How to explain and analyse the development of the Independent Contemporary Dance Scene in Britain (ICDSIB)

In an essay which is focused on the development of the independent contemporary dance scene in Britain your focus should be on the features of the ICDSIB and the impact that this has on the dance world. Your point in each paragraph should focus on these aspects, with your evidence coming from varied features depending on the question requirements. Your explanation should analyse these features, considering what is new, exciting and/or challenging in relation to the ICDS in Britain and the impact this has on revenue, audiences, experimentation and culture. The three things we should therefore consider when planning and writing these essays are:

  1. The 10 Characteristics of the ICDSIB
  2. The New Dance Philosophies
  3. The impact of the above (make sure you scroll down, this one is important!)

1. The 10 Characteristics of the ICDSIB

‘Developments’ can focus on new, original and exciting ideas or specific changes to the way that something is approached. The 10 characteristics below are some key features of the ICDSIB, which all focus on fusing, merging or collaborating in some way as well as personal, original ideas. An easy way to identify the common features of dancers and practitioners within the British contemporary dance scene is to remember EPIC CINEMA:

Pedestrian gesture
Idiosyncratic movement
Challenging themes
New forms of staging
Embracing cultural differences
Multidisciplinary approaches
Alternative approaches to aural accompaniment and unrestricted choice

Eclecticism in dance refers to the fusion of multiple dance styles which can include ballet, contemporary, jazz, urban etc which is a very common way that practitioners today have continued to develop and diversify the dance scene. Note how this differs from a multidisciplinary approach whereby multiple disciplines are used within a work – a discipline can include dance, drama, technology, media, yoga, mixed martial arts, physical theatre/tanztheatre and art. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui notes that his multidisciplinary approach is influenced by Pina Bausch’s tanztheatre style, where a choreographer chooses whichever method of communication is the best for the particular moment or piece, whether this is dancing, acting, speaking or singing. Pedestrian gesture refers to the use of everyday, naturalistic movements and this can be done in an organic way (walking, looking, scratching your head) or in a stylised or over-the-top way for example at the beginning of Zero Degrees (Khan and Cherkaoui, 2005) or within the Royal Palace scene as the young prince is being prepared for the day in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake (1995/2012).

Stylised pedestrian gesture used in Khan and Cherkaoui’s Zero Degrees (2005) through Sidi’s Syncronisation System.
Stylised pedestrian gesture used in Bourne’s Swan Lake (2012)

The term ‘idiosyncratic’ means personal, and this refers to a choreographers own signature style and should consider any feature which is typical or recognisable of that choreographer across multiple works. Collaboration is key to the development of the dance scene and it is important that we consider not only what is shared (aural accompaniment, set/costume design etc) but how and why it is shared. This includes the collaborative process, how a choreographer and collaborator work together and make decisions, and the reasons why those choices are made in relation to the intention of the piece or the continued experimentation of contemporary dance. Challenging themes is another key feature of the ICDSIB as contemporary dance is continually used or encouraged to make a statement about history, politics or the economics of a choreographers situation. Themes which challenge, provoke, shock, educate or relate to the audience are what separate modern dance styles from traditional ballet, as they move away from mythical stories and instead force the audience to think, feel and react which is a very powerful motivator. Improvisation is a solid base in which experimentation occurs and we should consider how choreographers use it to develop their choreographic skills, bond with their dancers, and experiment through solo improvisation or contact improvisation. This should also include alternative methods or alternative results, for example the way in which Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui used ‘playtime’ whilst choreographing Zero Degree’s, a method which started with filming Khan telling a story to Cherkaoui which actually became the starting point and focus of the work they created. New forms of staging is another key feature of the British dance scene and we should consider firstly the place in which dance is performed: on stage, site specific in churches or outdoors, or in non-conventional places such as Glastonbury Festival, where Akram Khan’s Dust (2014) was performed shortly after its premiere. Secondly we can consider the way in which these choreographers experiment with set design if they choose to perform on a traditional stage, through moveable and transformable set design or props (think Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Sutra (2008) and Babel (2010) and Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake and The Car Man (2000), and the use of levels or multiple scenes happening at once for example in the shower scene of Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man.

Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man (2000). The workers shower upstairs whilst Dino, the manager, commits a crime in the office below.
Cherkaoui’s Sutra (2008). The boxes are moveable and can transform into different images and sets such as the opening of the lotus flower.

