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Can you train people to become artistic leaders in a weekend?

02 Mar 2015

This is the key question for DanceEast’s Rural Retreats, like the one held in Ipswich in January, for aspiring dance leaders from around the world. We tend to think of training as something done to people, like the training that equips soldiers to go to war perhaps?

If anyone should know whether training soldiers and artistic leadership have anything to teach each other it is Major General (retired) John Sutherell CB, CBE, DL, BA, who opened Rural Retreat 2015. His biography includes Squadron Commander for the SAS, Company Commander of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Anglian Regiment, Commander of the 8th Infantry Brigade in Northern Ireland, Instructor at the Staff College in Camberley, running the Officers’ Association charity and Deputy Lieutenant for Suffolk.

With that background he might be expected to know something about leadership, but perhaps not so much that would be relevant to a diverse mix of 22 aspiring dance leaders gathered in Ipswich’s oldest house on a chilly Friday evening. We were reassured to hear him talk about the importance of really getting to know the people you are leading, about empowering them and encouraging their creativity, and about managing talent. In battle, no plan remains in tact after the first encounter with the enemy, so of course you need people who understand the main objective, who can achieve the mission rather than only follow the plan. He was an inspiring choice, his introduction provided the Rural Retreat-ers with a framework for thinking about leadership throughout the weekend.

The army has a systematic approach to training and developing its leaders throughout their careers, however, if you are a dance artist with several years of professional experience and contemplating leadership as a possible next step, where do you start? The situation has dramatically improved with the Clore Leadership Programme and a general consensus across the sector about the need to mentor and support the next generation of leaders. But how do you know whether leadership is for you?

To an extent we all have leadership experience. We might have experience of different leadership styles at home, as volunteers and in the ways we have been led at work. Converting the understandings gained through these experiences into leadership practice is less a question of training than of orientation; it is a way of thinking and being, as much as doing. As a Retreat participant commented on the second day: “Leadership is a trajectory, a direction of travel – you don’t need to wait for the big job to start leading”.

By this point, the Retreat had discussed the differences between management and leadership, and between artistic and other kinds of leadership. Other topics included making ‘good’ decisions, communication, working with people and the big issues for dance. Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp, Chief Executive of The Place chaired a discussion with Assis Carreiro, freelance dance consultant and Christopher Hampson, Artistic Director of Scottish Ballet about how it felt ‘stepping into the big shoes’, and James (John) Carver, founder of Cunning Management, talked about ‘disruption’, or getting talked about through creative interventions rather than traditional marketing methods.

The Retreat had the exclusive use of the Jerwood DanceHouse for the weekend, so there was plenty of comfortable space for small group discussions. Participants stayed at the Salthouse Harbour Hotel, socialised in the medieval Old Neptune Inn, and had a dinner at the Suffolk Food Hall accompanied by my interviewing Assis Carreiro about her ‘Desert Island Dances’.

Are you thinking this all sounds like too much fun to be ‘training’? Or do you recognise the educational value of mixing modes of learning, returning to ideas from different perspectives, and creating a climate of confidence, safety and mutual support in which people can try new ways of working and challenge themselves? In the words of one participant: “This weekend I have felt overwhelmed, out of my depth, in awe, inspired, challenged, enlightened, confident, passionate, reassured, evolved – I never imagined we could have covered so much with so many wonderful people in such a short time!”

I co-facilitated the Retreat with Jeanette Siddall. It was our third outing as Rural Retreat co-facilitators and over that experience we have become really clear about what you can achieve in just weekend. What the Rural Retreat format does really well, is help people orientate themselves towards thinking about themselves as leaders, to make positive steps on the road to leadership and take away new ideas, understandings, and feelings about leadership.

The 2015 cohort of aspiring leaders concluded that they have a collective responsibility for the future of dance in the broader cultural and social landscape. They see and embrace future challenges, but are ambitious, passionate and committed. As an example of the next generation of future leaders, the rest of us can conclude the future of dance is safe in their hands.

Brendan Keaney
Artistic Director and Chief Executive DanceEast, and Co-facilitator Rural Retreat 2015

DanceEast is grateful to Arts Council England and the Salthouse Harbour Hotel, Ipswich for their support for Rural Retreat 2015.

More information on Rural Retreat can be found here