Curator Interviews: Dance with Tess Letham

We caught up with one of our Dance curators, Tess Letham, to hear more about the process of selecting this year’s programme.

Tess Letham is an independent dance artist based in Edinburgh, working as a performer, choreographer and educator. She has been involved in the curation process for Hidden Door’s Dance program since 2018.

What was the process like for narrowing down the applicants for this year’s Hidden Door?

Well, we received a lot of applications, I think around 60. Which is a lot to work through considering how much information each one contained. We basically started by looking for work that would bring a unique flavour to the festival, as well as trying to find a broad range of artistic voices, and then also asking whether we could make the piece work in the building, which was  a major consideration.

The callout asked for site-specific performances, so shows which had been prepared or could be easily adapted to being in the round, surrounded by the audience. The majority of the dance program will be on the Central Chamber stage, as well as a couple in other places in the building, so each piece needed to be adapted and optimised for this unique space.

Budget was also a factor; I wanted to bring a good range of dance to the festival, rather than just having three or four higher-budget performances, which is how we ended up with one or two unique performances programmed for every night of the festival. It was also important to me that we were able to pay people properly and fairly for time spent in rehearsal, as well for the festival performance itself.

I tried throughout to see how the different performances would interact with and complement other parts of the program, to make the experience cohesive for audiences. Oh, and finally I wanted to give people opportunities that perhaps they hadn’t previously had, to platform work on a larger scale and to perform to multi-art form audiences, which they maybe haven’t encountered with presenting dance work in Scotland as yet.

Did you try to explore any particular themes throughout the program, or did they emerge along the way?

Above all, we wanted to create quite a diverse program of dance. I am drawn toward a particular type of dance due to my background and tastes,  but I wanted to ensure that across the program there would be a good spread of different approaches to performance. I’m really happy with how that went, and that we didn’t limit ourselves by having pre-planned ideas of where we wanted the program to go. It just sort of emerged that we programmed a good spread of styles and formats, all with some really exciting and innovative ideas.

I think above all we wanted to create a spectacle, so we were drawn to visually stunning work which I knew would work well in the space, and appeal to the audiences that we get at Hidden Door.

You touched on this briefly, but how much did the Royal High School venue factor into your choices? What sort of considerations did you have in mind when choosing work tho fit with the space?

We needed to consider whether the pieces would specifically work well in the Central Chamber of the Royal High School; it’s a big room, upwards of 300 audience members I think, so performances needed to be able to carry to that scale of venue. So, yeah, we had to find work that was able to hold audiences in there for some time, as well as the logistical issues of performing on that stage. It’s a uniquely shaped stage, very long and oval and on a raised platform, in a room with so much character, but I think everything we’ve selected for that venue will be excellent. 

There’s also some performance taking place in other parts of the festival; so OCEANALLOVER will be doing some outdoor interventions before they bring their staged work to the Central Chamber. They have these incredible costumes, which will be really intriguing and surprising for audiences. 

We’ve also got Alan Grieg, who’s doing a more intimate site-specific piece which travels through the corridor spaces, which will be really interesting for our audiences. Clive Andrews is in the Central Chamber incorporating really amazing visual projections onstage of other dancers, and then Nomoss will be in the Pianodrome space which is such a unique and intimate place to see dance.

The program boasts a lot of local and Scottish talent, was it a deliberate choice to focus on this?

I think it has a lot to do with the fact that Hidden Door brings so much to the performers in this city, it’s not one of these like major shiny festivals that we get here, it’s an amazing platform for artists and it’s committed to investing in local talent. We’ve always really wanted to platform the talent that’s here in Scotland, because there’s just so much of it! There’s a huge diversity of dance in Scotland, and there’s not really many festivals like Hidden Door where dance artists get to perform alongside other types of performers in a multi-arts setting, so it’s a unique opportunity to reach new audiences.

So yeah, I’m really proud of the percentage of Scotland-based artists. There’s only one international company coming, Elelei, who have performed in a previous Hidden Door.  One of the dancers had such fond memories of the festival in 2018, and their work was just perfect for the program we were building, so we were really excited to bring them here.

The program offers some less traditional and more experimental approaches to dance, incorporating music and vocals and costuming, how important was that to your programming?

I think a lot of it came from wanting to get quite a diverse program in terms of people and creativity and approaches, but I also think that contemporary dance in Scotland at the moment tends to incorporate a lot of multi-art forms in an exciting way, so it just kind of comes with the territory! Those performers, who are drawn to experimenting with the form, are exactly the types of performers that apply to Hidden Door, because it’s a multi-arts festival it draws that kind of creativity and innovation in.

A lot of contemporary dance artists and companies are working with live music, spoken word or costuming, or designed soundscapes or projection arts, so it’s great to have that large mix of different mediums incorporated into our programming.

How would you suggest that an audience member approaches the program, to decide what they want to see? Anything you yourself are particularly excited to see come together?

That’s a really hard question! I’m not sure, I think every evening is going to be interesting and unmissable in its own way. It depends what you’re interested in, for example, if you want to see some bold dance theatre work, then you’ve got Luigi Nardone & Jessie Roberts-Smith, which is on the same night as the street dance piece by House of Jack which I think is a really nice double bill in the central chamber on Friday 17th. If you want to see something loud and feminist you should definitely do your best to see The Yonis on Friday 10th, because they’re just such fun.

There’s also Collective Endeavors on Saturday 16th, which combines live music and improvisation, which I think will be really spectacular to watch. I’ve only mentioned like half the program here, but you really have to just try and catch as much as you can, I don’t want to pick a favourite!