20 August 2013
UK theatre and dance – where are we now?
Lyn Gardner, one of The Guardian's theatre critics, and Donald Hutera, who reviews dance for The Times, formed a panel with Andrew Jones from the British Council London team to discuss the state of UK theatre and dance
Andrew Jones from the UK Drama and Dance team in London kicked the event off by asking Lyn and Donald which Showcase shows they'd recommend. Lyn picked You Once Said Yes as “a great example of something a bit different, a show that's immersive and promenade, where one audience member at a time is passed around Edinburgh like a parcel”. She also recommended Kate Tempest's “dense spoken word show”, Brand New Ancients, which she described as touching on a deep storytelling tradition, hearkening back to telling stories around a campfire. Donald “has a lot of time” for H2 Dance, and liked their piece, Duet, when he saw it as part of the Place Prize in London in the Spring. He also recommended Gecko's Missing which has “a riveting fluidity to it... it's only five performers but they generate an energy that is pretty mindblowing”.
Andrew then asked if the panellists could give a potted history of UK theatre and dance – no easy task! Lyn suggested that UK theatre had changed more in past 15 years than in previous 50 years, in terms of form, how it operates, and the tools that it uses in order to create work. “When people think of British theatre they think of things like RSC... what we have had for many years is a tradition in which the playwright is supreme, and we value that culturally over other forms of theatre. For a long time, British theatre was inherently suspicious of the visual or anything that didn't involve a great deal of text, and of anything that used different forms, whether that was puppets, dance or promenade shows...”
Things are shifting and moving, though: “In the last 15 years we've seen a great deal of change, and the idea of a theatre that has people sitting on a stage and hurling situational chat at each other would now be seen by some as rather old fashioned. That kind of theatre still exists, of course, especially in London's West End and in some regional theatres, and at places like the National Theatre and RSC, because if you have such a long tradition of text-based theatre it means that you have a classic repertoire and you want that to be given an airing. What has really happened in last 15 years is that a whole generation – several generations now – of theatre makers have escaped the ghosts that are clanking about in the basement and are drawing on different forms, finding new forms – and that's really exciting.”
Things happened differently in the dance world, said Donald. “Contemporary dance didn't really flower until the 1960s... Richard Alston and Siobhan Davies are the grandparents of contemporary dance. In the 1980s, Michael Clarke was the cover boy of dance, and then Laban came onto the scene with people like Matthew Bourne and Lee Anderson, and then physical theatre started in a bigger way with companies like DV8. In the '90s, the names that emerged and became superstars were people like Akram Khan, Wayne MacGregor, Matthew Bourne, and now the next generation are people like Hofesh Schecter, Aakash Odedra, James Cousins...”.
The conversation moved on to the divides between dance and drama, and whether they are becoming more blurred – and whether they are helpful distinctions to make. Donald said, “We want work that will change the world, and I don't care where that comes from or what it calls itself.” Lyn agreed, and said that the UK dance and drama scene tends to be pigeonholed: “I don't care what it's called or who reviews it – the most interesting work is hard to define.” The problem, according to Lyn, is that the theatre scene has a tendency to take a rather pick'n'mix approach to other artforms:
“[UK theatre has] always been quite good at temporarily embracing the outside. It's a bit like a magpie which swoops down and is attracted by anything glittery. What that doesn't do is help to develop other artforms or artists – the magpie mentality can be quite grasping.” She also reckoned that drawing boundaries between dance and theatre can be damaging: “By boxing it off and saying this is theatre and this is dance, you exclude an entire audience who may say to themselves 'I'm not interested in dance' but don't realise how interested they might be. By categorising things in this way we do ourselves, our artists and our audiences a real disservice.” As Donald said, we need to “think outside the box” to keep the sector (both sectors) relevant and vital. The Showcase is doing just that, with a real mixture of work included this year.