Embracing cultural differences is a large part of British culture itself, and many successful choreographers have embraced culture through movement style (kathak in Zero Degrees, kung fu in Sutra), aural accompaniment (Khan and Cherkaoui are both known for using Eastern influences in their music), physical set design (the monks uniform in Sutra, the British Royal colours, designs and navy uniform in Bourne’s Swan Lake), and through the subject matter itself (Cherkaoui’s Babel). Alternative approaches to aural accompaniment and unrestricted choice is a lengthy feature, but one which truly separates 21st century dance due to technology and the diverse choice that choreographers now have. Choreographers can choose to use traditional scores eg Bourne’s use of Tchaikovsky or collaborate with composers such as Syzmon Broska and Nitin Sawhney to create original pieces of music which are truly specific to the subject matter of the piece. But they are not restricted to using classical compositions, as contemporary dance artists now often use popular songs with lyrics and many don’t use music at all, instead using the silence to set a mood. Found sound is also popular – the sound of a dancers breath, their feet sweeping across the stage and their bodies transferring their weight in and out of the floor. As is the use of voice through singing or speech: choreographers can push the boundaries of dance further by incorporating cultural or social sounds eg Khan’s use of bols in Zero Degrees to portray confrontation (the sharp syllables traditional to kathak); the use of kiai in Sutra which is known as a battle cry in martial arts, but more importantly is used to cultivate energy for intense movement; or Bourne’s casual ensemble ‘hoorah’ which can be associated with a celebration. These 10 features sum up the diversity and experimentation of the contemporary dance scene in Britain and can be used to discuss the development of the ICDSIB, as well as to describe a choreographers style.

2. The New Dance Philosophies

The New Dance revolution occurred roughly in the 60’s-70’s and its focus was on choreographic experimentation, rather than rebelling modern dance or ballet technique to create its own style. It was never organised by one single body of people and it never had a strictly defined aim, but there were key philosophies created which helped the development of dance in Britain. These philosophies transformed what dance could be, pushing it’s boundaries and opening the world of dance to more people than ever before. Some of them are still present in modern choreographers work, not intentionally, but because they are a key part of the independent contemporary dance in Britain and are what began its development in the first place. We can also connect these philosophies to the characteristics above.

  1. Dance takes many forms and styles which should be respected and taken seriously equal to ballet disciplines. All styles, irrespective of culture, influences, style and individual techniques, are interesting and relevant to the development of dance – Eclecticism, idiosyncratic style.
  2. Dancers and choreographers must be able to produce and perform whatever kind of dance they want, and should be free to work outside of established companies – Multidisciplinary approaches, unrestricted choice of music and staging, eclecticism, idiosyncratic style, challenging themes, pedestrian gesture etc
  3. Dance is not just a highly specialised profession, it is a basic part of living and anyone should be encouraged to do it, no matter what age, shape, colour they are etc – Use of non dancers (monks in Sutra), use of dancers of all ages (Sutra, Swan Lake). Choreographers such as Bourne and Cherkaoui started dancing late without early formal training – dispels the myth of needing to start ballet from the age of 3 to become successful in the dance world.
  4. Dance should not be divorced from the real world. Dancers should think about the politics and economics of their situation, and choreographers should not be scared of presenting work that makes some sort of statement about society – Challenging themes, embracing cultural differences.
  5. Dancers and choreographers should be given equal status and equal funding as artists working in other forms – How are choreographers respected or recognised? Eg Queen’s honours for services to dance. How are dancers funded in Britain eg Arts Council and Associate Artists for Sadlers Wells which helps to fund artists, and brings in revenue for the Arts Council which therefore funds new, emerging artists.

3. The Impact of the Developments of the ICDSIB

Now that we have identified our evidence of how the contemporary dance scene has been and continues to develop, evolve and experiment, we must understand, explain and analyse the impact that this has on the dance world. I have listed some key points below which can be used as stand-alone points, but they also lend themselves to each other:

  • Increase in audience numbers.
  • Increase in audience diversity.
  • Increased accessibility to dance.
  • Increase in awareness for dance or a topic.
  • Challenging people’s understanding of world events or emotions.
  • Increase in revenue to the dance scene.
  • Challenging people’s perceptions of dance.
  • Relating to or engaging with audiences for entertainment.

