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Subject: "Report: "The Role of the Artistic Director" discussion forum" Archived thread - Read only
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Conferences What's Happening Topic #1256
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Bruce Madmin

22-01-01, 07:29 AM (GMT)
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"Report: "The Role of the Artistic Director" discussion forum"
   Last Wednesday I got to the last Big Forum discussion where the topic was "The Role of the Artistic Director". Susie Crow and Jennifer Jackson of BIG were there and the main guest speakers were Lynn Seymour, Judith Weir (Artistic Director of the Spitalfields Festival) and Sir John Drummond. It was a fascinating evening, if mainly for the dance trade, and was particularly notable for its candour. True to say that some things can only be said and never written I think.

What follows are the notes I took on the night, cleaned up and elaborated just a little. I believe that BIG are writing up a fuller transcript, though I'm not sure how that might emerge yet.

The debate was very free thinking but the BIG starter was to question what qualities and skills are needed to be a successful AD. The three participants each had a few minutes to give there opening perspective:

Lynn Seymour {S}:
Posed lots of questions and observations about the broader context before drilling down into some specifics...

Art seems to be seen as business and entertainment with dancers viewed as hardware / software. High art is not just entertainment... its spiritual. Ballet is elitist - no wonder we have yobs on the streets when art is not seen as important Seymour mused.

Is charitable status right? Can it allow growth or does it stifle it?

Are board appointees qualified - the position of the RB AD search committee was mentioned in passing. Are we condemned forever to the views of a board which doesn't really know dance?

And who is responsible for setting policy (long term or short) in a raft of areas:
+ old repertoire
+ archiving of material
+ growing and mentoring of dancers

Who defines the role of the AD and should it include the widest breadth or a narrow view? Whatever; what's needed are structures that liberate creativity

Seymour cut an interesting figure with a large brimmed hat and dark classes, which meant that you tended to look at the tilt of her head and animated hands rather than read her face and eyes. Some of the observations seemed incredibly pertinent and others were more vague. If she were up for a job as an AD and we were the selection committee I think it would be said that she knew the breadth of the job, had a very holistic approach, but prioritising and focus might be useful to probe further at the next interview!

Judith Wier {W}:
Knows little about dance but is a practicing AD (for a music festival) which made for interesting observations that were usefully more generic

She noted that creative types were often thought to need protection from the financials, but she believed it was essential to be involved and understand them to a level... while having a good financial manger to be in proper command of the detail.

AD's should remain in post for a 'few years' in order to see their full impact and the fuller picture. She also talked of open meetings with artists and staff to learn and respond to other ideas, though clearly the AD has the final responsibility. She was also keen on understanding her audience and their thoughts/perspectives.

Finally she felt that collaborative situations did not always work and that at times unselfish advice had to be given to those struggling with 'bad' productions.

Wier came over as confident, competent and sorted! There seemed to be a good balance between her questioning/listening to add to her knowledge while displaying all the qualities of a leader you would follow.

John Drummond {D}:
This was the first time I have seen him in the flesh - a giant of a man in all ways and capable of holding a room transfixed for a very long time with ad libs, stories from his rich variety of arts jobs and appropriate sound bites. Appropriately Drummond gave perhaps the widest perspective...

He noted the legacy of Diaghilev and others but put the current position in context as the audience has grown enormously since the 1940's and noted that even in the 1960's the Arts Council was only funding 7 companies - now there is a plethora, all requiring leadership.

He noted that much artistic endeavour these days was lead by accountants etc - there were a few expletives at this point!

There needed to be funding for daring - creativity without risk is a nonsense. And he questioned New Labours 'accessibility' which he characterised as "anything artistic can't be of value unless it is appreciated by everybody..." and which was reducing everything to the level of third rate musicals.

To his mind modern dance was now much more creative than ballet which was increasingly at the mercy of a mountain of bureaucracy - the Stalinisation of art.

An AD needed to be very strong and not at the mercy of marketing and accountants and their emphasis on galas and other saleable works. However he was aware that he didn't know all the answers and in his time running such endeavours (like the Edinburgh Festival) he spent less than 2 days a week on the artistic and the rest was negotiating and thinking about government, local government, unions, finances, benefactors, sponsors, HR etc etc. What is needed are stuctures that protect AD's because bureaucracy was stifling creativity.

He finished by saying that he was in some gloom about the role and the future of dance in general. However... what of his thoughts because he was out of favour and nobody in government wanted to speak to him!

You can't fail to be drawn to Drummond's outspoken candour and ability to think big and wide. He is unlikely to ever chase a dance AD position but if he did you'd want to explore his team playing and specific thoughts on direction - some of the things he said as the evening progressed would be considered heresy - or very enlightened depending on your perspective.

Wider discussion
With the opening statements made there were general questions to the guests and some enlightened comments from the wider group from time to time. Rather than try to rigorously follow I took odd notes...

S: had undertaken an AD role in Berlin and was clearly not so happy with aspects of the job, likening herself more to a dance master than anything - the finance person was top dog and even the costume person seemed to have more power!

