Warm Heart, Cold Hands

“The real message of media today is ubiquity. It is no longer something we do, but something we are part of. It confronts us as if from the outside with all the sensory experience of the history of humanity. It is as if we have amputated not our ears or our eyes, but ourselves, and then established a total prosthesis – an automaton – in our place.”

– Marshall McLuhan (allegedly)

Did you know that there is an organisation in the UK that is attempting to bring dance professionals together? The organisation is called Dance UK, and last week, they held a conference entitled: “The Future: New Ideas, New Inspirations”, and they talked about things as diverse as the “Physiological Preparation for the Demands of Choreography”, “the Hypermobile Student in Dance Class” or “Ballet – A Museum or a Creative Powerhouse?” (they also filmed some of the sessions and put them online here, which I invite you to check out now if the thought of dragging yourself through this piece appears somewhat unsavoury (the sun is shining gloriously this week). It’s also an incredibly useful website for writing pieces such as this one, as it is rife with all sorts of interesting fun facts and figures about the UK dance industry, and only a Google search away. (Although if you’re expecting hard journalistic fact from this piece – don’t hold your breath.)

A smooth £325 will get you access to the whole conference over the three days, or £220 if you’re a Dance UK member, or you can just go for a day for £125. (If you are a dance professional and you have just spat out [as I did] your porridge/BLT/vodka-tonic at reading these prices, the only thing worth replying that comes to mind is: I KNOW! That said, Dance UK offer discounted or even free access passes if you can’t pay, and all you need to do is contact them about it, although I suppose it’s understandable they don’t want to publicise this fact too much. I think I stayed longer than what my pass allowed for though.)

Know that there are a lot of ridiculously good-looking, well-dressed, glamorous people at a Dance UK’s conference. The number of people here (many for the dance world, not many for basically almost any other “sector” or at least art form, with the exception perhaps of poetry) also makes for a fairly neurotic experience if, like me, you have anything to do with the dance profession. Think about how small the dance world really is. At this conference, I met people who taught me, people who may have taught me (don’t ask), people I taught (and whose careers I somehow managed not to shatter, although to be fair there were only two such people there so the number could be a lot higher), people I’ve worked with, people I’ve auditioned for, people I’ve met, people I’ve met who do that thing where they pretend they can’t remember you (I put that down to shyness; a friend of mine puts it on the account of gaining control of a conversation), and one person from my dance school days who I went out on a date with, which date consisted in a completely unprompted and hair-raising alcohol-fuelled downward spiral of disgrace and general insufferableness on my own part, resulting essentially in an ungracious spectacle of slap-stick-caliber projectile vomiting, this general drunken behaviour probably fuelled on a deeper level  (beyond the projectile vomiting), as these episodes always are, by something that resembled despair and probably a certain degree of loneliness, which, anyway, to cut it short, involved her ditching me as soon as she she could and, understandably, never calling me back, and needless to say seeing this person at Dance UK made for regurgitation (no pun) of all sorts of shameful memories and for generally all kinds of awkward (at least on my part, for obvious reasons), awkwardness compounded by my own inability to tell whether she still felt sorry for me, and compounded by the fact that I couldn’t decide whether to go up to her and say hi so we could both laugh about it, or would the result simply be the very exact opposite of laughing, so to speak, and so in the end (to cut this short) I opted for going to get a coffee and pretending to read something on my phone.

As a professional demographic, the dance world is a very small incestuous group. This accounts for a big part of the atmosphere in any of these dance-related events, but also accounts for much of the furore which occurred when three successful choreographers made unhelpful and somewhat misinformed (NB: ≠ uninformed) assumptions about dance education in the UK. To sum it up: we’re one big dysfunctional family.

Saturday was hosted at Laban (Friday was the Place, and Sunday was Sadlers Wells (which, I’m informed, IS, unequivocally and irrefutably, Dance), where I trained, which is an obvious choice for a conference. As you enter, you immediately sign up at a reception desk (I only signed up for Equity’s talk, through my access pass, on dancers’ pay, but was somehow given a day pass), and then you are given your own canvas tote bag that reads: THE FUTURE: NEW IDEAS, NEW INSPIRATIONS. Inside you’ll find three brochures. The first one is for Safe in Dance International (SiDI), which aims to proved certificates that endorse Healthy Dance Practice in 5 Key Knowledge Areas. Apparently, there is such a thing as the Healthy Dance Practice Certificate (HDPC) and the Healthy Dancer Certificate (HDC), which Safe in Dance International would be delighted to help you attain (for a fee). Note that the NIDMS endorses SiDI, that SiDI is an affiliate of the CDET who also happens to endorse SiDI, and finally that the IADMS also supports the HDPC. In the tote bag, you’ll also find a brochure for the Bonnie Bird Choreography Fund, and a brochure that reads “Become a Stretchworks Instructor”, and which features a manically smiling although undeniably friendly-looking lady (I wonder whether she has her HDPC or HDC – or maybe both?) helping people throughout what seems to be some sort of yoga-inspired class (I imagine it references other practices than yoga too). “Become a Stretchworks Instructor” interestingly also apparently consider themselves as one big family, and say as much on their brochure.