The contemporary dance scene has always received its criticisms and had to work hard to gain its audiences. Its popularity tends to vary and as it becomes more and more daring it can become more difficult to increase and maintain audience numbers in the face of change. We know this more than ever through investigating Richard Alston’s artistic directorship of Rambert Dance Company in the 1980’s, a time where the contemporary boom had started to fade as choreographers began to experiment further with postmodern approaches which continued to challenge the audiences perception of what dance was and what it could be. In Alston’s case, the Rambert audiences were not ready for his drastic change of the company style and aesthetic as he looked to work more with abstract formalism and introduced the used of complete silence and Cunningham Technique in Soda Lake (1986). Looking a little further ahead, the report of the Policy Studies Institute from 2001 showed that contemporary dance increased its audiences from the period of 1993-1999 and the European Director of CriticalDance stated: “While I do not have access to more recent figures, my impression is that various UK dance companies are performing in larger venues and several times I have seen the 1,500-seater Sadler’s Wells theatre sold out for contemporary dance, which would have been a rare event few years ago.” As contemporary dance continues to evolve, it is necessary for large bodies such as The Arts Council and choreographers to work to increase audiences. This can be done through increasing marketing and engaging via social media or other accessible channels (cinema, Sky TV, BBC, YouTube etc); collaborating with other dancers, composers or designers to merge artistic audiences together and create variety; making dance entertaining and accessible for all ages and abilities, something that Matthew Bourne achieves very successfully; and presenting work which is relevant, interesting, challenging and/or entertaining.

As mentioned, increasing the diversity of the audience can happen through collaboration as this increases the chances of audiences being introduced to contemporary dance through other fields. For example, an artist interested in or studying Antony Gormley’s sculptures might come across the plaster cast dummies used in Zero Degrees and the boxes used in Sutra in their research. A fashion student or fan of Lez Brotherston’s might come across Matthew Bourne’s ballets and decide to attend a show to appreciate the costume designs. Embracing culture also increases the diversity of an audience through background, religion and philosophy being explored within British dance techniques. Akram Khan’s dual national background is the foundation of Zero Degrees exploration of identity, where kathak dance and traditions such as Sufi turns and bols are used amongst other techniques to shine a light on Bangladeshi culture and beliefs, such as spiritual enlightenment and the way their society works different to Britain’s – this is most obvious when Khan tells the audience the story of when he came across a dead man on a train and he was not allowed to help him for he would be blamed and prosecuted if he was associated with him. Furthermore audiences can be increased and diversified by collaborating with other dancers and companies. Akram Khan choreographed Dust for the English National Ballet, introducing his style to ballet audiences which may invite them to explore the contemporary dance world. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui collaborates with people who are not dancers at all, such as the monks from the Shaolin Temple. Again, this invites new audiences through the development and fusion of new styles and disciplines. Lastly, audiences can diversify by age and experience of dance, which Matthew Bourne is able to do by creating entertaining and witty ballets which can be understood without previous dance study at any age or social status. He does this by taking common and well known stories (Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella, Edward Scissorhands, Sleeping Beauty) so that audiences have prior understanding of the general story and can enjoy, engage and immerse themselves within the dance without having to think about it too much. However, he does reinvent these stories so that they become relevant for the current time through contemporary (and often challenging, taboo) themes. This breaks down barriers to accessing and enjoying dance, which is key to the continued survival of the art.

Increasing the accessibility to dance has a major impact on the development of the art form as it increases audiences by number and diversity, increases job demand and increases revenue. As mentioned, Bourne is successful at this through his use of subject matter, but he and other contemporary artists are also able to do this through new forms of streaming. Bourne screened his updated version of Swan Lake in cinemas in 2018 and The Red Shoes in 2020. Firstly this breaks down financial barriers as a cinema ticket is cheaper than a theatre ticket, and secondly it removes geographical barriers where many towns may have access to a cinema but not a decent theatre. This especially opens up live performance to students and those on a budget, but people may also take the risk of trying something new in a more comfortable (and cheaper) place such as a local cinema. Another way to increase accessibility is through TV and social media. I have mentioned Matthew Bourne a lot already but he really is a major pioneer of accessibility; full length ballets such as Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, The Car Man and The Red Shoes have been made available on freeview channels such as BBC and Sky Arts, some available on BBC iPlayer for later streaming. Akram Khan also makes use of TV appearances to raise audiences and awareness by taking part in multiple documentaries such as MOVE on Netflix, Why Do We Dance? on Sky Arts, What Do Artists Do All Day? on BBC Four, Dancing Nation on BBC iPlayer and Extreme Combat: The Dancer and the Fighter and The Curry House Kid on Channel 4. Social media continues to be a popular marketing and engagement strategy for contemporary artists, with all of the ICDSIB artists on the A-Level Dance specification using Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter to engage with their audiences and offer virtual opportunities. This has been more valuable during the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic than ever before, and independent contemporary artists have used it to offer a mix of free and paid virtual classes/workshops/Q+A sessions and to stream new choreographic work whilst the theatres remain closed. Not only has this opened up dance opportunities and experiences for people across the globe, it has completely thrown the art form into the world of technology, forcing practitioners to find new ways to create, perform and engage audiences. This can only be a good thing for the continued development and success of contemporary dance, and it is exciting to see how this virtual connection might be maintained even once theatres re-open.

