|With a population of about 4.5 million, Ireland is by no means a large country. Here, there is one very active base of dance in the capital of Dublin – Dance Ireland – which serves as the national resource organization for dance in Ireland. Its artistic program manager is Elisabetta Bisaro, who comes to Ireland from Italy. In this interview we hear her views on the little-known world of Irish contemporary dance, the programs of Dance Ireland and how artists are being supported and nurtured in tie-up with the European dance network today.
Interviewer: Takao Norikoshi (dance critic)
The history of contemporary dance in Ireland
When we think of Irish dance, probably the first thing that comes to many people’s minds is the traditional Irish dance shows of Riverdance, but I would like to ask you to give us an outline of contemporary dance in Ireland.
Although the scale may be small, I think Ireland is known for its very vibrant arts scene. Historically, it has a strong narrative tradition, with many famous writers such as Beckett, Yeats and James Joyce, who are all internationally renowned. And, there are also famous artists on the music scene, like U2 that everyone knows. In 1904 the National Theatre of Ireland was set up by Yeats and friends. Yeats can be said to have introduced dance theatre in Ireland when he started using dance in the narrative of his plays.
You are referring to Plays for Dancers, aren’t you? One of them, At the Hawk’s Well was a work based on butoh by one of the pioneers of Japanese modern dance, Michio Ito.
Interestingly, the Irish poet Yeats was an early influence on dance in Ireland. In 1927, he invited Ninette de Valois (Irish native active in Ballets Russes and founder of Sadler’s Wells ballet company which later became Britain’s Royal Ballet) to establish the Abbey Theatre School of Ballet, which unfortunately closed in the early 30s. Since then, dance in Ireland has seen ups and downs. It wasn’t until just ten years ago in 2003 that dance finally became part of the Arts Act.
Historically, many Irish emigrated to the United States, so there is a strong cultural connection with the US, reflected in dance by the influences of its post-modern dance movement. Amidst the severe funding cuts suffered by the Irish dance sector in the 80s, the Association of Professional Dancers in Ireland (APDI) was born.
APDI, which is now known as Dance Ireland, was initially meant as a dance support group. APDI started running professional morning class and organized the first dance festival in Ireland in 1995. What is interesting about the dance sector in Ireland is the fact that by forming a community they worked both as artists as well as advocates for the sector itself.
In 1994, Riverdance was broadcast on Eurovision and became a hit worldwide. Then in 2003 dance was included in Ireland’s Arts Act, and that is also the year you, a native of Italy, moved to Ireland. Was that move because you were drawn to Irish dance?
Throughout my university years in Italy, I had been involved in the performing arts scene as a dancer and manager on several arts projects. However, my university graduation thesis was actually on a theater piece, and I had initially been drawn to Irish culture through its literary culture. I was fortunate to get an invitation from Ireland to do an internship for six months at the Project Arts Centre, one of the primary contemporary arts venues in Dublin. From about the year 2000, the Irish economy had been very strong [often referred to as the Celtic Tiger] and that helped boosting the confidence of the arts scene too. I found the arts community in Ireland to be very welcoming.
After my 6-month internship, I started working as administrator and afterwards company manager of Irish Modern Dance Theatre, a well-known contemporary dance company in Ireland. As his motto has always been “fight against the conservatism in Irish theatre and dance”, the work of the company’s director John Scott has often been seen as a battle against what he perceived as the conservatism of the traditional art forms in Ireland. In parallel to his work, every year he would invite choreographers from abroad and commission works from artists like Sara Rudner, Thomas Lehmen, Sean Curran. By working with him, I learned a lot about managing a dance company.
In 2006, I was hired as development officer at APDI, which was soon to become Dance Ireland.
Establishing Dance Ireland
2006 is the year that APDI was rebranded as Dance Ireland.
In 2006 APDI was renamed as Dance Ireland and DanceHouse opened its doors in December. It had taken nearly ten years to get DanceHouse to be built. The result of a joint venture involving Dublin City Council, the Arts Council and McCabe Builders Ltd, DanceHouse is a state-of-the-art rehearsal venue in Dublin city centre. It has six dance studios, all of which were designed to be what dance artists always wanted rehearsal studios to be: clean, warm and bright.
As development officer, I was responsible for developing the artistic program in collaboration with the chief executive and the Board of Directors. The initial phase in the transition from APDI to Dance Ireland was a very exciting and important time for the organization and the dance community alike.
There was support from the European Dancehouse Network (EDN) in establishing Dance Ireland, wasn’t there?
