Surf’s Up

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Mark Makin, touring associate, introduces a new house dance project and a visit to the UK Dance Showcase

Recently a large number of our programmers, who trust house to help with their theatre and development work, asked us whether we could support them to explore booking more dance theatre.

From this we called out for expressions of interest, received 25 programmer applications, and selected eight from across the breadth of south-east England to be involved in a dance-programmer pilot initiative. The venues range from very established theatres with a strong dance programme to venues with no dance programming at all.

We teamed up with Surf the Wave to take this delegation to the UK Dance Showcase in Bournemouth in May 2019. It was totally excellent. Superbly organised, welcoming, surprising, delightful and at times challenging. Exactly what you need in any festival.

The programme included a wide and eclectic mix of performance, discussion, debate and networking time, and it was a joy to see the house programmers connect and bond with each other and with the wider UK programming and dance network. Especially enjoyable was the programmers’ session with Peggy Olislaegers: despite going along as a passive observer I ended up getting a grilling from Peggy, which was fun.

I know the shows that I would love to tour, but it’s not about me. It’s about our programmers and what they feel would work for their regional audiences.

We’re excited to see the choices that our programmers make from what they saw at the festival and with the ambition of at least one of these pieces going on to tour to not only to the 8 dance venues but also to the wider house network in 2020.

Watch this space.

Mark Makin, July 2019

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The eight house delegates also reflected on their experience of the Showcase.

“I am not known for my love of dance.

It’s an art form which, in all honesty, I have avoided. Traumatised by disastrous ballet lessons as a five-year-old, I rejected it wholeheartedly. My energies were focused on theatre and comedy, with shows which have clear structure, meaning and narrative. Dance became something mysterious, impenetrable and confusing, something I wasn’t clever enough to understand – much less programme for my venue, the Old Fire Station in Oxford.

So when I was given the chance to attend Surf the Wave, I was a bit nervous. Three-and-a-half days of dance. Yikes. Jeremy, the Director of the OFS, gave me some sage advice before I left: he told me to switch off the part of my brain which always searches for a narrative, to stop thinking about what it all might mean, and just… enjoy it.

Later on, watching Gracefool Collective dive around the stage in wedding dresses, or seeing blades of light slice across a smoke-filled theatre in Surge, I realised that I was enjoying it. I joined in when pulled up onstage, I whooped and cheered and clapped. There were some pieces I didn’t like – usually the ones on the more obscure end of contemporary dance. But there was so much that really spoke to me. I stopped waiting for something to happen, and just… let it happen to me. And I loved it.

I’m somewhat stunned to say that I am now a dance fan. Now to work out how to bring the really good stuff to the OFS…”

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“Programming for love….

Four days of contemporary dance, surrounded by like-minded dance lovers, great food and a sea breeze…. what more could I want? I am literally like a child in a sweet shop.

But as programmers we need to question ourselves, who are we programming for? Do we have balance? Are we able and willing to programme for audiences we don’t recognise, who are not just versions of us?

It is easy to programme wonderful work that makes your heart sing (even if that same work sometimes makes your Marketing Team weep) but how do we select work when it is not our bag and where is the line?

Quality is the first question. Then I move onto the audience journey: if we don’t programme for more than just the culture vultures, the carbon copies of ourselves, how do we make our venues relevant for a cross section of our community? How do we make sure our residents feel ownership of their venue? A clever marketing team (and I am lucky to have one of the best) will seduce that audience into other genres, tempting them with the spectacle of contemporary circus or a talk with a well known personality.

If we use a Tribute Band or our Pantomime as the entry drug then contemporary dance is hard core, making it even more important that the quality is exceptional. Our dance audiences are strong and growing but in every live performance there are audience members who are putting a toe in the water, seeing if this seemingly exclusive arts form is for them. We must not let them down!”

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“A wide range of dance styles compacted into a whole 4 days.

As an emerging venue with little experience in dance, the conference was an incredible opportunity to network with the dance industry, see some amazing work and really envisage how dance can become part of the programme here at The Curve.

One of the key learnings for me were the different audience experiences made possible through dance. Whether that’s taking part in a dance battle in the Pavilion gardens, imagining the castles of Wales; sitting in awe of the incredible lighting effects during SURGE, questioning how something that amazing even comes together; or feeling such an urge to dance after watching some incredible young women stepping in a car park!

Attending a talk about Scalability and Adaptability also opened up the world of rural touring to me, reminding me that high-quality dance isn’t restricted to traditional theatrical spaces.  Still House’s SESSION pushed me to think about what other spaces could we use for a dance programme and Lanre Malaolu’s Elephant in the Room showed me what incredibly emotional work could happen in a space similar to ours.”

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Even travel sickness didn’t diminish the experience.

Surf the Wave was one of the most well curated and welcoming events I have ever attended. It was a complete joy from start to finish, even the travel-sickness-inducing bus rides! I laughed, I cried, I learnt an awful lot about dance and made some genuine friends for life. Thank you house for giving me the opportunity to be part of it.”

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Meeting in the middle.

As a dance novice I was nervous as I took the long train ride down to Bournemouth, surrounded by a carriage of excited dancers. I love conferences because I love to learn, but I had no idea where to start in this ambitious, packed four days of talks, pitches, and performances. Luckily the showcase was, above all else, an accessible and open experience that had a real sense of people coming together.

The programme was varied and at times challenging – I saw work that I hated as well as lots that I loved, but importantly there was nothing that I was ambivalent about. I also loved that it was a showcase not necessarily about the forms of dance and the act of being a dancer, but of the world around the work. There were talks about marketing, audiences, scaling the work up and down for different places, work for different ages, and the art of programming the work. The latter was an unexpected and welcome surprise; so much of our time programming is spent in the doing, and we spend so little time being able to reflect on the craft of what we do, and why.”

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Four days of contemporary dance by the seaside.

Over 40 shows to choose from, across two different locations. Lots of conversations and card-swapping, one ride on the Bournemouth big wheel and, due to a foolish decision on the part of yours truly, only one ice cream.

Over the four days, I managed to watch 17 and a half performances, attend several talks, and meet lots of people.

My role is Marketing & Comms, but I’m lucky enough to work in the sort of venue where everyone pitches in. Our Playhouse Director offered me the chance to go to Surf the Wave in her stead, with house, to look for exciting new dance that would fit on our stage. Going with house gave me the chance to discuss the work with practised and professional programmers, giving me another perspective on the pieces I saw.

Attending with a view to programming, as a marketer, meant fixing two parts of my brain together: would the show work on our stage, fit in our programme, and — six to twelve months down the line — how would I sell it, and who would our audience be?

The shows that I loved the most were the ones where I stopped thinking of logistics, and just enjoyed the performance…”