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Artists Open Doors: Japan/UK    
1. Dance for All? Panel:

John Ashford
Norikazu Sato
Yuko Ijichi
Ken Bartlett
Ghislaine Boddington

John Ashford is a theatre director who has been instrumental in the burgeoning of contemporary dance's popularity in the UK over the last 20 years through his role as theatre director at The Place in London. Prior to his appointment at The Place in 1987, he was director of the theatre at the ICA, promoting seasons of experimental theatre, performance work and new rock bands. In 2004 he created The Place Prize, a new biennial choreography competition. He has won the Digital Dance Premiere Award, the London Dance and Performance Award and an International Theatre Institute Award for Excellence in International Dance. In 2002 he was awarded a CBE for services to dance.

I am here this morning to talk about my work in engaging audiences for our theatre at The Place. My colleague Chris Thomson will talk later this afternoon about our engagement with young people and community dance, and it is clear that the participants in a dance company workshop may become the audience for that company’s immediate performance. However, in our experience, youth and community courses do not provide audiences for our ongoing theatre programme.

At The Place, we put the development of the artist at the heart of everything we do. It is the business of larger theatres to build an audience for the art form. They deal with quantity, whereas our business is with the quality of the audience. An artist will learn most through performance when confronted with the best informed audience. That best informed audience is made up of those who have learned about contemporary dance by watching it.

We seek therefore to ensure repeat attendance at The Place through different marketing practices, and importantly, through box office strategies. A theatre also needs constantly to replenish its audience, which we achieve through programming devices. Those that work, we repeat. Thus the six week season of nightly-changing triple bills of young work that pulls a new audience in Resolution! has been running for twenty years.

The Place Prize, now in its third biennial edition, is another successful device. Since many of you will tonight attend this year's final performance, I will describe here some of its qualities:

• Competition attracts media attention
• New audiences like a diverse and fast-moving programme
• Ten-day run encourages new audiences through reviews and word-of-mouth
• Nightly electronic voting actively engages the audience
• Subsequent success of Finalists draws audiences from elsewhere to The Place

By programming devices such as these we seek to maintain an informed audience at around 65% of the theatre's capacity. If it were greater, this would indicate that we were taking insufficient risks. Those of our artists who attract larger audiences rapidly move on to bigger London theatres. By this process of discovery, nurture and transfer, we contribute to the growth of audiences and of interest in dance. The current popularity of dance is sustainable so long as we continue to make the right choices in identifying and developing the most talented artists.

The diversity of the artists which we prioritise at The Place does not depend upon their having had vocational training in this country. Approximately half of the artists move to London having trained elsewhere. However, we would like to see dance training re-assessed in order to attract students of greater diversity. The difficulty of recruiting men is an issue that need to be constantly addressed. When men dance, the audience doubles. Dam Van Huynh’s male trio, for example, wins The Place Prize audience vote every night (September 2008).

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