Dance Ireland became an affiliate member of EDN only later, in 2009. EDN is a network that groups several dance houses in Europe (www.ednetwork.eu
). When I first started working in APDI/Dance Ireland, I took some time to look into different dance development programmes. I travelled to France, US and other European countries to research different dance house models.
The model of DanceHouse Dublin is unique in the sense that it is a combination model. During the day, it hosts professional dancers and in the evenings (from 18:00 to 22:00), it is used by the general public, as the studios are rent to private teachers. It is a house for both the professionals and the amateurs; in the evenings you have people of all ages involved in all sorts of movement-related disciplines, such as yoga, pilates, boxing, traditional Irish dance and ballet, to name but a few.
The professional program has two strands, the training and the development programme. The training program is about continuing to offer what APDI has always been about. So, we have approximately 40 weeks of professional morning class per year held on a regular basis; some of these are taught by invited international guest teachers. The development program includes a variety of projects, like choreographic labs, residencies and seminars, and in recent years we have tried to develop exchange programs with other international organizations. Whenever we have artists in residence we have them teach open class for the local community. We try to create opportunities for local artists to get to know invited artists. Guest artists are invited to give studio presentations and/or talks too.
As Dublin catalyzes most of the arts scene, we also try to support and help organisations and companies outside the capital.
Can I ask you about the budget of Dance Ireland?
In the APDI days the annual budget allocation was in the region of 100,000 Euros but that tripled in the year when Dance Ireland was established. This enabled the organization to offer a wider range of development programs. The allocation from the Arts Council is decided on a yearly basis. Last year it was €405,000 and this year it was €370,000. We also receive some funding from the Dublin City Council. We have to raise the remaining 40-50% of our operating budget ourselves. We do this by primarily renting studio space to private teachers to hold their classes. We also generate income through membership fees and projects we run, like EU funded projects. Our annual turnover ranges between €700,000 to €750,000. There is a staff of six, with the chief executive, general manager, myself, administrative / marketing person and two receptionists. For our professional morning classes, we employ teachers. As most of the teachers are artists, it means that part of the funding that we receive goes back to the artists themselves.
Have the current conditions in Europe had an effect on your budget and operations?
From around 2007 to 2008 there were setbacks in the Irish economy and in 2009/2010 the funding for the arts started to be threatened. The Irish arts sector has fought to ensure that the arts are valued as an important asset for the country. Four years ago, the National Campaign was set up to advocate for the arts to be acknowledged on local and national government agendas. This lobbying group was very successful in involving prominent artists from the film and music scenes, like Brendan Gleeson and Gabriel Byrne, whose presence had its weight at political level. The stance the Irish arts sector took was very proactive, showing unity and ambition. I think this is quite unique if compared to even bigger European countries.
Nurturing new artists
The conventional forms of support for the arts have been holding festivals or giving grants directly for the creation of new works, but recently we are seeing increasing cases support to strengthen the artists and providing infrastructure and the environment for creation, aren’t we?
I think we need both. I think we are at a time when we can’t afford to put all the resources simply in presenting work. I think there are multiple ways to support artists and their work and a lot more to do to help artists work together and collaboratively. As an artist membership organization, what we do has to be relevant to what and how the artists wish to create. We have to be responsive but not passive. I think an organization like us should try to think ahead and try to foresee what the artists’ needs could be further down the line. I think we have to act as facilitators. It is a responsibility of an organization like ours to create connections and not necessarily to impose connections on artists, but to open up gates and to create as many bridges as possible for the artists to find their own unique way. It is not a process of spoon-feeding the artists or imposing a project on them. I think it is more important that organizations create an environment where collaborations can organically grow. So, I think more about working bottom-up or horizontally than top-down or vertically. But, I think it makes more sense in an organization like ours, which is about artist development.
Ultimately, artists want to present their works, but I think we should look at different ways of nurturing the artists and the presentation of theirs works. It is increasingly more about creating a meaningful and sustainable relationship between artists, presenters and audiences. It is not about selling and buying anymore.
In other words, rather than presenters thinking works as products, it is becoming more important to nurture the artists themselves.
This is partly due to the change in the funding system and partly to the artists’ new way of working, which is more collaborative. Lately, more and more young artists work without setting up their own individual administrative company. This means they need a supportive place where to work and meet. Organizations like ours are there to respond to the current way of working; they provide a space as well as the additional knowledge and connections both at local and international level to create fruitful collaborative projects. This has always been my thinking behind the projects I have initiated.
Would you tell us about Dance Ireland’s international programs? In another Performing Arts Network Japan interview we heard about the E-motional Bodies & Cities program from organizer Cosmin Manolescu, so could we ask you to tell us about the Tour d’Europe project?
