Neil Nisbet says tweeting links to petitions is a poor substitute for consistent participation by the dance sector in discussions about the profession and culture in general.
Over the last couple of years the talk in the wide world of culture has almost incessantly been about funding cuts. Alongside that has been some fairly muted counterpoint from a few, some would say, privileged members of the arts community. Every time we read about the case for arts funding it's usually being made by Nicholas Hytner, Artistic Director of the National Theatre, or the director of the Royal this that or the other. Their arguments usually fall on deaf ears since they all come across as people speaking out in defence of their own substantial pay packets and even more substantial pension plans. Disingenuous doesn't even begin to cover it.
Stop waiting for somebody to ask you to get into the fight, just get in there before it's too late.
So what of everybody else, the massed ranks of the small and mid-scale? Well, apart from a minor scuffle late last year over the failure of the government to include the arts as a mandatory requirement in the new EBacc in schools, that prompted a few dance companies to openly comment, they have all been as quiet as church mice. Far from being a rich source of discussion, ideas and advocacy for the profession as a whole, dance companies come across, publicly at least, as being entirely disinterested in the world around them. Last year, when we published the piece on the shockingly poor pay for professional dancers at English National Opera, how many dance companies spoke out, openly, in defence of their profession's most vital resource? None! 'The Royal Ballet's Women', a piece that focused not only on the lack of female commissioning at the Royal Ballet but the all too obvious sexism in the dance world, elicited the same level of response. In fact, only one dance maker we contacted actually agreed to comment for the piece.
Just to give you some idea of the level of the open discussion being conducted in dance I give you the Rural Retreats, run by Dance East in Ipswich. During the annual get together this month David Nixon, the AD of Northern Ballet, is quoted as saying: "Dancers often used to be thought of as children and even now they are still sometimes called girls or boys rather than men and women or just dancers. I want to get to the point where dancers don't think of themselves as girls and boys... They need to think of themselves as adults." Given all the ballet dancers working in the world today who have forgotten that they are adults this is probably sound advice or Mr Dixon should immediately resign, take your pick.
Mark Baldwin, the Artistic Director of Rambert, who was also in attendance, said: "It's important to create a culture within a company so that dancers can talk to you [artistic directors] whenever they want to." Essentially, try not to be a dictatorial, jackass if you run a dance company.
Many would argue that simply doing what they do should be enough to demonstrate the merits of dance companies and culture as a whole to both the public and the politicians. In a perfect world that might be true, but in the current climate it simply is not, nor has it ever been, enough. More needs to be done, much more. Tweeting links to petitions is just weak sauce. What the dance profession really needs is active and consistent participation in the discussions about the profession and culture in general. That participation needs to come from the company directors, choreographers and the dancers.
However, leadership must come from the top. Adding the voices of company directors and choreographers to the debate and discussion surrounding all facets of dance can only be a good thing for the profession as a whole, no matter what the topic. This participation needs to be thoughtful and visible to anybody who wants to see it or read it. You all have websites, Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, email accounts, phones, computers and a tongue in your head and I strongly urge you to use all of them.
If Akram Khan wants to go to the national press and complain about the arts having "too much" money then one of his peers needs to immediately debunk his ridiculous reasoning and do it publicly. It's not about arguing, it's about setting the record straight and creating some balance in the narrative. Stop waiting for somebody to ask you to get into the fight, just get in there before it's too late.
Neil Nisbet is Editor of the contemporary dance magazine Article19