Dance for the Masses – Jo Cork

Over Christmas, millions tuned in to watch the Strictly Come Dancing Final. 11.5 million to be exact, and that’s down on last year. Though the viewing figures aren’t available, (presumably because they’re relatively insignificant and/or uninteresting,) the BBC also aired both The Royal Ballet’s Don Quixote and the Bolshoi’s Sleeping Beauty, as well as- for the really progressive dance connoisseurs amongst us- Matthew Bourne’s version of Sleeping Beauty on Christmas Day. And if you’re equipped with a Sky Box, you were practically lavishing in ballet after ballet on Sky Arts over the festive season!

I don’t mean to sound scathing; I’m pleased to see some dance on the commercial schedule over Christmas; It’s a welcome dose of culture for those that actively seek it, and it’s really nice to fantasize about those people who’ve never set foot in a theatre, sitting on their sofas and falling in love with the movement, losing themselves in the euphoria we want everyone to share with us when we watch something compelling or moving. But realistically, how many converts do you think those fleeting glimpses of dance culture made this Christmas? How many people do you think watched them and said afterward ‘Let’s spend £70 and go see something like that in this next few months?’ How many said ‘Oh wow, I had no idea what I was missing! I’m intrigued, interested- I need to know and see more- now!’ Well not many! -Because as you’ll have noticed, we’re somewhat limited to ballet or ballroom; both a little archaic in one-way or another.

Ballet, as it should, will always hold a revered position in our culture, as it does in so many countries. It’s a style borne of our national and international history and has developed and evolved literally, over centuries. It will always have it’s place in high art and it’s elitist stature will unlikely ever wane. As such though, it’s very difficult for ballet to really hit, and truly enamor, new and different audiences- even if it is shown on the BBC. Let’s not deny that ballet certainly has a valued and valid place in the mass exposure that TV allows, but it is undoubtedly fortunate that ballet has enough of a following which, for now at least, can secure it’s future merely through the generational inheritance of cultural preferences.

Strictly seems to be about reviving a forgotten passion of the nation- a new and better version of Come Dancing– a hit in its day. And truly it has revived that passion in many people; not necessarily for doing, but for watching, appreciating, anticipating and experiencing. There is technique developed, and style and finesse nurtured, as the various Z-listers make their way through the competition. Now, ballroom- nor Bruce Forsythe- isn’t for everyone, but at least we see some interesting skill development and choreography, performed with some integrity as the professional dancers endeavor to bring out the best in their partners. As it holds on to it’s history, and gradually educates us that the ‘palm should be facing the floor’ and alike, we can watch Strictly with an element of respect, even if we’re not particularly fond of it.

But where exactly does the contemporary dance fit in? Was it Matthew Bourne- was that it?! -I know he’s renowned for bringing dance to the masses, but does anyone else ever wonder where the legacy of that shift is? -Why it never occurs to those audiences that flock to see his work, to perhaps flock and see something else? Something new? Something different? –Good lord, even something daring?!

I’m not so naive as to think we’re going to see Siobhan Davies’ next event aired on television anytime in the near future, but I think the question ought to be asked, where is the cross over between contemporary dance and mainstream culture?

Street dance, in all it’s forms, has found it’s way to the masses these past ten years, with the growth of the talent/reality show phenomenon. Ballroom has too! Ballet, as we’ve established, has a long-standing position in our culture which wont be rivaled anytime soon- Where is the opportunity for contemporary dance to be exposed and respected in the same way ballroom is on Strictly, popping and locking is on Britain’s Got Talent and lyrical jazz or tap is on Got To Dance; the way The Royal Ballet are on Sky Arts, and The Bolshoi and Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures are on the BBC?

This is where some will say, ‘Yes, where is it?! Why isn’t it there?!’ And others will retaliate- ‘It is on TV- there is contemporary dance on Got to Dance and Britain’s Got Talent and there was on the series flop, So You Think You Can Dance too!’ Well, I’m afraid I take issue with that…

In this short series, I’ll be looking at the ‘dance shows’ that are on TV and questioning if the way we’re presenting dance and contemporary dance to the masses is really responsible; and if poor representation could be doing lasting damage to the reputation and integrity of contemporary dance.

More next week.

In 2007, Britain’s Got Talent hit ITV screens; though the first series’ icon was opera singer, Paul Potts, the following year introduced the nation to an ambitious Scouse teenager called George Sampson, whose break dance won him the title. Amongst the plethora of singing, comedy, dare devil and animal acts, dance acts again became commonplace in our Saturday evening viewing. The following year Diversity exploded on to the scene with their impeccably precise, witty and comedic choreography from Ashley Banjo. Flawless, another of Diversity’s ilk, and 11-year old street dancer, Aiden Davies also made an impact, amongst many others.

Mostly commercial, the dance acts were making a big impression on an average of 8.5 million viewers each week, and let’s be honest- actually doing a great job of establishing dance in the common public paradigm of entertainment. Notably, this also gave impetus to a huge shift in the perception of male dancers- the guys on TV were pretty cool; pretty ripped- pretty hot actually! -So maybe dancing as a guy, wasn’t quite the masculinity-killer as previously thought! The rise of young boys getting involved in dance and subsequently excelling in it was, and is, a happy consequence for all who care to notice.

