Modern dance world split as ticket sales fall: The boom in dance seems to be over, and accusations of self-indulgence are flying. David Lister reports

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Revisionism. Political posturing. And unfettered name calling. The divisions in contemporary dance seem akin to those in the Labour movement of 10 years ago as two festivals open to fears that the Eighties boom might be over.

Dance Umbrella, the annual showcase of modern dance, opened in London last week, and next weekend it will be joined by a sister festival in Newcastle.

The Newcastle Dance 92 festival includes events ranging from teenagers from the deprived West End district brandishing brooms in a specially choreographed event at the Central Station, to the premiere of a work with slide projections in an 18th-century church and the septuagenarian American tap dancer James Buster Brown, with the Manhattan Tap ensemble, aiming to start in Britain the tap revival sweeping America.

But there are a number of indications that the dance explosion of the Eighties is waning. Next month the Arts Council will publish figures to show that 1.4 million people attended contemporary dance in 1991, 13.5 per cent down on 1986, while classical ballet sold 2.5 million tickets, a 7.2 per cent increase over the same period.

The figures are to some degree deceptive as they are garnered from the 14 large companies. The 134 small and medium-sized companies claim their audiences are increasing.

Many, though, are agreed that the favourable reaction to the smaller companies with live music, humour, mock erotic gesturings and sometimes theatrical storylines, has coincided with a turning away from the often coldly abstract pieces with minimalist music that has characterised the work of the larger companies.

Leading the revisionist tendency is Mary Ann De Vlieg, the Dance, Mime and New Circus officer with the South West Arts Board. She says: 'The Eighties dance boom seemed related to aerobics and fitness. Arty people will say it was a real interest in dance, but arty people would say that wouldn't they? I tend to think it was to do with fitness. These things are fads.

'A lot of the younger choreographers have trained in art college as well as in dance and want to be entertaining. A company like Adventures In Motion Pictures put on a little musical every time they perform. The trend now is definitely to be less self-indulgent, less art for art's sake.'

Siobhan Davies, a leading choreographer for 20 years, has created works for both LCDT and Rambert. The descriptions of her latest work (which sold out at the Riverside Studios, Hammersmith at the weekend) seem aimed at a specialist audience: 'These songs are not adhered to literally by the dance. In fact, the movement and the score lead separate lives, but can by chance inhabit the same time.' She uses live contemporary music but remains a champion of abstract style.

'Abstraction has been abused by making it dry and inaccessible. My work is a commitment to many forms of body movement, from the highly technical to the expressive, trying always to find what the human frame is capable of expressing. I've become more and more comfortable with the fact that it has human potential without getting involved necessarily with a linear story like classical dance.'

Funding bodies worried that the boom might be over are also concerned that the marketing of dance has not kept pace with the imagination used to market opera. Senior figures in dance also believe that newspaper critics (though they exempt the Independent) rarely venture out of London. The lack of a national dance house is another handicap.

But most are agreed that, while audiences will still flock to the likes of Merce Cunningham and Siobhan Davies, it is the new wave of more spectacle, props, live bands, humour, storylines and even text which is capturing audience imagination.

Julia Carruthers, dance officer at the Arts Council, says: 'Audiences are down for contemporary dance. But interest in small and middle-scale companies is burgeoning, and the new wave of multidisciplinary outfits using text and, in the case of DV8, having a political message about, say, sexual politics or equal opportunities - not having men do all the lifts and the women simpering in the background.'

(Photograph omitted)