Features Published 7 February 2018

Pivot Dance: Matchmaking Choreographers and Producers

In the second of a trio of articles, Maddy Costa explores the difficulty of seeding new relationships between choreographers and producers.
Maddy Costa
Pivot Dance Artist Lab at The Place

Pivot Dance Artist Lab at The Place

As choreographers, Sivan Rubinstein and Joseph Toonga have little in common: where Rubinstein’s movement style has a playful fluidity, Toonga favours a sharp muscle definition, influenced as much by sci-fi robotics as hip-hop. What they share is a position in the dance industry: both are ready to progress up the professional ladder, from the lower rungs of festival slots and making work for peers, towards the middle-range of double bills and audiences of strangers – but struggling to work out how to do it. “From a producing point of view, that’s the hardest point in an artist’s career,” says Christina Elliot, senior producer at the Place. “And there is a tension in the sector – this is in theatre as well as dance – that it’s also the challenge that we give to our least experienced producers.”

This is why Rubinstein and Toonga were selected by senior staff at the Place to take part in Pivot Dance, a three-year artist development project funded by Creative Europe designed to test whether an experienced producer could make that progression happen more smoothly. The hope, says Eddie Nixon, Director of Theatre and Artist Development at the Place, was that Pivot would not only encourage them both to expand their already evident ambitions, but “give them a framework to get the next project started really well. You’re trying to give them a chance to feel a kind of best practice: it’s not like we can design that, but we can put some circumstances around you that might make you think that collaborating with a producer, talking about the idea from the very beginning, might be a good way to work – because it might become something you didn’t think it could be.”

To take part in Pivot, both had to agree not only to be paired with a new producer, but also to share their creative process with the Audience Club, a group of strangers who would see their work in its nascent stages and offer feedback. (Since Rubinstein was beginning to think about a work concerning borders and migration, and Toonga a work about fatherhood, both could see how public conversation on these themes might widen their perspective.) And because potential producers also needed to agree to these conditions, Catherine Greenwood, artist development manager at the Place, took a prominent role in introducing them to the artists.

The Place already had a track record for nudging choreographers and producers together through an earlier artist development project, Hot House, but the process here, admits Nixon, was a closer to “explicit match-making” – or “shida”, Rubinstein laughs, using the traditional Yiddish term. For Emma Beverley, the producer chosen by Toonga, this strategy was surprising: “I’d never had an approach like that before from an institution about working with an independent.” And it shifted her perception of the relationship: throughout the project she felt that she “wasn’t producing Joseph’s work: I was producing for the Place”.

Rubinstein and her chosen producer, Xavier de Sousa, had a similarly “weird” beginning: “It was like we started a marriage without knowing anything about each other besides two meetings,” she says. They needed time to “get to know each other, know how to work with each other, know each other’s communication codes, or methods of working, or sense or taste or desires”; but this was hard to do while also getting a performance made to a deadline. In the event, the pair became great friends. But they didn’t continue working together to the end of Pivot – and nor did Beverley with Toonga. Unlike the successful and sustainable partnerships forged through Hot House, the Pivot pairings lasted barely a year.

In discussing with them the problems that emerged over that time, three key issues emerge. The first was financial. Each choreographer was given a seed commission and paid to attend four labs, covering central themes within Pivot: how to work with a creative producer; how to choose artistic collaborators; audience relationships; and forming financial partnerships. The expectation, says Greenwood, was that the commission and lab fees combined could be presented within funding applications as “guaranteed support”, and would be “good leverage for more money”, particularly from the Arts Council. However, that money wasn’t enough to pay Beverley and De Sousa for their time writing applications, or building partnerships – and this, Nixon recognises, was “a mistake. We didn’t resource the producers well enough in that period to do the work that they needed to do, and it got hard for them to keep the momentum of the work going.” In turn, says Rubinstein, “it exhausted our relationship”.

The second issue was the labs themselves. For Rubinstein, they happened “too early on”: before she had a fully developed idea for the piece she wanted to make, and so before she could take full advantage of the information shared within them. For Beverley and De Sousa, this information was too rudimentary – like “year one of producing school”, says De Sousa. The content was designed to cover the Italian and Dutch contexts as well, says Greenwood, where “the role of the creative producer, or the premise of the artist and producer co-owning everything, is less formed”. But, De Sousa adds, “they ‘told’ us how a producer and an artist work together, rather than encouraging organic growth, or enhancing our skills”. Toonga found the labs “really beneficial”, but wishes there had been a workshop for the choreographers only: something that would help them “artistically grow and experience different styles so we’re ready to do a longer piece”.

