Best foot forward: Power & Influence in the Arts: Dance. Critics call John Ashford bullish, but without him where would modern dance be? Judith Mackrell on the director of the Place Theatre

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The Independent Culture
The dance world has always been able to produce charismatic stars and articulate bodies, but it seems less good at breeding tough-talking administrators, bullish manipulators of committees and budgets. It's possibly no accident, then, that the man who has been most responsible for promoting and selling small-scale British dance over the last decade, the man with one of the biggest controlling shares in the future's big names, came out of the verbally more aggressive world of theatre.

John Ashford started out as drama critic for Time Out, championing the cause of experimental work during the early 1970s. From there he went to the Royal Court, as General Manager of the Theatre Upstairs, and from 1977 to 1984 was Director of the ICA. He also directed plays (including works by Caryl Churchill), but in 1986 he took what seemed a peculiarly sideways (even downwards) step, not only turning to dance but taking over direction of the small and distinctly unhip Place Theatre.

This was not an obvious venue from which to exert much influence. Situated in a featureless site near Euston, seating only 250, it commanded a tiny budget of pounds 178,000. It seemed to put on a rag-bag assortment of theatre, music and dance events that didn't have anywhere else to go - most dance groups were anxious to perform at the far more fashionable venues of ICA or Riverside. But Ashford, with a stubborn, some thought arrogant zeal, declared that he was going to turn the Place into the London dance venue, programming 46 weeks of independent dance each year. People pointed out that there wasn't 46 weeks' worth of new dance to show, so Ashford went looking for it.

In fact his appointment coincided with one of those rare bursts of activity that grace art forms every now and then. A new generation of choreographers was coming fresh out of college with confident, privately invented movement languages to show the world. They needed a venue which would turn their disparate activities into a visible London scene. Before Ashford's reign at the Place, these choreographers could scrabble for two or three nights at one of the half-dozen available fringe venues, or they could hope for a date in the prestigious Dance Umbrella festival run by Val Bourne. But Umbrella only lasted for a few weeks a year, was partly geared to presenting international work, and was also moving up market to show larger scale work. Ashford saw the gap and moved in.

He became a familiar figure at colleges, out-of-town performances and festivals, checking out the new work being made. He began by presenting a six-week season called Spring Loaded that showcased the best of this burgeoning choreography as well as giving space to more established companies. As the new work matured he added another annual season of one-night stands for fledgling dance-makers. In yet another long season, The Turning World, he brought in companies from Europe, Japan and America, and regular programmes of Asian dance added to the global scope. Audiences, partly drawn in by clever marketing, came and stayed. The theatre now shows 32 weeks of dance a year (to balance its books it has to be rented out for the rest of the year), has a budget of pounds 700,000 and, to meet with public demand, has squeezed in another 50 seats. Its reputation as the sharpest and most active dance venue in town is unassailable. But Ashford has done far more than give artists an audience and a space. He has also worked hard and loyally to support their careers. In 1988 he conceived the Place Portfolio sponsorship scheme which aimed to seduce hip-ish yuppies into 'investing' small sums of money in new choreography. The scheme won an Absa award and was widely copied. For years he has also provided vital office space and administration for a small group of companies within the Place Theatre. And he has become a powerful promoter of British dance within the international market-place.

When New, or Post-Modern, Dance started being made in Britain in the late 1970s, it was a penniless, ad hoc affair. But as the form has grown up, here and abroad, festival directors, promoters and theatre managers have become greedy to find the newest, the hottest and the best. Ashford is one of the most flamboyant players in the market. He's frustrated of course by the minuscule budgets with which he can work. But he loves the argy-bargy of negotiation and he not only manages to buy in a huge amount of foreign work, he is also very good at selling British choreography abroad. Many choreographers like Jonathan Burrows, or Shobana Jeyasingh owe their success on the international dance circuit to him, as does the status of British New Dance generally. At a platform showing of new choreography this weekend, he has 225 promoters attending, around 150 of them from abroad.

The number of awards which Ashford has garnered testifies to his extraordinary tenacity, vision and showmanship. In the smallish pond of New Dance he has become a very big fish indeed.

But is he a shark? Certainly he has his critics. Ashford has very decided tastes, and when he first came into dance his interests veered passionately towards movement with strong imagery and a gut communication level like the work of DV8. He was suspicious of choreographers working with abstract or inherited dance language. He wasn't interested in traditional dance values like sophisticated footwork, line, rhythm or musicality.

Companies who thus failed to get the Ashford seal of approval felt that their chances to perform and develop were being blocked - particularly as, at times, Ashford has seemed an omnipresent power on both Arts Council and awards panels. As one observer remarks: 'The dance world is so small that, if a single person gets a lot of power, they seem to be running everything.'

Certain critics and members of the public feel that he is too undiscriminating. The price that Ashford pays for programming so much dance at the Place is a drastic unevenness of quality. Work has been presented there which is nave, badly performed and amateurishly conceived; and, while some audiences remain loyal and write off the occasional dud, others are scared off. Some critics have also become irritated by the amount of sub-standard work that they've been persuaded to sit through and are inclined to stay away.

Ashford's skin can be dangerously thin in this area. He's had rows with critics whom he regards as failing in their attendance duty at the Place, or as blind to the diversity of what he puts on. He gets too easily sucked into conspiracy theories about classical ballet and mainstream modern dance dominating the dance world. And, in his passionate partisanship for the new, the small and the experimental, he can fail to appreciate what's good in other kinds of dance, even fail to be civil to other members of the profession. In all this he has encouraged a certain unproductive polarisation of loyalties and views.

But recently he's started admitting to his own prejudices - becoming more curious, more admiring of pure dance and classical tradition. This is a good thing since next year he starts working alongside one of Britain's greatest exponents of pure dance, choreographer Richard Alston, when the latter takes over the newly formed Place Company, which will have close links with the theatre.

Alston's tastes and certainties are about as strong as Ashford's and the dance world looks forward to an interesting relationship. But Ashford's pig headedness is what fuels his phenomenal energy, keeps him wheeling and dealing. It's part, too, of his commitment to the art form. Though he'll admit to a sneaking desire to 'go off and direct a bit of Shakespeare', he remains one of dance's most eloquent fans: 'The fragility of the dancer's body as an instrument gives them a humility that's wonderfully energising and engaging . . . I find the renewing quality of independent dance, the fact that it changes so rapidly, keeps you alive. To me it seems the most appropriate art form of our time.'

(Photograph omitted)

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