How Trinity Laban’s Transitions is helping students make the leap to professional life

Above and below A scene from Transitions Triple Bill 2016. Photo: James Keates Above and below A scene from Transitions Triple Bill 2016. Photo: James Keates
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Once you have finished your  training in contemporary dance, where do you go to start your career? Like all performers, dancers are in a position where they need that bridge into professional companies, as well as a safe space to experiment, to create work and to collaborate with choreographers.

Transitions is a training company at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London that was created in response to these needs. It puts emerging dancers together with exciting choreographers to create innovative work and take it on tour. The company was formed in 1982 and has trained some of the country’s leading dancers and choreographers. Each year, the training company comes together to create three pieces that it will then tour extensively. Students work towards an MA, balancing practical work and performances with research. The research they undertake can also take the form of a performance or presentation as well as the more traditional written dissertation.

The artistic director of Transitions is David Waring. He has performed and choreographed with artists including Ricochet Dance, Motionhouse, Walker Dance, Adventures in Motion Pictures, The Featherstonehaughs and his own group, Fishpool. He knows the world of contemporary dance and the demands it makes on dancers.

He explains the starting point for Transitions: “The founder of the company discovered that exceptional graduating students weren’t being seen for auditions or offered jobs because they’d never had any professional experience, and, therefore, were in a  Catch 22 – ready to work, but disadvantaged by never having worked.”

The triple bill that Transitions creates each year tours nationally and internationally. The most recent tour saw it play in venues across the UK, as well as Norway and Finland’s capital city, Helsinki. It worked with the choreographers Ederson Rodrigues Xavier and Theo Clinkard, as well as the performance and research collective Dog Kennel Hill Project. The final performances were every bit as electrifying and innovative as promised – brilliant choreography as well as a great showcase for the dancers.

Above and below A scene from Transitions Triple Bill 2016. Photo: Chris Nash
Above and below A scene from Transitions Triple Bill 2016. Photo: Chris Nash

Speaking to Fergus Alexander and Vera Stierli, both members of the company, it is clear that the initiative succeeds at both building a bridge to professional life and creating that safe space to experiment. Stierli, originally from Switzerland, trained and then spent three years as a freelance dancer before joining the company. Alexander found dance comparatively late in life (for a dancer) at aged 21. He started training in Scotland before doing his undergraduate course at Laban, and staying on to join Transitions.

For Stierli, the chance to perform is essential: “In my previous [undergraduate] training,” she explains, “We did not perform that much. One project a year. Having the skill and being on stage and making the audience really focus on you is very different to what you learn in the dance studio.”

Alexander explains that for him he “didn’t feel quite ready” after his undergraduate degree. “I wanted to see what it was actually like, in terms of bridging the gap. Doing this is a really good preparation: to go through the rigour, to test yourself physically and find out if you have the mettle for it.”

But does the need to create a triple bill that can tour and fill arts centres across Europe create challenges and conflicts with a student’s learning? As an MA programme, students will have arrived with a thorough training and so should be ready for the demands made by a professional choreographer.

“I would say,” explains Waring, “that the student learning curve is more about finding the stamina, physically, mentally and artistically, to be able to address the performances of the three very different pieces with rigour and a developing artistry alongside the academic requirements of the programme of study.”

And when it comes to selecting choreographers what does he consider?

“My brief is to make a varied programme so I try to choose makers with clear artistic voices whose work will challenge and develop the students’ performance practice and skills in different ways, and also to create a diverse programme of dance performance that will present different ‘styles’ of work to the audiences who see the work.”

There is then the question of whether all good choreographers make good teachers who can find the balance between process and product.

“I think the makers are able to continue to develop their own practice and craft in being commissioned – some, for instance, may never have had a chance to work with such a large company, so that will be new for them. Generally, I think they see this as an opportunity to make work and that is something and enough in and of itself. They are also working with emerging performance talent, dancers who may bring new and different perspectives to the creative collaboration involved. Perhaps it provides the makers with a chance to take risks in a way that they may not in other situations?”

Watching the 2015-16 company in its final performances at Laban’s 300-seat Bonnie Bird Theatre, I was struck by the quality of the work. It was clear that this company was as technically proficient as any professional company in London, and with choreographers able to experiment in ways that might otherwise not be open to them. It was also clear that the demands of a long tour, which lasted four months, was of real benefit, and a much more realistic learning curve to the usual week of performances we usually offer students.

A long list of companies that graduates have gone on to work for includes Akram Khan, Alias Compagnie, Siobhan Davies Dance, DV8, Rambert Dance Company and Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures. In fact, Bourne is a graduate of the company himself. Transitions clearly works, and is a fantastic example of a company that allows dancers to evolve from student to professional. The model seems so successful I wonder why it isn’t more widely adopted, not just in the dance community, but also by those who train actors and musicians.