And so we come to the exposure of contemporary dance to the mass television audience. Coming over from The States, So You Think You Can Dance saw individuals competing in a variety of styles, contemporary included, for the title of Britain’s Favourite Dancer. Excited and intrigued by all the hype, I tuned in to watch. One week, I sat with great anticipation as two clearly accomplished dancers walked into the space to perform a work created by Rafael Bonachela. There we were. A Saturday night. Prime time TV. An audience of over 5 million… Surely an unmissable opportunity to educate the masses about what contemporary is, and all it can be. Alongside styles increasingly appreciated within popular culture, wasn’t this a chance to show contemporary dance bravely; in an honest light which commanded equal respect? Or was it just too risky to hope the masses would welcome, and open their minds to the vastly unfamiliar and challenging? The BBC clearly conceded to the latter:

In horror, I watched as the two set about a trite and angst ridden duet revolving largely around a bed- to a soundtrack of Lady Gaga; it was a flagrant display of superficial emotion and sequenced lifts and tricks, seemingly designed solely to appear virtuosic. Who, after this, could blame the unknowing public for subscribing to the all-too-common perception that dance is generally shallow, meaningless; pointless? The piece certainly showed off the dancers and served its purpose in demonstrating their ability- perhaps the only relevant purpose to satisfy in what is, after all, a talent show. And of course, as a choreography, it flowed… it entertained… but it fell very seriously short of the artistry and impact you can otherwise expect from choreographers as seasoned and established as Bonachela. Over 5 million watching; a huge proportion of whom would have never seen any contemporary dance and whose first experience it was of it- Were they really any the wiser? Much more difficult to recover from; did they now have a woefully misguided impression of contemporary?

Got To Dance is the most recent, and perhaps most successful of the non-celeb dance talent shows. And indeed, we see contemporary dancers within the competition. I’m not proposing that we begin the debate of what the definition of ‘Contemporary Dance’ is, especially since that is inevitably, constantly evolving. But I think it’s necessary to acknowledge that there are undoubtedly huge hip hop and street dance influences present- along with what I can only recognise as a kind of American-derived lyrical quality that infiltrates the movement- as we watch the technically adept dancers perform what not all, but many I’m sure, would term closer to lyrical jazz than contemporary. I am willing to state that I really don’t believe dancing in an expressive manner converts something into the contemporary genre. Nor does including that move where you go to the floor through the tops of your feet… There is considered energy, or notion, or process, within contemporary dance which is at the heart of its integrity- you can’t bung a few ‘contemporary’ moves together, call it a piece and expect it to be revered for its artistic finesse and initiative. Can you?! –Seriously, I’m asking…

The rather massive question seems to loom; is it actually possible to give a faithful representation of contemporary dance in the context of a talent show; in a 75 second slot which is inevitably valued on virtuosity over artistry- a criteria which some would argue negates the quintessence of contemporary dance?

The artistic ideals and processes that make contemporary dance rich in identity, and which shape it, don’t seem compatible with the talent show format; so is it not irresponsible to allow the inclusion of contemporary dance in an arena, which isn’t equipped or able, to take care of, or nurture, its integrity? My concern is that we’re showing ‘Contemporary Dance’ to the masses which actually, by consequence of incompatibility with its platform, is not at all contemporary dance as the majority of artists would recognise it. -It’s some kind of weird hybrid between a few different styles, formed into a lyrical and usually, formulaic structure. And this substitute- this imposter- is integrating popular culture under the label of ‘Contemporary Dance’, a term defined by all the influential and treasured artists before us and betrayed in the careless representation currently on TV. -We’re offering a desperately misguided education as to what ‘Contemporary Dance’ is! If we’re willing to accept the current exposure as it is, then we ought to be prepared to accept it when teenagers tell us they’re doing contemporary, because they’re dancing to a ballad… And more seriously; when we feel an added resilience to the barrier which prevents new audiences coming to see our work because our pieces aren’t ‘proper contemporary’ compared to what’s shown on a Saturday night.

I would love see more contemporary dance on television, but not at the expense of it feeling more and more diluted and superficial each time. And certainly not at the expense of seeing damaging effects to the art form itself…

Next time, I look at the non-talent dance shows on TV and how their influence on the masses can help, or hinder, artistic progression and public engagement in the arts.

The problem of the talent shows is a very real one, with terrifying possible ramifications if we consider the long-term effect a vast misunderstanding could have; how it could alter the perception and expectations of contemporary dance; how that in turn could affect our ability to reach new audiences and even to gain the funding- the public money- to make our work in the first place… But let’s not over-estimate the negative effect these shows have had.

