Dance crazy! Pop videos and iconoclastic talent appeal to new audience

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The Independent Culture

There is no disputing that dance is having a moment in the sun. And that's as true for watching it as for doing it. But this isn't just about couch potatoes slumping in front of spangly TV talent shows. Notwithstanding the recent cuts passed on by Arts Council England to many of its clients, a review of ACE-funded organisations has revealed dance as the fastest growing of all the arts, with attendances up by 103 per cent over 12 months. Another survey, of theatre audiences in the West End of London, found that 71 per cent of people attending dance shows rated their experience as "very good", compared with an average of 63 per cent across all the theatre arts. Whatever form it takes, dance is clearly perceived as providing a memorable night out.

There is no single reason why this should be happening now. While it's true that English National Ballet is enjoying a heightened public profile following last month's BBC4 series Agony and Ecstasy: A Year with English National Ballet, its audience numbers were up long before the first episode aired. Its new production of The Nutcracker which opened last December was the fastest selling production in the company's history, and in the summer of 2010, its arena Swan Lake significantly outsold the same production's previous seasons at the Royal Albert Hall. The Royal Ballet, too, has reported changes in the make-up of its audiences. Last December, of the 10,000 people who bought tickets to its double bill of Les Patineurs and Tales of Beatrix Potter, 44 per cent were first-timers at the Royal Opera House. Certainly, Darren Aronofsky's film Black Swan has pushed an art form once thought rarefied into the popular consciousness, but this has merely caught the tailwind of a trend that had its own momentum.

Contemporary dance also seems to be riding a wave, with major theatres signing up associate choreographers. (Sadler's Wells can claim Matthew Bourne and Wayne McGregor, among others; Brighton Dome, rising star Hofesh Shechter, interviewed below.) Theatre managements are also keen to associate themselves with the craze for street dance, the Barbican putting its might behind the East End company Blue Boy, and Sadler's Wells the hip-hop outfit Zoo Nation, led by choreographer Kate Prince (also interviewed below).

The biennial Place Prize, sponsored by Bloomberg, is Britain's biggest choreographic competition. By the close of the current award, for which finals are held in central London next week, Bloomberg will have sponsored the creation of 76 new works to the tune of £1m since 2004. But this is no exclusive enterprise. True to the have-a-go spirit of the times, the competition is open to anyone on submission of a three-minute video outlining their idea. Sixteen entrants are selected and given everything they need to create their new work: studio time, technical support and expenses of £5,000. The four finalists compete for £10,000 of audience-voted prizes, as well as a bigger prize allocated by a jury.

Little wonder that dance is now the second most popular physical activity for young people after football, and that, although 40 per cent of girls drop out of all sports activity by the age of 18, their favourite activity outside school is dance. School heads with tight budgets should pay attention. Youth Dance England reports that it costs only 58p of public investment for each school-aged young person to take part in its national programme, compared with £38 per child for music and more than £79 for school sport. Requiring no more than a teacher and a level floor, dance is a bargain all round.

The artistic director

Eddie Nixon, 40, associate director of The Place, a dance and performance centre in central London

"I have flipped between the two worlds that the dance scene has experienced. The world I first encountered was different to what we see today. When I first got into this, dancing was a speciality of few people. But thanks to a cultural revolution, which involved things like the Saturday night TV shows, dancing became an art that anyone could practise and appreciate. Dancing is today a broader art, a more diverse and eclectic world. At The Place, we have more men dancers today than we ever had, and that is because young people who come from urban backgrounds like hip-hop are more aware of dancing. Dancing is just another career choice now. With this, both the style and the audience have got wider. And the original idea of the Place Prize illustrates this shift."

