6 February 2018
Author: Maddy Costa

Pivot: Dance Development at The Place

In the first of a trio of articles, Maddy Costa explores The Place's three-pronged artist, producer, and audience development scheme.

As with any institution devoted to artist development and the future of a form, much of the work that happens at The Place in London is so off-radar it practically goes unnoticed. For instance, you would struggle to find reviews of the six shows staged there as part of Pivot Dance, a three-year project funded by Creative Europe, let alone much discussion about the development models being tested through the work. And yet Pivot – designed and executed in collaboration with Nederlands Dansdagen festival in Maastricht and the Centro per la Scena Contemporanea in Bassano, Italy – has been a vital learning process for The Place that might influence its approaches to artist development for years to come.

In an attempt to redress this balance, The Place has commissioned me to write three articles on Pivot, each looking in detail at specific aspects of the project. One will focus on the Audience Club: a group of dance fans brought together to watch and discuss the Pivot performances during the making process, and through that rethink what relationships between artists and prospective audiences might be. Another looks at the partnerships between the two UK choreographers and the producers they worked with over the course of the project. And this first piece is dedicated to The Place itself: the organisational structures that Pivot grew out of, and what the many discoveries of this project might grow into.

As framed by the Eddie Nixon, its Director of Theatre and Artist Development, it’s characteristic of The Place that: “audience-relationship development is just as strong an imperative as artist development. It has a big influence on what we do, what we put on, and how we work. If we were just thinking about artist development as a choreographic centre, I think we’d have a really different model.”

That two-pronged approach particularly affected the design of Pivot, which synthesised – in adapted form – two pre-existing development frameworks. On the artist side, that was the project Hot House, designed to pair emerging choreographers with more experienced producers who might open up new professional opportunities. And on the audience side, that was the series Questions and Dancers, a family programme that invites young people to contribute through conversation to the making of new work.

Each of those programmes grew from a specific hypothesis that the senior team at The Place wanted to test. Hot House, says Nixon, was an attempt to close “perceived gaps in artist development pathways”. Many choreographers make a few early pieces, mostly seen by their peers, perhaps staged by the Place through festivals such as Resolution, but then struggle to progress. “There’s quite a big jump to that middle moment, of making a slightly more ambitious piece, or a piece with more infrastructure in place,” says the Place’s artist development manager, Catherine Greenwood. “Based on other artists we work with, we had identified that the role of the producer was a way of helping people push through.”

But this thinking illuminated another, fundamental problem: “There’s not enough producers in dance,” says Nixon. “You don’t get these university hook-ups between creative people and people who want to be producers, like in theatre.” Almost no one goes to dance school to learn how to be a producer – even if they did, says Emily Crouch, one of the four producers engaged through Pivot, “there’s no training specifically to be a producer, like there is to be a dance artist”. It’s not incidental that the senior producer at The Place, Christina Elliot, herself came in from theatre – previously she worked with Fuel. Nixon has met one person studying at The Place this year who has already veered towards producing, but: “that’s extremely rare. So we’ve got to make those connections for people.”

Hot House, then, was created to stimulate artificially partnerships that weren’t emerging naturally. “That’s coming from quite a pragmatic perspective,” says Nixon. “It’s not necessarily responding in a way that an artist might do: it’s a venue/producer/artist supporter seeing a problem and trying to find a way to respond to that with project design, which makes it half test, and half trying to do something for people.”

The result was remarkably successful. In 2014, three emerging choreographers – James Finnemore, Lola Maury and Evangelia Kolyra – were invited to meet a group of producers for a series of quick-fire conversations. “We actually did speed-dating, it was quite hilarious,” admits Greenwood. Initial sparks of connection were followed up, each choreographer chose a producer with whom to begin working – respectively, Jo Mackie, Helen Goodman and Xavier de Sousa – and those partnerships remain strong.

