Dance Consortium has just embarked on its 50th tour. Its Chief Executive Joe Bates shares how the universal language of dance engages international audiences.
Dance Consortium was set up in 2000 to support venues with dance programming and give audiences access to high-quality international dance. Since then, the organisation has grown into a world-leading group with 18 large-scale member venues working together to offer much more than dance performances.
We are the only touring consortium model in receipt of regular funding from Arts Council England – our venues include NPOs, local authority venues and commercial theatres representing a broad range of programming visions, curatorial approaches and hugely diverse business models.
The consortium model enables members to share ideas and challenges and develop strategic initiatives locally, nationally and internationally. We are based at Birmingham Hippodrome supporting dance artists and practitioners, driven by the ethos that this region is a place where people working in dance can live, work and sustain careers.
Alongside programming companies from around the globe, Dance Consortium runs strategic programmes such as the Ailey Project UK in collaboration with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Future Leaders Programme, which provides routes for young people into working in the arts and cultural sector.
Connecting artists internationally
On a national level, Dance Consortium supports its members and a wider group of stakeholders to engage audiences with dance in all its forms and scales. This doesn’t necessarily mean bringing more venues into the consortium but supporting existing members to work with local partners to run programmes and develop new audiences.
As well as developing the dance ecology on the ground, our collaborative approach connects artists to international companies, who then develop their own relationships in the international arena. For example, Dance Consortium’s most recent Ailey Intensive Summer School at Milton Keynes Theatre enabled young dancers from the global majority to connect with this world-renowned company. We are now exploring how these young dancers might travel to New York to engage with the company’s work in the future.
Dance development and international working have always presented challenges. Work can often be resource-heavy and expensive in a sector with limited resources and a relatively small infrastructure. However, as a predominantly non-verbal art form, dance is naturally international and can break down barriers. The UK has a significant number of international choreographers, dancers and producers who are well placed to explore local and international cultural exchange.
But we need to move away from ‘buying’ and ’selling’ towards 'cultural exchange and sharing’, promoting a diversity of voices, experiences and mutual respect. There are not many touring consortia operating at this scale around the world. My aim is to develop our profile internationally, connecting cultural organisations and funding bodies in other countries to further promote this model of working.
Dance is a live experience
The touring sector in the UK has faced huge challenges, but new and innovative ways of connecting with people are emerging. Digital and online engagement has become more embedded in organisations’ strategies and led to stronger appreciation of the ‘live’ experience and the need to connect with people in person.
Digital engagement can help build audiences and engage people far and wide. For example, half the participants in our online masterclass with NDT2 in March 2022 were from outside the UK. We now include an online offer as part of all touring activity. For example, for this autumn’s live touring production of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo we are offering a ‘Dying Swan’ online workshop and ‘From Dancer to Diva’, a virtual make-up workshop.
But ultimately, dance is a live experience. Dancers are hugely skilled in the articulation of bodies in space, understanding body language and the importance of touch and personal interaction. Arguably, this can only truly be experienced when watching a dance performance live. Dance Consortium plays an important role in promoting the unique experience of watching live dance and sharing the art form with those new to it.
Greater than the sum of its parts
So, what might the future hold? We are operating in uncertain times as the country heads into recession and the cost-of-living crisis continues. Government priorities shift and government departments compete for tight budgets. That said, the levelling up policy will surely continue as there is a shared understanding across all political parties that investment has focused too much on London and the South East.
I don’t think the artistic vision of dance organisations and artists needs to significantly shift as long as we stay flexible and open to change. However, how we articulate what we do does need improving. We need to tell our stories more loudly and we need to strengthen the evidence we use to demonstrate the impact of our work.
This will help our sector make the case for continued funding from both public subsidy and philanthropic giving. We need both to survive. The sector has made a good case over the past decade about the intrinsic and instrumental value of the arts including the economic, social and health benefits. But we need to continue to come together, share and collaborate. To misquote Aristotle: ‘The Consortium is greater than the sum of its parts’.