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Artists Open Doors: Japan/UK    
3. Understandings of Contemporary Panel:

Junko Takekawa
Alistair Spalding
Saiko Kino
Bin Umino

Alistair Spalding was appointed Chief Executive and Artistic Director of Sadler's Wells on 28 October 2004. He joined Sadler's Wells in February 2000 as Director of Programming, and his programme has included companies such as Netherlands Dance Theatre 1 and 2, Mark Morris Dance Group, Michael Clark, Ballett Frankfurt, Pina Bausch, La La La Human Steps, Alvin Ailey and New Adventures. He commissioned Sadler's Wells' recent Hip Hop festival (May 2004) and co-produced Carlos Acosta's sell-out show in summer 2003. He joined Sadler's Wells from the South Bank Centre, where he was Head of Dance and Performance. Between 1994 and 2000, he strongly developed the presentation and commissioning of dance and performance on the South Bank. He also developed strong co-producing relationships with a number of national and international companies and artists including DV8, Alain Platel, Jonathan Burrows, Javier de Frutos and Rosas Dance Company. The South Bank Centre won the Time Out award for best dance production in both 1998 for Alain Platel and in 1999 for the New York Ballet Stars project. Alistair was a member of the Arts Council of England Dance advisory panel between 1995 and 2003 and is an external advisor on the City University Validation Board for the Laban Centre London degree courses.

Today's panel is concerned with 'understandings of contemporary'. In my contribution to our discussion, I will approach the notion of 'contemporary' from two angles: firstly, in relation to the effects that political and social issues have on a dance work (what might be thought of as external influences); and secondly, in relation to the development of the art form itself (the developments of movement vocabulary, the human body and the elements of scenography that surround the work).

Without doubt, more dance artists are expressing in dance their reaction to external issues. The reason for this may be that increasingly there is a tendency to make work which speaks more to an audience (rather than, as previously, an emphasis on the exploration of movement language for the sake of the professionals and a few interested onlookers). However, the reason is also, I believe, due to how dance is uniquely placed to express some of the issues of cultural identity and of the politics of the body.

[An excerpt was then shown of Zero Degrees, a collaboration between Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, performed at Sadler's Wells in 2005]

For example, in Zero Degrees, we see the story of Akram’s journey back to Bangladesh, as a British born and raised young man, and how he finds the way he sees the world as alien there as it is sometimes for him here in London. Khan and Cherkaoui resort to spoken language some of the time, but the physical language of the piece expresses the anger, confusion and sadness of this narrative.

As another example, there was a direct reference to the Iraq conflict in the latest work of William Forsythe that we presented at Sadler's Wells entitled Three Atmospheric Studies (2006). In the final section, a terrifying depiction of an air raid, created through the mix of a visceral sound score and the scattering of the dancers, is followed by a chilling, methodical description of its aftermath. Both these artists wanted to say something about the world they are in and have found intensely powerful ways of doing so through dance.

From my second angle, the way that dancers explore movement and the way that dancers' bodies are now, is an important aspect of 'the contemporary'. Today, it is not sufficient for a dancer to turn up at an audition excelling in one particular dance style. As well as ballet and contemporary techniques, they need to have experience of yoga, tai chi, martial arts, capoeira... The list could go on. Globalisation is clearly having an effect on what we see on stage. Choreographers now are magpies, with access to dance and movement styles from all over the world which they draw on when they are making their work. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, for example, started out as a hip hop dancer and now takes his and his dancers' bodies to extremes of movement with a mixture of yoga, martial arts and even contortionism! Or, Russell Maliphant whose fluid style is heavily influenced by both tai chi and capoeira.

In parallel to the advances of human achievements in sport, we are seeing a similar extension of what is asked of the dancer's body. Choreographers like Wayne McGregor are, in their work, stretching the abilities of dancers to the extremes of movement possibilities, asking of dancers what they would simply not have been capable twenty years ago.

At the same time, dance has embraced the use of new technology in the presentation of work more than any other art form (with the possible exception of music). Video projection, animation and interactivity are now nearly always present in dance work - although, oddly enough, they have done least in my opinion to change the very nature of the art form (an exception may be an artist like Wayne McGregor who takes as his starting point the futuristic notion of human as machine). This use of technology knows no national boundaries, the only limitation being that, in some economies, the costs of highly sophisticated technologies are unaffordable.

Will such developments lead to the homogeneity seen with other products of the new global economy? I think not. Although the second version of contemporary that I described (i.e. the internal one) is a result of a number of cultural cross-fertilisations, the first (the external) is still firmly affected and influenced by the place that the artist is in and the way that they respond to their own particular circumstances. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, therefore, will always make quite different work to Russell Maliphant, even though they share at least two movement sources in common.

The future is bright in this regard. I really believe that the tensions that have arisen with shifting cultural landscapes have given a new impetus to the creation of work. It was no co-incidence that two of the hotbeds of dance creativity in the eighties and nineties were Brussels and Quebec, which are both places where questions of language and identity were, and still are, high on the cultural agenda. Similarly, the most interesting work I see presently seems to appear at the point of conflict between the old world of traditional boundaries and nation states and the new stateless position of many people.

A final point that I would like to make, and pertinent to this debate, concerns audiences. I do not regard the audiences who come to Sadler’s Wells as predominantly ‘English’. The make-up of London, alongside other world cities, means that at least 40% of an audience may not originally come from England, a figure that rises higher if you include second and third generation immigration. Not only the work on stage is reflective of globalisation, but the audience too. The two trends are perfectly matched.

To conclude, we live in rich, vibrant but changing times, and this must be reflected in the work that we see on our stages. When one thinks back to the mono-cultural dance world of London during the fifties, sixties and seventies (during which a visit by an overseas company was seen as exotic), isn’t this a better and more interesting time to be living?

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