A History of The Place

Half a century of inspiration

Since it was established in 1969, The Place has consistently been at the cutting edge in contemporary dance training, creation and performance; inspiring, pioneering and developing ideas and new choreography.  The building - at 17 Duke’s Road – was originally designed by Sir Robert Edis, a leader in the Victorian Aesthetic Movement, and opened in 1889 as the home of the Middlesex Artists’ Rifle Volunteers. The façade still depicts the heads of Mars (god of war) and Minerva (goddess of wisdom). As the Trust’s founder, Robin Howard, observed, ‘the headquarters of Artists in War had become the headquarters of Arts in Peace’. This idea of transition initially suggested The Artists’ Place as a new name, but it was immediately – and enduringly – simplified to The Place.

Robin Howard

Howard was a visionary who believed that dance was both a force for improving society, by enhancing the quality of life for creator, performer and spectator; and a means of promoting international harmony.  In pursuit of these objectives and to establish The Place as a major addition to the cultural life of London, he enlisted an illustrious cast of inaugural patrons: Sir John Gielgud, Martha Graham, Lord Harewood, Henry Moore, Dame Marie Rambert and Dame Ninette de Valois.

Howard’s aim was to construct a ‘distinctively British form of contemporary dance’ whilst appreciating that The Place must import ‘the best from overseas to set the standard and provide leadership’. To him, the best was Martha Graham and so he persuaded one of her close colleagues, Robert Cohan, to become the first artistic director. From the outset, Howard and Cohan gave unstinting encouragement to young creative and performing artists, attracting them from across the world, enabling The Place to have, in the words of Richard Buckle, then dance critic of The Sunday Times, ‘a unique atmosphere and an undefinable ambiance of creativity, vitality and friendliness’.  

Ties with Martha Graham

The contemporary dance school predated The Place, having been established in 1966, initially based in Berner’s Street, Fitzrovia. Patricia Hutchinson Mackenzie was the first principal and she set to the task of providing structured courses. Graham initially served as artistic adviser and the London Contemporary Dance School was the only place in Europe authorised to teach her technique. Prior to founding The Place, Howard had financed the visit of Martha Graham Company to the Edinburgh Festival (1963) and subsequently he commuted to New York (1965-7) as Executive Director of the Graham Foundation knowing that his embryonic London school was in safe hands.  

His initial policy was to sponsor British students to attend the Graham School in New York but, to prevent the drain of talent to America; he soon changed tack and invited American dance teachers to work in London. Howard also funded other visits from American companies and choreographers, thereby widening British horizons and expectations for contemporary dance and encouraging indigenous dance companies to explore their own creativity.

Classes in Graham technique proved especially popular and it fell to Howard’s secretary, Janet Eager – known as ‘Mop’ – to organise them. She had accompanied her employer to New York during his time at the Graham Foundation and has been a ubiquitous presence through The Place’s history, giving administrative support to London Contemporary Dance Theatre throughout its existence, from 1967 until it was wound up, in 1994; and subsequently for Richard Alston Dance Company.

London Contemporary Dance Theatre

Under Cohan’s leadership, London Contemporary Dance Theatre always encouraged new choreographic talent, performing more than 200 works in its 25-year existence. The excellence and dedication of the company were recognised by regular awards: as the dance critic, Clement Crisp wrote when celebrating the LCDT’s coming of age, in 1988: ‘Few enterprises in the arts… have been so productive or so excellent. Nothing, I suspect, has been so valuable to society in communicating the joys and rewards of an art form which has become so truly and splendidly national’.   

In 1976, the Contemporary Dance Trust - with assistance from the Arts’ Council and the Linbury Trust – purchased the freehold of 17 Duke’s Road and acquired the adjacent site in Flaxman Terrace, thereby enabling the extension of the property and the work therein.   A thorough renovation of The Place was carried out at the turn of the Millennium, funded by the National Lottery through the Arts Council of England, King’s Cross Partnership and many supporting trusts, foundations, companies and individuals; and a further refurbishment was completed in 2014, largely funded by an ACE Capital Grant.

The Place Today

The Place of today combines training, creation, participation and performance, incorporating a 300-seat theatre, renamed the Robin Howard Dance Theatre, in 2001. Initially, the theatre was used for experimental work in music and drama as well as dance, but since 1982, it has concentrated exclusively on that single art in its multiplicity of forms. Under the directorship of John Ashford (1986-2009), the theatre established itself as the proving ground for a new generation of independent choreographers, both from Britain and overseas, notably through Resolution, the largest festival of new contemporary choreography, which has run annually since 1989. 

This focus continued under the directorship of Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp (2009-2017), with such initiatives as The Place Prize, which recognised excellence in contemporary choreography; Work Place, putting the full range of The Place’s resources to support a large cohort of dance artists at different career stages; and establishing a new Creative, Teaching and Learning Department in 2011. In September 2017, Tharp was succeeded as Chief Executive by another former LCDS student, Clare Connor, who came to the role following a dance career and a subsequent transition to roles in higher education and business development within arts institutions.  

The Place remains home to London Contemporary Dance School, which, in 1982, developed the first University-validated dance degree programmes in Europe and is now part of the world-leading Conservatoire for Dance and Drama, attracting students and teachers from around the world, providing both undergraduate and postgraduate vocational training as well as a much-respected research programme. The School’s graduates have an impressive track record, including many of the dancers and choreographers who continue to shape today’s international dance scene. It also houses a complete spectrum of learning and access programmes, including classes in the evenings and at weekends, catering for people of all ages (a total of 50,000 participants in 2017/18) with varied interests and abilities. 

Having been the base for London Contemporary Dance Theatre and Richard Alston Dance Company (for a quarter-century each), The Place has also provided a London performance home for other acclaimed national and international companies. Since 1991, it has proactively supported the independent dance sector, providing information, advice, choreographic opportunities and a world-class dance film and digital library. In recent years, the performance focus of The Place has diversified throughout the United Kingdom, including producing work for the Rural Touring Network that reaches into countryside communities through live performance.  

In 2016, The Place embarked on an ambitious long-term change process to ensure the organisation’s future as a key landmark of talent and ideas development in dance responding to an ever-changing cultural landscape.  

No team could have been more respected or loved than those who built The Place.  Howard and his colleagues recognised the need to regularly regenerate enthusiasm for their project, encouraging change whilst the Trust’s principles remained constant. As Howard wrote, ‘other people would come along and take over, and guide the Trust, its School, its company, its work, into the twenty-first century… that way lies a glorious future for us’. 

The last two decades have witnessed that transition to these ‘other people’ and, as the founder predicted, it has been a seamless evolution. Both Robert Cohan and Richard Alston were knighted for services to dance in this year of The Place’s fiftieth anniversary, recognising their immense contribution to the creation of the ‘distinctively British form of contemporary dance’ to which those founders aspired.  

As 2018 closed, Eddie Nixon – formerly director of theatre and artist development - replaced Alston as The Place’s artistic director. Following the closure of its 25 years resident Richard Alston Dance Company in March 2020, The Place turned its attention to the bold and ambitious plan to support a significantly broaden base of dance artists, thereby heralding another new and exciting era that will further empower creativity in contemporary dance.      

This history of The Place was originally written by Jane Pritchard in 2001, revised by her in 2010 and then further revised and updated by Graham Watts, in 2019.