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Light on their feet Lottery funding has brightened the future of Scottish Dance Theatre. As it launches its autumn tour, Mary Brennan finds the company hoping that its lucky numbers can invigorate the movement

WITH two new dancers bringing company numbers up to eight - and two new pieces coming into the repertoire in time for the autumn tour - the future looks brighter than ever for the Dundee-based Scottish Dance Theatre.

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Over the summer, news came through that plans for a much-needed rehearsal space had been given a £ 660,000 boost - in the form of a capital lottery grant - and, even while I'm chatting to Janet Smith, SDT's artistic director, about these developments, she learns of yet another useful addition to this company's carefully-marshalled and thriftily-managed resources. ''We've just had it confirmed . . .'' Smith's face is a picture of genuine amazement and delight. ''The money has come through for a three-year joint project with Dance Base in Edinburgh. It means that we can go in there for two weeks in the spring, two weeks in the autumn, and invite members of the professional dance community to come and work with us. We can really share in a process of creativity, have choreographic research time for members of the company, but also really connect with the wider dance community in Scotland and beyond. It's fantastic.'' She really is brimful of an enthusiasm which extends way beyond the needs and ambitions of her own group, her own immediate territory. ''It's such a great way for Scottish professionals to start using Dance Base. There hasn't been much in the way of a support network, or facilities, for professional dancers or small companies in Scotland. This will be a way forward, a means of building up the dance community. And, yes, I do think it will make people feel it is worth while to stay and work in Scotland.'' Smith herself arrived here in 1997. Her task was to haul Scottish Dance Theatre out of the artistic morass that had engulfed it during Neville Campbell's stint as director/choreographer. Frankly, nothing had worked out as Campbell had hoped or intended and, by the end, he was more than glad to move on. Smith is a gently-spoken woman who has never bad-mouthed her predecessor or used the situation she inherited as a get-out clause when things got tough. But onlookers who have followed the history of this company - it was Dundee Rep Dance Company before Campbell re-named it - have been astounded and impressed at how Smith has healed and nurtured SDT to the point where audiences and critics on both sides of the border now applaud the content and calibre of its performances. It's hard not to compare this steady progress and stability with the ongoing upheavals that beset Scottish Ballet and Smith's former husband, Robert North, whose contract as artistic director there expires - without renewal - next summer. Harder still not to speculate, even fret, about the knock-on effect that the recently announced ''re-positioning'' of Scottish Ballet might have on all that Smith and her team have achieved at Dundee. Smith, quite typically, allows her concerns about SDT to widen out into an overview that embraces other small-scale contemporary companies who are striving to survive in a country where audiences are still leery of the word ''contemporary'' when allied to dance. ''We're not resourced like a national company,'' she says. ''Our anxiety is about meeting in the market place. A company like Scottish Ballet would have more dancers, live music, more expensive product. One of our risks would be losing this lovely company of dancers that we've built up. We don't, at the moment, afford them year-long contracts.'' She falls silent for a moment. ''The last thing I want to do is stop anything developing, but part of our reaction to this is to do with the nurturing of a whole dance ecology in Scotland. There has been a lack of consultation, and a seeming lack of understanding of our position, let alone that of other companies who are smaller and less able to speak out than ourselves. That makes one wary of how it will go forward.'' She speaks, feelingly, of the situation that Scottish Ballet will itself have to face if it decides to take on the mantle of a contemporary dance company. ''You have to struggle to break down the barriers of people's perceptions. So often when I've talked to people - first-timers who've come to see our show - they say, 'I'm really glad somebody dragged me along'. ''That's a story I hear all the time. What you need, I think, are the kind of animating dance experts who can be on the ground to help both venue managers, who are unsure about what they're programming, and help bridge the gap in developing audiences. Scottish Ballet is already struggling with perceptions that what they do is more or less Swan Lake - and it's not. ''Changing direction will mean they'll have to struggle against the perceptions that exist about contemporary dance.'' SDT's own plan of attack continues with the autumn tour, which kicks off at Dundee Rep next weekend and features two new works, Inside Somewhere (by Sean Feldman) and Smith's own choreographed response to being in Scotland, High Land. ''This could be the piece that gets me kicked out of Scotland,'' she says with a mischievous chuckle. And, indeed, the sections I saw in rehearsal did have a sly humour woven in to the movement and the music (by Christopher Benstead). Such teasing is, however, a mark of deep-rooted and affectionate regard. ''Being in Scotland for the past four years has made an enormous impact on me,'' she says. ''I came up to Scotland right at the point when devolution was the issue. And I feel as if I've been around for the re-birth of a nation. ''I wanted to catch something of that - not in a political way, it's not a political piece - but I wanted to explore the sense of history, the sense of a warrior spirit, the sense of community and connection to the land, the notions of culture and identity. In England, I always felt that nationalism was dangerous. In Scotland, I've felt it as something fresh and re-vivifying.'' Without giving over much away, there are echoes in the piece of Smith's summer sojourn in Skye where she took part in Frank McConnell's step-dance workshops. The kilt does swing into action. And there is a merrily wicked nod in the direction of some monstrously kitsch merchandising.

If Smith is delighted to swop her desk - and the necessary drudgery of funding applications - for an overdue return to the studio and dance-making, she's equally delighted to have Sean Feldman's first-ever work being made on SDT. Feldman's inspiration for Something Inside comes from the paintings of Chagall. ''There's a wonderful child-like, dream quality to his work that touches me,'' says Feldman ''but, at the same time, it's infused with depth and meaning. There's innocence. But what he did was consciously full of light and optimism.'' There could hardly be a better motto than ''light and optimism'' for Scottish Dance Theatre as they begin their autumn tour.

Performances at Dundee Rep on September 21 and 22 are part of Dundee's Festival of Dance 2001, a lively package of workshops, films, and shows which includes the only Scottish appearance by the Russell Maliphant Company (September 27) and some inspired mayhem from Air Dance Company (September 29).

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