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A MEETING OF MINDS

by Matz Skoog, Artistic Director of English National Ballet

June, 2003

 

In January 2003, Matz Skoog, attended Rural Retreat: Ballet into the 21st century, the largest ever gathering of the heads of international ballet companies. Here he reflects on the benefits of the retreat, and the nature of artistic directorship.

How do you define the role of an artistic director of a ballet company? It is relatively easy to write a job description and define the functions that you are supposed to fill. As an artistic director you set the standards: you do the programming, you select the people, you decide what levels of quality are appropriate for the company, you decide what style of work it should be performing. But how you do that is something entirely individual. There isnít a training course for artistic directors. You can only pick up the skills as you go along, as you approach the role from your own particular perspective. But I do believe that you have to have been a dancer or a choreographer, have come up through the ranks, to understand what the job is all about.

Most artistic directors feel isolated from time to time; it is traditionally a job that has been performed in isolation. That is why Dance Eastís Rural Retreat: Ballet into the 21st century was so important. It brought together 25 artistic directors from 15 countries. This has never been done before and what was interesting was that we discovered that we all shared similar concerns and faced similar issues.

Perhaps this should not have been a surprise. Dance is a global art form and maybe ballet is more so than any other form of dance, because itís not restricted by borders or language barriers. And as the world becomes increasingly globalised, I canít imagine ballet managing to exist in isolation from that. The global nature of ballet can be seen in the geographical mobility of dance artists. I started my career dancing in Sweden, then moved to England and danced in several countries in Europe and elsewhere. I then became director of a ballet company in New Zealand, and I am now artistic director of English National Ballet in the UK. But while ballet is a global art form, at the same time the ballet world is very small. Ballet is relatively limited in its outreach to audiences; itís got tremendous depth, but, compared to other art forms and other forms of entertainment, its audience is small. At least two thirds of people at the retreat had past connections or had worked with each other at some time.

When we were all together at the rural retreat it was amazing, and encouraging, to feel part of a group of such highly qualified, highly intelligent, highly skilled people. If I may say so myself, it was clear that the calibre of the people in the room was tremendous Ė by any standards, not just the standards of the ballet world Ė because everyone there was a world leader in his or her field.

Throughout the retreat, we had interesting and honest debates about good, bad and indifferent things. We discovered mostly links and connections between ourselves, similarities between our situations, but, at the same time, each company was different. There are distinct, different ways of existing as a ballet company: there is the European opera house ballet company model, the British company model and the American company model; resident companies versus touring companies, and of course there are a lot differences in how we run our day-to-day businesses.

But while we recognised the differences and similarities between ourselves, there was no sense of competition within the retreat. I think that the idea of competition is something that exists outside our companies, something that is imposed upon us by dance writers. Itís an external perception that is not reflected in the internal reality of leading a company.

Among the people at the retreat there were some strong personalities Ė thatís part of the business we are in Ė but there were no divas. It was a very sensible and humble group of people. No one was tossing a silk scarf over their shoulder and giving the big act. There was none of that at all. I think that style of artistic has gone out of fashion as it has proved not to be very effective. An artistic director needs to be much more versatile now than they did ten years ago; thereís a much wider area of responsibility than you had before. And that was reflected in the group of people who were there. And we were all there because we were prepared to share.

During our discussions, we mostly shared experiences that would allow us as a group and as individuals to do our jobs better; how we could create circumstances where new work would emerge more easily. We discussed how to retain old repertoire by master choreographers in the face of ridiculously high royalty costs. In our smaller groups we also discussed how we develop our dancers and how we foster good professional artistic attitudes. It is difficult to say exactly what we talked about because it just kept flowing.

The fact that we were removed from our normal environments was good. Had the retreat been held in a metropolitan centre like London, there would have been too much else to think about and the group wouldnít have hung together so well. We spent all day and every day together: it was like being on tour, but we got to spend time with other directors instead of dancers. There was a tight schedule of things to do and a well worked out itinerary: we ate together, drank together and travelled together, so there wasnít much opportunity to drift apart as a group.

We spent a lot less time discussing tradition than I think people in the outside world expected us to do. We were much more focused on the future than on the past. At the press conference following the retreat, a lot of the questions related to issues that we hadnít discussed as a group in any particular length. In particular, there were questions about preserving old choreography, that it should not be touched or changed or redesigned. We hadnít even discussed this, but it was obviously perceived on the outside as a very important issue.

