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What's going on?: An interview with Jason Beechey

28 July 2009

Under the working title What's going on?, we're starting a cycle of interviews on new developments and initiatives in Higher Arts Education. This is number one. Jason Beechey, Rector of Palucca Schule Dresden, talks about the international D.A.N.C.E. programme.

D.A.N.C.E is a European interdisciplinary professional insertion programme for young dancers under the Artistic Direction of Frédéric Flamand, William Forsythe, Wayne McGregor and Angelin Preljocaj. Based in Dresden and in Aix-en-Provence/Marseille, the programme is run in partnership with 30 companies, theatres, foundations and institutions around Europe, and combines ballet, contemporary dance, cooperation with other artistic disciplines, and theoretical background.

I first heard of the programme when D.A.N.C.E. students performed Forsythe's Hypothetical Stream II at the opening of the ITs festival. To my knowledge, there is no programme that is international to such an extent, in dance or in any other field of art; and it sets an example of working internationally in partnership that other performing artists could take to heart, developing in close collaboration with the professional field from the very beginning.

At present, D.A.N.C.E. is developing into an MA programme. All the more reason, then, to ask how the programme meets new developments and requirements, how it represents a new approach to dance education, and where it will lead - in short, what's going on?

Jason Beechey

Jason Beechey (photo: Bettina Stoess)

What was the motivation behind starting D.A.N.C.E.? Who were the initiators?
The idea was to create an interdisciplinary apprentice programme that was directly in touch with the professional world of today. An interdisciplinary programme for young dancers that had completed a “traditional” dance training, but were not yet experienced in other fields, such as working with media, architecture and who were ready physically and mentally to play an active role in an interdisciplinary creative process.

I was teaching for the Companies of both Angelin Preljocaj and Frédéric Flamand, and both expressed a desire to work together to create a sort of “apprentice programme”. They had many common teachers and dancers between their two Companies and wished to hire dancers that had a strong technique in both ballet and contemporary as well as being versed in improvisation and with stage experience. Both Angelin and Frédéric had remarked that they rarely hired dancers straight from Schools, and they felt that schools were not preparing dancers in this profile. I was at that time the Pedagogical Director at Charleroi/Danses, and set about to see what we could develop.

My first idea was to conduct a comprehensive survey of all the dance education programmes on offer in the EU to see what exactly was out there, and after extensive research it seemed apparent that such a programme, with an equal focus on ballet, contemporary, and working in an interdisciplinary universe was not to be found.

Angelin and Frédéric suggested I approach Wayne McGregor to see if he would like to participate, and he accepted immediately. William Forsythe heard about this project, and following a meeting I had with him in Dresden in 2004 asked to join as well. DANCE would also be unique, as none of these four choreographers has ever developed a specific education programme or apprenticeship scheme before.

So, the idea grew out of this quartet of choreographers, who gave the artistic input and I worked to “put the pieces of the puzzle together”, to find the resources to create the programme, build the partner network and then run it as the general coordinator.

I must say that all four are very open-minded choreographers, very concerned with education and expressed a desire to work together, and felt that such a collaboration would be complementary. There was also no desire to create a “junior company”, or simply a feeder source for their Companies; they all saw it as a creative opportunity with no set curriculum. It was to really involve the apprentices in creative processes and also to enable the apprentices to develop, within the environment of their respective companies, as autonomous thinking artists.

What were the precedents? Were there previous initiatives/partnerships?
There are many excellent schools out there, and apprentice programmes as well; this is no new idea. However, I think a programme with such a high level of mobility and professional integration in diverse universes is without precedent. There were many existing contacts between the four choreographers, often sharing teachers, dancers, invitations to their respective Festivals and a general respect and admiration between them. But I don't believe a partnership on this level was previously in place.

In which aspects does D.A.N.C.E. differ most from other programmes in dance education?
What makes a major difference between DANCE and other programmes is not only the four directors themselves, but also the mobility and the almost complete immersion in four different professional environments. Most dance education focuses on either ballet or contemporary, or has a very rigid, set curriculum or a set Faculty. DANCE is a mix of both ballet and contemporary and has no set faculty, curriculum or schedule. It is in permanent evolution and based on the actual preoccupations and projects of the directors.

It is also unique as many schools try to create a programme they believe will interest the professional world, whereas DANCE was the professional world actually reaching out to the educational world. Often schools are built to feed the needs of one specific choreographer or company, whereas DANCE has a quartet at the head and is also free from what can often be a burdensome tradition.

