X6 was a small London dance collective, never bigger than five people that only lasted four years (1976-1980) and is little known today. But X6 played a critical role in the birth of British experimental ‘New Dance’. It was the first independent group to have its own space where it produced performances, classes, discussions and a new publication in which they found new ways of talking about dance. Not only did X6 look to created new choreography they created new modes of production for dance.
Background – The London Contemporary Dance Theatre
To understand X6’s formation in 1976 one needs to begin in Britain in the late 60s with the formation of the London Contemporary Dance Theatre (LCDT) in 1966 and Ballet Rambert in 1967 which taught the new expressionistic movement originating from America with Martha Graham. In its formative years LCDT, in particular was open to people from a range of backgrounds: while some like Jacky Lansley and Fergus Early were ballet dancers, others like Richard Alston had art backgrounds. But under the choreography of Robert Cohan, LCDT quickly came to focus on ‘coherent linear development’ seeking to develop a style that would rival ballet.
By the early 70s this formalism was difficult for many early students to work within. Post modernist dance had already emerged from the Judson Church Theatre in New York in the late 60s and more widely, there was emerging radical new aesthetics across the arts that contributed to a climate in which many in Britain had an appetite for a new form of dance.
Furthermore economic expansion in the 60s had allowed more individual and state expenditure on the arts while a post-war decline in industrial activity had made available a large number of cheap spaces for artists to work in – for example in 1971 a number of artists started to move in to low-cost warehouse spaces in London’s Butlers Wharf.
Richard Alston was one of the first to break away from LCDT, in 1972. Inspired by Merce Cunningham’s abstract formalism he went on to create ‘Strider’, a collective (which included Lansley). Others followed suit as part of what became known as the ‘New Dance’ movement including Limited Dance Company and Dance Organisation in 1974. It was in 1976 that members of these latter two companies – LCDT alumni Early, Lansley, Emily Claid and Madee Dupres – were joined by Mary Prestidge – previously a gymnast and dancer at Ballet Rambert – to create the X6 collective.
Floor 6, Block X, Butlers Wharf
The collective had started to work together in 1974 at the International Arts Centre near the Elephant and Castle, London which was their first experience of working outside of an institution but it was two years before they found an adequate permanent space – in Butlers Wharf, block X, floor 6 (which gave the group its name): “a wonderful open space with a really beautiful floor, high ceiling and good light…”.
Performances by X6 were often experimental: a result of the small informal space; their varied backgrounds and interest in other forms like film and performance art; and their overtly political stance. On the latter for example they were strongly feminist and critical of the highly gender structures of ballet performances and production – I Giselle was one piece that represented the eponymous character as a strong woman rather than a victim.
Having its own space was one reason why X6 were more than just producers of new choreography. One of their first actions was to brainstorm future activities and they decided to put on an outdoor performance event, a summer school. a conference on experimental dance and to publish a magazine. They went on to put on a number of open classes in ballet, gymnastics, improvisation and other subjects. Membership did not grow (although Maedee Dupree was replaced in 1979 with art student Sarah Green who had previous performed at the space) although they provided a platform for many other artists (not all dancers) to perform and collaborate, often in high quality pieces. In the words of Early, X6 was ‘not a dance group. not a school, not a rehearsal room but a body of diverse ideas, finding from of collective organisation’
Just as X6’s emergence was a product of the economic and social landscape of early 70s Britain it’s end was a symptom of the early 80s. Critically, commercial redevelopment of the docklands meant that resident artists were rapidly displaced from Butlers Wharf. The group used the break to expand the collective to be reborn as the Art Place Trust, which in 1980 found new premises at the Chisenhale Works in Bow London. New Dance Magazine stopped in 1987.
Critically X6 were political in their ways of working as much as their content of their work, although it should be noted that Dupres was not particularly political. The fact that they were a collective and presented for the first time a space in which independent artists could meet, learn and work with one another presented a challenge to the dominant conservatoire model that had survived from ballet in modern dance. And New Dance Magazine was critical because “new dance needs a new language, it’s time we began to define ourselves and our work”.
Not everyone was as impressed at the time. Dance Critic David Dougill objected to the label ‘dance’ being applied to the more experimental performances and Geoff Moore from the New Dance company ‘Moving Being Productions’ regarded X6 as inward looking to the point of being figuratively incestuous. But with few critics, let alone ordinary audience members willing to visit uncomfortable or hard to reach venues it is not surprising that X6’s influence did not reach much further than fellow artists.
This need not be a failing for they created a non-hierarchicall network of independents artists that today is a much more familiar model. And while by 1980, many artists had started to lose interest in X6’s ‘turgid politics’ or the lack of finished work there is little doubt that X6 had left an impact on British dance by showing that very different ways of making dance were possible.