Rambert debate: Do choreographers needs editors?

After Rambert’s performances at Sadler’s Wells in November 2014, The Guardian’s dance critic Judith Mackrell wrote a blog piece posing the question: do choreographers needs editors? Frequently, including at Rambert’s show, she’d found herself wondering if dance works would benefit from a sympathetic outside eye, in the same way as her own books had been improved from the contributions of her editors.

This provocative idea generated considerable response, especially from people working within dance and who – naturally – strive to create the best work they can. So on 27 January 2015, Rambert convened a roundtable discussion for an audience of dance professionals to explore the question in more detail.

Judith chaired a panel which included Mark Baldwin and Paul Hoskins, respectively Rambert’s Artistic Director and Music Director, together with Peggy Olislaegers, the Director of Dutch Dance Festival who has worked for Rambert in an artistic advisory role. They were joined by three more directors of repertory dance companies: Roberto Casarotto of Balletto di Roma, Christopher Hampson from Scottish Ballet and Sharon Watson from Phoenix Dance Theatre (the latter two, like Mark Baldwin, choreographers as well as artistic directors). Also taking part were two leading dance producers: Emma Gladstone from Dance Umbrella and Alistair Spalding of Sadler’s Wells.

Christopher Hampson’s first response to the question (on Twitter) was “Some do… and some won’t”. There are brilliant artists who would not accept editing of their work by someone else, and choreographers are constantly self-editing during the creation of their works.

Alistair Spalding saw that artists often blazed a trail ahead of popular or critical opinion, which we should be careful of impeding. Mark Baldwin spoke about how impossibly difficult demands for change can be for an artist, like asking them to unscramble an egg.

At the same time, Sharon Watson and Emma Gladstone both had stories about how external circumstances – be they an undersized venue, a stubborn promoter or plain commercial realities – can force change onto a work.

Creating the right opportunities, and enough time, for artists to research and develop work which can resist or adapt to those external pressures as appropriate was the key challenge, according to Roberto Casarotto. If this can be difficult for the relatively well-resourced organisations represented on this panel, it is exponentially harder for those working independently.

Panellists noted how other art forms had different ways of addressing the issue. Using preview performances to refine a new work, seen as essential in theatre, rarely happens in dance. Paul Hoskins talked about how western classical music has, over several centuries, established a shared vocabulary for analysis which the much newer art form of dance has yet to develop. Peggy Olislaegers thought that perhaps this shared language was beginning to emerge, and also that among younger practitioners, the assumption that the choreographer’s autonomy was sacrosanct was becoming less common.

The 90-minute discussion was enriched by comments and questions from the audience, and people joining in the conversation on Twitter. You can get a taste of the debate from short clips from each the panellists below (apologies that a couple of the recordings are a little on the quiet side).

So do choreographers need editors? There’s not a simple answer. But the panel and audience did agree on the principal that a choreographer’s creative process needs a supportive structure – which could involve editors, dramaturges, producers, critical friends, organisations, companies, networks or other things – which is established long before the artists first step into the studio, and maintained until the final performance.

Tim Wood

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