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Our History - The Place

by Jane Pritchard

2002

 

It is now impossible to imagine the London dance scene without The Place which for more than three decades has provided the focal point of contemporary dance creativity, contributing to the ever increasing popularity of this art form. One of the world's leading centres for dance since establishing its home near King's Cross in 1969, The Place has been at the cutting edge of the development of contemporary work, particularly new choreography, ever since.

The Place incorporates a 300 seat theatre, re-launched as the Robin Howard Dance Theatre in 2001, that presents a year-round programme of British and international dance. In its first phase, 1969-77, it was used for experimental work in music and drama as well as dance, but since 1982 has focused on a single art in its multiplicity of forms. The Place is home to London Contemporary Dance School, attracting students and teachers from around the world. This provides both undergraduate and postgraduate vocational training as well as a research programme in contemporary dance and has up to 170 students from many different countries.

Graduates of the School have an impressive track record, including many of the dancers and choreographers who have shaped today's international dance scene. It also houses a range of learning and access programmes including classes in the evenings and at weekends, catering for people of all ages, with varied interests and abilities. The Place has provided a home for major national and internationally acclaimed companies; until 1994 it was the base for London Contemporary Dance Theatre and subsequently the Richard Alston Dance Company, as well as many independent companies, resident choreographers and associate artists. Since 1991 it has also provided services for the independent dance sector, including information, advice, choreographic opportunities and a world-class dance video library.

1969 was proclaimed 'The Year of the Place'. That spring, the Contemporary Ballet Trust (as it was still called so as not to frighten funding bodies!) moved into premises at 17 Dukes Road, Euston, and the suggested name of The Artists' Place was immediately reduced to The Place. The building, designed by Robert Edis, had been opened by the Prince of Wales in 1889 as the home of the Middlesex Artists' Rifle Volunteers and the Victorian facade still includes the heads of Mars, god of war and Minerva the goddess of wisdom: war and the liberal arts. As the Trust's founder Robin Howard observed when The Place was transformed into a home for dancers 'and all those who are involved in the allied arts', 'the headquarters of Artists in War had become the headquarters of Arts in Peace'. In 1976 The Trust, with assistance from the Arts Council and the Linbury Trust, purchased not only the freehold of The Place but also acquired the site in Flaxman Terrace enabling the extension of the buildings. In 1999 renovation of The Place began funded by the National Lottery through the Arts Council of England, King's Cross Partnership and many trusts, foundations, companies and individuals.

Robin Howard was a man of vision. He fervently believed dance was a force for improving society by enhancing the quality of life for both performer and spectator and a means of promoting international harmony. It was Howard's aim to establish a 'distinctively British form of contemporary dance' that would become firmly rooted here but he acknowledged international influences and appreciated that his project should import 'the best from overseas to set the standard and provide leadership'. In his eyes the best was Martha Graham, thus he persuaded one of Miss Graham's colleagues, the dancer, choreographer and inspirational teacher Robert Cohan to become Artistic Director of the project. From the outset both Howard and Cohan gave unstinting encouragement to young creative and performing artists enabling The Place to have, in the words of Richard Buckle, the dance critic of The Sunday Times, ' a unique atmosphere and an indefinable ambiance of creativity, vitality and friendliness'. The Place attracted dancers and choreographers from many countries both as students and performers and the multi-nationalism of London Contemporary Dance Theatre and its pioneering role in Europe were sources of pride to its founders.

Robin Howard (1924-1989) one of the greatest arts philanthropists of the 20th century, was bowled over by the Martha Graham Company during its first visit to London in 1954 when it performed to tiny audiences and largely uncomprehending critics. A restaurateur, businessman and voluntary worker for the United Nations with no specific links with the theatre although his family had a long tradition of public service and support for the arts, Howard sponsored Graham's return to Britain in 1963. This act of generosity inspired the gratitude of leading figures of British dance, most notably Dame Marie Rambert and Patricia Hutchinson whose enthusiasm and encouragement prompted his formation of the Contemporary Dance Trust. Initially Howard sponsored British students to attend the Graham School in New York but to prevent the drain of talent to America he changed tack and invited American dance teachers to work in Britain. He also funded productions and seasons, both assisting British dance companies to become more creative and enabling visits by Americans including the Paul Taylor Company and Twyla Tharp through whom he widened the horizon of the dance-going public.

Classes in Graham technique proved popular and it fell to Howard's secretary Janet 'Mop' Eager to organise them. Mop had joined Howard when, for the quatercentenary of Shakespeare's birth in 1964, he mounted an exhibition 'Shakespeare's England'. Her involvement with the Trust continues and she went on to administrate with quiet dedication London Contemporary Dance Theatre throughout its existence from its preview performances in 1967 until it ceased to operate in 1994 and then served as in the same capacity for the launch of Richard Alston's Company.

Links with Martha Graham were close when the Trust was launched. Graham served as Artistic adviser at the outset and the School was the only place in Europe authorised to teach Graham technique. For two seasons, 1965-67 Howard commuted to New York as Executive Director of the Graham Foundation knowing his embryo London school was in safe hands. Other original members of staff also went to New York, Janet Eager to work in the Graham company office, Judith Knight to gain experience as an accompanist for contemporary classes. When the Graham company came to London in 1967, Jenny Henry worked alongside Graham's wardrobe mistress. Soon after the permanent school was established (from 1966 it had been based for three years in Berner's Place) Patricia Hutchinson Mackenzie was appointed Principal providing more structured courses. It was the core group of Howard, Cohan, Eager and Hutchinson who shaped the School, later bringing in Jane Dudley as Director of Graham Studies. Dudley in turn invited Nina Fonaroff to be Head of Choreography, bringing her background with both Graham and Graham's musical mentor Louis Horst.

Direct links with Graham diminished as the work of the School and London Contemporary Dance Theatre matured. A variety of teaching styles was always welcomed for the challenges they provided and Robert Cohan and London Contemporary Dance Theatre (which danced more than 200 works in its 25 years of performances) encouraged new choreographic talent. The brilliance and dedication of the choreographers, dancers and technicians of the company was recognised by the awards they constantly received and as Clement Crisp wrote when celebrating the coming of age of LCDT ,'Few enterprises in the arts ... have been so productive or so excellent. Nothing I suspect has been so valuable to society in communicating the joys and rewards of an art form which has become so truly and splendidly national'. Nevertheless it was an exciting day for Howard when he realised the Trust had produced its first rebel and he constantly also supported the work of rival independent choreographers and their companies.

No team of founders could have been more respected or loved than those who built The Place. Howard and his colleagues always recognised the need to regenerate enthusiasm for a project. Plans, he noted would change, but the Trust's principles should remain constant. As he wrote 'other people would come along and take over, and guide the Trust, its School, its company, its work, into the twenty-first century'. Indeed with Richard Alston (Artistic Director), John Ashford (Theatre Director), Sue Hoyle (General Manager) and Veronica Lewis (Director, London Contemporary Dance School), a strong team is in place and as Howard predicted 'That way lies a glorious future for us'.

 

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