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Taking steps to bring down the dance genre barriers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 August, 2013, 4:39pm

Normally, the dance programme at the Edinburgh international festival is measured by the status of its international stars. Vintage years have included the Merce Cunningham season in 1979 and the mass of Mark Morris performances during the early 1990s.

But this year, for the first time, the headline act is homegrown. Called Dance Odysseys, it's a collaboration between Glasgow-based Scottish Ballet and Dundee's Scottish Dance Theatre (SDT) - four days of dance (on until Wednesday) programmed by both companies, including 20th-century classics such as Twyla Tharp's minimalist The Fugue, and new work by the likes of Henri Oguike and James Cousins.

It's been masterminded by artistic directors Christopher Hampson and Fleur Darkin, who both arrived in Scotland last autumn to direct major companies for the first time - and were thrilled with the thriving state of the Scottish dance scene.

"After years of plugging away as a freelancer, it's like being given the keys to the means of production," Darkin says. Hampson has brought a determination to broaden Scottish Ballet's way of working. He's quick to acknowledge the lively state of the company he has inherited, but believes he can "crack the walls open even wider", working with dance companies from different backgrounds. The contemporary-based SDT was an obvious candidate. And from his first meeting with Darkin, it was clear she had similar ambitions.

Professional dancers tend to be isolated from their peers by their long hours, and for Darkin the prospect of having the two companies take classes together, make work together, "and most importantly just hang out" seemed full of possibilities. But discussions were only vague until the Edinburgh festival director approached Hampson to put together a programme for 2013.

There wasn't enough time for a project that combined both companies in one piece (that's in the pipeline for 2014), but even so Dance Odysseys, which will be staged at the festival today and tomorrow, offered the two companies a historic opportunity to share the same stage. Hampson and Darkin see it as both the start of a deeper connection, and emblematic of a new spirit of engagement in the world of dance as a whole.

Hampson recalls that even in the late 1980s, when he was a student at the Royal Ballet School, classical ballet and contemporary dance were widely viewed as separate, often hostile camps: "Classical dancers who went off to do contemporary were looked down on. Even when the Royal first brought in a work by [contemporary choreographer] William Forsythe, there was a chasm."

Contemporary dance was separatist, too. As Darkin argues, "Historically it developed as a reaction against the institutions of ballet. For a long time there was something tribal about it."

Today, both choreographers believe those barriers are coming down. "I don't feel a strong attachment to any vocabulary," says Darkin. Hampson agrees. "Mainly I refer to what I do as 'dance'. So do most of my peers," he says.

If this collaboration is evidence of a sea change, it can also be seen as a response to harsher economic times. Cuts have affected the already underfunded dance community badly, and more institutions are teaming up. "It should be natural" for a company such as Scottish Ballet to share its resources, Hampson says. And for Darkin there's also a political argument: "Dance needs strong voices. We're much stronger together."

They feel Scotland is an inspiring place to make things happen. "Everyone is just a phone call away," says Hampson. "It's easy to get the right people round a table."

And even more significant is Scotland's attitude towards the arts, as Darkin explains: "Its policy is to look outwards and to encourage cultural exchange." She points to the gulf between Westminster's cynical arts policy and the visionary enthusiasm of Scotland's culture secretary, Fiona Hyslop. "I mean," Darkin says, "if you were an artist, which country would you rather be in right now?"

Guardian News & Media

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