The third problem relates to the first: neither choreographer was able to make progress with their work without funding from Grants for the Arts, but the timeframe of Pivot left little room to fail. “If everyone had got their Arts Council money first time around, the schedule would probably have worked,” says Elliot. “But when does that ever happen? It’s something that we went into with our eyes open but fingers crossed that it would work out.” It didn’t help, says Greenwood, that “funding became more challenging in the UK sector at the time Pivot was happening”.

The dissolution of the two partnerships, says Rubinstein, “sounds more dramatic than it was. It was just the organic solution.” With the performance deadline looming, she replaced De Sousa with Tal Weinstein, a young producer and friend she had worked with previously. And Toonga replaced Beverley with Emily Crouch, his partner and long-time collaborator. Which raises an interesting question: since both already had reliable producing relationships, might Pivot have been more successful if those emergent producers had been part of the project from the beginning, and given mentoring to support their development too? “In hindsight that seems like the obvious thing for us to do,” admits Elliot. But at the time, “it wasn’t clear where that mentorship would come from”, plus “Emily and Tal were really early career, in a way that felt slightly scary given that this was an international project”.

Despite these difficulties, Rubinstein has an immensely positive view of Pivot. Weinstein came in at just the right moment to bring “fresh wind, a new energy to guide us to production time”; and the two feel that they “learned a lot from Xavier: how to approach partners, venues, how to see fundraising, how to think of strategy, how to think long-term, how to be more realistic”. She agrees with the Place that “a new solution” is needed to the problem of a dearth of producers, but suggests match-making isn’t the answer. For her, Pivot “raised the question of what is a creative producer, and what is the most important thing this person should have? Is it experience – or is it the connection established already between two people?” For her, the answer is the latter.

Toonga also feels that Pivot “helped a lot in my career. It’s allowed me to make my first full-length piece, to go abroad, to get partners involved – and to build a relationship with Sivan, build a network outside of your normal network”. Plus it enabled “a closer relationship with the Place: they made me feel a valuable artist there”, not least by supporting Crouch through the writing of grant applications. It’s also given him insight into the crucial role played by a producer: “It’s someone else to advocate for your work in a different language, to give you feedback and help your journey.” But, like Rubinstein, he thinks it’s a relationship that has to develop naturally, through watching work together and discovering each other’s taste: “that’s how you can build more of an actual relationship that’s not artificial or forced”.

Already the Place staff are planning what the successor to Pivot might look like. “I don’t think we’ll go about it the same way in terms of the match-making process,” agrees Elliot. “What we would really like is for the connection between artists and producers to come about because of a shared passion for the work – but how do you do that in a time-limited way? Maybe it’s not possible, in which case we won’t try.” She’s also begun a conversation with theatre producer Ed Collier of China Plate about The Optimists, a practical training course the company are running for theatre producers, about whether there could be an iteration of the course specifically for dance producers. (Coincidentally, working on Pivot inspired Beverley to follow through on her own ambition to create a Producer School, which had its first test run in 2017.)

For Nixon, a key learning point is the necessity of seed funding not only for choreographers but producers. He likes to think of the venue, choreographers and independent producers working together in a “nice non-hierarchical triangle – but the producers are the people who are getting squeezed the most, the economic impact for them was bigger than we thought”. One solution being considered is “an incubator fund which would resource the producers for project development. It would still be about seed money to enable you to make partnerships and lever other money – but it would offer the producers a bit more support.” And this recognition of the need to consider the “economic well-being” of everyone involved in a project will feed across the entirety of the Place’s work, especially as it expands its commitment to producing and touring. Pivot may not have achieved the same success as Hot House in terms of creating sustainable choreographer-producer partnerships – but its legacy might be the more far-reaching as a result.

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Maddy Costa

Maddy Costa writes about theatre and music, as much as possible at the same time. Preferably with a recipe included. An occasional contributor to the Guardian, she found one blog (Deliq) wasn't enough, so now co-hosts four. She is critical writer, or critic in residence, or embedded critic, with Chris Goode & Company; through her work with them, and with Dialogue, the organisation she co-founded with Jake Orr, she is attempting to rethink the relationship between people who make, watch and write about theatre. At least once a week she decides she should stop writing about theatre and do something more useful instead.

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