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Optimising potential, maximising performance: 27th November 2006, Laban, London

by Lucy Field

This Dance UK event was highly relevant to our continuing search for and development of talented young artists.  Our programme is a fairly recent initiative, and (like many other dance courses) constantly assessing our practice.  This was a great opportunity to hear key information on the latest research and ideas from the industry’s leading experts. The variety of professionals present from dance education, research and performance sectors sparked many interesting discussions.

This richly packed day started with a thought-provoking speech from Gill Clarke. This highlighted many of the areas of concern regarding the relationship between dance and science and our perception of it.  We swiftly moved on to the first of five areas on the agenda: the huge and complex business of talent identification.

Greg Whyte’s informative presentation looked at how we search for talent from a training perspective, and how this was easily applicable to all physical training. He presented ideas on how we assess genetic ability versus a students’ trainability, differences in criteria for assessment and how we asses candidates’ previous experience versus future potential. He spoke fearlessly about how social background affects the identification of talent. Initiatives like the Music and Dance Scheme while not perfect, work hard to address the challenges of funding for dance education for those on a low income.

Emma Redding looked at the determinants of talent in dance across different genres and periods during a dancer’s life. Emma looked closely at the assessment factors that Laban had recently used to audition their own CAT candidates. Here they look at a candidate’s physicality, performance quality and approach to training. This began a lively discussion about the degree of importance these factors have in relation to each other.  Rachel Rist, speaking from the floor, highlighted some of the differences in criteria when looking for a ballet student compared to a contemporary student. She strongly feels that choreographers have a very specific idea of the body aesthetic in ballet and this has to be taken into account when a student is auditioned at a ballet school. Even if a student has a passion for ballet, if they do not meet with the choreographers’ aesthetic ideal when they have completed training their chances of employment are low. Therefore, she feels the future employability of a ballet student relies substantially on the students’ genetic inheritance.  Angela Pickard, also speaking from the floor, felt that creativity and motivational factors were as important as physicality and performance quality across all genres.

Next, Katherine Watkins led us through a thorough a demonstration of the screening process for Laban’s first year degree students. Katherine also showed helpful ways in which some of the tests could be adapted with less sophisticated equipment. She emphasised that the screening was carried out to support individuals who may be of risk to injury and to help students gain the most out of their training, rather than as part of the selection process. It was very interesting to know that the entire current intake participated voluntarily in the screening programme, demonstrating how much students value knowing about their bodies.

After lunch Naomi Siddall gave us an enlightening insight into how technology is helping athletes keep track of their physical treatment and fitness by using the ‘InjuryZone’ an internet based injury monitoring system. Athletes’ physical assessment notes can be stored and accessed through the UK Sport Electronic Athlete Medical Records System, so that the athlete’s management team can instantly access information wherever they are competing.  One could see that this could be easily transferable to touring dance companies. Margot Rijven showed us how electronic training diaries helped students at The Amsterdam School of Arts reflect on and refine their practice. However, both Naomi and Margot acknowledged the challenges of these projects in terms of availability of computers, technological knowledge of users and organisational support.

Next, Andy Rolls talked with humour and humility about his ‘work in progress’ which is looking at the aetiology of dance injuries. His practical approach involves students at English National Ballet School having an active input into analysing their training. This happens in simple yet effective ways. For example students are plotting their fitness levels on a comprehensive graph to see where they are on a comparative scale to each other. This work is empowering students by making them feel some responsibility for their training.

From the performance perspective, Odette Hughes shared a variety of training methods she uses with Random, for example; conditioning dancers to not sit down during rehearsal, changing technique teachers regularly and not allowing artists to travel for long periods after a performance. It was great to see evidence of how performers are required to follow through and develop the scientific knowledge they acquired from their training, as professionals, further demonstrating that this knowledge is essential for a dancer’s success.

Finally, Matt Wyon’s presentation challenged all of us to think about the fitness success of our industry; specifically where the levels of fitness for rehearsals and class are not enough training for the levels required for performance.

There is much food for thought: What we’re training dancers for? Are we are succeeding? From the bounty of information in this intensive day we all came away with new ideas to try out. All in all it was an excellent day, and vital for anyone who manages programmes of dance.

Originally published in Dance UK  magazine, Issue 65 – Summer 2007