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Q&A: Emma Gladstone, Artistic Director of Dance Umbrella on 21st century choreography

Dance Umbrella, London’s international dance festival, is getting ready to celebrate 21st century choreography across the capital. Artistic Director and Chief Executive since 2013, Emma Gladstone has commissioned hip hop, ice skating and folk dance, as well as contemporary dance, as part of her desire to broaden definitions of contemporary choreography. We talked to her about censorship, gender bias and emerging dance talent from around the world.

Eli Goldstone: What different styles and approaches to dance can audiences expect from the festival?

Emma Gladstone: Well, it seems odd to start by saying what it’s not, but in fact the unifying thing about this year is that none of the shows are narrative. They are about group dynamics, identity, ageing, power, memory, choreographic structures, relationships, anonymity, technique and the lack of it and more, but not about stories. I love the fact that dance can take you places beyond logical thought, and it’s that area that interests me most at present, where you don’t the need to follow the thread of a linear storyline.

The styles range from busy movement-led shows at Sadler’s Wells, to kathak-inspired group work at the Barbican, and performance work at The Old Truman Brewery, which uses bodies but no steps. Jérôme Bel’s piece Gala, which opens at Tottenham’s Bernie Grant Arts Centre has a cast of 20 Londoners, and I think can proudly be called a conceptual show. Whereas Quarantine’s show at Battersea Arts Centre could maybe best be described as danced theatre. Some, like Jamila Johnson-Small, are working on their shows as I type this, so it will be a surprise for all of us. And others like the performances at the Unicorn are good old fashioned contemporary dance.

In the end how we name the styles are less interesting, of course, than the quality of the work, and what the artists have to say. The range of work simply reflects what choreographers are making. I am excited by many different kinds of work, and feel any approach is valid to be considered as long as it is led by movement.

Eli: How important is it to you to reach beyond a traditional dance audience and how do you set about doing that?

Emma: It's definitely a priority for me. I love running a festival that is not building based. It means we can seek out the best place to take the work we invite in, rather than look for work to fit any particular stage. We can also go to where audiences are, rather than expecting them to come to us. A large part of my job is to connect artists to audiences who will get what they are saying, and if we get the frame right then I think audiences interested to come and see dance can expand. We have partnered with the Young Vic, the Unicorn, and big and small arts centres in inner and outer London as well as put shows on rooftops, ice rinks and parks since I took over in 2013. And I hope by going to those places as well as the tried and tested dance house we can reach new folk who might not think they like the stuff.

Eli: There is a lack of visibility for female choreographers in classical and contemporary dance. With two thirds of this year’s Dance Umbrella programme featuring female choreographers, are you optimistic about the future of representation for women in choreography?

Emma: It’s a long term battle actually, but given the amount of interest, protest, debates, women featured by e.g. English National Ballet, TwoFaced Dance, and in DU again this year, I hope we are helping to change the landscape. Step by bloody step.

We did a debate at City Hall this year as part of Big Dance, called Man Up: The Gender of Choreography. We had a healthy discussion, and it confirmed to me that so much of it is about awareness. We talked about the pros and cons of quotas, and I think once an issue is regularly on the table then it becomes part of your thinking. It’s no longer ‘other’. It’s part of the core. Which is a state of mind that can arguably be applied to most discussions about diversity, including those that are raging around the cultural sector at present.

Of course there is also a much bigger social picture to be considered - how audiences react to work, how quickly male genius is recognised by us all, and what is considered ‘good’ work by press, programmers, funders, award panels, the writers of dance history, and more. I do think we are heading in the right direction. And I do think we can make changes together (this is an issue in theatre, visual art, opera, as well as dance). But it would be good to move up a gear.

Eli: Aditi Mangaldas makes her debut appearance on the Barbican stage with Inter_rupted. How is this significant in challenging the perceived dichotomy between Indian classical and contemporary dance?

Emma: I would argue that would be the same for any classical dance form. The best way I have found to describe the difference between the two is classical dance being primarily about confirmation, using an established vocabulary, and contemporary dance being about exploration, with an invented one.

The significance for Aditi Mangaldas is that we have been able to commission a work that I hope has helped her explore new territory, with some great new collaborators, and then bring that work to London audiences at the Barbican. I first went to see her because Akram Khan had told me how exceptional she was, and three years later she is here with a new piece, the first time she has presented her company in Europe outside of a South Asian focus. And that’s exciting.

Eli: There is a discussion on censorship being held as part of the festival. What are some of the ways that dance suffers from censorship?

Emma: This is the third year we have held a Body Politic debate, and we wanted to consider both self-censorship by artists when creating work, and censorship imposed externally, i.e. by the state. After all, the places in the world where dancing of any sort is actually not permitted are not so very far from us here in the UK. With Belarus Free Theatre, Turkish producer Pelin Besaran and London choreographer Jamila Johnson Small, I think it’s a good line up.

How to be articulate as an artist is something we talk about a lot, in particular when our world is one dominated by movement rather than text, and so to discuss physical and ideological constraints alongside verbal and legal ones should be intriguing.

Eli: Finally, how does Dance Umbrella nurture emerging dance talent?

Emma: We do this in different ways, mainly when the festival is not right upon us! We support artists directly via research projects, giving feedback and advice, making introductions to programmers or potential collaborators (aka cultural dating) and of course commissioning new work. It’s a pretty cold world out there especially for independent artists at present, and we try our best to warm things up a bit.


Dance Umbrella

Celebrating 21st Century Choreography

7-22 October 2016

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