Arts: Decades of dancing on a piece of paper

London's Dance Umbrella Festival owes it success and scale to the tireless efforts of one woman
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The Independent Culture
A single sheet of A4 paper brought about the first Dance Umbrella festival 20 years ago. Val Bourne, who started the whole thing and still runs it, has the documents to this day. She remembers that Noel Goodwin of the Arts Council's dance panel came back from a visit to New York and mentioned an organisation there that provided the shelter of a joint season for companies which could not otherwise afford a showing. Why don't we try the same? people asked. Bourne, a former dancer working in the Council's dance department, was told to draw up a scheme. She did so, succinctly on that sheet of paper, then left the Arts Council to become dance officer for Greater London Arts.

To her surprise there came a phone call from her former boss, Jane Nicholas: "Well, the money's approved; you'd better do something about it." Luckily her new employers agreed that the project could fall within her remit.

The money, in fact, wasn't much - not enough, for instance, for any advertising except a single scrappy leaflet. But somehow, within about nine months, Britain's first festival of modern dance was up and running taking its name, Dance Umbrella, from its American inspiration (with permission - Bourne is always punctilious). And thanks to word of mouth, plus a boost from Time Out (whose dance editor, Jan Murray, became a member of Umbrella's board), audiences in the admittedly modest theatres were near capacity.

Looking at the grand scope of this year's Dance Umbrella, it is a shock to remember that in 1978 there was just enough cash for two weeks at Riverside Studios by British dance soloists and tiny groups. This was combined with a fortnight by four American soloists which Murray was already booking for the Institute of Contemporary Arts. The Arts Council threw a tantrum about this; they wanted a purely domestic festival and insisted that not a penny of their support be spent on the foreigners, so the cost of presenting them had to be raised elsewhere.

Compare that with this year's festival, when the Barbican, the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Sadler's Wells, the Roundhouse, the Place and the ICA are all brought into play over a period of two full months, not to mention a week of site-specific performances in the new British Library, no less. And now the impressive British contribution is matched by dancers from Germany (the renowned Frankfurt Ballet's overdue British debut), Japan, Holland, Spain and even Russia, besides four American companies who are long-established Umbrella favourites.

Siobhan Davies, whose internationally admired company starts the season tomorrow with a new programme that has already been cheered on tour, was one of the hopeful young British dancers taking part in 1978.

She was there for the opening night when a long, long solo (52 minutes with no music) by the American Douglas Dunn drove some spectators to leave during the action and left others weary and bored.

One man even shouted as he walked out: "Bloody rubbish, you're insulting my intelligence," which prompted another voice in the audience to exhort the dancer: "Just carry on, I love it".

In fact the problem was, if anything, too much intelligence: an intellectual handling of highly varied movement into contrasted sequences that could seem dry. We had never seen anything remotely like it before - but that was the whole point.

"It threw everybody off kilter," Davies remembers; "dancers, critics, choreographers. But it was very good for us all, challenging ideas about what dance could be. That opened a door, and we had to move on."

British modern dance had begun only a dozen or so years earlier with the reorganisation of Ballet Rambert and the founding of the London Contemporary Dance, and by 1978 the handful of our dancers involved in the first Umbrella was more or less the entire quota available outside those companies. Nowadays, Bourne reckons, there are about 300 groups spread around the country. Whether most of them have high enough creative standards is another matter. But the best can be very good, and most of those have been nurtured by Dance Umbrella and have been stimulated by the variety of challenging work that the Umbrella presents.

When Davies moved on to form her own company in 1981, Dance Umbrella (by then a recurrent fixture) helped find rehearsal space, organised a tour for her, monitored her financial stability and helped her to understand what she wanted to do. And the opportunity for performances each year made all the difference to her and other developing British artists. "It meant that one had a commitment to a regular platform in an exciting arena, made it possible to throw a line out into the future. We had a future."

Davies is only one of many now admired and established British creators who owe much of their achievement to Val Bourne and the shelter of her Umbrella: Richard Alston, Jonathan Burrows, Michael Clark and Shobana Jeyasingh, for instance, are among others taking part this time. But one reason why the British contingent had to grow strong was (as the funding bodies eventually realised) the constant challenge of the artists Bourne found overseas: amazing and previously unknown performers such as Bill T Jones and Arnie Zane (a partnership as close and rare as that of Fonteyn and Nureyev), and the Japanese-American duo Eiko & Koma who return this year; choreographers as unusual and provocative as Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, Maguy Marin, Mark Morris, and many more.

It is not only London that has benefited. Even in 1978 the Arnolfini in Bristol joined in to take three of the Umbrella presentations and for years Umbrella took several of its offerings outside the capital, until it found that this cost too much.

However, it started a management service and still organises many tours. It has also put on festivals in the North-west region, in Newcastle (which continues, but now under local management)and in Sheffield and, most recently, the Woking Dance Umbrella, which also continues on a biennial basis.

All this has been not so much a career as a loving obsession for Val Bourne. Judge the extent of her commitment by the fact that in the early days she willingly turned out of her own home and stayed with a friend so that visiting dancers could use her flat, since there was no possibility of their being able to afford hotels.

In fact something similar can still happen, and did only the other day when confirmation was still awaited for funding one of the Umbrella's future projects.

Yet she always plays down her own part, and praises the colleagues who have worked with her. Dismissing the time she spends fighting for money, juggling venues and dates, holding the hands of her artists and racing all over Britain, Europe and America to find new talent, Bourne likens her own contribution to that of anyone who, seeing and enjoying something, wants to show it to all her friends. "I consider myself extremely privileged to be able to have such a good time", she told me. But Davies, like the rest of us, has a higher opinion:

"Our world is a more exciting, richer, kinder place because of her work. And to do it always with courtesy and thoughtfulness, as she has done, is an extra."

Dance Umbrella begins on 1 October at venues across London