Of course tradition is important, but we also recognised that tradition is usually linked to one choreographer or another; itís not necessarily a national phenomenon. Itís probably not a popular thing to say, but Ė in my opinion - what is called the English tradition does not exist. We recognised that tradition does exist in companies: the Royal Danish Ballet has the Bournonville heritage to care for; the Stuttgart Ballet has the Cranko heritage and his repertoire to care for; The Royal Ballet has Ashton and MacMillan; and there are other companies that have the legacy of particular choreographers that are an asset for those companies. But tradition is mostly limited to a particular dance company, not to a national style. The Royal Ballet was fortunate to have had two of the twentieth centuryís great choreographers as resident choreographers Ė Ashton and MacMillan. There is a tremendous heritage there and a house style which is of great value to the company. But I think it is arguable that this is a national style.

One of the positive outcomes of the retreat was the realisation that we are all in this together; we all face the same issues. And because of this, we felt encouraged and strengthened. The experience has confirmed some of my viewpoints on certain issues. It has reinforced my resolve on some things. For example, it has confirmed that for the English National Ballet, right now we need to commission new work from choreographers from this country. We have in this country enough good people to fill the number of opportunities that we have available Ė which isnít that many. I had wondered whether to open it wider. But having discussed it at the retreat, I thought, Yes, Iím going down the right track here.í I discovered that other people had similar approaches where they would select a handful of people, or maybe just a single person, rather then spreading themselves too thinly. I think we all felt that it was important that if we do find the talent, and find someone thatís interested, we should give them consistent support and a proper role to play. I think in the future we may see more focused national companies, because no one has the money to buy in superstars.

And I feel generally much more confident that what I am doing is right. It may not to be the taste of other people, but thatís a different issue. But I think Iím going down the correct path, Iím doing things as much as I can in the correct manner. If itís suitable for this company only time will tell. But when it comes to presenting myself and my work to my audiences, I feel an increased confidence because I know that I belong to a group of professionals that shares values and has high standards. What we deal with all the time is very difficult to argue in a logical sense. We simply have to have faith in the medium. To know that you belong to a much larger community of people that are feeling exactly the same things as you, gives you more confidence, support Ė more ammunition. And now thereís a network Ė all these directors are going to be able to turn to each other for help and support.

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A THINK TANK FOR BALLET

Rural Retreat: Ballet into the 21st century was a three-day think tank held in Suffolk from 10 to 12 January 2003, hosted by Dance East, which brought together the heads of international ballet companies. The artistic directors who attended the retreat were:

Boris Akimov (Bolshoi Ballet), John Alleyne (Ballet British Columbia), Frank Andersen (Royal Danish Ballet), Mark Baldwin (Rambert Dance Company), David Bintley (Birmingham Royal Ballet), Dinna Bjorn (Finnish National Ballet), Christopher Bruce (Rambert Dance Company), Ricardo Bustamente (Ballet de Santiago, Chile), Iracity Cardoso (Gulbenkian Ballet, Portugal), Didier Deschamps (Ballet de Lorraine, France), Wayne Eagling (Dutch National Ballet), Espen Giljane (Norwegian National Ballet), Kevin Irving (Goteburg ballet, Sweden), Marc Jonkers (former artistic director, National Ballet of Portugal), James Kudelka (National Ballet of Canada), Ivan Liska (Bayerisches Staatsballett, Munich), Monica Mason (The Royal Ballet, London), David McAllister (Australian Ballet), Kevin McKenzie (American Ballet Theatre), Mikko Nissinen (Boston Ballet), David Nixon (Northern Ballet Theatre), Madeleine Onne (Royal Swedish Ballet), Ashley Page (Scottish Ballet), Matz Skoog (English National Ballet).

The directors identified the importance of ongoing communication, open exchange and mutual support to help them fulfil their roles as custodians of the art form. Each company director confirmed a commitment to:

  • producing conditions conducive to creativity which is at the heart of the art form
  • including new work as part of an individual and distinctive balance of repertoire, recognising that new work is vital for dancers and audiences

The following statement was issued following the retreat, reflecting the nature of the debate:

ĎWe recognise the impact of artistic, social, economic, technological and political change and the implications of these changes on the future of the art form.
ĎIt is clear to us that nothing happens in our art form except through the collaborative effect of many people and that ballet companies represent an international community of individuals working towards the same goal.í

Major issues discussed during the weekend included:

  • The need to find better ways of ensuring access to the existing repertoire, including addressing issues of rights and royalties
  • The imperative to take risks as a vital ingredient in a healthy and creative environment
  • The need to find new ways of supporting successive generations of choreographers and artistic directors
  • The social changes that require a wider range of ways of encouraging dancers to develop a clear understanding of their artistic and professional responsibilities
  • The ways in which the support of the whole team underpins the organisation, and is critical to the effective operating and continued growth and development of the individual ballet company Ė and thus the art form as a whole
  • Making explicit the responsibilities and the concomitant rights of artistic directors with the context of corporate governance

The issue will be progressed through the contacts and working relationships established over the weekend. The next comprehensive meeting of artistic directors will take place in 2005.

 

Please join the discussion in our forum.

 

This article first appeared in Dance Theatre Journal

 

 

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