by Stuart Sweeney
Image of Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company by Chris Nash
The rest of us may still be wondering how we shall ever survive the cold weather and the flu, but for The Place Theatre, February  marks the start of Spring or at least of Spring Loaded, the annual celebration of the best of UK contemporary dance. I met Emma Gladstone, the venue's Associate Director, who programmed the event and over mugs of tea in The Place Café we discussed the forthcoming season.
Emma has an excellent background for such a task. After training as a dancer at The Laban Centre, 1987 found her helping to run Adventures in Motion Pictures in the early days before fame and fortune, when the company was performing work by a number of choreographers, which Emma helped to commission. Then in 1989 she left to dance with The Cholmondeleys in an exciting period when, under the inspired leadership of Lea Anderson, they established themselves as one of the UKs most innovative dance companies. In addition, during this time, Emma was also involved in programming dance events for the South Bank Platform Series.
So her varied experience was invaluable when she came to leave The Cholmondeleys in 1997 and joined The Place Theatre, working with the well-respected Director, John Ashford, whom she had known at AMP. It's always difficult for dancers when they come to the end of their performing days, but for Emma it was also a time of opportunity. She told me that, "Although contemporary dancers often make a contribution to the creative process, their role is primarily that of a medium for the ideas of the choreographer and the job at The Place Theatre has given me an opportunity to actively influence events in the dance world."
Apart from "Spring Loaded", Emma has responsibility for "Choreodrome", a Summer research project for up to 35 young choreographers and the Associate Artists programme, with past graduates such as Charles Linehan and Aletta Collins. She is also in charge of fund raising for "Re-Orient", the annual season of contemporary dance by East Asian artists. ["Spring Loaded" and "Re-Orient" are no longer staged, but ""Choreodrome" is still going strong.]
"Spring Loaded" is 13 years old and has expanded from the original 7 weeks to 13 this year. Originally, Continental companies and newcomers were included, but these strands now have their own seasons - 'Turning World' and 'Resolution!' Not only is the focus solely on UK companies now, but the blossoming of contemporary dance in this country has meant that a high standards threshold can be set for the work in the season. Also, for the past few years, The Place has formed a successful collaboration with The Royal Festival Hall complex, so that companies which require a larger venue, such as Phoenix Dance and the Richard Alston Company, can also be included. Emma is delighted with this joint venture, which represents a refreshing change from the usual 'splendid isolation' approach of most venues.
This year's season has a wide diversity of stimulating work. Although there are plenty of 'pure' dance pieces, there is an increase in the number of mixed media works and those showing a strong performance or theatre influence, reflecting changes occurring in contemporary dance generally. A real coup in early April is the week-long "Elbow Room", commissioned by The Place and featuring John Hegley, the performance poet, with different short dance spots each night. Although Hegley is increasingly in demand, he was attracted by the intimate venue and the innovative format of speech, dance, music and humour on offer.
Site-specific works are proving very popular at present. Indeed, one of the front runner for "Best New Production" in the ballet.co Reader's Poll is "Babel Index", the site-specific work performed in The British Library last autumn. At the end of April "Spring Loaded" is continuing this trend with "Salome" by The Seven Sisters Group, which will take place in the dark and mysterious cellars of St Pancras Chambers. The programme notes tell us that the choreographer Susanne Thomas has constructed "…a labyrinthe of walls, mirrors and projections where seduction is always present." I've already booked a ticket!
Emma then went on to emphasise the rich variety of 'pure' dance pieces on offer. Those ballet-lovers who haven't seen The Richard Alston Company have a chance at The Queen Elizabeth Hall in mid-March. In his early days, Alston was sometimes compared with Ashton, and although his focus has been on contemporary dance for many years, his lyrical style and sensitive use of music by Brahms and Mozart among others, make him accessible to many ballet lovers. His Company receive excellent reviews and the QEH provides an opportunity to see 'Waltzes in Disorder' set to a live performance, for 4 voices and piano, of 'Liebeslieder Walzer' by Brahms.
Other highlights include a triple bill from Jeremy James, an ex-Rambert dancer [sadly, now deceased]. Emma told me that, "He produces well-crafted, abstract work on his excellent dancers." The fact that he has been given the opening slot for the season speaks volumes for the confidence that Emma has in his work. We were in complete agreement about the wonderful Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company. Adapting the classical style of Bharata Nayam in a contemporary context, Shobana Jeyasingh produces work of the highest quality on excellent dancers.
Apart from the performance events, there are also a series of talks and discussions examining current trends and concerns in dance and looking at the past and future of The Place itself. Emma's job won't be easy over the next two years as a major development scheme will start next year. However, it should all be worthwhile as, when the theatre re-opens in late Spring 2001, it will have a number of improvements to help performers and the front of house facilities will be transformed. The development will also increase the already considerable resources that The Place offers to the UK dance community.
But for the time being, Emma has the fulfilment of all her work on "Spring Loaded" to look forward to. For those ballet lovers who have not tried contemporary dance for a while, the season offers a wide range of styles with high standards of performance. Tickets are only £10 and you can book 3 shows for £25. Amazing value for central London. Why not give it a try?
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