Artists' Development Initiative

November 1999 - About the House

In March 1982, not long after I joined The Royal Ballet, the first phase of the redevelopment of the Royal Opera House was completed. We walked around the new facilities in stunned amazement, jaws hitting breast bones as we surveyed the vast spaces of the two new ballet studios, one the size of a football pitch and the other the exact dimensions of the Covent Garden stage. In retrospect, I can see that the seed of the idea which became the Artists' Development Initiative was sown all those years ago. In a profession where adequate space is as rare as the perfect pirouette, I felt guilty that such wonderful studios should be left empty, out of hours, while the rest of the dance world scratched around for somewhere to rehearse.

Eighteen years later, the redevelopment of the Royal Opera House is complete and once again, Covent Garden resounds to the sound of chins on chests. The Royal Ballet has made the permanent move from Barons Court to its superb new home and if we thought the 1982 building was good, well, this one has to be seen to be believed. There are five ballet studios, the largest of which, The Clore Studio Upstairs, doubles as a fully equipped studio theatre, with seating for two hundred, basic lighting and sound facilities and audience access via the amphitheatre bar area. Two years ago, I was asked by the board of the Royal Opera House to think about how this studio theatre might best be put to use.

It is an interesting task; there is no hard cash behind the Clore Studio Upstairs, but its assets are self-evident. Its situation, at the heart of a major arts institution, links it to a wide range of material resources and specialist expertise and, on top of this, its primary function, as a rehearsal space for The Royal Ballet, means it doesn't need to 'pay its way'. It already sings for its supper.

The board's invitation to take responsibility for the programming of the space has given me a chance to test out my long held belief, that major arts institutions have a role to play as a national resource. This belief is fundamental to the Artists' Development Initiative (ADI).

ADI is designed to put together the creative talents of small-scale companies and independent artists with the resources they feel they need to enable them to take the next step in their development. It is not only about providing a place in which to rehearse and perform. Research has revealed that too often, small-scale companies are not so much lacking in performance opportunities as the wherewithal to capitalise on them. Under ADI, artists are invited not only to perform in the Clore Studio Upstairs, but also to take advantage of the in-house facilities and administrative skills that are crucial to the running of an arts organisation. I'm fortunate to be able to tap a small, informal panel of arts experts for advice on artists and companies for whom the initiative could yield the greatest benefits.

ADI combines under one umbrella a number of elements, all of which reflect the basic philosophy behind the Clore Studio Upstairs: companies from non-conventional backgrounds, experimental collaborations as well as opportunities for Opera House personnel to expand their existing skills. The first performances took place in January: a collaboration between Royal Ballet choreographer Tom Sapsford and theatre director Diana Hillier using two freelance actresses and five company dancers. Together they worked in the space on an extended version of his portrait of Judy Garland, Live from Carnegie Hall, which was given a public airing in two performances at the end of January. The place was packed and the audience hugely enthusiastic, and seeing the work in performance has enabled Tom to see what needs to be done in order for it to continue to develop. Later this year, in early June, Outside In will pair dancers of The Royal Ballet with Gill Clarke and Wayne McGregor in an evening of choreographic exploration.

ADI is in no way limited to dancers only, and in March, the Clore Studio Upstairs will host a three week residency by Escape Artists. This professional theatre company grew out of a drama group in Wayland Prison and gives paroled and ex-prisoners the opportunity to turn their lives around and earn a living in the arts. Escape Artists will use the space to perform their latest work, Blagger, as well as holding workshops for school children and young people 'at risk'. In November, Performing Arts Labs will hold their London Opera Lab in the Clore Studio Upstairs.

Perhaps the most ambitious element of ADI is The Back Garden Project, an eight month programme which will culminate in the autumn with a series of performances of specially created work. Through the project, a small group of artists are working with the Opera House in a series of seminars on marketing, fund raising and finance led by Executive Director, Michael Kaiser. This administrative study programme provides the backbone for the creation of new work, in the Royal Ballet's five studios, which will be performed during a 'Back Garden' Festival in September – a concrete example of how ADI can offer much more than 'just a space in which to perform'. This year's 'Back Gardeners' are the choreographers Jeremy James, Matthew Hawkins, Sheron Wray and photographer Chris Nash, and the very first Back Garden seminar took place last week. ADI is also designed to offer opportunities for artists within the House to develop and expand their skills, and it is in this context that Bruce Sansom and David Pickering, both dancers with The Royal Ballet, will be working alongside Sheron and Matthew, providing administrative support.

Having danced at the Opera House for nearly twenty years now, I'm very much enjoying getting to know long-term colleagues in the technical, administration and front of house departments from a completely different perspective. ADI is a 'whole house' initiative; it couldn't exist without their active involvement and enthusiastic support. This is very much a pilot year for the scheme, but I'm enormously excited about ADI and the possibilities it opens up for collaboration and communication with the arts community as a whole. The bridge on which it is constructed will enable a constant flow of resources and creativity, a two-way traffic which will, without doubt, benefit us all.