Producing – Bhattman’s Tales

Author: Anand Bhatt

Little did I know, but I had been a producer since the age of 23, in fact, an Executive Producer. When I started work in contemporary dance and people gave me the title ‘Producer’ at first I found it a difficult title. One I did not embrace quickly. I transitioned from amateur, popular South Asian dance to professional western dance. In my previous role I was used to organising and putting my own money down on shows which filled 1500 seat auditoriums. I was able to put on a 6-week season of a popular Michael Jackson show in Blackpool which got me reviews such as

The standing ovations the production has been receiving since it opened certainly say that director and choreographer Anand Bhatt has come up with something that people want” – The Stage.

Somehow, contemporary dance feels different. By its very nature, the genre is dependent on subsidy for artists to take choreographic risk. Stuff so risky that most dance projects lose money as audience numbers and ticket prices can never fully balance the books. But there is something beautiful about contemporary dance. When I watch something great, I feel goosebumps. The kind I seldom can expect from a commercial show. The kind which gives me occasions where I can say ‘I had never seen anything like that before’.  Generally in life, it is those moments which we wish to live for. But the sector is also very driven by a kind of style and ego which can itself be dangerous.

I was asked to offer in this paper my understanding and experience of producing, and thinking of the many ways of describing producers, I think there are different ways to look at what a producer is and does.

There are some producers who put their own money down – that is what I would call an Executive Producer. But some in the subsidised arts sector have titles as Executive Producers for their position of seniority, because they have significant influence of budgets.

Some are called independent producers – I believe this means someone who works for themselves. And perhaps works to develop their own project or the project initiated by artists.

Others are called Creative Producers – This could be those people who initiate the creative content/outline of a project where an artist meets the creative brief.

A producer can have both financial and managerial roles in a creative project. Some producers though have a creative eye. I would argue that successful producers are those who both play a managerial as well as artistic role in a project – make good stuff and good money.

So with this managerial, financial and artistic responsibility stake for a producer, it is the producer’s problem and prerogative to deliver a creative project. That means if they do not know something, it becomes their problem to learn it, or hire people who do. And with every creative project, there is almost always something new to learn. A producer is a project role, not an organisation one. A producer by definition ‘produces’ or makes something. In larger organisations/projects you will see a producer role split from other executive roles like Operations Director or Chief Operating Officer. But in small projects you will see a producer possibly take it all on, because need dictates.

Investing in contemporary dance by institutions is driven by policy, vision and the taste of artistic directors.  A good producer has their ears to the ground on what projects and ideas are being initiated. A good producer can bring a project idea or artist in front of an institution prepared to invest. Relationships matter a lot here, and significantly in subsidised arts. In the early days of going to various performing arts conferences, we are told the real deals are done in the late night bars and in between show meetings. Producers must show up. To be seen is to be counted. Out of sight is out of mind in this sector.

My main job is producing for dancer/choreographer Aakash Odedra. I ran a dance school (where I was an ‘Executive Producer’) and would bump into him at various arts based events in our hometown of Leicester. He remembered me as a dancer from the late 90s. As we met more and more, he invited me to perform on stage with a small group of Kathak dancers for the MP Keith Vaz’s 20th anniversary of being MP for Leicester East. Aakash was great, and I was terrible. I have never since performed Kathak, so shocked I was at my own performance. But I said to Aakash, I would support him. Around the same time in 2008, Aakash got a phone call from Akram Khan asking if he would meet him to discuss the prospect of performing a solo at his Svapngata Festival in late 2009 at Sadler’s Wells. Suddenly, I was producing a dance double-bill project whilst running an evening dance school and working full time in the voluntary sector as a fundraiser for a blind charity. .

Being a dancer is financially difficult. Being a South Asian dancer where the market is more limited can be even more difficult. For the next three years as I continued to produce for Aakash, I did so pro-bono. There were 2 reasons: 1. The financial wheels turned very slowly in the post-2008 economic financial crash. Everything we earned to that point needed to be paid to Aakash. 2. I was a charity worker and dance school principal – this producing stuff I was making up, and I could not possibly justify any payment whilst I was not doing a professional’s job. And going back to the beginning of this blog, my confidence in embracing this role – something which I still find difficult – comes from the idea that I find the subsidised arts sector intimidating.

During the creation of Akram Khan’s Vertical Road, which was being developed at Curve Leicester, Akram suggested that he would like  to choreograph 10-minute piece to support Aakash. For me this was a wonderful gesture but I said to Akram that it could not sell unless Aakash had an evening of full work. He asked me how I thought it could be constructed,  to which I replied if he could ask Russell Maliphant and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui if they would create something on Aakash, that it would be great. The expression of surprise on Akram’s face was classic, but I guess my audacity and also belief that this could be a game changer for Aakash was one Akram thought was worth exploring. That was lucky for me. Larbi and Russell agreed to meet Aakash and make a solo on him. Rising was the full length solo premiering in December 2011. Writing this blog in February2016, I am still receiving enquiries for booking the show.