Pivot, says Nixon, went a step further, involving “much more explicit match-making than we would ever normally do”. And this time, the pairings were less successful, both lasting barely a year. (Similarly, one of the Dutch pairings didn’t prove sustainable, leaving a success rate of 50% across the whole project.) The second piece will look at those UK relationships in closer detail, but it’s worth noting here a major difference between Hot House and Pivot: whereas Hot House was open-ended, speculative and without specific schedule, Pivot was a defined three-year project with, says Nixon, “very fixed timelines, a very fixed set of outcomes. That was complicated, and had a lot of ramifications throughout the project.”

When Nixon talks about the relationships between artists, independent producers and venues, he shapes his hands into a triangle: arranged not vertically but horizontally, so that it’s “non-hierarchical, and with a sense of audience in the middle: we’re collaborating around the idea of who is this for, and how are people going to engage with it?” The second hypothesis Pivot aimed to test relates to that engagement. Early in a choreographer’s career, says Nixon, it’s important “to find out the essence of who you are and not be distracted by trying to be popular. But it’s not so helpful to dwell in that place too long: you want an awareness raised of how people are responding.” In particular, says Elliot, “for artists who are at the point in their career where the majority of the audience are their peers, the opportunity to share during the making process with a more diverse group of non-professionals might make stronger, more robust work”.

Through its family programme, The Place has already twice tested out the project Questions and Dancers, through which, Elliot explains, “a choreographer goes into schools and does workshops, and makes a piece from what they hear from the children: from their interests, concerns and feedback”. The work is then “performed in the theatre to a full house of about 600 kids”, with another feedback session afterwards. But nothing similar existed within its adult programme – partly, says Elliot, because “our family programme is more geared to be responsive to demand, while the vast majority of the adult programme is responsive to artists’ ideas”.

Questions and Dancers helped to shape a way of thinking about how prospective audiences might watch work in progress, and respond in ways inaccessible to The Place staff themselves. “We may have ambitions to be a subjective audience member, but we’re not that to an artist,” says Elliot. “The dramaturg Lou Cope says that the volume of our feedback is turned up: that’s a really clear way of describing it.” The third piece will think further about the possibilities of artist-audience dialogue, which was the surprise success of Pivot: as Greenwood says, “It’s become a core area of our activity, and we’re continuing to think of ways to invest in and develop it.”

There is a third key element to Pivot: as a collaboration with organisations in the Netherlands and Italy, it thought about the possibilities for artist development inherent in touring. “We feel quite strongly that touring is a really important and useful way for artists to develop their artistic practice and their careers more generally,” says Elliot. “But it’s increasingly hard. Crisis is an overused word but with less money it’s getting more difficult for artists to have that kind of dialogue, through presenting their work to a wide audience, that contributes to their growth.”

Pivot took place within the context of a wider change at The Place: towards producing more work, and in particular producing more tours. It’s happening, says Nixon, in recognition of the fact that: “We have to take some responsibility for what gets made and what populates our theatre.” He resists the suggestion that this might generate more power within The Place as a gatekeeper for what dance is and isn’t seen: “That underestimates the mutual dependence between organisations and independent artists. It does have to be symbiotic. It’s not some fixed group of people who have access to our resources: that’s constantly changing and responding to people’s work. And we are trying genuinely to help people become independent in their own right, so they’re not dependent on us to make a show.”

Pivot is a model for the kind of network of venues that The Place hopes to develop in the UK: “Even if it’s just three or four like-minded organisations around the country, who can come together and support a few artists to move between those venues,” says Elliot. The tour certainly made a difference to Sivan Rubinstein, one of the Place’s two Pivot choreographers: usually, she says, you’re making work with a very particular audience in mind, so “it changes the creative process when you think about the project as a global project: we were thinking big”. This is just the kind of expansion of choreographer’s vision and ambition that The Place hoped to inspire with Pivot, and all the artist development work it shapes behind the scenes.

Article by Maddy Costa first published on Exeunt 31/01/2018


Pivot Dance is funded with the support of Creative Europe programme of the European Union.  



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