Although the daylight hours start to shrink back in autumn, there’s always the London Dance Umbrella Festival cheer you up. The dance festival brings international acts to London, and this year is especially special; it’s London Dance Umbrella’s 40th anniversary. We were lucky enough to interview Emma Gladstone, the artistic director and chief of Dance Umbrella, London’s flagship festival of international dance.
Up&AtEm Travel: Hello, Emma. Congratulations on London Dance Umbrella’s 40th anniversary – what an exciting year!
How do you think that Dance Umbrella changed over the past four decades?
Emma Gladstone: Part of Dance Umbrella’s original drive was about championing the new, and I think as a result it has always been committed to change. I’ve been looking back at the history of course, and some years the festival ran for 9 weeks, and toured artists all over the UK. The scene is so different now, with venues, artists and producers all presenting or touring dance on a regular basis, including international work, so DU is not the sole organisation bravely waving the contemporary dance flag.
Dance as an art form is more embedded in the cultural scene, partly due to the success of hip hop and dance online, which allows us freedom to focus on different artists and different frames. For example, [we tour] within London – rather than nationally, [engage] more with the public during and outside the festival and [run] digital projects.
London Dance Umbrella 2017 launched on a shipping container with a piece called ‘Origami’.
U&T: Wow, the London Dance Umbrella festival has definitely branched out and tried new things since the first festival in 1978.
What do you think differentiates Dance Umbrella from the other dance and performance arts festivals in the city?
EG: I would say there are three key differences.
- We focus solely on new choreography by national and international artists
- We present that dance in a wide range of styles, and
- We tour right across the city.
[This] means we are not presenting a mix of art forms, nor focusing on a singular dance style, nor are we linked to any particular venue or area. That particular mix [with] a sharp focus on the choreographic and international, with the wide freedom of location, is pretty unique [to the London Dance Umbrella].
U&T: Dance Umbrella certainly occupies a unique niche, providing international dance performances across London.
How does the Dance Umbrella Festival seek to engage community members who may not regularly attend dance shows?
EG: [Engaging the larger London community in dance] is a big priority for us, and we address it in various ways. [Our methods] include the way we write about shows and [present information] on our site and in social media, as well as the images we use, videos we make, and the places we [host performances]. It’s great working with venues that are based where people live, rather than only the well-established theatres in the centre of town, because people trust those places, and try new things as a result.
On top of this we have a range of ways to engage with people through public talks, open workshops, free shows, performances for younger audiences, and local partnerships to both inform and excite people into coming along. I am secretly convinced that lots of people who might never think about going to see dance would actually love it, and we work hard to make the festival inviting whether you know a lot about dance or not.
‘Let Me Change Your Name’ in 2017 showcased Korean dance talent and choreography by Eun-Me Ahn.
U&T: That’s a lot of different ways that you specifically welcome newbie dance performance-goers. They sound like effective tactics.
Why do you think it is important that London displays choreography and dance talent from all over the world?
EG: London is a world city, both in terms of people living here and those visiting; and for me it’s essential that our artistic programme reflects that global reach. The different perspectives international artists bring [encourage] greater understanding of other ways of being, of seeing, and of living in the world. That’s never a bad thing. Especially not at such a time as this.
U&T: Absolutely. Up&AtEm Travel features dance because it is a cultural phenomenon that provides insight into other peoples’ perspectives.
Since the Dance Umbrella programme is so varied, how do you and your team curate pieces for the festival?
EG: Before I start putting the pieces of the festival jigsaw together I have to do my research. So I go and see a lot of performances, around 150 a year, and as we are an international festival this means a lot of travelling. In terms of programming it is a rolling process looking at the longer term, as well as the next festival. Sometimes we spot something great but that needs time to grow, and then we try to support the artist to develop their ideas with financial or producing support. Other times, often with more experienced artists, we might commission someone to make a work which would then be presented in the festival a year or two down the line.
The overall programme itself comes together gradually, as we work hard to ensure a range of styles and scales and locations, so it’s always a bit of a balancing act. And it’s not only juggling from our side – sometimes the artists can’t do the dates we need, or venues are too small, or partners drop out which makes things unviable financially. It’s a delicate process, complex, and enjoyable.
The premise of ‘Trois Grandes Fugues’, featured in Dance Umbrella 2017, will pique the interest of “Project Runway” fans.
U&T: Watching 150 performances a year? That sounds like a dream – but meticulously curating the Dance Umbrella programme sounds like quite an intensive process!
In addition to London Dance Umbrella staff, some volunteers help to run the festival. Can you share some ways that local London dance enthusiasts can get involved?
EG: We have just finished our public call out for this year’s volunteers, but [information and calls for volunteers normally go] out in July with a deadline in mid-August each year. All welcome.
U&T: Is there anything else you’d like Up&AtEm Travel readers to know about London Dance Umbrella’s 40th anniversary – or the dance festival in general?
EG: Only that [London Dance Umbrella has] reached audiences of over a million people since we started, launching many international careers along the way, so I think it’s safe to say DU has become trusted as a festival that pioneers both people and ideas. Looking back reveals that DU has been a catalyst in the history of dance in this country, and has had an impact far beyond these borders.
For me, now in my fifth year, it feels good that we are regularly going to more venues than ever before, from Sadler’s Wells in Zone 1 to Croydon Box Park in the Zone 5, and reaching over a third of all London boroughs.
U&T: Hooray, I live in Croydon and love to see dance in my own borough! But really, diversifying dance venues is a great way to reach new audiences, and it can make dance accessible to many more people.
This year is the Dance Umbrella festival’s first partnership with the Old Vic. How did that come about, and what has that collaboration produced?
EG: Most partnerships come about through careful conversations and shared aesthetics, but in this case it was more a case of kismet. Both Old Vic Artistic Director Matthew Warchus and I are long-term fans of Annie-B Parson’s Big Dance Theater, and the timing was perfect for us to hook up and finally bring them over from New York to London.
[Big Dance Theater’s ‘17c‘] is a show that draws on the life of Samuel Pepys, with quite a lot of text and humour as well as video and live music, so it feels the perfect show for both our audiences who are always up for something that is hard to categorise.
U&T: How fortunate that you have a great synergy – and that you are bringing such an exciting show to London in celebration the Dance Umbrella’s 40th anniversary!
Also special this year, a ‘Four by Four’ fundraiser will produce pieces for future festivals. Do you think it’s likely any will appear at the 2019 Dance Umbrella?
EG: Yes! The four established artists from each decade of DU’s history have now nominated their ‘artist of the future’ for us to commission, and all four of these artists are new to us and to the UK.
And yes, two of those four new works will indeed be shown in 2019, more information is going to be announced during the festival.
Emma, thank you very much for your time and insight into London Dance Umbrella’s 40th anniversary. It will definitely be an exciting year, and we can’t wait to see some of the shows that you and your team have selected!
So, dance enthusiasts, it looks like another exciting and varied line-up this year’s festival. It begins on 26 September with 17c at The Old Vic by Big Dance Theater and runs until 21 October. The closing show Threshold by Le Patin Libre takes place at Alexandra Palace Ice Rink.
Have you been to events at the Dance Umbrella festival before? And which shows are you most interested in this year? Sound off in the comments below!
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