A second twist of fate happened at British Dance Edition 2012. Aakash performed In the Shadow of Man by Akram Khan at Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio. At the after party later that evening at London’s Southbank, it was a classic case of Aakash and Anand not knowing anyone to talk to. Aakash had a sense that people liked his performance but nobody knew who we were enough to talk to us. Aakash went quietly to the DJ booth and asked the DJ to play some Michael Jackson music. The DJ responded some minutes later to play ‘Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough’. Aakash came looking for me, grabbed my arm, directed me to the dancefloor and said ‘dance’. Now, being one of the premier Michael Jackson impersonators in the 1990s could not quite prepare me for this moment. A gathering of UK and international promoters all circling me with videos and camera phones, clapping and cheering whilst I did my MJ rendition and moonwalk. Suddenly, 200 people knew who we were, and that moment led to Ottawa presenter, Cathy Levy telling me about something called CINARS. Now remember, I work for a blind charity and teach Bollywood dance to 4 year olds in my evenings and weekends (taking annual leave to come to meetings/shows) – so what on earth was CINARS?!? I asked Google. And we subsequently went to the off-CINARS programme and spent a lot of money (you pay to go yourself). To date, I say that attending and performing at CINARS is the best marketing exercise our company has ever done. The snowball effect from BDE to CINARS set us on a rollercoaster ride which has seen Aakash perform over 170 full length solo shows in 3 ½ years in nearly 30 countries. For some of this, I have to thank our first agency, Quaternaire, who helped to distribute and market Aakash to places we had never heard of, and more importantly to people who had never heard of him. Their address book and experience of selling other work got us around the circuit and build Aakash’s profile.

I eventually left my full time-job in March 2014 to try and produce full-time and develop Aakash Odedra Company. There followed a torturous few months which saw me applying for a re-mortgage of my house to fund Murmur/Inked, Aakash’s second dance project, but thankfully an Arts Council grant came through. I thought it might be good for me to more formally ’learn’ about the sector and was offered a place on the Step Change programme. This is an initiative managed by the National Theatre for professionals wishing to make a Step Change in their career. I felt this was important because all throughout my time of working with Aakash I was making faux pas daily, and because it was good for me to get out more. Part of my Step Change programme required me to complete a 40-day placement in another organisation. I chose Dance Umbrella. I had admired the work of Artistic Director, Emma Gladstone and felt that her knowledge and experience could help me to work out the jigsaw better. It was my first job working in a proper arts organisation. What this experience helped to do was to listen to subtle conversations which I would not be privy to otherwise. A kind of thinking that I would not be exposed to by working in a single-person office. I wanted to explore  2 things on Step Change. Could I produce larger scale dance than I was used to? And could I make a case of something world-class being positioned in Leicester.

Returning to producing for Aakash Odedra, and trying my hand at producing and presenting others has been both incredible and a rude awakening. You will make some friends on this journey as a producer. But money is time. People give more time to people who can earn their bread and keep. Glass ceilings are obvious in dance – small-scale, mid-scale, large-scale and then big money ballets, versus experimental or ‘exotic/ethnic dance’. Artists are constantly trying to break them, and promoters are shrewd and circumspect in how they select which artists and ideas get to grow. In the age of austerity, institutions have  to be more careful on financial risk. In the UK, co-production models for dance are bleak. Many institutions and presenters have themselves become producers as a means of diversifying their own income. This means independent artists and projects cannot access the lion’s share of resources. More and more artists are making work commissioned by agencies rather than being offered resources to make their own. A producer must help to navigate this changing climate to connect artists with the best resources and structures to make their art thrive. Part of where I am today is because there have been incredibly supportive people working in the arts who have given their time beyond duty to help – i’d like to thank in no particular order – Theresa Beattie, Anu Giri, Jeanette Siddall, Melissa Porter, Megan Nelsey, Laurie Uprichard, Farooq Chaudhry, Suzanne Walker, Jim Beirne and of course Emma Gladstone.

Dance is an interesting area of work. As a South Asian producer working primarily for a South Asian dancer (even if our product is mainstream), I face my own challenges,  for example being told that there is only space for one big South Asian dance maker in the global dance market… but, I am confident that what I want to do is for the right reasons. Dancers and dance companies are lucky, privileged people. They have the gift of dance. And the joy of watching and participating in dance, for me, is an unparalleled experience. In my work, with Aakash, I think it is very important that whilst we tour internationally, we also bring the experience and success back home. I still run a dance studio in Leicester, and we have 250 students attending classes in Nottingham, Birmingham, Coventry and my hometown Leicester. We share our dance more intensely with people. We build more intense relationships, we are responsible for helping them to achieve their dancing dream. We work with this community whose social, cultural and economic situation does not give them as many opportunities to participate because tending to our own back garden is our responsibility. And I still put my own money down on 1500-seat theatre shows for grass-roots dance, because I believe in it.