers too. Few companies seem so convivial, or present such a fresh, personable face.
Adam Benjamin’s Angels of Incidence
SDT’s longest-standing dancers are James MacGillivray (now also rehearsal director) and Ruth Janssen. Sally Owen (formerly a dancer with Rambert Dance Company) is the assistant director. Several of the group’s dancers have gone on to shine elsewhere, for example Jonathan Goddard with Richard Alston and Rambert, and Errol White with Phoenix Dance Theatre.
SDT has a little-known and rarely seen second company, called Llama Dance. It consists of technical manager Emma Jones and stage manager Amy Steadman. For one night only, each year, they put on a show that sends up the Scottish Dance Theatre’s current repertory.
In their own words
“I think of SDT as a family-size cottage industry. And our driving force is a passion to create and perform dance that explores human experience, and what it is to be alive in the world today.” – Janet Smith, interview with Kelly Apter, The List, 2007
“I get such a buzz from seeing the dancers develop, and come into their own. And from commissioning other choreographers, giving them the kind of support … they need, but so rarely have on hand when making work.” – Janet Smith, interview with Mary Brennan, Dance Now, 2008, p62
“One of the exciting things about working for a repertory company is that each new creative process can be totally different from the last.” – Interview with James MacGillivray, dancer, 2008
In other words
“Janet Smith has pulled SDT up by its bootstraps.” – Nadine Meisner, Independent, 2002
“Onlookers who have followed the history of this company … have been astounded and impressed at how Smith has healed and nurtured [it].” – Mary Brennan, Herald, 2001
“SDT has become a cornerstone of Scotland’s tight-knit dance community. The dancers work hard and it shows.” – Alice Bain, Guardian, 2003
“Among the most personable dancers now working in Britain … they bring a refreshing collective energy to everything they do.” – Donald Hutera, Times, 2006
“… the company is international in both makeup and outlook, benchmarking itself against the world.” – Lesley Thomson, board member of Scottish Ballet and Scottish Opera, quoted by Ruth Wishart, Herald 2008
SDT dancers perform A Visitation (2009) by Ina Christel Johannessen
“Just because it’s Scottish, doesn’t mean it can’t be international.”
“Would that be Scottish highland dance, or Scottish country dance?”
Scottish Ballet is the country’s other flagship company. In a strange turn of events, just as SDT’s fortunes were looking up under Janet Smith, Scottish Ballet was plunging into crisis under its new director Robert North – Smith’s ex-husband.
Phoenix Dance Theatre has some overlaps with SDT – not just that Neville Campbell has directed both, but several company members have come from the same school (Northern School of Contemporary Dance) and several SDT dancers went on to perform with Phoenix.
Apart from Phoenix, Rambert and National Dance Company Wales (formerly Diversions) are two other modern dance companies that are based on a repertory model (most modern dance groups are vehicles for a particular choreographer).
Now watch this
Janet Smith’s introduction to SDT’s 2008 programme
Two gorgeous, rapturous works by choreographer Liv Lorent:
Tenderhook (2008) and SDT’s biggest hit, Luxuria (2005)
Jan de Schynkel’s surreal No Stronger Than a Flower (2006)
Adam Benjamin’s Angels of Incidence (2007)
Where to see them next
See the Scottish Dance Theatre website for performance dates.