Don't box me in

The three dancers pictured here have one thing in common. They left the safety of a ballet company to go solo. Smart move. By Sophie Constanti
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The Independent Culture
Not so long ago, when British dance was still rigidly compartmentalised and resistant to change, ballet students aspired only to joining ballet companies, and anyone who discovered plies after the age of 16 opted for modern dance. Choreographers were a breed apart but they, too, had their designated pitches. Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan were associated with the Royal Ballet in an era when the notion that they "belonged" exclusively to ballet ran parallel to the more relevant fact that both men happened to be great dance-makers within the classical idiom. And the American Robert Cohan reigned at London Contemporary Dance Theatre partly because, as a veteran of Martha Graham's company, he was perceived as ideally qualified to help generate a modern dance culture in this country.

For decades, the limited interchange between ballet and modern dance followed a rather hackneyed formula whereby megastars such as Rudolph Nureyev and, later and more successfully, Mikhail Baryshnikov, tackled modern dance roles in works by choreographers such as Paul Taylor, Jose Limn and Twyla Tharp. But during the Eighties Britain began to develop a sustainable independent dance scene populated by a younger generation of practitioners who were disinclined to heed the boundaries that, for years, had promoted segregation. These choreographers (such as Michael Clark, Jonathan Burrows and Matthews Bourne and Hawkins) and dancers (such as Lynne Bristow, Deborah Jones and Brenda Edwards) realised that they needn't remain chained to a particular dance style or genre simply because of the nature of their formative training and professional experience.

Decades before Ben Craft, Jeremy James and Russell Maliphant - all Royal Ballet School-trained and now in their thirties - emerged as three of the best modern dancers in this country, the Royal Ballet's Fergus Early left the organisation that had shaped him in order to pursue a more collective, experimental way of working. As a dancer, Early was never in the same league as Craft, James and Maliphant. But in changing course he demonstrated that it was possible to make a contribution in one's new environment. Re-routing one's career as Craft, James and Maliphant have done involves a mixture of sacrifice and risk. To many, walking away from a relatively secure job in a large or middle-scale dance company might be viewed as folly. But, as James says, the all-important question is: "Why stay?" When James, like Craft before him, left Rambert Dance Company, he embarked on a second change of direction. Prior to his stint with Rambert he had been a ballet dancer in Australia and in London. Craft joined Clark for the latter's Because We Must, then gave up dancing to become a model and later worked as a commercial choreographer. In Maliphant's case, the decision to bid farewell to tights and eyeliner came after seven years of dancing and touring with Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet.

In the brave act of extricating themselves from "endless performances of stuff [they] didn't believe in", all three have also discovered the downside of going solo: the economic hardship that afflicts most self- employed dance artists. The irony, explains Maliphant, "is that you leave a company in order to do what you want and then you find that you're not in the financial position to do it... But nothing would tempt me to go back." The men have also had to fight against the debilitating legacy of being constantly defined as exquisite interpreters of other people's work - Craft in Alston's and Clark's; James in Siobhan Davies's; Maliphant in Lloyd Newson's and Laurie Booth's. Craft, for instance, has been accused of selfishness in wanting to make and perform his own dances, simply because he was deemed to be "such an enormous asset to so many choreographers". Certainly, there's a wariness behind the idea of dancers setting themselves up as choreographers which stems from the mediocre work so often produced. Yet Craft, James and Maliphant have not only proved to be original and articulate dance-makers but, since turning to choreography, have re-invented themselves as dancers - none more radically than Maliphant in his partnership with Laurie Booth in Spatial Decay and then in his own Paradigm and Unspoken.

Through their richly textured, eloquently personalised physical languages, Craft, James and Maliphant have challenged the closed-shop mentality. There will always be people who claim that Craft and his colleagues have opted out - on the grounds that, nowadays, these men are more likely to be found sharing their own choreography with an audience of 300 than performing as members of Rambert or Birmingham Royal Ballet. For Craft, James and Maliphant, however, it's not the size of your audience but the quality of your work that matters.

n The 'Spring Loaded' season at the Place, London WC1 (0171-387 0031) features Ben Craft in 'Thought Station' and, with Kate Gowar, in 'Barb' on 12 Mar; Russell Maliphant and James de Maria in 'Unspoken' on 13 and 14 Mar; and Jeremy James & Company in 'Head' and 'Minty' on 16 Mar

Three that got away: the ups and downs of going it alone

Jeremy James

Two years at Royal Ballet lower school, then at upper school for a year before being expelled. Joined Australian Ballet, then Western Australian Ballet, London City Ballet, then Rambert.

On the Royal Ballet School: "I was a form monitor but I wouldn't tell people what to do, so I was sacked."

On ballet: "I never really enjoyed it that much, but you get stuck. I did all the midget roles. I quite like the idea of ballet as a self-perfection thing that you practice every day like t'ai chi."

On money: "It's a constant worry. But if I wanted security I'd have stayed at Australian Ballet or even London City Ballet and I'd probably have a nice little flat in Chiswick by now."

On the future: "I'm not so interested in performing anymore; I'm calming down. I can't see any possibility of having a full-time company - there isn't the money."

On funding: "One Royal Ballet costume would pay for me to do a tour."

Russell Maliphant

Began dancing at age 10. Went to school in Cheltenham, then to the Royal Ballet School at age 16. Joined Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet in 1981.

On the Royal Ballet School: "If you were going to take an afternoon off it would be when you had a modern dance class."

On ballet: "There's a lot in the classical technique, but it's often expressed in a rather barbaric, unintelligent way."

On working with DV8: "It was shocking and liberating. I realised there was an aesthetic I liked and it was very different to what I knew."

On money: "I do Rolfing [a form of massage] and can earn double or triple the amount that dancing pays. I've also done carpentry to get by."

On the future: "I might work abroad or do more teaching."

Ben Craft

Attended Royal Ballet School from age 10. Joined Maurice Bejart's company in Brussels, then Rambert.

On the Royal Ballet School: "We were taught not to ask questions and, to a degree, that's right. But I didn't know what I could achieve when I was there. I still look back on eight years of pretty unhappy childhood. People go to the Royal Ballet School and think they're absolutely normal. They're not."

On ballet: "I'd like to see more people improvise with the classical vocabulary. It's a great discipline."

On money: "I try to earn money outside dance to buy time."

On funding: "The authorities need to throw a lot more money at this whole thing. Artists should know when to say 'no': we should consider going on strike. There are too many classical companies and too much money going into them."

On the Royal Ballet: "They don't go and see enough to know what 'modern' is."

On dance: "There's serious hatred between ballet and contemporary dance. If people can't do something they slag it off."