DANCE / Feet, please don't fail them now: Rambert and London Contemporary Dance are afflicted by poor reviews, falling audiences and the independence of young choreographers. Judith Mackrell reports on how they plan to grow their way out of trouble

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Mutiny and crisis cloud the air as the dance world argues the future of its oldest contemporary companies. For nearly three decades, London Contemporary Dance Theatre and Rambert Dance Company have formed the backbone of English modern dance. In the bright hopeful days of the late Sixties, they braved the first experimental steps in contemporary choreography, and in the late Seventies, they consolidated a massive popular following for non-classical dance.

Yet over the past few years people have started muttering that these companies might be too expensive to run and, more drastically, that we might not even want them. Audiences have declined, programmes have been slated as mediocre or dull. And the companies themselves seem to have lost their nerve. Both have recently sacked artistic directors, both have been thrashing around for new identities.

What's basically at issue is the repertory system as we know it. Traditionally modern dance has been made by individuals hammering out their own language with a small group of dedicated dancers. Cussed pioneering Americans such as Martha Graham or Merce Cunningham rarely shared the stage or their dancers with any other choreographer. But when the British took up modern dance, audience expectations were different. Our ballet and theatre companies operated on a repertory system and LCDT and Rambert fell in with the same principle.

Although both possessed in-house choreographers, they regularly presented triple-bill programmes in which works by two or three dance-makers would be shown in one evening. It was assumed that audiences needed variety and would more easily be lured into a performance if there was a one-in-three chance of finding something to their taste.

But during the Eighties the creative buzz shifted from these companies to the smaller independent dance groups, which mostly presented just one choreographer's work. As Val Bourne, director of the Dance Umbrella Festival, puts it: 'The public perception of what makes a good evening of dance has changed. People used to buy set meals, and get a mix- and-match of different works. Now they've become more discriminating and they want a whole evening of just Lea Anderson or DV8.'

But the problem for the rep companies isn't simply that their formula has gone stale, it's that they've been unable to keep abreast of choreographic fashion by buying in work from the new radical stars. Few of the choreographers working at the sharp end of European dance - Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, Lloyd Newson or Wim Wandekeybus - seen interested in making work for companies other than their own. Many argue it's simply impossible for a repertory company of 18 dancers to get their bodies around the huge stylistic range currently constituting modern dance.

John Ashford, director of the Place Theatre, watches all this with interest. His 'Turning World' season starts next week, show-casing new dance from five continents - and it does not feature a single repertory company. Ashford feels the current impulse towards single choreographer companies is fuelled by the fact that 'there's no longer a consensus technique, be it ballet, Graham or Cunningham. Each choreographer wants to find their own means of expression, and it's not often appropriate to find that within a repertory company.'

He also argues that, in a world dominated by mass media, it's the 'ephemeral quality' of dance that's most interesting. 'Choreographers today are driven to make work for particular people at a particular time and place. Once the time and place have changed, they may feel that the work is no longer right and they may want to drop it.' They certainly may dislike the idea of it being repeated night after night by a repertory company where they have no control over its development.

Yet, while the rep companies agonise over their inability to court a younger generation of choreographers, they also appear desperate to keep the more conservative members of their audience. LCDT and Rambert are expensive companies to run. They have permanent teams of dancers and musicians, plus largish repertoires, to maintain. To come anywhere close to managing these costs they can't afford to risk emptying their larger venues by suddenly adopting a wild and dangerous image.

Somehow they have to be zappy and cautious, dynamic and cost-effective - and the conundrum seems be intractable. Over the past few years LCDT has opted for a more populist approach - attempting to seduce its mainstream public with a succession of benign but unmemorable works.

Rambert has been a more complex case. Its director of the past six years, Richard Alston, was fastidiously opposed to compromising his own passion for new (sometimes 'difficult') music and sophisticated pure dance. Though this satisfied a large following of dance purists, Alston's aesthetic didn't jell with a younger generation's taste for dangerous, gutsy and issue-grabbing dance. It also alienated the traditional audience who looked in vain for the narrative, humour and theatre which Rambert offered in the Seventies and early Eighties.

Late last year Alston was unceremoniously - and shoddily - sacked by a company board desperate to get its hands on bigger box-office takings. Christopher Bruce - a choreographer with a far more accessible and theatrical style than Alston - was appointed. Bruce's plans aren't public yet but it's rumoured that he wants to take the company up market. He wants more dancers and musicians and he'll probably start acquiring works from an older generation of modern classicists such as Kylian or Forsythe. This will bump up the company's profile but will also escalate costs - Bruce is thought to have asked for pounds 500,000 in extra funding.

Significantly LCDT also feels that the way out of its doldrums is to expand. Its chief executive, Peter Sarah, has spent months consulting dancers, choreographers and audiences about what they require from a large modern company and he thinks he's uncovered a new trend. The public, he argues, now wants something closer to the scale of ballet and opera - a big night out with lots of dancers and exciting production values. Sarah hopes to appoint a group of artistic associates, as well as an artistic director, who will all work with the company in different ways, producing full length works or special events rather than simply contributing to triple bills.

To attract the right choreographers Sarah also wants to be able to offer longer and more intensive rehearsal time - which accounts for some of the extra pounds 300,000 he's asked for in funding. Critics of the repertory companies say this is all far too expensive and that LCDT and Rambert have had their day. We should stop feeling sentimental about their glorious pasts and divert their resources to the healthy but impoverished independent sector.

But others believe there's life in the old dinosaurs yet. Sarah says he found a surprising number of choreographers still interested in working for rep companies - under the right conditions. 'We can be both aspirational and inspirational. We can allow choreographers to work on a scale that they couldn't achieve in a small independent group, and with dancers of an extremely high calibre.'

LCDT and Rambert are also (at least at the moment) permanent fixtures in a risky and under-funded art form. Neither company is keen to become a museum of modern dance - yet equally they are the only British companies with the resources to revive works created or shown here over the past three decades. Without them, potential classics could disappear and British modern dance could suffer a collective loss of memory and tradition.

The arguments continue. Sue Hoyle, Director of Dance for the Arts Council, suspects that, in the long term, the future for dancers and choreographers may lie in organisations far more loosely structured than old-style rep companies - and that, as the latter evolve, they will disappear. It's possible there may be insufficient cash around to support a future for both LCDT and Rambert.

Certainly, as the dance world waits to hear its share of the next Arts Council budget, the fates of the two companies hang in the balance.

(Photograph omitted)