Performances of contemporary dance on Britain’s Got Talent are few and far between; So You Think You Can Dance was cancelled due to decreasing ratings, Strictly has no interest in it, and so currently the only remaining potential problem is Got To Dance. Though incredibly popular and boasting a title holder who won on his (and likely the producers’) interpretation of “Contemporary Dance”, the show, let’s face it, is relatively likely to be discontinued within the next few years in line with the rise and fall of popular culture fads. Perhaps we can afford to have a little faith that the rich established history of our art form isn’t so easily put at risk…

It is certainly possible to feel very scathing about the lack of contemporary dance given exposure, and even more so about the proposed misrepresentation of it. But given that misrepresentation, and evidence of big producing companies’ inability to handle our form dutifully in arenas such as the talent shows, is it perhaps to be rejoiced that contemporary dance- as it’s artists know it– has thus far failed to infiltrate our glib popular culture? Is it fortunate that actually, bar this problem of the depiction in talent shows, to this point we’ve managed to avoid being victim to the complete dilution of contemporary dance into something superficial, churned out carelessly to fill airtime?

Rather than resent these shows, and rather than resenting the challenging nature of contemporary dance, or the lack of a suitable platform for it within the TV dance show spectrum, perhaps it is better to simply take joy in the mass public broadly enjoying dance and re-connecting with it as a staple of their entertainment diets. Despite the odd misperception, perhaps wider engagement in the arts as a whole could result.

Described as a musical comedy-drama, American TV series Glee was one of the first in a generation of performance arts based entertainment shows that slammed into popular culture for teens all over Britain. Its witty satire lovingly mocked the characters who, around the premise of an ambitious school glee club, endured all the normal trials and tribulations of school and teenage life. All the while, of course, bursting into spontaneous dance and song. There is a little uncertainty around quite how tongue-in-cheek, or how serious the drama truly intended to be, but some feel the real charm of Glee is owed to this ambiguity. Glee became very popular very quickly, and seemed to do a lot to lessen the stigma amongst the youth of taking performing arts seriously.

Similarly, Smash which had a short-lived, two-season run on Channel 4 managed to become a guilty pleasure for the mainstream public. As Glee also did, by not taking itself too seriously, it managed to fill a performing arts shaped void in mainstream viewing and did so in such a way that made the idiosyncrasies of being a performer somehow accessible- and actually of interest- to the general public. Now, of course, depending on your area of the industry there is serious room for debate on how realistic the portrayals of what it is to be a performing artist really were in these shows, but let’s not get pedantic! The point is that they were reducing stigma amongst the general public and getting people- young people- interested: they even managed to make it “cool” to be interested.

With a less positive outcome- and part of the reality TV phenomenon- Dance Moms follows the early careers of children aged 8 to 15 years old, and more specifically follows their mothers, who generally fall into an extreme of the “pushy-parent” stereotype. The show is hugely popular but isn’t without it’s controversy, having been required to eliminate one of it’s episodes, titled Topless Showgirls, from DVDs because of complaints about the sexualisation of young girls who danced in flesh coloured sequinned crop tops to give the illusion of partial nudity. This show, for most, is an indulgence in the most ridiculous and obscene areas of dance- most watch it and laugh, not because the people or situations in it are actually funny, but because they’re people whose perceptions and personal realities are so absurd, one can either laugh at it, or cry about it and become phenomenally enraged. Given the futility of trying to flippantly transform the long-standing dance-comp culture, the former ends up being the more constructive choice. Similarly, Pineapple Dance Studios, aired on Sky1 in 2010, proudly ran the promotional tag line: “Bitching is fabulous!” The show flagrantly indulged in the most superficial issues of the work and actively sought to perpetuate the image of professional dance as having a catty, petty and nasty working environment.

Though some of us may have even enjoyed the melodramatised scenarios, most recognise the ludicrousness; the archaic etiquettes that are portrayed and the shameful reflection these reality shows have on their relative industry areas. There is undoubtedly a more humane work ethic more broadly subscribed to which is underrepresented to the masses. As such, are we promoting a superficial and shallow image of dance, which can never be respected in the way we strive to be respected in the media, amongst the public and our established and new audiences? Are we encouraging regression, or at least a distinct lack of progression, in the way dancers, and dance artists, are viewed by the mass public? -A serious thought, but still, are we actually able to deny that people taking an interest in dance- whichever warped corners of it- is positive for us?

Alongside the talent shows, with these alternative genres of dance show, the masses see excerpts of dance and through accumulative exposure begin to form opinions about their preferences; they develop some scale on which to judge what they deem high, or low, quality. The spectrum of dance they are exposed to within these shows is somewhat limited, and we can certainly see little scope for what we might call an education in contemporary dance, but nevertheless, the shows serve to integrate an appreciation for dance into the common public outlook. Accepting the challenging nature of contemporary and the fact that many will never be partial to it, is this not an incredible outcome? I don’t propose that we give up seeking opportunities to share our art form and offer a true depiction and meaningful education of what it means to be a contemporary dance artist, but there needs to be some balance between demanding integrity is maintained, and accepting the reality that some will never care for what we care so deeply about. To that end, we perhaps do have a duty to commit to consistently questioning what exposure is offered on television, demanding that our integrity isn’t jeopardised; and being willing to speak out when it is, but also, to accept the superficial and fickle nature of popular culture and not become overly obsessive or possessive about representations which will actually have little impact on the long term and detrimental perceptions of our art from.