Rural Retreat: The Future Is Now

Report on an International Gathering of Artistic Directors, DanceEast, Ipswich, England, January 3-9, 2013

By Jeanette Siddall

Ten years ago Assis Carreiro, artistic director and chief executive of DanceEast, had the courageous idea to bring together the artistic directors of international dance companies in the very rural setting of the Snape Maltings under the wide open skies of Suffolk in England. I was director of Dance UK, a sister organization to Dance/USA, and was delighted to be asked to co-facilitate the first Rural Retreat with Professor Christopher Bannerman of Middlesex University in London.

It seemed like an essential but improbable venture. Would artistic directors from different countries with disparate working and funding structures come and could have anything in common? Would they even want to speak to each other? Happily, they did, and found the experience so useful that it was followed by a range of Rural Retreats for artistic directors and aspiring leaders bringing together companies and professional training schools for a weekend of intensive talks.

A decade on, I was even more fortunate to return to co-facilitate with Brendan Keaney, director of Greenwich Dance in South East London, the Rural Retreat in the less rural setting of Ipswich’s waterfront. The gathering, January 3-9, 2013, involved 28 artistic directors, representing 17 nationalities and working for companies based in 18 different countries and of very different sizes, ranging from under 20 to over 100 dancers. Several had been new in their positions when they attended the first Rural Retreat, one had moved to another company and continent since then, and a number of others had been in their posts for only months. Their companies operate in very different political, cultural, and economic environments (one had even experienced increased funding) but, as Christopher Stowell, formerly of Oregon Ballet, summarized: “My lingering impression is the sense of optimism and enthusiasm we all felt alongside the realities we all face. The challenges we face in the U.S. are somewhat different from those in Europe, but the energy and creativity needed to tackle them are the same.”

DanceEast’s beautiful, purpose-built Jerwood DanceHouse was home to this year’s retreat, and accommodations were generously provided by the nearby Salthouse Hotel with its comfortable rooms and helpful staff. The adjacent Old Neptune Inn, Ipswich’s oldest house, dating from 1490, provided a warm and charming relaxing space that became known as “the naughty room.” DanceEast has always been committed to being excellent hosts to ensure everyone can relax and spend their time together on fruitful discussions, and Susannah Burke, special projects officer at DanceEast, elegantly managed all the arrangements since the beginning.

At the time the retreat was being planned, Assis Carreiro was artistic director and chief executive of DanceEast. In August 2012, she was appointed artistic director of The Royal Ballet of Flanders, and, in a series of coincidences that demonstrate how life can be stranger than fiction, I became part-time interim director for DanceEast and Brendan Keaney was appointed artistic director and chief executive. He will be taking up the post in March 2013.

So what happens at a Rural Retreat?

The first evening focused on introductions and included some initial thoughts about how the confidence of leaders helps organizations make better decisions and how we make big decisions in our personal lives. The following morning the retreat began with identifying some of the positive changes that have taken place in dance globally over the past decade. There was plenty of good news including the growth in the popularity of dance, an increase in being better connected and more relevant to the wider cultural landscape and people’s lives, improvements in supporting dancers’ health, enhanced diversity and performance quality, and more curiosity from audiences. It might seem strange to start an event entitled “The Future Is Now” by looking backwards, but reminding ourselves about what has been achieved was intended to promote a positive frame of mind to enable us to better deal with the many challenges, issues, and problems that all too easily come to mind.

The rest of the first day was spent in small and whole group discussions about balancing different priorities in programming and considering what, if anything, the artistic directors might achieve together. The list was quite impressive and included the value of having a united front in lobbying and shaping the future, the sharing of intelligence, and collaborating on resolving practical issues such as the sharing of repertoire. The day concluded with Sarah Weir OBE talking about her experience of being the first female managing director for Lloyds insurance market and moving into leadership positions with Arts & Business, Almeida Theatre, Arts Council England, and the Olympic Delivery Authority prior to taking up her current position as chief executive of the Legacy List, the charity that supports the social cultural and physical regeneration of East London.

Day 2 included a panel discussion about the training of dancers, an opportunity to “walk and talk” in small groups beyond the confines of the studio, theater, and other indoor spaces, and an inspiring and irreverent talk by Sir Peter Jonas, who is an advocate for populist opera, champion of contemporary composers, and recently retired from the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich.