The hot choreographer

Hofesh Shechter, 35, associate artist at The Place. Hofesh Shechter Company is the resident company at Brighton Dome; its hit shows include the double bill Uprising and In Your Rooms and last year's Political Mother. Shechter also created a sequence for the opening credits of the TV series Skins

"I think the fact that I was born in Israel has a lot to do with the type of dance I perform and create. I was the drummer of a rock band, and did some experimental electronic projects. I ended up being the pianist of the Academy of Dance in Jerusalem. It was the 1980s, and Fame was a huge influence for everyone. I kind of wanted to be Leroy. There were not many male dancers at the academy, and that is probably why they signed me up. Then I lived in France and afterwards settled in London. Two years later, thanks to John Ashford, I was an associate artist at The Place. The dance scene in London is very rich. Half of the dancers of my company, in fact, are foreign. With them, the musicians and the crew, we are about 30 people touring around the world."

The ballet bloggers

Emilia Spitz, 39, and Linda Uruchurtu, 30, co-founders of the Ballet Bag blog

"The image of dance is changing fast. You only need to look at Kanye West's video with ballerinas to see that. Some people who were perhaps only aware of the classics are now seeing that there are different and modern ways of using ballet. We set up the blog almost two years ago as a way to debunk myths about ballet. Now we have about 50,000 unique visitors a month. There were already websites on the art form, but we couldn't identify with them. We wanted to make something that was fresher and younger and mash it up with pop culture, rather than looking at ballet in an isolated bubble. I think social media has changed the image of ballet because discussions can be had more openly. It's incredible to see the Royal Ballet performing at a venue as big as the O2. Even five years ago you would never have seen that."

The new faces

Freddie Opoku-Addaie, 30, and Frauke Requardt, 35, 2011 Place Prize finalists. Freddie is associate artist at the Royal Opera House. Frauke is associate artist at Greenwich Dance, London

"What best describes contemporary dance is the fact that an artist can go beyond stereotypes and narratives. We like to be as unpredictable as possible. And at The Place Prize, we feel free to break rules. Dance is not only seen as entertainment any more. Choreographers have the flexibility to go into other arts, such as film or opera, and make their own personal shows. What I [Frauke] did with David Rosenberg in Electric Hotel– a site-specific choreography done in different places in London – was an insane, ambitious project done with little money."

The ballerina

Daria Klimentova, 39, English National Ballet prima ballerina and star of Agony and Ecstasy: A year with English National Ballet on BBC4

"Ten years ago, there was hardly anything happening. Now it's much better, thanks to television and cinema. Since I appeared in Agony and Ecstasy, which showed life behind the scenes at the English National Ballet, young girls now point at me in the street. I had so many letters from people saying they had never seen ballet before and that now they really wanted to come. The series showed the drama of the whole process of putting on a ballet and made it human. If they'd just screened a full-length ballet on television I'm not sure it would have been so successful. Because of the series, the two shows of Swan Lake we did last week were sold out. The director heard people saying they came to watch because of the documentary. The next challenge is getting more children into it. I have a 10-year-old daughter who says ballet is boring. She has a mum as a ballerina and she still likes the games on my iPhone more than watching the ballet. I think the answer is to make something interesting on television for children and young people that makes ballet exciting."

The street dancer

Kate Prince, 36, choreographer and founder of ZooNation dance company

Despite the horrible funding cuts, dance isn't going away; it's becoming a lot more mainstream. There have been some watershed moments recently – like the T-Mobile advert they did in Liverpool Street station with all those people dancing, and breakdancer George Sampson winning Britain's Got Talent. Dance videos in the 1980s and 1990s were incredible at raising the profile of dance as an art form, but then it went downhill again and got quite tacky. Particularly in hip-hop, dancers were hired just to gyrate in bikinis and wash cars. Dancing became so background, but it's on its way back now. Singers like Justin Timberlake who can dance well have done a really good job of bringing dance forward. Shows like So You Think You Can Dance?, which I work on, as well as Strictly Come Dancing and Britain's Got Talent, have made dance something you watch on a Saturday night. It's become a lot more accessible rather than something people are scared of. When we opened Into the Hoods in 2008, it was the first ever hip-hop dance show in the West End, but it ended up being the longest running dance show there ever. Once people get over that hurdle – that something with hip-hop in it is a niche market – people realise it's fun and family friendly.

Interviews by Daniel Bardo and Emily Dugan