CN D Magazine

#1 Sept 22

Too Many Dance Creations in France? A Controversial State Audit Says So.

Philippe Noisette

Christophe Raynaud de Lage, Festival d'Avignon 

More and more dance works are being created in France, yet too many are performed only a handful of times: that’s the conclusion reached by the Cour des Comptes, France’s most prestigious state audit institution, in the spring. In the country, dance programmers are now grappling with what has turned into a vicious circle.

While it wasn’t exactly a surprise, the report released by the Cour des Comptes last spring came as further proof of an ongoing crisis. Once again, the Cour’s state auditors criticized “programming policies that fail to reach their goals in terms of touring and democratization.” In other words: there are too many shows, fewer and fewer performances per production, and little progress has been made on audience diversity.

If the conclusion is indisputable, it isn’t new. The Cour itself notes that even in the absence of reliable and comprehensive data, “several studies have confirmed that the average number of touring dates for live performance shows is too low.” Back in 2004, the Latarjet report already recorded an average of 7 performances per run in National Dramatic Centers (CDN), and barely 3 performances in the publicly funded playhouses known as National Stages. Data collected between 2017 and 2019 shows that there has been no sign of improvement, far from it: the numbers have fallen to 4 performances per production in National Dramatic Centers (with theater getting the lion’s share), while in Choreographic Development Centers (CDCN), “the average dance piece receives just over two performances.”

“It keeps getting worse,” says Marie Didier, the new director of the Marseille Festival. “I worked in companies and then for a national institution, and it was already an issue at the time.” Salvador Garcia, who is at the helm of Bonlieu, Annecy’s National Stage, says the pandemic has brought existing imbalances to the fore: “This is a systemic problem, not a temporary one. A Malthusian would tell you there are simply too many productions out there.” That’s not his opinion, he adds: “We need a diverse scene in order for it to be free, impertinent, so that leeway needs to remain. But I think we can do better when it comes to production.”

Garcia isn’t alone in thinking this. The French institutional system encourages the production of new works, including – or especially – when it comes to emerging artists. Project-based grants are the first level of public support available; the next step is securing conventionnement, which guarantees funding for two to four years. But here’s the rub – between the two, it’s necessary to produce as much as possible. “We are in a production spiral, but between the current constraints of scheduling and the audience, we’ve hit a wall,” Garcia says. “Many productions don’t get adequate rehearsal and tech time. It’s a cruel reality, and I know it has a cost.”

One of the potential solutions could be longer production periods – a complicated issue, since there are divergent interests at play. Reaching an agreement between the various representatives of the performance sector would likely take a very long time – unless the Ministry of Culture gets involved. “We need to accept that producing a show is going to cost more, without going over the top,” Garcia says.

There are differences between French regions and even from one venue to the next, as Didier confirms. “Shows get programmed in venues that were built decades ago,” she says. “When you have 1000 seats, as is the case for instance at Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines’s playhouse, you know the house may not be full when you program Umwelt by Maguy Marin, and definitely not for multiple performances.” For Didier, any analysis should factor this in, since the “Cour des Comptes talks about the number of performances, but doesn’t mention capacity.”

The issue of ticket sales – and the notion that there might be a “glass ceiling” for dance audiences – is contentious. “I don’t think there is a limit to how many people will attend a dance show,” says Céline Bréand, who was appointed director of the Comédie de Clermont-Ferrand in 2021. “Or maybe people limit themselves, and think that dance is elitist. We can see it in the difficulty we have in defining contemporary dance. We need to convince everyone that they belong in a theatre, in the audience for dance performances.”

Dance’s ability to attract young people, especially, remains a hot topic. Didier believes that making space for women and minorities in dance programming is key: “If we think of the new generations, who will be on stage in ten years, and who will be watching them?” There is a greater desire now, she points out, for punchier choreography, as well as for different bodies and stories. “We have identified these artists now. we have all the tools,” she says.

After the pandemic and its series of lockdowns, attendance rates have dropped further, with a number of senior subscribers also opting not to return – an extra challenge for the sector. The current issues call for solutions that have yet to be widely tested. Reprising shows over several seasons, as the MC93 or Bonlieu playhouses have done, is one such option. “But its impact on the number of touring dates remains marginal for now,” says Garcia. Going to the private sector, as opposed to publicly funded venues, only works for French dance’s biggest stars, like Mourad Merzouki and his Pixel, programmed two years in a row at the 13e Art theater à Paris.

Didier calls for “better training for programmers and managers,” who tend to be more familiar with theater in multi-disciplinary venues. “In the 2000s, the Ministry of Culture had put a lot of money in educational programs, or what we now call outreach,” she says. “We should invest in these positions, help venues go in that direction.” While long runs can be detrimental to the diversity of works on offer over a season, a healthy number of performance dates remains paramount for artists. “A show keeps being created each time it is performed,” Bréand says.

Grand studio du CN D, Photo Marc Domage