The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Presenter Interview
Founder Val Borne talks about   the Dance Umbrella festival
Could you tell us what do you emphasize as your festival theme?
I think this is going to sound stupid, because it sounds evasive, but it’s really “Excellence.” And “Diversity.” Not nationality at all—that is why this is the first time we’ve ever done program like this year’s French one. Because I haven’t really wanted to restrict myself to one country. Even this year, we don’t. We have [American] Mark Morris, we have Forsythe [American active in Germany], and we also have [Canadian] Daniel Leveille, as well as eight British companies. So it is not exclusive or anything, but also it is interesting that of all countries. It is probably only France or the U.S. (that you) could do this way because you have enough choice. In fact, there were several companies that I would like to bring from France if we’d gotten the money to do it.

Many of us have a perception of the U.K. as a theater country more than a dance country. And in fact there are countless theater venues but just a few that are specifically for dance.
You are correct. We started out with Shakespeare. We are very much a text, literature culture. But dance is also developing very rapidly in the U.K. For example, at our very first [Dance Umbrella] festival in 1978, we had twelve British companies, and four soloists. Today there are at least 300 companies.

Mission-wise, would you say that your festival is dedicated more to promoting excellence than to promoting the artists of the U.K. specifically?
In addition to promoting excellence, another important aim for us is to represent U.K. artists within the international context. Usually when we choose works from overseas, I look for something better than what we have here in the U.K., or of a completely different sort. So I always look for something which is different and has something special identity or character. I don’t do this alone of course I have my colleague, Betsy Gregory. Sometimes we go together to see works, sometimes not. I trust her decisions in the case of things she has seen and I haven’t.

You are also starting a new program this year called “Brief Encounter.” Is this something to support emerging artists?
There are two things this program is aimed at. There are younger artists, who have not performed at Dance Umbrella before—it’s a way of widening the structure to include young artists. But, it’s not just that. For example if there are established artists who have not a full evening work but just a 20-minute or a half-an-hour show, then they could do that if they wish. For example we have a choreographer named Rosemary Butcher who is very established, making dance for over 25 years. She had a very small dance piece like 20 to 25 minutes a wonderful solo. We asked her if she wanted to show that [in Brief Encounter], but she eventually chose to do a longer piece. As a result, the first Brief Encounter will present a piece by a new artist.
The idea behind Brief Encounter is—and I don’t know if it will work—that we have the Sadler’s Wells Theatre, but there is also the Lilian Baylis Studio Theatre, which is in a same building with a different entrance just around the corner, but only 150 seats. If you have a ticket for the Sadler’s Wells Theatre, you can also go to see something in the Baylis Theatre, if you are quick for you come to the theatre at 6:30 or because it is going to be just a half-an-hour. And at 7:30, you see the performance at the Sadler. For people with a Sadler ticket the Baylis admission is free. But the Sadler’s is a 1,500 seat theater and the Baylis Studio just 150, so not everyone can see both. Admission is on a first-come-first-served basis. Then there are people who just want to see the Baylis performance, and for them the admission is five pound—not expensive.

That’s interesting. It’s like a second card at a boxing match, isn’t it?
Yes, like warm up. People who come to Sadler’s are quite conservative. They don’t want to try something new. We try to seduce them. We offer something we think is really interesting and tempt them to try it. That is the concept behind Brief Encounter. Will it prove to be a successful idea? Well, I don’t know. We’ll see.

These are short works and admission is free, but do the performing artists receive a proper performance fee?
Oh yes, absolutely. It is treated as a proper show.

Last year you had a total festival audience of 39,000. What was the demography, in terms of age, income, ethnicity, etc.?
It varies with which the venue. For instance, Sadler’s Wells has an older and richer audience.
In order to encourage younger people, it’s often governed by price of seats. Good seats in Sadler’s Wells cost £25, which is expensive in England, though maybe not in Japan. There are also £12 seats in the very back in the 2nd Circle, but they are not very good seats. So we do this thing where we offer standing room tickets for spots very close to the stage for just five pounds. Very good view. All you have to do is to wear comfortable shoes and be prepared to stand. It is very popular. These people are very often new to dance and new to theater, and they come because they thought “OK with £5, I can try it.” You can tell that they are first comers to the venues like Sadler’s Wells, because every time I walked out from the Metro station everybody is asking where the theater is. So it’s been very, very well received for 4 years now, and successful.

How about people who can regularly afford tickets at the Sadler’s Wells? Do they go to the more experimental venues like The Place Theatre?
A few of them do. We have been trying this year to arrange a central box so that you could ring just one number and book tickets for four or five different venues. But this is very hard because they each have different ticketing rules. So people still have to ring each venue to get tickets separately.
Another thing I would say about audience trends is that there used to be about 70% women, 30% men. But it is changing now, and I think it is about 60-40 now at Sadler’s. And The Place is much near 50-50.

So with 50% of your budget coming from the government, does it mean that your festival is obliged to provide cheaper tickets to attract a younger audience?
No. We are the ones who want to do that. We want to attract the younger generation. There is a danger of having only an older generation audience with money. We want to make sure that the younger generation will come too.

In other words, when you have a wealthy audience, financially the festival is safe. But it means that the festival does not have a future audience.
Yes, and it’s an interesting thing that if we do performances which are not in the theater space, you get again new people coming. For instance we’ve done four or five things outside of the theater space, starting with Natural History Museum which we used for an American choreographer. We have also used the British Library floor for a site-specific work that was very successful. We used the Crystal Palace in the National Sports Center, and we used the Tate Modern for Merce Cunningham. This year we will do one at Tate Modern again in much smaller scale for the Rosemary Butcher work I mentioned earlier.

So these new venues are also a vehicle to cultivate new audience. Is that why you have never thought of having your own home venue?
We have never wanted to be restricted to one building. Because, for example, with Rosas, we wanted their big productions like Rain or Drumming done at the Sadler’s Wells, but two years ago Rosas’ Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker wanted to do a solo, which we thought was very interesting, and we did it at The Place. We have that flexibility. This year, Joseph Nadj will build his own theater within a space in Greenwich Ballet Hall, which is a huge big empty space. But he will build in a space with 180 seats.

That is very costly (laughs). Who financed that?
Actually, in a beginning it was commissioned by the French government for the Cannes Dance Festival. There was a talk of using The Place Theater, but Nadj’s is a wonderful piece, so we pushed to get him the venue he wanted. So it is an advantage of being without a building. If the best place is Barbican Theatre, then we use Barbican, or Sadler’s Wells, or whatever. There are also disadvantages, obviously (laugh). Like you can’t control box office, for example.
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