Following on from the importance of increasing and diversifying audiences, another impact from the development of the ICDSIB can be the increased awareness of dance itself, and/or the topics which they explore. For example by performing Dust, a piece which commemorates the centenary of WW1, on Glastonbury stage, a place where crowds are there for music and socialising as opposed to a history class, Khan truly raises awareness of the centenary and forces viewers to spend 20+ minutes thinking about WW1 in an unexpected place at an unexpected time. This interruption of the festival pushes the boundaries of what dance can be used for and puts contemporary dance on a commercial stage in front of people who may have never heard of it before. And even if the audience wasn’t completely perceptive to the intentions of the work, at least Khan was able to reach new audiences and break the idea that dance must be performed on stages to audiences who are already appreciative of the art form. A further impact that this has is to challenge people’s understanding of world events or emotions. As we are aware Dust was commissioned by the English National Ballet to commemorate the centenary of WW1, but Khan explored this differently by focusing not on the standard topic of battlegrounds and gunfire but on the women who were left behind to pick up the pieces of society whilst coping with immense physical and emotional pressure. This challenges audiences preconceived ideas about WW1 and asks them to consider another perspective. Again, this shows us that dance can be more than just entertainment, it can make statements and educate people through an artistic vision.

The final impact which can be discussed when referring to the development of the ICDSIB is an increase in revenue for artists and theatres which subsequently impacts the funding available for dance in Britain. Simply put, all of the above = more ticket sales = more revenue. This keeps jobs in the sector and funds companies and choreographers to grow and to explore choreography, thus keeping the industry going. Sadler’s Wells plays a big part in this in Britain; it is the home of contemporary dance in Britain and is considered to be one of the most important theatres in Europe. In 2005 they started their Associate Artist programme, which supports and represents the most exciting talent working in dance today, which includes Matthew Bourne, Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (amongst 13 others). This marked Sadler’s Wells transition from receiving talent to producing it in-house, establishing the theatre as the world-leading, dynamic and inclusive dance house it is today. Sadler’s Wells support their Associate Artists by commissioning new works for them and providing access to their resources, such as rehearsal studios, technical expertise, office space and a creative base. (Sadler’s Wells, n.d.) In return, these artists sell tickets and create an income for Sadler’s Wells, which is a registered charity and must make up 91% of its revenue itself. Edward Scissorhands, for example, sold 95,000 tickets and ran for 11 weeks. It has been said that Bourne is a key factor in the financial success of Sadler’s Wells, so enabling more artists to be supported and a greater number of works commissioned. This reduces the pressure from the Arts Council, who fund the remaining 9%, leaving more money in the pot for supporting independent artists and new companies in the industry. However, as we move forward to the present day, the COVID-19 pandemic has added an immense amount of pressure on funding to keep companies running and artists in jobs whilst the world stands still. Much can be said for the way that the Arts Council has tried to support dance practitioners via emergency recovery grants, but maybe when the quarantine is over we can instead look at how our audiences have continued to support the industry through donations, paying for live streams and responding through social media channels.

In conclusion

The independent contemporary dance scene in Britain is a strong industry which thrives off of experimentation and out-of-the-box thinking to engage, challenge and increase audiences across the world. They do this through the 10 characteristics amongst many other features to create world-renowned, original and thought-provoking work which stands the test of time, based on the foundation of the New Dance philosophies stemming from the contemporary boom of the late 60’s onwards. As the dance scene continues to grow and evolve, choreographers must continue to find new movement language and new ways to perform, supported by Arts Council funding and the solid work of Sadler’s Wells Theatre. The ICDSIB is therefore built on a cycle of giving and taking which supports creative growth and education. Our A-Level students must place their named practitioners and set work choreographer in this cycle and understand the importance of their specific contributions to the industry.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Dan Read says:

    Reblogged this on Danread.


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