I worked as the artist development assistant on the first-ever Place Prize for dance in 2004. There was a lot of apprehension about taking part at that time as many choreographers were worried about âselling outâ.
They railed against the idea citing that art should be a non-competitive platform: Dance should be used to allow artists to flourish, celebrate, create and inspire, rather than pit them against each other for the basest of all common denominators â money.
The dance-makers themselves were worried about the effect of competition on creativity. Would they be under so much pressure wondering how the audience will judge them that they lose their sense of artistic identity? But if youâre not being true to your own choreographic beliefs by listening to your fundamental creative voice then on what level are you achieving true success?
This round of Place Prizing (the final of which is this Saturday) bought back a lot of the uneasy questions about a choreographic competition from a venue that is so resolute in its desire to push boundaries and be at the sharpest of cutting edges. A lot of the work at The Place is experimental, exploratory, risk-taking and therefore not always critically acclaimed. But it is recognised as being an intrinsic part of the UK dance scene for all of the above.
So, how can The Place claim to measure the value of dance through competition? For starters, art is purely subjective. In all my discourse, whether respectfully verbal, gin-fuelled and ranty or written for an editor, the only sensible conclusion that I have ever been able to reach with any assurance is that art can never be wrong. Art is the opposite of math and logic. There is no right answer.
Itâs what we quantify from within ourselves and what we project onto the performance vehicles that we see.
How can you judge creative expression? Something thatâs intrinsically personal to the creator and the viewer in a certain time and space. We ask ourselves: Did I understand it? Is it aesthetically pleasing? Should it be aesthetically pleasing? Does it push the boundaries of the art form? Should it? And fundamentally – should an audience be expected to pay to watch it?
There is such a thing as good choreography. And if you make it, people will realise and you will be rewarded â whether nightly through a vote at The Place, or long term through funding and ticket sales.
Whenever we as an audience see a show we assess the process, motive, form, context, content, portrayal, communication, evocation, provocation and more. While beauty in itself is impossible to define, itâs undeniable that we as individuals come armed with cultural baggage, taste, levels of experience and knowledge. We all judge art, every time we go and see it. Itâs essentially why we go.
Undeniably, some of the pieces in this yearâs Place Prize are more navel-gazing than others, some more confusing, some less anchored in reality. But whoâs to say which one is best? The judges? What makes their opinion the right opinion? Yes, they are all experts in their field, but they may be conditioned through experience and knowledge to favour one mode or theme over another, in a way that a non-professional wouldnât â someone who would be able to react purely on an emotional or intellectually responsive level.
But peopleâs preferences arenât illogical â they are chosen to a format, based on social conditioning and the human spirit (for want of a better word). What I mean is â how weâve learnt, from birth, to react to emotion, visuals, sound, narrative, logic. But that doesnât mean you have to work towards these â itâs the nature of art to subvert and challenge. Sometimes.
As a choreographer, how do you make work that is ambitious, knowing from the beginning you will be appealing to judges and a voting audience, without just staying true to your own personal vision and motive, which is what makes most successful choreographers, successful?
And hereâs where the paradox kicks it to head-f@cking proportions. Why do we create dance in the first place? To feel it? Yes. But to allow others to feel it to. And thus, when you make a dance work it is with the expectation that other people will want to see it, to gain something from the experience, and ultimately, to allow the maker to continue making, to fund it so that the journey be allowed to progress.
There was (is, and always will be) anger about the funding situation for dance in the UK. Perhaps because dance artists have egos (because they are human) that drive them, and they believe (sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly) that their work is the best and deserves ÂŁÂŁâs from the arts council to research, develop and facilitate it.
Here, the audience vote should be a good indicator of the work they want to see. If we are asking them to pay for a ticket, we should give them a voice to tell us which theyâd like to see more of. Majority rules. Some people might like the same things. Or appreciate similar things. And if a choreographer has managed to successfully convey those things, the audience, on the whole, should be able to recognise and respond. If they havenât managed to successfully convey them, itâs not the audienceâs fault â itâs the choreographers for not communicating them well enough. Harsh? Fair?
But there is such a thing as good choreography. And if you make it, people will realise and you will be rewarded â whether nightly through a vote at The Place, or long term through funding and ticket sales.
My opinion on all of this, is frankly, useless. Disregard it. Form your own. Vote with a 1990s mobile phone device during The Place Prize. Vote with your feet. Vote with your Visa card. Vote with your voice. Vote until someone is able to answer the question of whether dance can ever be non-political or not-quantifiable or non-subjective. Which is never. And so it goesâŚ