Tour d’Europe was a 2-yr training project for emerging choreographers funded by the EU under the umbrella of the Leonardo Lifelong learning programme. The program’s focus was not much on artistic development as on providing young artists with the necessary tools to be able to deal with being self-entrepreneurs.
It was a collaborative project between Spain, Poland, France, Germany and ourselves [Ireland]. The participants were hosted in each partners’ country for a week of tailor-made workshops, seminars and meetings. They had the opportunity to learn about the different arts and funding systems in each country.
We hosted the group in May, during the Dublin Dance festival, which was our associate silent partner. As part of our programme, they had the chance to talk with local and international programmers on how to make work, where to find the funding to make the work, how to pitch it. We also had a marketing specialist run a workshop on how to devise a communication pack, which is especially important for artists from non-English-speaking countries wanting to work internationally.
That certainly is practical knowledge.
It was very interesting because of the subtle national cultural differences that came out. In the workshop on how to prepare a communication pack, a French would emphasize the importance of the philosophical “concept,” an Irish would stress the importance of having an impactful image of a dancing body, a German would argue that the same image used in Ireland would not work in Germany (Laughter).
This type of conversation really brings out enriching cultural differences. What is important in international projects is not only to get to know other artists, but also to get to know the different systems operating at European level. Europe is a union of very different countries and cultures. Although one can argue that dance is a universal language, there are a lot of differences – both social and cultural – that an artist needs to be aware of when working internationally. One has to be knowledgeable and aware of the differences in aesthetics, policies, funding systems and also politics shaping a certain scene.
So, the artists really do have to be an entrepreneurs, don’t they? In the past, artists only had to devote themselves to their creative work, but now there are many instances where they need the skills to realize their ideals, aren’t there?
Artists have to master more than just their art. Tour d’Europe was based on the principles of the Compagnons du Tour de France
, a traditional organization whose education techniques included being the young apprentice of an old competent master and taking a tour around France. Participants were flanked by a mentor who could come from a sector other than the artistic one. We had an Alpine mountain guide, a hotel manager and a scientist. The idea was to match the artist with a figure who was extremely experienced in his/her own field but not necessarily coming from the world of the arts. It was about being very practical and concrete about someone’s needs and aspirations; the younger could learn from the life and work experience of somebody more mature to then transfer the knowledge into the artistic world.
Tour d’Europe was about learning by experience and learning through exchange with a different environment. Sometimes in the arts, there is the risk of losing the connection with the outside world, as we spend most of our time in theaters and/or talking among each other. To critically engage with reality (and realities beyond the ones we are comfortable in) while envisioning a new one is what makes, in my opinion, an artist. An artist is aware of the context in which he/she operates but is never to become its slave.
That is a very crucial point, Isn’t it? Because there are many young artists who are making the same kinds of works today in hopes of getting a good reception in the market.
When I am talking about the artists as entrepreneurs, I am not talking about fulfilling the market’s needs, but actually creating alternative needs so that the market or context responds and adapts to them. It is important to clarify what it is that you want, how you want to achieve it and then try to find a way for yourself in the existing context, knowing that your choices may influence that very same context. I remember that one of the selected Tour d’Europe participants didn’t want to travel by airplane. Seeking alternative ways of traveling was for her an integral part of the process. While skeptical at the beginning, we were all inspired by what was the expression of a clear, personal vision.
Modul-Dance and Carte Blanche
Would you tell us next about the Modul-Dance program
Supported by EDN, Modul-Dance is a multi-annual cooperation project led by Mercat de les Flors in Barcelona and funded by the EU Culture Programme (2007-2013). It is the biggest EU-sponsored cultural project today with a total cost of over €4,000,000.
The project is about offering mobility and exchange opportunities to independent professional dance artists. It focuses on the next generation of European dance makers. It is organized as a modular system. Artists have the possibility of going through 4 different modules that reflect today’s production mode, i.e. research, residency, production and presentation of the work. It is a five-year project that involves 20 dance houses from 15 EU countries. By the end of the project, approximately 50 choreographers will be supported and at least 400 presentations will be shown throughout Europe.
Within this project, there is a strand for very young artists called Carte Blanche. Carte blanches are offered to promising young artists who are invited for a week residency at one of the project partner’s dance houses. This strand offers an initial connection with the host organization and its community. It serves as a way to introduce very young artists to a new context without the pressure of having to create and/or present a piece.
That sounds wonderful. But, don’t you also get criticism from those who say you are just letting them play?
