Dancing city, dancing nation: Aberdeen’s DanceLive and dance in Scotland

Róisín O’Brien talks to 2016 DanceLive acting director, Ruth Kent, and incoming Citymoves director, Steve Slater, about DanceLive, Aberdeen’s annual contemporary dance-fest and the state of dance in Scotland.

“Aberdeen has very much been a two-tier city – those who work in oil, and those who don’t.” So says Ruth Kent, acting director of the 2016 DanceLive festival in Aberdeen, the yearly product of local dance agency Citymoves, which ran from October 14th to 26th. Ruth passionately confirms “there has always been culture in Aberdeen – you’ve just had to look for it.”

Now in its eleventh year, DanceLive 2016 saw a wide range of performers grace different venues, big and small, across Aberdeen. Alongside heavyweights Scottish Ballet and Phoenix Dance Theatre were established Scottish companies such as Company Chordelia and Joan Cleville Dance, inclusive community and mixed ability groups such as Stopgap Dance Company and elder groups PRIME and QUICKSILVER, as well as informal sharing platforms for local artists.

Edinburgh-based PRIME, Scotland's first semi-professional dance company for the over 60sPhoto See Image Define
Edinburgh-based PRIME, Scotland’s first semi-professional dance company for the over 60s
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Dance Live has been led by different people in its eleven years, but it is really in the past few years, Ruth argues, that it has grown in scale. Of course, finding people to watch your festival is key. “In the beginning, there were no developed audiences… This year, we have tried to bring dance into spaces where people who wouldn’t normally go to the theatre are… Out of all the art forms, contemporary dance is still the hardest sell.”

Shopping centres, university buildings and kirks all formed a diverse landscape of venues to invite people in, but did it work? As an attendee, some of the events were not as busy as could be hoped, but I did witness a willingness to engage from the audience members in the regular post show chats.

It turned out that this, my first personal attendance at Dance Live (despite having grown up in Aberdeen) came at a pivotal moment, not just for the organisation but for the city itself. With Citymoves having been without a director for some time, the second last day of this festival saw Steve Slater begin his new role in the director’s chair. With a background in visual art and programming performance art, Steve comes with a bustling canvas of work that includes previous stints at The Third Eye Centre (now the CCA), Tramway and Creative Scotland.

Joan Cleville Dance in Plan B for Utopia at DanceLive 2016Photo See Image Define
Joan Cleville Dance in Plan B for Utopia at DanceLive 2016
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Not only this, but Aberdeen has witnessed in the past two years a severe hit to its economy and working infrastructure as oil prices have dropped, with many people losing their jobs. In response, Steve says, “I think Aberdeen is just waking up to the realisation that it maybe needs to have other resources to fall back on in terms of what the city can offer to people visiting the city. What is the city’s role in mid-21st century Europe? (…or wherever we are, if we’re not in Europe).”

Artistically, he is excited at the future cultural possibilities Aberdeen could witness and is seeing promise already in some of the work he sees “bubbling under the surface.” Glasgow had begun to feel a little flat for him, while Aberdeen feels on the edge of interesting times. Failing to achieve City of Culture status for 2017 was also a potentially good thing, both Steve and Ruth argue: it enables the city to ask why it didn’t achieve the status, and direct its energies towards a more sustainable cultural landscape.

, a work in progress from Julia James-Griffiths, presented as part of an 'approaches to dance making' eveningPhoto See Image Define
The Box, a work in progress from Julia James-Griffiths, presented as part of an ‘approaches to dance making’ evening
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How Aberdeen communicates with other dance organisations across Scotland is also a priority for Steve, a concern shared by Katie Milroy, assistant director of Aberdeen-based professional company, KaSt. Family Matters, her first choreographic attempt to combine community and professional dancers, was shown at the festival. She is lucky, she believes, to have received bursaries from Aberdeen City Council, as well as significant funding from Creative Scotland for previous works Fragile Paper (choreographed by Katie) and Stone Petals (choreographed by director Steven Martin).

Across Scotland, however, Katie appears frustrated with the limited permanent opportunities for dancers within repertoire companies. “In terms of future work, I would like to be able to offer Scottish trained or based dancers a more long term offer of work, for multiple projects and tour opportunities.” A model similar perhaps to Scottish Dance Theatre.

Gracenotes, based at the Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, at DanceLive 2016Photo See Image Define
Gracenotes, based at the Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, at DanceLive 2016
Photo See Image Define

Steve likewise questions if there is a Scottish ‘flavour’. “We talk about a dance sector, but we don’t have an idea of what a Scottish dance sector is. For instance, you look at work made in Belgium, we don’t quite have that, we’re not connected enough.”

With all this in mind, Steve is hoping to have a Citymoves re-launch in the new year. Creating an environment of cutting edge and experimental work now will lay the bedrock for the next generation of Scottish artists, he argues. “There’s a generation not yet activated. I’m talking about ten, fifteen-year olds kicking about the city who don’t know yet that they’re going to be an artist, they don’t know they’re going to be a dancer. In ten or fifteen years time, the paths they’ve taken, the kinds of encounters they’ve have had, will have moved them to a point where they’re making work themselves, to the point where you’re thinking “he’s the next Michael Clark, the next Billy MacKenzie.”

With thanks to Sid Scott of See Image Define for the photos. For more great dance photography by Sid, visit www.seeimaginedefine.com/dance.

For reviews and more great photos from DanceLive 2016 in Aberdeen, click on DanceLive16 in the Tags list below.