If you’ve never been to Laban (but if you’re reading this, chances are you have), know that it’s in Deptford, and it’s a sort of Heathrow Terminal 5 for dance, except for its interior colour scheme which would be adequately put to use in some sort of hellish nursery (truly the stuff of feverish dreams; it’s worth noting however that the luxury apartment buildings erected [not an innocent choice of word] around it are so ugly that they make the Laban building look positively Haussmanian and understated). All in all, however, coming from someone who spent three years in it [willingly]: it’s ok, but it’s not the cosiest place to hang out [the Place is a more pleasant and functional building to evolve in, although what I can only describe as the vibes in this building are another matter [you will only understand what I mean if you are neither an alumni nor currently employed there, but the Place are very clear on the fact they too are one large family (dysfunctional as any, although I doubt they would agree with this point.)])                            (<——— Let’s just immediately get out the way the fact that my unruly bracketing ambitions are, in grammatical terms and to say the least, far from kosher and way out of control, but to be honest, I don’t really give a damn, and I don’t have an editor, and about 3 people are reading this blog anyway, and one of them is my mother, one is me, and one is you.)

“Alone” is a word that came up a lot at this conference. In the two sessions I attended, people were given the opportunity to answer questions, and many people raised points that had something to do with loneliness, or aloneness, to be more precise – dancers alone as they graduate from schools, dancers alone to confront employers about pay, dancers alone to think about their careers. Not to mention these two sessions (one with Equity, the other with Dancers’ Career Development (DCD), both agencies that aim to assist dancers in their professional careers.)

Too, rather less humanoid words were used continuously at the conference; words like “brand”, “sector”, “market”, “industry”. I’m not sure why these words grate me so, although I understand the need to categorise and label certain concepts for the sake of clarity. Part of my unease probably has to do in part with the fact that, as someone who does this (dance? art?) for a living (almost), I feel I’m listening in to a conversation that isn’t intended for me. (Do I even belong in this conference?) It’s worth noting that the great majority of people attending here are not doing so in the quality of dancer, rather in that of producer, choreographer, etc., and also worth noting that, as I far as I can tell, very few dancers seem to turn up to this sort of event (I imagine this is partly due to the discouraging price-tag of the event; most the dancers I met who did turn up had in fact done so because they were invited, or were professionally compelled to do so [presentation, talk, etc., I don’t know]).

The first session, the one I originally sign up for, is organised by Equity, and is entitled “Dancers’ Pay Debate”, and is more of an informative occasion than it is a debate. I sit up in the back of the Laban Lecture Theatre, behind a man bearing an uncanny-enough resemblance to Michael McIntyre that I do a double-take, and the debate kicks off with a few words from Nick Keegan, who tells us a little about the Equity Freelance Dance Network, and about his own situation as a professional freelance dancer. Then a brief Q&A is launched, but put to rest too soon (the session was allotted no more than an hour. Say what you will, but as far as conference scheduling goes, the Dance UK crew run a tight ship.) Extra points to Wayne McGregor, someone who could probably afford to simply resolve the entire conference (come to think of it) by simply hiring everyone in attendance, for actually turning up at a Saturday 10am meeting about dancers wages. The panel was chaired by Hilary Hadley, and also included Flora Wellesley Wesley and Shanelle Fergus, who also raised some interesting points (and damn eloquently too) about freelance dancers, the one that resonates with me most being raised by Flora, who speaks of dancers dropping out of dance, because of the difficulties (especially financial) of maintaining such a high-octane activity for so long. This touched a chord with me because I notice it all around: friends dropping out, or trying to find a way out, often smart people, talented people, who just feel too helpless to keep trying, in a profession that so often makes you feel alone – alone when you have a job and your friends have non, alone when everyone’s working and you’re not, or just alone because the rest of the world just doesn’t really seem to care about this odd profession. (And many other interesting points were raised, although one of the highlights for me occurred when a couple of young looking people came in 15 minutes late, proceeded to cross a whole row to get to the very end, thus obviously disturbing people sitting on that row, sat down for 10 minutes, decided they were bored and crossed the whole row again, making the sitting people do that awkward thing where they’re not quite sure whether they should stand up, and a crossing over is attempted by the standing person, which never quite works out, and so the sitting person decides to stand on a whim but hasn’t really prepared to do so and whatever is on her lap falls, which always makes for extra commotion if the fallen object is a receptacle of some sort [pencil case, etc.], and throughout all of this you notice a furious stare from one of the younger of the four members of the panel, a stare which, let me tell you, if looks could kill, it’d murder your family too).

(If you’d rather read a competent account of what was said at this meeting, please click here: http://londondance.com/articles/features/the-future-new-ideas-new-inspirations/dancers-pay-debate)

Know that there the Dance UK conference was 80% women. This is an oddly reassuring fact to this writer, although please rest assured that within that population there exist women with ambitions and sensibilities moire patriarchal than the last Kaiser. (How they arrive at this point is fascinating when you think about it [although hardly surprising], but probably too large to delve into within this piece. I’ll just leave this impression at that.)