DANCE, also as an Apprentice Programme, is different as it is not a “junior company” doing existing repertoire, or a pure “school” but really functions to immerse the young artists in a professional setting and to involve them in creative processes.

Which programmes / institutions would be good material for comparison, either in doing something similar or in doing something very remarkably different?
DANCE is, in terms of training as a dancer, only a final two-year step in what is often a very long (eight to ten years) education, so it is hard to compare to other institutions as DANCE, in itself, is not an institution.

Many companies do have apprentice programmes, CIP programmes (cellule d'insertion professionelle) or such, with the focus on one company or the work of one choreographer. This can also be a very good thing, but a major difference with DANCE is that there are four Artistic Directors and they personally also chose the apprentices, so there was a direct contact right from the beginning not feeding into one company.

The students who came to DANCE came from very diverse backgrounds. Some came from pure ballet schools, others from pure contemporary schools. But personally I don't think this really enables dancers to discover their full range artistically, nor does it prepare them for the professional world of today.

Many of the contemporary choreographers of today actually require an even higher level of coordination, flexibility and range of movement than ballet. Most ballet companies today do a great deal of contemporary repertoire. The division between the two no longer really exists.

I also believe the role of a dancer in a company has shifted, going much more towards collaborative processes, not just “a dancer” as it used to be and very often dancers have not had the chance in their training to be placed in such a situation. They must learn to be able to express themselves, contribute and reflect upon the processes, much more of a dialogue.

You are in partnership with companies and theatres throughout Europe for workshops and rehearsals. To what extent does it lead to new educational approaches?
To have the young apprentices actually travel to a foreign country, and work directly integrated into a new environment, brings a great deal of new experiences and really helps them to mature and broaden their horizons. When young dancers stay every day within the same four walls, in the same group, speaking the same language, they can become very insulated.

Part of the education in DANCE is also to learn to live and explore new cultural settings. Many of the installations they worked in, for example in CIANT Prague (Centre International d'Art et nouvelle Technologie) are not mobile, and they could only do these very media specific workshops in their facilities. It enabled the apprentices to experience first hand the expertise of many different institutions. Rather than trying to do all under one roof, with great compromises on the media elements, we took the apprentices to the diverse locations so they could really experience what the partners have to offer fully. This was also true of the time spent with the companies of the four directors, it was a major revelation for the apprentices to actually work with the companies and see how the reality is in each different environment.

As a further example, DANCE created a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in the TeatroDue Parma, working with Walter LeMoli, Allison Brown and their theatre troupe, which would not have been possible in their base in Dresden.

I think the new educational approaches stem from the mobility of the apprentices and the willingness of the institutions to welcome them for specific projects. Often we see a circulation of materials or productions, but the chance for the artists to circulate is rare, especially in education.

How do you see this partnership developing? Will it affect how these partners work?
I think there have been many interesting contacts, projects and connections made. There are many requests to continue and to find ways to repeat such processes. I think yes, it will also affect how these partners will work - many had never hosted a group of 24 young dancers before, and to see how they think, work and create has also provided them with much feedback and food for thought. One example of such a development is the future MA at the Palucca Schule.

D.A.N.C.E. is now transforming from a 'professional insertion programme' into an MA. Does this also mean a change in orientation? Are you now aiming at older students? What kind of graduation project will be asked for?
DANCE has been based since 2006 at the Palucca Schule Dresden, and several of the graduates from DANCE, who began already in possession of a BA, have been able to obtain a “Meisterklassse” post-graduate diploma based upon what they did in DANCE. Not all of the apprentices who entered DANCE had this qualification.

In the future, with the evolution to an MA, we will aim for a smaller group, all of whom have a BA or successfully pass the entrance exam before the Hochschule Commission and are deemed apt to enter an MA Programme. We have the right to accept MA students based on an audition, CV and exception artistic ability directly in an MA since January 2009 in Saxony. They will not necessarily be older, but on the very highest level.

As their aim is to also integrate the professional world as a dancer following their MA, the aspects of professional insertion will remain.

As an MA, like in the current group who did their Post-Graduate Diploma, their thesis is a self created and danced work, with a written pre-concept, concept and written thesis based upon an element or theme related to this process that is approved by the exam commisssion of the college. The wish is to recognize the work done inside the DANCE Programme with an official degree.

