Dancing Queen

- Interview with Val Bourne, Artistic Director of Dance Umbrella for 25 years

By Donald Hutera

July, 2003


‘I’ve had the best possible time.’ The words bubble up out of Val Bourne, founder and artistic director of Dance Umbrella, as she looks back on twenty-five years of the UK’s premier contemporary dance festival. ‘It’s great that we’ve lasted this long. Rumour had it, the powers that be thought if they gave us enough rope we’d hang ourselves. Maybe they just didn’t give us enough rope!

‘I’ve been extraordinarily lucky,’ Bourne continues on a more reflective note. ‘It’s been a great time for contemporary dance, if you think about it. In the beginning a lot of work looked rather similar because it was all coming out of just two schools. 25 years on and contemporary dance is remarkably rich in its diversity and scope.’

Dance Umbrella 2003 will try to reflect that great variety, while also honouring its own multifarious history. The season kicks off September 28 with a celebratory birthday gala performance at Sadler’s Wells. The line-up may include work from the likes of Matthew Bourne, Bill T Jones, and Mark Morris. The evening is, in part, a fund-raiser. ‘We need to make some money,’ Bourne says, ‘in order to pay for other artistic indulgences later in the festival.’ Opening night isn’t the only time that Umbrella will spotlight a clutch of performances. On 22 nd and 23 rd October the South Bank Centre will host a Dance Umbrella retrospective featuring artists and companies deemed integral to the festival’s development but not otherwise included in this year’s edition. The evening might include contributions from Richard Alston, Sara Rudner (who both participated in the very first Umbrella in 1978), Siobhan Davies, David Gordon and Valda Setterfield. But what to call this lively event? ‘We’re toying with the word silver,’ Bourne says. Silver Service? Silver Selection? Silver Links? All have been suggested. [Check out Umbrella’s autumn newsletter for both title and artist confirmations for both this event and the firstnight bash.]

‘So many artists we’ve presented are still making wonderful work,’ Bourne says, citing names Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown and Laurie Booth from Umbrella 2003. Cunningham’s company presents a handful of Anniversary Events (4–8 Nov) in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. It’s actually a double anniversary, given that the great man’s troupe is observing its own 50 th birthday this year. For his part Booth will be working with visual artist Thomas Richards and composer Nick Rothwell on an installation performance in Greenwich Dance Agency’s impressive Borough Hall. Entitled Ice Dreams Fire, it features many dozens of frozen shirts hung out to thaw. The artists, Bourne believes, ‘are really playing to the strengths of that space.’

Asked what has kept her going for a quarter century Bourne says, ‘I’m still curious. There’s still great pleasure. I always appreciate work if its good of its kind. Some kinds I don’t like and that’s just personal taste.’ She wagers that the catholic taste she shares with Umbrella associate artistic director Betsy Gregory has been helpful to the festival. ‘It means that we’re not looking to attract the same audience every night. Obviously we do consider whether or not we are going to sell tickets.’ Their approach carries with it a measure of faith both in the artists they’ve nurtured and in the growth of the art form generally. ‘First time festival artists may not sell. But if we stick by them they will next time round.’

Bourne is the last person to dub herself a businesswoman. Regarding her programming skills she remarks, ‘I go a lot on gut instinct. I ask myself would I want to be sitting with members of the public who’ve paid good money, watching this piece? Would I recommend it to friends, or want to see it again? With new work we have to go on trust.’ She mentions the world premiere of the second half of Umbrella regular Stephen Petronio’s City of Twist at Queen Elizabeth Hall (18 &19 October), with music by Lou Reed. ‘Because it’s Stephen,’ Bourne says confidently, ‘we have to believe it’ll be just fine.’

Even as she agrees that artists have the right to fail, Bourne voices reservations about the concept. ‘There are always consequences. It’s like life. You learn a lot from mistakes. Just don’t do them again.’ Certain lines of artistic enquiry are, she says, ‘all very well in a workshop situation, but how public should that questioning be?’ Bourne, however, remains optimistic. If any one work by a particular artist doesn’t quite meet her standards, she’s likely to go see the next offering because ‘people move on, and the work will change.’ In the meantime there is a stimulating, entertaining, possibly challenging and potentially glorious anniversary festival to look after.


This article first appeared in the Spring 2003 edition of Dance Umbrella News

Donald Hutera writes regularly on dance, theatre and the arts for
The Times, Time Out, Dance Europe, Dance Now and Dance Theatre Journal.
He is co-author, with Allen Robertson, of The Dance Handbook.

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