The final full day began with a presentation by Aidy Boothroyd, manager of Northampton Football Club (soccer), noted some interesting parallels between dance and football: in football you have to win. But as Boothroyd described, “There comes a time when winning is not enough,” so both have to keep their audiences engaged. Aidy Boothroyd, manager of Northampton Football Club (football is soccer
in America). He noted some interesting parallels between dance and
football: in football you have to win, but as Boothroyd described,
“There comes a time when winning is not enough,” so both have to keep
their audiences engaged. Both dance and football do it through extraordinary physicality and fascinating movement, which attracts viewers. There are some daunting differences, too: around half of all first time football managers never work again if they are sacked and the average time a manager stays in a job is around 11 months. That really grabbed everyone’s attention at 9:00 a.m. on Sunday morning! It was not surprising that he was entertaining and highly articulate about managing and motivating teams, making decisions and mistakes, dealing with owners and board chairpersons. Then Professor Joan Duda, sports psychologist with Birmingham University who also works with Birmingham Royal Ballet, spoke about motivational processes. It was heartening that a number of processes had already been discussed by the artistic directors, in particular the importance of dancers feeling they have autonomy.

The afternoon returned to questions of decision-making before turning to an attempt to summarize the retreat for a statement that could be shared with the wider world. We  concluded with Assis Carreiro interviewing David McAllistair of Australian Ballet about his Desert Island Dances. Based on a long-running British radio program, Desert Island Discs, which is also heard in an American version on National Public Radio, McAllistair talked about the dances he would want to take to a desert island, interspersed with stories about his life in dance that made our sides ache with laughter.

The retreat ended with a reception at the Royal Opera House hosted by Tony Hall, chief executive of the ROH, and Kevin O’Hare, artistic director of The Royal Ballet, with speeches by Assis Carriero and Alan Davey, chief executive of Arts Council England. Madeleine Onne and McAllistair spoke on behalf of the attending artistic directors who issued the following statement:

We gathered to share intelligence towards the creation of a collaborative, not competitive culture between our dance companies.

In the face of the economic challenges, this new generation of dance leaders allowed the relevance and impact of our art form to guide our conversation. We chose not to overly focus on the global economic difficulties affecting us all, but instead recognized the importance of concentrating on the development of dance as an art form to secure the ongoing and future success of the dance industry.

We are living in uncertain times, but we are assured of the universal impact and social value of dance.

Rural Retreats have always combined the functions of think tank and professional development. In the couple of weeks since the retreat ended, emails have been flying round the world with thanks, memories, and invitations to visit. Paul Lightfoot of Nederlands Dance Theatre offered his ten top tips for artistic directors that are keeping alive that sense of shared experience and irreverent humour that characterized the weekend.

I left feeling both optimistic about the future of dance, and feeling that the future has arrived. This is a new generation of artistic directors, committed to respecting and being custodians of the best of the past and unafraid to change the things that are no longer relevant. They are curious and courageous, willing to question everything about the art form, its profile and status in society, and how they operate as leaders. They are interested in an evidence base for their decisions; they want to share knowledge with science and other art forms, to understand their audiences and work with their various stakeholders and funders. They know that dance does not exist and certainly cannot thrive in isolation; that it is a business as well as central to culture and that it constantly has to prove its value to, and connect with, the wider world. They are now firmly united with each other, generous in supporting their international peers and see no purpose in everyone having to reinvent the wheel. They know that with no formal training for the job, they need to bring their whole life experiences to their roles and make the most of being a peer-led group. All of this could be glimpsed a decade ago at our first gathering, but today it is shining with a new confidence and certainty – and that is at least 28 reasons to be cheerful!

Jeanette Siddall is a freelance consultant working with dance artists and organizations on research, evaluations, funding applications, and facilitation. She was previously director of Dance for Arts Council England, and before then director of Dance UK. Jeanette is currently executive consultant for Dance Consortium, the network of venues dedicated to touring large-scale international contemporary dance and acting as part-time interim director for DanceEast. She has co-facilitated Rural Retreats in 2003, 2012 and 2013. In January 2013, Jeanette was awarded the Jane Attenborough Dance UK Industry Award.


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