Why do we see the world’s finest contemporary dance companies in our theatres across the UK? Because Dance Consortium has made it possible and viable, says Heather Knight.
The birth of Dance Consortium came out of a simple premise: a recognition that when international dance companies toured to the UK they almost always only performed in London. Also, that there were superb dance companies from around the world that simply did not have the financial means to tour the UK. While there are other theatre consortia operating around the country, Dance Consortium is unique within the UK dance sector. It is made up of 19 member theatres, spread across the UK, with a mission to tour international dance companies to a national UK audience.
Dance Consortium was formed formally in 2000. However, in lots of ways we began before that, operating under a different name. In the 1990s and before there was very little international dance touring in the UK except Dance Umbrella. I suggested to Sadler's Wells Theatre that when they brought these shows to London, we should tour them around the country. We approached Arts Council England (ACE) and suggested Nederlands Dans Theater 2 (NDT2). The first tour in 1997 was promoted as ‘Sadler's Wells Presents’. We then went back to ACE to request funding to bring back NDT2 to work on establishing audiences as we knew that we already had small but enthusiastic ones. Fortunately we received funding for three years, which prompted the formation of Dance Consortium as it exists today.
Around the turn of the Millennium, when we were looking to recruit member theatres there were lots of venues that had been newly refurbished or built such as the Lowry in Salford and the Wales Millennium Centre. The late Stephen Barry, who among many other roles was a member of the dance panel at ACE, contacted large-scale theatres in 2000 and asked: “Are any of you interested in forming a group to tour international contemporary dance in the UK? If so, come to a meeting in Milton Keynes.” That was the start and the first tour was in 2003. We are now on our 29th.
The consortium is made up of large theatres with big audiences and there are not many companies that can fill them
In those early days one of the major challenges was convincing the managers of the member theatres that there genuinely was an appetite for contemporary dance across the UK. We would discuss the repertoire and programme and really get them to understand contemporary dance. It was new territory for most of the theatre managers, with Sadler’s Wells being the only member theatre whose entire artistic programme focused on dance. We were teaching them as we went along, but the venues really enjoyed it. By the time the first company we toured came to the UK, they were cheering for them as if it was their own football team.
An important initial decision when planning a tour is which company to present. As well as wanting to bring the finest contemporary dance from around the world, Dance Consortium is also about making contemporary dance accessible. The consortium is made up of large theatres with big audiences and there are not many companies that can fill them. This requires a lot of discussion but between us all we are very aware what works. Over the years we have established a policy of bringing back particularly successful companies such as NDT2, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and the Deborah Colker Dance Company from Brazil. That way we establish relationships between them and our audiences.
One of the most gratifying achievements since 2000 is how much our tours have developed an audience for contemporary dance across the country. The demographics represented in our audiences vary hugely from venue to venue – even two shows in one place can get a totally different reaction. One of the major benefits of the member theatres’ involvement with the tours is that they can use their knowledge of their local audience to best target their press and marketing campaigns. While we have our own press and marketing team, each theatre’s own communications teams are also actively involved with promoting the tour – it really is a case of an organisation being greater than the sum of its parts.
The group has been together for a long time and we really encourage them to get to know the other members, so regular meetings take place with representatives of each member theatre. The theatre's marketing managers, education departments and technical directors get together each year and they say that the most useful thing about those days is meeting other people facing the same challenges. The majority of theatres would not tell another theatre if they were doing well or badly so the fact that we circulate ticket sales each week is a big deal. And if one venue is doing better business with the same company, we share why we think it is working.
There are numerous challenges with running tours for a foreign company, not least simply communicating. There are inevitably technical challenges to the productions we tour; companies are often nervous about facilities, get-in times and having to take a show on the road for a month or more, so we have a production manager who sees the whole technical side through. Officially, I am both coordinator and tour manager and that combination is important; you can organise lots of things from a desk in London but you do not get the details right unless you are there in the theatre. I go on the road with every Dance Consortium tour to liaise between the company and venue. It is essential to have that consistent connection to limit friction and ensure tours run as smoothly as possible.
Our current tour and the next one see two radically different companies that have unique challenges. This autumn we have brought over the Batsheva Ensemble from Tel Aviv. It is a youth company and this is also its first time to the UK so there are a lot of security and logistical issues to overcome. Early next year we are bringing back one of our favourites – Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo – always a huge hit with our audiences.
Despite all the potential pitfalls and challenges, the pay-off for me is when I sit and purr quietly in the stalls as another performance gets a standing ovation. First and foremost, I am a dance fan so seeing audiences rise to their feet is always a joy for me.