Dance Umbrella: Bringing 21st-century choreography to parts of London others don’t reach

Rocio Molina in Fallen from Heaven. Photo: Djfrat
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The Dance Umbrella festival returns to London this month to ‘celebrate 21st-century choreography’, with performances at some unusual venues, from Battersea Power Station to the top of two 40ft shipping containers. Its artistic director tells Rachel Elderkin her plans to expand the event as it approaches its 40th birthday

Since its launch in 1978, Dance Umbrella has brought more than 700 artists from 34 countries to more than 1 million people. It was the first to present artists including Mark Morris, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Michael Clark to a UK audience and venues have run from Smithfield Market to car park rooftops.

Emma Gladstone, who was appointed its artistic director in 2013, believes that during the course of those four decades the festival has helped changed dance in the UK, with the artists it has brought in, supported and commissioned.

“The original director, Val Bourne, saw a lot of work internationally that didn’t have a platform in the UK,” says Gladstone. “It was work by artists that were trying to look at dance and movement beyond a classical or technical frame.”

Forty years on, UK dance has embraced international work, but Dance Umbrella – whose patrons include Simon Callow and Arlene Phillips – remains committed to bringing performances by lesser-known artists to new audiences.

The artistic director says: “The lovely thing about Dance Umbrella is its legacy. There’s a weight to that length of existence. We can rely on that somewhat, so it really is liberating to go with people whose work speaks about today without worrying how well known they are.”

Satchie Noro in Origami. Photo: Karine-de-Barbarin
Satchie Noro in Origami. Photo: Karine-de-Barbarin

Gladstone, who was artistic programmer at Sadler’s Wells from 2005 to 2013, wants the festival to explore artists taking dance in new directions. “I’m interested in the different ways people are using the power of the body to say things – as long as the work is led by movement then I feel we can present it.”

It’s an ethos that results in a diverse programme of work; from contemporary dance to hip hop, through to modern flamenco and more conceptual pieces. One of the most popular works in recent years was by Le Patin Libre, an ice-skating collective.

This year, one of the more conceptual pieces is Charlotte Spencer’s Is This a Waste Land? to be staged in Silvertown, east London. Audience members will be requested to put on headphones and follow the instructions presented to them.

“It’s a piece very much made by a choreographer, but it’s the audience that are moving. They are instructed by someone working in time and space like a choreographer, and it’s carefully paced and structured, but it’s not exactly a dance piece,” says Gladstone.

The performance takes place at dusk on an area of land soon to be redeveloped. “I think the transience and speed of urban change makes things more live,” the festival’s artistic director says. “These places become special sites and, in a way, that intensifies the liveness of the work taking place there.”

Dance Umbrella has always aimed to move dance out of traditional venues and into the city. This year, while some works can be found at larger venues like Sadler’s Wells or the Barbican, much of it is situated in small arts venues or outdoors.

This includes new areas of London – it is the festival’s first time in Croydon – and iconic venues such as Battersea Power Station, which Gladstone says is “such an extraordinary site. I’m a Londoner and I’ve never had access to that bit of the river – that’s part of the fun of the festival: we can invite audiences into places they may not be able to go to on their own”.

The increasing popularity of immersive theatre and events such as Secret Cinema suggest that today’s audiences are more receptive to performances in unusual spaces. However, it’s not necessarily expected from dance – despite the range of work taking place within the art form.

“When people think about dance, they still think about ballet,” says Gladstone. “I’m interested in those things that are blurry. I think a lot of what excites is the works that are hard to define. These people are pioneers and I want to show what artists of today are doing.”

Part of Gladstone’s vision is to use the festival to tour work and she looks forward to developing that idea in the coming years. “Touring in London is quite an exciting idea,” she says, “It’s part of the freedom of not being in a venue.”

This year, Origami – a piece in which dancer and aerialist Satchie Noro performs on top of two 40ft shipping containers – will tour along the Thames, while Cia Maduixa’s DOT, a dance-theatre show for children, will visit four venues.

“I’m interested in different audiences, in people who may not yet know that they like dance,” Gladstone says, adding that she hopes the event will widen the art form’s appeal.

For those who might be new to dance, Out of the System, Dance Umbrella’s ‘festival within a festival’ may be a good place to start, she says.

“People can move about the space, there’s a live band, the bar is open – it lets you see a mixture of works and experience dance a bit differently.” Keen to support the artists it works with, Gladstone has handed the reins to Freddie Opoku-Addaie, curator of the event.

“I saw some work Freddie did last year that was really well done,” says Gladstone. “You are of a particular era of aesthetic or taste so this has brought in names I didn’t know and is different from what I would put together.”

Opportunities for artists are woven into the festival. This year, Dance Umbrella’s Studio Saturdays will present works in progress, which Gladstone hopes will be attended by promoters and funders at the festival.

Three artists from previous years will also be returning, including Olivier-nominated flamenco artist Rocio Molina. “It’s the beginning of building our own stable of artists we’ve introduced and artists people can get to know,” says Gladstone.

Let Me Change My Name. Photo: Eunji Park

Two-thirds of the work in this year’s programme is by female choreographers. In the dance world, the absence of work made by women – at least at the top of the industry – has been a topic of recent debate.

“It was a fairly deliberate drive to seek out and give profile to female artists,” says Gladstone. “It’s not hard, they are out there. Programming their work is certainly a priority in terms of what I can do to redress the balance a bit and ensure those artists are given the recognition they deserve.”

Dance Umbrella’s profile is on the rise. “For the first time we have some films at the Barbican, plus a photographic exhibition and a live Q&A series, which is a particularly exciting development.” Interviews with Siobhan Davies and Akram Khan have streamed on Facebook Live, with Shobana Jeyasingh and Wayne McGregor to follow in November.

This year will also include a lecture series. “We’ve done debates before, but this time I thought it would be interesting to hear real thinkers on their own,” says Gladstone.

“The scene is changing fast. There are people who have an ability to cut through; to see how we might address and think about key issues.”

The series opened this month with another patron, Liz Lerman, choreographer and professor at Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, at the National Theatre.

As Dance Umbrella approaches its 40th birthday, Gladstone has ambitions to expand. “I’d like to tour more, and I’d love to reach the point where half of the festival is commissioned or supported through research. It’s so difficult for those working independently to find support.”

Plans include linking up with another UK city, as well as celebrating Dance Umbrella’s heritage. She adds, “I’m excited to look back as well as forward and we’ve got ideas about how to do that in an inventive way.”

Dance Umbrella

Number of performances: There are 10 different events as part of this year’s festival, performing at 17 different locations across London.
Audience figures: Usually around 10,000 on average
Number of employees: Eight in the office through the year plus freelance PR, website and technical teams, as well as many volunteers every October.
Turnover (annually): About £740,000
Funding levels: £352,000 (from Arts Council England)
Key contact: Emma Gladstone, artistic director