Dance 'til you drop

There is one art form that is attracting a younger, hipper audience than ever before. So what's bringing them to a traditionally 'difficult' medium? Lyndsey Winship finds out
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The Independent Culture

It may still have a smaller audience overall, but this is an art form driving itself into the big league. Sadler's Wells, which has refocused itself almost exclusively on modern dance, had its fastest-selling spring season ever this year. The success can be put down to the number of good companies around that offer a real breadth of styles - and audiences that are more informed than ever.

When Dance Umbrella's artistic director Val Bourne launched the festival in 1978, it was to give a platform to emerging British talents. "At that time, there were 12 companies and four soloists. The idea was to put it on in a good theatre with good production. And get an audience for it," she says. With 26 events this year at nine venues and an audience of thousands, it seems to have worked. Over time it has steadily moved into bigger venues, including one-off events at the Natural History Museum, the British Library and Tate Modern.

Bourne, now 66, says: "I think, back in the 1970s, London was top of the list. Then we were overtaken by places like Paris, New York and Berlin. But now we've clawed our way back." Mainly thanks to improved theatre spaces, like the renovation of Sadler's Wells in 1998. "I have to confess to being somewhat London-centric because I believe in a critical mass," she says. "When you have a big arts community you get good work emerging."

But what about outside the capital? Graham Morris, the former chief executive of Sheffield Theatres and recently installed at Newcastle's Theatre Royal, has seen a real willingness to experiment outside the capital. "In Sheffield the biggest example was [Brazilian choreographer] Deborah Colker, who I can't believe a lot of people in Sheffield had heard of. She sold out the Lyceum for two or three performances. People's eyes were popping out of their heads." The raised profile is not just about great art, but initiative, leadership and good marketing. Last Monday saw the launch of the second Place Prize, a £25,000 biennial choreography contest. The competition provides funds for a shortlist of 20 to create new 15-minute works before judges and the audience can vote live, Pop Idol-style, for their favourites. John Ashford, director of The Place theatre and originator of the prize, thinks that the industry can only benefit from the competition.

"I think there's modesty built into the art form because a dancer's instrument is their body and it's almost perpetually in decay," he says. "In theatre you get actors who are 65 years old and command the stage, but you don't hear much from dancers after they stop, unless they become choreographers. It lacks its grand figures, and that's an impediment.

But there are the beginnings of an establishment. In America, Merce Cunningham danced into his 70s and is still working now, at 86. Mikhail Baryshnikov has defected to modern dance in his later years.

The first generation of British dancer/choreographers have also matured and developed strong identities for their own companies. They include Richard Alston, with his lyrical, musical style that borrows from ballet's Frederick Ashton as well as Cunningham, and Siobhan Davies, who returned to the stage this week with her classic White Man Sleeps.

The Place estimates that 500 new works were created in the UK by professional choreographers last year, and with visits from a multitude of international companies, that makes for a lot of dancing.

Contemporary dance has a reputation for being "difficult" and lacking in narrative. But just as you don't need a story to enjoy a piece of music or modern art, contemporary dance is about emotions, dynamics, textures, visual and musical patterns and the audience's reactions to them.

While a night at the Royal Ballet will see you looking out across a sea of grey hair, the contemporary dance audience tends towards a younger crowd. At The Place, the 25 to 35s are the largest single group, followed by 16 to 24s. They aren't ballet-goers, more a cosmopolitan, culturally adventurous crowd.

Julia Carruthers, head of dance and performance at the South Bank Centre, says her dance audience is one of the most diverse. "I love being able to look around the foyer and think 'who the hell are this lot?' rather than feel surrounded by the dance mafia, which is what it was like a few years back."

One of dance's biggest strengths is that it is a natural partner for other art forms, bringing in audiences that are attracted as much to the composers as the choreographers: from Richard Alston's perceptive interpretations of Brahms or Michael Clark dancing to PJ Harvey and The Fall.

There are plenty of new commissions coming from dance for contemporary classical composer Ben Park, and Nitin Sawhney is working with Akram Khan. Khan is building a list of world class collaborators across the arts, including sculptors Anish Kapoor and Antony Gormley. Those big names are great for publicity, but they also mean the audience gets more for its money.

Now even architects are lining up to work in contemporary dance. One of the most visible changes is the flurry of new landmark buildings. The Herzog & de Meuron designed Laban centre in south-east London won the RIBA Stirling architecture prize in 2003, and Edinburgh's Malcolm Fraser Architects came up with Dance Base in Edinburgh and Dance City in Newcastle - a new theatre and studio space that is due to open next year.

Rambert Dance Company has just announced plans for its new £16.5m home to be sited behind the National Theatre and sees the space as the final piece in the artistic jigsaw on the South Bank. Top-ranking architects Allies and Morrison are on board, but it's not just about eye-catching design, more the fact that students, agencies and companies now have decent workspaces. Rambert's current home in Chiswick is cramped and leaky - hardly suitable for "Britain's flagship contemporary dance company".

But this is still a difficult industry to succeed in. Never mind the technical demands, fear of injury and often short careers, with more and more companies competing for funding, and few dancers on long-term contracts, most work freelance, often supplementing income with teaching work.

There is yet another potential glitch that could slow dance's growth - the Olympics. Arts funding in general and increasingly for dance comes out of Lottery money, one of the prime sources being redirected to fund the 2012 Games.

Not that this can dampen Val Bourne's drive. Her next idea is to get contemporary dance on big public screens like ballet and opera And over at Sadler's Wells, the artistic director Alistair Spalding has been approached by the Tate about doing some collaborations with them. It looks like there are still more small steps and giant leaps to come for UK dance.