‘I don’t like safe shows’ Why rural touring might just be the perfect place to challenge both audiences and artists…
Contemporary dance is an art form that tends to confuse people. As a dancer, one of the classic questions I am asked is the dreaded; ‘So what is contemporary dance?’
I’ve still not found an answer.
Contemporary dance, by its nature, is a form that is constantly changing. It adapts to its time, feeds off its past and looks to the future. It resists any strict classifications and, to me, that’s both the beauty and the challenge of it. That adaptability can make contemporary dance a confusing genre to present to audiences, but equally it’s a crucial strength. The ongoing success of the Rural Touring Dance Initative is, perhaps, proof of that. Now in its 4th season of taking dance to rural venues across the UK, the RTDI’s growing programme of work and returning audiences suggest that contemporary dance is much more accessible than is generally perceived.
David Lane, a volunteer promoter for Live & Local (one of 30 member schemes under the National Rural Touring Forum umbrella) has become an advocate of dance in rural venues. “I like to challenge my audience: I don’t like safe shows. That’s what attracted me to dance” explains Lane.
In his role as a promoter Lane is responsible for helping to select, promote and set-up visiting shows for his local community. For Lane it’s important that shows ‘intrigue’ his audience and allow them to experience something different from what they’re used to. Dance, he says, “works brilliantly for that.”
Contemporary dance, as a genre, can cover a broad range of work – some pieces are highly physical, while others are more theatrical using text and speech. As such, contemporary dance has the potential to appeal to a range of interests and, with rural touring bringing dance to people’s doorsteps, the scheme presents an ideal opportunity to stretch our understanding of what contemporary dance is – for both the audience and the artist.
Claire Smith, project manager for RTDI, recalls a conversation with an audience member following a performance of Juliet & Romeo by Ben Duke’s Lost Dog. “They said: ‘you’ve given me this survey form, but it’s about dance’. They hadn’t seen it as a dance show! So really, where are those boundaries - do we put up barriers by defining things as dance?”
It’s an important question – in a form that is so fluid do shows need to fit into boxes? Perhaps the rural touring circuit offers the ideal grounds on which to test this out. “Generally people aren’t looking at whether they’re coming to see a dance show or piece of theatre” says Lane. “It’s more about coming to see something that interests them; for an evening out, for an experience, for entertainment.”
When audiences aren’t going to see a specific show, but for the experience of watching a performance and everything that surrounds that, then suddenly there’s more freedom around people’s expectations.
As Lane has found, dance can surprise people, “They have this great experience and gradually they grow into wanting something more challenging. I’ve heard people say it’s been ‘life changing’, that they never knew they’d enjoy dance so much”.
Rural touring is a chance for audiences to challenge their perception of what they enjoy and, as dance doesn’t prescribe what you take from it, it allows its audience an experience individual to them. For dance artists, that’s an equally rich opportunity; a playful arena for creativity, if you like.
Joan Clevillé, Artistic Director at Scottish Dance Theatre, has toured two works with his company Joan Clevillé Dance as part of the RTDI and is currently creating a third. “With rural touring there’s these opportunities to engage creatively with the audience experience – it’s an audience development lab if you want” he says.
His current creation, Antigone Interrupted, is partly being developed in-situ at a rural venue in Roadwater, Somerset. “You’re not only landing in that community with your show but you’re making it there with them; inviting them into rehearsals, asking for feedback - it’s a really precious relationship to build” notes Clevillé.
It’s a relationship that also changes the way he thinks about the work he’s making: “To think how a performance is going to go from a theatre venue to a village hall, is a really beautiful creative journey. For Antigone we’re going for in the round. I think that came directly out of these experiences and enjoying that proximity and economy. We’ve stripped it to the max - it’s literally just a circle of chairs, a performer and a microphone and off she goes”.
The intimacy of rural touring gives artists the opportunity to play with the interaction between themselves and their audience, to push the boundaries of how they present and create their work and, unlike theatre venues, receive immediate feedback. As Lane points out, in rural venues there’s rarely any help from theatrical lighting, “an audience giving a standing ovation a metre away from you - you can see the reaction on their faces!”
That immediate connection can be challenging for both the performer and the audience, but it’s also the perfect environment in which to keep exploring and developing within an art from.
“There’s a real honesty in that connection with rural audiences – you can sense clearly when something is successful or not” says Clevillé. “The chance to test that is brilliant, it prevents getting caught in your own process and world.”
That connection often extends beyond the show, performers and audience chatting together afterwards over a cup of tea and cake. As Clevillé recognises, it’s the ideal place to better understand how the experience of a show was for an audience.
It might be a challenging and changeable environment in which to present work, but for an art form often considered confusing or inaccessible, rural touring could just be the perfect place to ask questions of both artists and audiences and, crucially, get some honest answers.
The answer to the question, ‘so what is contemporary dance?’ may not get any easier but, perhaps with more conversations around dance and the opportunity to share our art form with a wider audience, that question may not need to be asked so often. Let’s keep taking creative risks and give audiences the opportunity to access, relate to and form their own perceptions of contemporary dance. After all, I’m sure we all agree with Lane:
“I want to send them out buzzing about what they’ve just seen, wanting to come back and see more dance”
The Rural Touring Dance Initative's Autumn 2019 season starts on 24th September. Find out more here
Rachel Elderkin is a freelance dance artist and writer based in London. She is a regular contributor to The Stage and international dance site, Fjord Review. Alongside her work as a dancer and writer, she hosts Dance Dialogues: A Podcast, featuring guests from across the dance world. She is also a member of the dance section of the Critics' Circle.