What would Brexit mean to dance? Many big hitters in dance were among the 300-plus arts people who signed last month’s public letter urging the UK to remain in the EU: the Royal Ballet’s director Kevin O’Hare, choreographer Akram Khan, Sadler’s Wells chief Alistair Spalding and Sir Matthew Bourne among them. I’ve asked some of them to spell out exactly would be altered by a Brexit.
First, dance structurally depends on maintaining large numbers of permanent employees, whose skills require long-running and continuing group schooling. Both of these givens imply structural costs far beyond those entailed by opera or theatre.
Also, as an artform, dance speaks international languages – ballet is a fusion of many countries’ traditions, contemporary dance emerges from many sources – and its companies recruit globally. British dance history is thus a story of world culture.
So here is what the Royal Ballet, Rambert Dance and Akram Khan think about it, three big hitters in ballet and contemporary dance, representing the issues of concern to management, artistic profile and creative work.
They all emphasised concerns about the economy and immigration. Already being restricted by present austerity, dance companies rely extensively on production funds and opportunities from the EU as well as British subsidy. For them to do more than just recycle known box-office hits depends on the public’s ready acceptance that they will pay through taxes to enable dance to keep moving forward.
The Royal Ballet director Kevin O’Hare says, ‘If the referendum result – in either direction – were to trigger a recession, then there would undoubtedly be a knock-on impact on private and public funding for arts and culture.’ The Royal Ballet’s ‘ambitious plans’ might face ‘some difficult decisions’.
More complicated is the question of dancer employment and immigration. For Akram Khan, the celebrated modern choreographer and dancer, ‘diminished artist mobility because of revised immigration and visa regulations means reduced access to the best international performers’. He is worried about the status of his current European employees.
O’Hare echoes this. He told me: ‘British arts organisations benefit from the free movement of EU artists, which enables us to attract the finest talent. This is vital at a time of reduced public investment, when we need every tool at our disposal to remain competitive in a global market. If the UK were to leave the EU, how could our arts organisations attract and retain world-class talent and how would our own talents benefit from opportunities to work in the rest of the European Union?’
I wanted to drill down a bit into this, and Rambert Dance’s chief executive Nadia Stern explained the visa problem thus. Of Rambert’s 22 dancers, half are Britons, a quarter are European citizens, a quarter are rest of the world. It follows that the Europeans, who currently have free access to join Rambert, would probably become subject to the present non-Europe requirements.
And these are remarkably tight. There are, says Stern, 20,700 ‘restricted certificates for sponsorship’ given for all Tier 2 incoming workers from beyond Europe – whether lawyers, engineers, secretaries or dancers. These are people who earn under £155,300 a year – if a job pays more than that, they have automatic entry. The coveted certificates are won on a points-based system, allocated for qualifications, previous earnings, English language skills, age (youth scores more highly). Because dance was recently accepted by the Home Office as a ‘shortage occupation’, dancers offered a job by British companies stand a good chance of winning in the monthly competition for these permits, despite their low salaries.
As Stern says, for Rambert to get five more of its dancers accepted under the non-EU permits is not earth-shattering – the question is how a post-Brexit government would handle something more like 30 or 40,000 EU workers being switched to foreign visa requirements to allow them to work in Britain, when immigration has become a toxic issue, filled with as much bile as ignorance about reality.
Stern again: ‘Currently we operate under what I would describe as an enlightened system whereby the government via the Home Office recognises that for a company such as Rambert to continue to be among the best in the world we need to be able to recruit dancers from all over the world, and at the moment we’re able to do that. It’s easy.
‘At the moment any dancer from the EEA, European Economic Area – which is slightly wider than the EU – any dancer from the EEA, or designer or choreographer, can come and go freely. At Sadler’s Wells [where Stern was the theatre administrator for 10 years] it’s as easy for a German company to appear as it is for a company from Newcastle. My concern is that unless the overall number of certificates for non-EEA people issued by the government increases, then that would jeopardise our ability to recruit as we have done.
‘And the second concern is that, because immigration has become such a disputatious issue, the government might decide to decrease the number of people who can come in from outside Europe to work here. And that would have a direct impact on who we could recruit, and on our reputation as a world-class company.’
For Akram Khan, producing cutting-edge contemporary dance of world appeal, Brexit anxieties infect almost every aspect of the company’s activities, from worries about losing the free access to the European creative artists without whom it’s inconceivable that his productions could be made, to the potential for new costs they can’t afford. Khan is a Sadler’s Wells artist, and Sadler’s Wells Theatre is part of a mutually reliant network of co-producing theatres in Europe who share costs and pool tour dates.
According to Khan’s office, European co-production funding is ‘a vital part of our financial model for new productions’. They are also worried about the prospect of a reduction in European touring, which would follow if there were new costs for visas, taxation and reciprocal health care as a result.
And given the international profile of British companies such as the Royal Ballet, Akram Khan and Rambert, Khan warns that ‘the potential for a supposedly nationalistic approach to UK cultural policy taken by the government following a departure from the EU would be limiting and short-sighted.’
I asked whether it wouldn’t be a good thing to free up more jobs for British applicants by making it harder for foreign ones – a common argument being applied in the immigration argument. All three companies said they recruited purely on talent, and if they didn’t find the talent, they didn’t fill the job.
O’Hare says ‘the administration around visa application could be a barrier to employment.’ Stern agrees – Rambert might be faced with downsizing if they couldn’t find good enough dancers, or taking on British-based dancers who they would not have recruited in the past simply to maintain their numbers, and thus dropping their quality standard.
British dance has always been embedded in Europe – the Britain-German road is much travelled, with Royal Ballet choreographers Kenneth MacMillan, John Cranko and Cathy Marston having worked in both countries. The artists who dominated the Royal Ballet’s recent history are European: Tamara Rojo, Alina Cojocaru, Sylvie Guillem, Johan Kobborg. Rojo, a Spaniard, is English National Ballet’s artistic director. Former London ballet stars have directed companies in Holland, Estonia, Greece, Slovenia and Romania.
What happens to the British dance scene if that pan-European bloodline is cut off? Stern points out that Brexit itself wouldn’t damage dance – it will be the consequences of decisions made by a post-Brexit government which won the public vote thanks to the nature of its arguments and would be governing in the light of those perceptions.
‘It depends on the politicians’ response to the decision that the public makes,’ she says. ‘If our ability to retain our status as a world-class company is jeopardised then our position globally becomes compromised. It’s whether the ambition is to be the best in the world... I’d just make a plea for calm thinking, whatever the decision of the public, about what kind of country we want to be.’