There was agreement that things were always worse (for dance) in a shared house - they were not called *Opera* houses for nothing and it was noted that Tony Hall (the new Executive Director at the ROH) had gone though an entire press call on his appointment without mentioning the existence of the ballet company at all.

Somehow the "all pulling together" in larger houses had been lost as departments have become more insular and protected their budgets rather than concentrating on getting the final dance on stage

D: noted that starting things is easier than carrying them forward. He applauded AMP for coming from nowhere and having such great success, but the ultimate test would be maintaining their momentum. Later there was also praise for Mark Baldwin. Sometimes things also have to be killed - an AD needs to be an Martinet as well as somebody who grows those around him.

There was general agreement that these days companies don't tour enough and the impact there could be on standards. There was particular criticism of RB where Seymour talked of how much dancing she did with the company - over a hundred Swan Lakes for example. There is often criticism of the company being underehearsed but it was felt the company should be performing more (not rehearsing more) - that was the way to develop as a dancer and understand roles. Alternatively you could have fewer casts.

S: emphasised many times the need to consider a dancer as a complete being, to give them wider training and to consider their complete career - how do they move forward in their chosen career when they are not on the main stage anymore? Its a lifetime of work that needs to be considered. It was noted that BRB have a scheme that enables dancers to undertake degrees (as does RB now).

D: thought that much arts work in the UK was done by 'foreigners' and while he was not a little Englander - we had much to be thankful for since 'foreigners' had gotten ballet going in the UK, he wanted to know how we could train people better in the UK for the future.

W: said that on the continent ADs were given bigger breaks rather younger and had far bigger budgets and salaries to play with. This made them natural candidates for senior jobs in the UK when they came up.

D: Accountants don't trust AD's and think they know best! New Labour is embarrassed by high art and the modern arts lobby appear to have 'won'.

At the Opera House he was concerned that there might yet be financial difficulties when they try to move from funding 80% of their season to 100% (ie the Hochhauser's are no longer needed to do the summer season). Also concern re Pappano's contract which only seemed to oblige him to be there for 12 weeks a year and for RB there was concern about the Ashton and MacMillan repertoire.

He went on to say that he does not like very modern works (Foresythe's name came up) in some classical companies and he believed companies should specialise instead of trying to do everything.

W: was against such specialisation because of what she had seen in music where it was all too narrow and cross fertilisation was more difficult.

D: An AD needs to be Fascist at times and not be afraid to dictate - he sited Diaghilev and Prodigal Son where three times Diaghilev insisted on significant changes. He was also full of praise for Sir Peter Wright - the best AD in the UK in the last 50 years! (even if he had been a little be nervous of the move from Sadler's Wells to Birmingham). As a board member of BRB Drummond had some praise for David Bintley who he said was clearly in charge of the company. However he also regretted that so many AD's were choreographers or even ex dancers - Diaghilev being the classic example of a facilitating type of AD of which there should be more.

Overall it was a terrific discussion that cast light on the issues of being an AD now, while delivering some illuminating perspectives on the past (both recent and past, past)

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  Subject     Author     Message Date     ID  
  RE: Report: "The Role of the Artistic Director" discussion f... Susie 22-01-01 1
  RE: Report: "The Role of the Artistic Director" discussion f... Stuart Sweeney 22-01-01 2
  RE: Report: "The Role of the Artistic Director" discussion f... alison 25-01-01 3

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22-01-01, 02:48 PM (GMT)
Click to EMail Susie Click to send private message to Susie Click to add this user to your buddy list  
1. "RE: Report: "The Role of the Artistic Director" discussion forum"
In response to message #0
   Thank you Bruce for such a full account clearly drawing out important threads in the discussion. I hope that people will add their thoughts arising from this...

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Stuart Sweeney

22-01-01, 09:33 PM (GMT)
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2. "RE: Report: "The Role of the Artistic Director" discussion forum"
In response to message #0
   Sir John Drummond has an excellent record as a Festival organiser and is an entertaining speaker. However, in recent years he does seem to have taken on the role of Victor Meldrew (Mr Grumpy for overseas readers). For example:

- On the one hand criticising the lack of exciting new ballet work, but then wishing that they didn't perform the work of perhaps the most successful ballet choreographer working today, William Forsythe. Lucky for Sir John that Deborah Bull or Sylvie Guillem weren't there.

- Complaining that the ROH Chief Executives don't know enough about ballet and then very critical of the only one of the recent past who has shown a real commitment to ballet, Michael Kaiser.

Overall it was a stimulating, if sometimes frustrating evening, and I would certainly recommend readers to attend future BIG meetings. As a bonus, it's not every day you get the chance to talk to Lynn Seymour over a glass of wine. Many thanks to Susie and Jennifer and the patient RFH staff.

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25-01-01, 01:11 PM (GMT)
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3. "RE: Report: "The Role of the Artistic Director" discussion forum"
In response to message #0
   Thanks, Bruce - it sounds like a fascinating evening. Hope Messrs. Stretton, Skoog, Nixon etc. get to read it.

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