The form will inevitably change, but with the desire to maintain a high-level of professional integration and mobility, with the support of a college behind it as well. All MA students will also have a college professor as a mentor for their MA Thesis.

D.A.N.C.E. has a multidisciplinary approach with a large theoretical (including scientific) background. Does this entail specific admission demands – on top of already being highly selective on the professional level? When it becomes an MA, will this require specific academic qualifications?
Yes, we do look at the candidates' academic records, but there are no set pre-requisites. Some of the DANCE apprentices came very young, but with highly inquisitive minds and an open spirit of exploration, others came with more learned knowledge and degrees, but we found that a mix actually worked very well inside the group. We will see with the MA as it will be a much smaller group that a good dynamic can also be found.

Does this theoretical part also bring along larger language problems? Or is there not really a language problem?
Yes, the language skills are an issue, everything in DANCE was done in English, so we also took this in consideration at the auditions. Inside DANCE, they received language classes in English, French and German, according to their background. This will also be a consideration for the MA. All written work must be presented in German, but most work with a translator for this.

How is the relation between study and professional dancing with you students?
Inside DANCE, we wanted as much as possible that the study/academic aspects were related to and involved in the practical aspects as well. All the theory subjects were also taught by the artists working with the choreographers, and the content was based upon the projects the apprentices were working on. Basically, they couldn't do the practical aspects well without the theory/study aspects.

Some of your dancers are also choreographers; some may develop an individual/interdisciplinary performing arts practice. But some of your students are also 'pure dancers'. Can you tell more about the choices they make in their development?
The apprentices all had the opportunity to create their own works during the programme and it was very interesting to see the choices they made. Some made pure dance works, others made films, installations or a written thesis. We tried to encourage them to explore their own ideas, and many of the educational / analytical / process based aspects were the same whether they were making a choreography, film or installation.

A dancer's career has only a limited time span. Do you have a specific focus on career development and lifelong learning?
Yes – I think this is a big concern of the four directors, and this is why so much of the programme was dedicated to giving the apprentices the time to learn to “think for themselves”, take initiatives, and reflect upon the processes they were involved in. Many of the processes only worked if they took the responsibility themselves and developed skills that would help them in all fields.

I think also that being required to travel (most of the time unaccompanied), and learning to organize their daily life in many different countries, languages and situations, has also encouraged them to grow a lot as persons.

Where do your students find funds? Is it particularly hard or easy for them?
It was a struggle for some to find the funds. We stressed right from the beginning the entire programme was free of charge, but they needed to find a way to support themselves. We offered support in the form of letters of recommendation, but they really needed to be resourceful and find means of support.

Many found support from various foundations, embassies, families or other private sources, but for some it was a real challenge, especially apprentices coming from former Eastern Block Countries where the cost of living is much lower than in Western Europe.

Working with influential choreographers, could you say that the programme breeds new approaches but also that it meets new demands?
I hope so! When I see that from the 19 apprentices who just completed the programme in June this year 17 of them have found full contracts already to begin in August, I think we can safely say they are meeting the needs and demands of the profession of today.

I think the dance world is in high-speed evolution, and there is ever more competition for jobs and there are less and less work opportunities, so the fact that so many have secured work is a good sign. They have also gone to very diverse companies as well, from Ohad Naharin, Bern Ballett, TanzTheater München, Ballet Preljocaj, Ballet National de Marseille to Introdans and Donlon Dance Company.

It has also been interesting to watch the careers of the apprentices from DANCE I, who have also done very well and are in the companies including DV8, Random Dance, The Forsythe Company (project basis) and the Gothenburg Ballet.

How do you see the future? Will others follow this example? Will dance practice evolve in a way that calls for new programmes and approaches?
I hope DANCE has been able to inspire other projects. When I look at the dance world in general, I see a world that is incredibly fragile and at the same time incredibly rich and versatile. I hope there is always room to experiment and try new approaches as well as guarding the best of traditions and history. The dance world is so small, and can be very isolated, so if such formulas and exchanges can set precedents or spark new ideas it can only be a good thing.

Many other professions are greatly held back by language barriers, but dance tends to be a true “united nations” art form and can really be a model for international cooperation and exchange.

I also see the evolution into an MA is a recognition of dance as a serious education, not just a “hobby” or a “lightweight” art form, but one that deserves serious reflection and a place in higher education.


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