Better fleshed-out impressions turned out to be non-forthcoming anyway, because at this point I head down to the loo, go into a cubicle with my backpack, do my business standing (numero uno, just to be clear), when someone enters the men’s room, at which point I automatically turn to my left to check that the cubicle is locked, and manage to knock off with my backpack a full loo-roll that has been sitting on a small shelf to my right straight into the toilet bowl, which said bowl hasn’t yet been flushed, at which point I panic and reach in to fish out the roll with the tip of my fingers (as if it matters, unaware as I am that things are still going downhill fast at this point), quickly sort of fling it up onto the same shelf to my right while I fumble to close my trousers and flush the loo, when the loo-roll which has somehow managed to engulf a lot more liquid than I had calculated starts dripping large amounts of, well, me (as it were) onto my right shoe. So I then have to take the shoe off, and rinse it thoroughly at one of the sinks (note that the offending loo-roll is immediately and unilaterally disposed of without a trace), and then dry it on one of Laban’s notoriously asthmatic hand-dryers, which means my shoe is effectively still wet (with only water at this point, I promise) when I squeak off to the next session: DCD.

This appeared as even more of a high-class affair, and everyone here seems incredibly well-dressed. Again, this notion of being alone is brought up, both by the speakers and by pedestrians in the ensuing Q&A session. (For some reason this session is allotted an hour and a half, against Equity’s single hour.) Specifically, here: alone to face the trauma of changing professions and finding your way into something new.

Some dancers leave halfway through. I later ask one of them why, and they reply that they felt that most of the talk was aimed only at ballet dancers, or dancers who work full-time in one of the select few companies supported by DCD.

And this is part of the problem with the conference – it seems much of it evokes some sort of idea of dance, rather than the reality of it. An idea of dance that is reality for many of the people at event – executives, artistic directors, etc., who no doubt have their fair share of anxieties and worries – but which remains a fantasy for many people actually involved in the making of dance in the UK today.

Whether you should go to the next Dance UK conference is hard to say. No doubt that if you’re a producer or choreographer, you either already go or have your own reasons not to. If you’re a dancer, or just interested in the conference, you may find what you’re looking for (if indeed you are so fortunate as to know what that is).

It would be interesting to think what someone completely unrelated to the dance world would make of it, although I suspect that person would form a very warped impression (that said, note that interesting things were nevertheless discussed, and that this piece, due to its fundamental journalistic incompetence, in no way claims to be a real review – read Donald Hutera on what was said here.) In that sense, Dance UK’s conference has as much to do with dance as pornography has to do with love; fun, titillation and even perhaps release, but little solace. Go along, and no doubt you’ll learn something, but something of essence is somehow lost (albeit not for lack of goodwill). It seems that these things so many artists seek – exchanges of ideas, human contact, a quest for some sort of meaning, etc. – and which Dance UK bravely attempts to address, gets somehow lost in translation, stranded in an overbearing flurry of buzz-words, hype and corporate ambitions. And so I am left to wonder how it is possible that in an age of such – interconnectedness? – we somehow manage to feel so isolated and vulnerable. It feels there is much good sentiment at this conference, people genuinely wanting and working towards making things better, but I wonder whether any of this will have any tangible outcome (which is all the more worrying if one considers the possibility of Dolores Umbridge getting another term in Downing Street).

But perhaps I expected too much. And it’s probably fair to say that many of the inadequacies of Dance UK’s approach have more to do with the the general inadequacies of conferences than they have specifically to do with Dance UK’s version, which, truth be told, is extremely well-organised, fairly low-key, and takes place in a generally warm and open atmosphere.

My (still wet) shoe is kind of bugging me at this point, plus I’m afraid of overstaying my welcome (as I was originally invited in gratis for only one meeting) and getting caught and thrown in jail, so I leave. I need to go to Somerset house anyway to help my girlfriend pack boxes at a wedding trade show – something called Quintessentially Wedding. Opulent doesn’t begin to describe this affair. Here, in Somerset house’s West Wing, they have unfurled entire meadows on to the floorboards, installed full-grown trees, and have you enter a sort of expensive bucolic fantasy, with prim, exquisitely dressed women smiling and sauntering, and men hired as waiters who are, I’m later reliably informed, all male models. It’d all be sickening if it didn’t all smell so damn nice.

But I arrive at closing time, and I’m here to help my girlfriend’s work stuff in a van, and almost immediately after I arrive there are thicker, burlier men who don’t smell quite as nice and who aren’t quite so suave brush past me and start deftly and expertly packing everything, rolling back the artificial fields, packing them and swiftly taking them down narrow flights of stairs lost somewhere in the back of the building, and so I follow their retreat towards the stairs, taking the few boxes I’m suppose to take downstairs, and put them out in the courtyard, while they all head up to get more, and sort of just stand there and I light a cigarette, alone.

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