Three of Britain’s best-known contemporary dance companies, have raised concerns over the standards of training in UK contemporary dance schools. David Mead reports their thoughts, and adds a few of his own.
Akram Khan Company, DV8 Physical Theatre and Hofesh Shechter Company say they are having to employ dancers from overseas because they struggle to find British trained, contemporary dancers of sufficient calibre. . Since 2000, for example, only four of the fifty-one dancers who have been employed by Akram Khan were UK trained. Fifty-seven per cent of Akram Khan Company dancers were graduates of P.A.R.T.S. in Brussels.
Lloyd Newson, Artistic Director of DV8 says, ““As leading contemporary dance companies, we would hope to employ graduates from these institutions, which are all in receipt of public subsidy as well as student tuition fees. Unfortunately the students, more often than not, lack rigour, technique and performance skills.”
Akram Khan said that the training young dancers receive in the UK appears to lack the rigour, technique and discipline that he looks for. Instead, he says, the ‘training’ of UK dancers today has become the very obstacle that the training was meant to overcome.
Hofesh Shechter, meanwhile, spoke of UK students at auditions who, while full of potential and enthusiasm, are “consistently outclassed by fitter, stronger and more versatile counterparts from Europe, Asia and the USA.” He considers there is a “widening gap between our requirements as employers and the skills with which UK graduates emerge”, and that the issues start “with a complete lack of high quality, professional contemporary dance training for school age children in the UK and continues into a passive approach to addressing this already existing disadvantage head on at undergraduate level.”
The threesome do have a point. I have experience of dance and dance training in Taiwan, long recognised for the excellent dancers it produces, young people start vocational dance training in ballet, contemporary and Chinese dance around age 10, and by age 16 are already spending up to half their day in the studio. The level of contemporary dance technique at that age is already very impressive – and don’t think creativity is drilled out of them at the same time, because that’s far from the case. Students in Taiwan at all levels also perform in major theatres in competitions and regular performances, usually in front of large audiences, far more than in the UK, teaching them much needed professionalism and stagecraft.
It also cannot be denied that institutions and students, indeed societies generally, in Asia have a somewhat different philosophy towards education and learning generally. They certainly put the hours in. In dance, specifically, conservatoire students are quite likely to be in class from 8.30am, and still be in the studio rehearsing or whatever well into the evening.
But don’t think I’m saying the Taiwanese system is perfect. Despite their prodigious output of excellent dancers, it has its issues too, as no doubt do the systems elsewhere.
Khan, Shechter and Newson reference figures provided by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, which states that between 31 and 35 per cent of UK contemporary dance graduates find paid employment as dancers or choreographers. They compare this to the Juilliard School in New York, which has a 90 per cent employment rate. They give no detail as to precisely what is meant by “UK contemporary dance graduates” however. Add to that the fact that definitions may vary, and I’m not sure the figures really prove much one way or the other.
Hardly surprisingly, the conservatoires have been quick to fire back, although interestingly, not everything the threesome point to is rebutted.
Veronica Lewis, principal of LCDS said, “The London Contemporary Dance School prepares its students for lifelong careers in dance. The contemporary dance landscape in the UK has developed beyond recognition over the last ten years and the knock-on effect of this has been manifest in the greater breadth of artistic skills that todays’ students must acquire.”
Kenneth Tharp, chief executive of The Place, poses some good questions. He said, “There is such a wide variety of dance companies performing in the UK today, especially in London which is arguably the dance capital of the world. However, with that diversity comes a real challenge for any training institution – how do you prepare a young dancer for everything that’s out there?”
He continued, “What can be achieved in three years of full time training? Not everyone starts ballet aged three and people come into dance via different routes and different styles. This is good because it opens dance up but it also makes it more challenging to ensure a common level over three years’ training.
“Some choreographers want dancers to have extraordinary technique; others require strong stage presence; others well developed vocal skills. As well as all of this, our students at The Place learn how to write business plans, all part of the many skills and tools they will need for survival in the professional world. The sector is much broader than the work of three choreographers but I’d like to know what suggestions do Akram, Hofesh and Lloyd have for improvements?”
Anthony Bowne, principal of Trinity Laban, said: “Half of our dance students come from Europe and the rest of the world, and they come because we provide a world class contemporary education. We’re a bit baffled that these choreographers would be in any doubt of this – particularly as they are choosing to employ Trinity Laban graduates in their current productions.”
My take on all this? Yes, there is an issue, and to deny it is to stick one’s head in the sand. But the problems go much deeper than what happens at the conservatoires. It’s to do with the whole dance training system, especially that for young people, in dance in regular education, at private dance studios, in the CAT scheme and elsewhere. One thing is certain, and as Tharp alludes to, there are no easy answers.