When I first started out in 1967, the dance scene in the UK was very different. Many vocational training schools were able to offer places supported by local authority grants, and scholarships were often given to the most talented students.
I trained at the London Contemporary Dance School and in three years of study was never asked to pay. When I left, I was given one of the first Gulbenkian Dance awards of £1,000 allowing me to start Strider, a small independent dance group, the first of its kind in the UK.
Back then, small-scale venues were given a catalogue of Arts Council-funded clients. As we were the only small modern-dance company in it, we had plentiful offers of work. It was a time when experiment was welcomed and Strider flourished.
In 1975, I and Strider dancer Eva Karczag chose to go to New York to extend our knowledge. I studied at the Merce Cunningham Studio, and Eva with Trisha Brown. It was a formative time for both of us, seeing a plethora of different dance performances from New York City Ballet to avant-garde improv group Grand Union. All in all, it was a heady two years.
When I returned to Britain, I found the dance scene very different from when I had left. Many dancemakers now had funding to tour to small-scale venues, with educational workshops a part of the deal. The independent dance scene was well and truly born.
The number of practising dance artists rapidly burgeoned and then just as rapidly started to dwindle away again. The Arts Council began to tighten up and demand more in return for its money. Venues began to realise that something nicknamed the ‘dance boom’ was already over. Now they looked for artists who were likely to command a sizeable audience. The range of activity narrowed but the quality increased in general – no bad thing in itself.
Unfortunately, several changes of government forced the Arts Council to accept a prolonged period of standstill funding and this inevitably affected its clients. ACE nowadays actively demands an ever-smaller percentage of funds supporting each client. It puts many artists under increasing pressure and at greater risk, because to find matching funding, everyone is scrabbling after the same limited range of affluent arts supporters, and with the extreme effects predicted with Brexit, things look likely to get worse. Dark times for us all, where the survivors could well be the tough rather than the talented.
My own career has been all importantly involved with national and international touring, firstly with Strider, then Rambert, and with my own company for the last 25 years. Touring now seems to be seen as too expensive for funders. The major companies are increasingly handing over regional dates to secondary companies such as Rambert2. I cannot deny that I find this sad. I know I owe so much to loyal and fervent audiences all over the country; their support has been truly terrific and whatever I do next, I will miss those really rather marvellous people.
Richard Alston is a choreographer and founder of Richard Alston Dance Company. He is also artistic director of the Place