The Place was instrumental in bringing contemporary dance as an art from to the UK, and to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Place, we want to explore what it means to be truly contemporary.
We invited two veterans of The Place, Siobhan Davies and Richard Alston, who were in the building from the very beginning, to talk about their earliest memories of The Place, the spirit of freedom and possibility that was in the air and to explore why contemporary dance matters for the 21st century.
Richard: Beginnings are often said to be very exciting. What was it like for you at The Place in the very beginning?
Sue: I arrived here knowing nothing about dance, but I was at arts school, I went to the theatre, I enjoyed cinema and reading books. All those things had a place here. To be in this building was to be able to see theatre, hear contemporary music, speak to visual artists, be part of performance art – so dance always coexisted with other art forms, disciplines and ideas and that was an incredible beginning.
Richard: Robin Howard put his own and his family’s money into buying this building and he famously signed the lease holding a letter in his hand from the arts council saying, “Whatever you do, don’t sign it!” He filled this building with all sorts of activities, in order to get money back in. When I was a student, he gave me a scholarship and in return I worked at the box office. I was hopeless! But I had the best time; in what is now the theatre office - in those days called studio 6 - Cornelius Cardew used to come and work with his musicians. In the bar Gavin Bryars and John Tilbury used to rehearse. The building was also home to what was originally called the Pyro Players, and then became the Fires of London, so Harrison Birdwhistle and Peter Maxwell Davies were here. For me, who was really interested in music, I didn’t do any work, I just sat at the box office listening to the strange sounds from studio 6.
It was a fantastically free time. Nothing was set. The students came from all sorts of backgrounds and the curriculum was made up as we went along. Robin would take me to the pub at the end of each term and say, “What should we do next term?”
We had the most amazing teachers, including someone who was very influential on me, Pytt Geddes, a Norwegian woman who was the first westerner to learn the Chinese T’ai chi chuan. She was a real pioneer. Actually, my piece Blue Schubert Fragments has a lot of T’ai chi in it, because that’s what I was studying at the time and I loved it. The Place was that kind of blotting paper organisation where for all the students and the company, everything was starting. It was a terrific time and an amazing way to begin something that became established enough to last 50 years. I don’t think any of us thought that would happen. We were just living in the moment, weren’t we?
Sue: It was very brave. I think when you’re young, you’re not necessarily brave because you are so open to everything, but Robin was incredibly brave, because he was not a young man. He was a hugely energetic, focused, extraordinary individual who was really interested in the avant garde. We don’t use that word anymore, but at the time it meant being interested in things that were ahead of their time. And I think the things that happened here in this building were with the time if not ahead of the time.
Richard: I think that’s true. There were a lot of small arts venues starting out in London at the time and The Place was one of the best, because this auditorium is so extraordinary.
Sue: It was the artists rifles’ drill hall! There were bullet holes in the walls and buckets to catch the rain…
Richard: Robin, who had lost his legs in the second world war, still had a very strong feeling for all things military and he also loved the fact that based here was a regiment that was specifically for artists. The poet Wilfred Owen came here, we still have strange walking tours coming past on a Saturday showing this building where he had been a soldier.
It was a very exciting beginning. I saw Merce Cunningham in 1966, Martha Graham in 1967, a lot of American modern dance companies came to visit. I feel absolutely blessed for some of the things that I saw then, and I hope that some young person feels the same right now. I hope every young person involved in the arts feels that, continuously. When you’re young, you’re so wide eyed and open to learn everything and that’s how The Place started, with a whole group of people who felt that.
Being here from the beginning, how do you feel that carried on in what you have done since? What did you take along from that very exciting time?
Sue: I sense that learning dance, learning choreography, being with people absorbed in the learning of movement is one of the great teachers. Anybody who might not have learned dance won’t appreciate that, because they have a perception of dance as something very different, maybe something visual, whereas I think for those of us that study dance and are truly embedded in what a recognition of our total selves is capable of, dance is one of the most extraordinary teachers I can imagine. I think both Robin and I occasionally felt that both of us had arrived quite raw, and by being in the presence of people who did know more about dance than us, we realised that we were in this learning situation. And I think that is what I have carried on: How can you constantly find a way of being in a learning situation. There is no point, from my perspective, of pretending you know it because once you know it, that’s no fun! The learning experience is amazing, and I think that was (and still is) so present here.
I seriously believe dance and choreography are the arts for the 21st century, because we are having to address who and what we are totally, culturally, as a gender, as a nation, as a culture, as an environmental taker-upper of space, and in some ways dance might give us some of the best learning in order to deal fruitfully and creatively with this situation. So, this little wide eyed 18-year-old that began here, that’s been my continuous line. How about you?
Richard: I’ve never forgotten this building. I probably spent more years of my life here than anywhere else, which might mean that I’m just lazy and stick in the mud – but I have strong loyalty to this building and to this school. I didn’t have an easy time at school, the Graham technique was very hard for me. Robin believed in it utterly, he was completely inspired by Martha Graham and he had the good sense to ask Martha who would be the right person to come here and she said that he should ask Robert Cohan. Bob was an extraordinary teacher and performer. There were things that I saw in this theatre when it first opened, such as a piece by Martha Graham called El Penitente (1940) danced by Robert Cohan, Bill Luther and Noemi Lapzeson. And those performances are forever etched on my mind. I was sitting in this auditorium and was just absolutely breathless.
Sue: Your story began with you making Nowhere Slowly for both of us. When I watch the dancers doing it now, tears come to my eyes because my 20-year-old body is suddenly present. Again, I feel like that is what makes dance precious; the body we are is a library, an archive of our experiences and our interaction with others and with situations.
We’ve ended up doing things in very different ways, but we completely agree that this is an art from that really matters. I’m wondering whether you can talk about dance not in terms of a technique but as a human endeavour. Why do the human qualities of dance matter to you?
Richard: When I was at art college, I began to be fascinated by dance, but I was also fascinated by anthropology. I think that’s why I had such a strong link with Robin. Right from the beginning I believed in dance as an incredibly healing activity that made connections between human beings in a strong and positive way. I still believe in the human power of people dancing together. And I think that came from Bob and Robin. They all believed in the same thing.
Robin always felt that the western world was too biased towards thinking and that dance would redress that balance. He had friends who knew a lot about dance in Bali, he knew a wonderful woman who had studied a lot of African dance and he saw cultures where dance is important as having a better balance between thinking and acting. He was very passionate about what he believed in and I think he convinced a lot of us. That spirit is still here. I was thrilled to hear Clare Connor say that The Place has a vision for more dance in the world. Robin would have been standing behind her saying “hear hear”!