All we do is to throw a stone into the water to see what the ripple effect may be. It is about seeding opportunities. To give you an example, the very same artist that decided not to travel by plane in Tour d’Europe established a long-term collaboration with the French and German partners in the project. She regularly goes back there now to create work. Tour d’Europe helped establishing the initial connection; it is up to each artist to seize the opportunity and think about what they can do in the future with that very first connection we facilitated.
Of course, the arts market is still a buy/sell operation. I am not saying that is wrong, it’s just another way of operating. I think the system of creating connections is a system that is perhaps not as direct but certainly very rewarding. At this time of diminishing resources, collaboration is an essential way forward. This can be accounted as one of the positive effects of an economic crisis; the lesser the resources available, the more the opportunities for people to come together to reflect on how things are being done and how may be done differently.
Dublin Dance Festival
Would you tell us about the Dublin Dance Festival?
Established in 2002, it is a relatively young festival. It is the first festival in Ireland dedicated solely to dance. A biennial festival until 2006, it was set up by founding artistic director Catherine Nunes in response to the need of a national platform to show international dance works. Initially named the International Dance Festival, it became Dublin Dance Festival in 2008 when it turned into an annual event. It has rapidly grown to become the main platform for the work of major international choreographers (Merce Cunningham was one of the firsts to be invited). In 2006, Laurie Uprichard (former director of Dancespace Project New York) was appointed and led the Festival for four years. In 2012, British Julia Carruthers took over. The festival has been guided by Irish, American and English directors, all bringing their very personal imprint to the festival.
Dance Ireland is one of the main partners of Dublin Dance Festival. Together with the festival, we present “Re-Presenting Ireland”, a showcase of Irish works. As DanceHouse does not have an in-house theatre, the low-tech works are shown in a studio setting, last max 20 min each and run in a double or triple bill over two weekends during the main festival. Starting from this year, a number of finished works will be presented on the stage of the Peacock, at the National Theatre.
Are there any other festivals?
The Dublin Theatre Festival and Galway Arts Festival would traditionally host one or two dance performances as part of their programmes. The Dublin Fringe Festival has a strong dance element, focusing on emerging artists. In Dublin, Project Arts Centre (where I did my initial work placement) features contemporary dance works on a regular basis. There are also some regional platforms in Birr and Tipperary. Firkin Crane in Cork is now presenting a season of dance works.
There are many regional theaters in Ireland but traditionally it has proved difficult for dance to tour outside the main cities. To tackle the problem of regional touring, the Arts Council has set up recently the Touring Experiment to help companies – not only dance companies – bring their work to audiences outside the urban areas.
Traditionally, a dance company would premiere in Dublin and tour to 4-5 regional venues. As theatres in Ireland would be smaller than the ones I have seen in Japan (between 150-200 seats), a good audience would be considered to be in the region of 100 people.
What kinds of people make up your audience? And, what do you do to try to grow your audience?
It is not easy to get audiences for dance. I believe we need to work on multiple levels to facilitate and encourage people’s access to dance. To celebrate its 21st anniversary, Dance Ireland commissioned this year 21 on-minute dance films for the Web. We received many applications from professionals, students and dance amateurs alike. Since the opening of DanceHouse, we have had a group of over-50-year-olds from the local community coming in every week to do their dance routine; over the course of the years, they have interacted with many professionals sharing the same space. While our programmes are primarily aimed at professionals, we go different directions to expand dance audiences.
Would you tell us about some of the promising artists that you see emerging today? Has there been an influence from traditional dance?
Historically there has been little interaction between contemporary dance and traditional Irish dance; however, this has started to change in the past few years. [Former Riverdance star] Colin Dunne’s Out of Time
has proved very successful in integrating movement, text and sound with the step tradition, offering a contemporary perspective of traditional dancing. Throughout Europe there has been a recent wave of contemporary dancers and choreographers interested in the physical movement found in traditional dance forms, perhaps in search of a new movement language.
Artists such as Liz Roche, John Scott, Fabulous Beast and Fearghus O’Conchuir have been very active on an international level. Among the new generation of artists at work there are Liv O’Donoghue, Emma Martin, Aoife McAtamney and Elena Giannotti, to name but a few. Down in Limerick, Mary Wycherley has been making work that spans live performance and screendance. This is not an exhaustive list of dance artists working in Ireland (on the Dance Ireland website there is a full member directory if you are interested in knowing more about dance in Ireland).
Given the facility to connect, collaborations between choreographers and artists from other disciplines, such as musicians and visual artists, are frequent. As Ireland shares many similarities with Japan – geographically and non – I hope there will be more exchange between the two countries in the future.