DANCE / Dancing to a different tune: Keeping music live can mean killing dance: Judith Mackrell reports on the uneasy relationship between dancers and the Musicians' Union

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Jiri Kylian is one of Europe's most influential choreographers, his company, Netherlands Dance Theatre, is a world-class ensemble. Yet when NDT perform in Bradford this month it will be the first time in 17 years that British audiences have seen Kylian's work on his own crack dancers. The only other European countries to have suffered so long an absence are Albania and Romania.

The story behind NDT's prolonged unavailability is that of all the difficulties which have long beset dance in this country. The first problem, which goes without saying, is the lack of ready cash. The second is the scarcity of venues big enough to accommodate large-scale companies. (When, if ever, will London have a suitable dance house?) And the third is the delicate relationship which has existed for years between dance and our Musicians' Union.

In Europe and America, dance and theatre companies are at liberty to perform to taped, rather than live, music if they choose. Yet in Britain, the MU has a ruling that anyone performing to music has to employ live musicians unless they're given permission otherwise. This is usually granted when the scores in question exist only on tape - sound collages or certain electronic works - or when they are so indelibly associated with particular performers that no other musicians could substitute. (London Contemporary Dance Theatre are currently touring Christopher Bruce's Rooster with music by the Rolling Stones. The MU accepts that none of its members could quite produce the same effect). Yet even in these cases, the Union pressurises companies to include some live music in an evening.

From the musicians' point of view, this ruling is obviously desirable; yet for dance it can be disastrous. Even though taped music is never a simple option, given all the licences and fees which have to be negotiated, it still comes much cheaper than using musicians. And there are many situations where the cost of the latter is literally prohibitive. NDT, for example, performs many works to full orchestral scores, and in order to show the full range of its repertoire (works like Kylian's magisterial setting of Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms) Bradford's Alhambra Theatre has had to book a choir of 40 plus an orchestra of 72. The choir are a local amateur group and don't cost much, but the orchestra, also drawn from players in the region, adds pounds 45,000 to the cost of the week's season. Peter Billingham of the Alhambra admits that NDT's visit has only been made possible through funds donated by the European Arts Festival. Without that kind of help, large-scale dance companies now present an unaffordable risk to most theatre managers and impresarios.

Though NDT's Alhambra season offers some solace to frustrated Kylian fans, it could be years before the company visits again. And NDT has been only one amongst many companies that British audiences have missed over the last couple of decades. A whole generation of dance-goers has grown up without seeing the Martha Graham Company or the Frankfurt Ballet. American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, the Mark Morris Dance Company and the Paris Opera are absurdly infrequent visitors. Blame for this should not always be attached to the MU, yet even when some big names have made it here, the Union has spiked their performances with infuriating restrictions. Two years ago, the Alhambra presented America's Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre in its first British season for 15 years. This company performs mostly to taped music - blues, spirituals and jazz. But in order to comply with the MU's demand for a live element, it was forced to present Ailey's Night Creature (one of the few works they dance to live music) every night. Tough if you were a devoted Ailey fan and had booked to see all three programmes - you simply got to know Night Creature very well.

There have been countless similar difficulties with smaller groups too - visiting companies like Momix and Pilobolus have been forced to perform to live music where it's not only been expensive but artistically inappropriate. And the same problems have blighted British companies. Several years ago LCDT acquired Paul Taylor's Arden Court, a classic of the modern dance repertoire. Yet because this work is accompanied by a full orchestral score the company has never been able to afford to tour it nationwide. Similarly, the small-scale touring wing of English National Ballet, which often takes ballet to venues without a proper stage or orchestra pit, has had to restrict its repertoire to works accompanied by a piano or, at a stretch, a string quartet. As the company's administrator, Carol McPhee, says, it's very hard on audiences who want to see extracts from 'the tutu ballets' which are danced to orchestral scores, when there's no possibility of using tape.

What prevents the MU's rules from being broken, though, and what kind of threats does it wield? The Union has one set of agreements negotiated with theatres, another with individual companies - and both boil down to an insistence that no taped music be used without its permission. If an individual company breaks this ruling, then the Union can insist that its members refuse to play for that company. If a theatre breaks the ruling, then the Union can call for a boycott of all the performances in that theatre. This would mean a near black-out for a venue like the Alhambra, which puts on musicals and pantos as well as regular concert recitals.

Dancers and choreographers are far less effectively unionised than musicians and don't throw their weight around in the same way. So the dance community tends to regard the MU as a kind of playground bully, and feels that it has to keep its nose clean and do what it's told. (Almost everyone I interviewed requested that they remain anonymous, afraid that their relations with the Union might be soured.) Yet Peter Morris, industrial officer of the Theatrical Management Association, thinks the dance world is unreasonably overawed by the MU, which he claims is far more amiable than is supposed. He says that the Union regularly turns a blind eye to very small companies using recorded music, and that it is currently negotiating with ENB to let its touring group use more taped music too.

Other people also suspect that the MU is softening its position. Yet this more benign vision isn't borne out by remarks made by Ken Cordingley, assistant general secretary of the Musicians Union. When quizzed on his Union's relationship with dance, he reiterates the fact that it 'considers sympathetically the use of recorded music if there are good artistic reasons for doing so or if companies are so constrained by space that they can't accommodate musicians'. Yet he feels it's a basic aesthetic principle that live dance should be accompanied by live music (using recorded music is 'as absurd as having an orchestra playing to a film of dancers'). And at the core of his argument is the steely determination to put his members' interests before anyone else's. 'We don't think that anyone in the performing professions - dancers or theatres - should be putting pressure on musicians to stay at home.' The fact that dancers themselves may lose work because the use of live musicians makes a performance impossibly expensive doesn't cost him any sleep. 'A pity though that may be, companies shouldn't think of using music without properly considering how they are going to provide it.'

One reason why Cordingley talks so tough is that he feels his Union's stand against canned music is being perilously eroded. He points to the increasing use of 'treated' music by modern dance groups, which diminishes the employment of live musicians; also to the fact that it's now considered acceptable for ice-dance to be performed to tape even though it always used to be accompanied by an orchestra.

Yet Cordingley is wrong to fear that the dance community will rush to sack musicians if it's given half a chance. Rather, while companies can afford live music, most will actively prefer it. Even though tapes or records have the advantage of cheapness and consistency (there can be no erratic beats or duff notes to put the dancers off their stride) they also produce a far more dead sound. None can galvanise the same excitement that is generated by dancers and orchestras sharing the same space, none can fill an auditorium the same way. Carol McPhee says ENB would never dream of performing Swan Lake to a tape. And a company like Rambert, which makes an artistic point of using newly commissioned or contemporary music, couldn't get many of their scores supplied on tape even if they wanted.

But despite these positive thoughts about live music, the dance community remains angry about the MU's sometimes futile determination to hold its ground. Keeping NDT out of the country for 17 years frustrates audiences without providing any employment for musicians. Preventing LCDT from touring Arden Court means that the public outside London are deprived of seeing a classic without gain to the many musicians that the company conscientiously employs. In a climate where there is so much less money available for the arts, the Union should consider softening its position further. As it is, its official line still seems to be that, if musicians can't get their full share of the cake, then other people shouldn't even get the crumbs.

Netherlands Dance Theatre is at Bradford Alhambra, 8-12 December (0274 725000)

(Photograph omitted)