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A New Future for Royal Ballet Flanders?

The dance world has a very short memory. When Royal Ballet Flanders, described by Roslyn Sulcas of the New York Times as "one of the best companies in Europe",  briefly visited London in April on its tour of the UK, few people remembered the furore surrounding the company less than two years previously and the doomed campaigns to protect it.

On 23 October 2010, Kathryn Bennetts, the Artistic Director of Royal Ballet Flanders announced her "resignation" due to decisions made by the Belgian government making her position untenable and raising serious concerns about the future of Royal Ballet Flanders. The Minister of Culture, Joke Schauvliege, who has freely admitted that "she didn’t need to know anything about culture", announced that as part of the government's cost-cutting, the Opera and Ballet companies are to merge, with all artistic programming decision-making to be made by a supervising intendant (administrator) for both companies, and not by each company's Artistic Director.

In the seven years of Bennetts' tenure, she has transformed the company into an award-winning company of international renown, building up its repertoire to feature works by many of Europe's leading choreographers, especially William Forsythe, despite a budget of barely a quarter of that of comparable European companies. Although Bennetts successfully managed to reduce the company's debts through international touring, she was criticised for being "too ambitious" while the company is being punished for not doing more to increase its appeal to audiences within Flanders itself.

While in London, Bennetts gave a talk at Sadler's Wells's Lilian Baylis Studio, in which she discussed the company's future, adding that not only were a significant proportion of the company's dancers leaving, but also the rights to all of the company's full-length works were being revoked as part of the protest at Bennett's treatment by the Belgian government; 26 April, at the International Dance Festival Birmingham, saw the last-ever performance of Forsythe's Artifact by Royal Ballet Flanders.

Yesterday, on 20 August, Kathryn Bennetts tweeted "Never have been so happy to get on a flight in my life. Goodbye Antwerp hello Warsaw."

Today, Dance East has proudly announced that its director Assis Carreiro has been appointed the new Artistic Director of Royal Ballet Flanders. The press release reminds us of all her impressive achievements in raising Dance East to one of the country's most significant national dance agencies, with a funding increase of 60% over the last five years, and of the many choreographers and companies she has worked with over the years - including a brief stint at William Forsythe's Ballett Frankfurt.

For any company seeking to expand its profile, repertoire and core funding, Assis Carreiro would be a tremendous asset. Yet one cannot read through her career profile without recognising her sheer ambition - and then wonder how that will sit with the Belgian Ministry of Culture, who appears to be averse to ambitious Artistic Directors. Indeed, the background situation implies that the Artistic Director role is little more than that of a caretaker, overseeing a reduced budget, reduced repertoire and reduced cast of dancers, as well as a reduced scope for artistic decision-making.

It's all too easy to imagine that Carreiro has exciting plans and ideas for the company's future, and it remains to be seen how she handles the challenges and handicaps which she'll be facing. To quote Miracle Max from The Princess Bride, "it would take a miracle".

 

 

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Can You Come Out to Play?

Never one for being good in my own company, I need other people, or a busy environment in which to feel free to play with movement. A piece I'm currently rehearsing for involves the use of, among other things, a pool of water, and lighting a bowl of lighter fluid. And it’s great fun. The power I felt from being 'allowed' to simply play with these elements took me by surprise.

It's rare that, as adults, we're given such opportunities, and I think that it's a privilege that dancers are afforded more than others. It’s taken for granted, expected, that children will and must play: it aids social development, dexterity, and, in the words of Einstein, ‘play is the highest form of research’. So when is it that things change, and why? At some point we become to cool to play, perhaps we feel we’ve researched enough, and that we know all we want to know. I for one hope I never feel that way!

As well as playing with fire and water, I’ve recently been playing at being a woodland creature throughout summer festivals, and at being part of a human living room. The uncertain glee in a child’s voice when invited to sit on our sofa made of bodies was wonderful to hear: ‘Am I really allowed to sit? But it’s not really a chair!?’ She sat, she had a biscuit (from the human coffee table), and all was well.

A key part of a Dance Movement Therapist’s work is encouraging play, and in the short time that I studied this I gained a huge amount of knowledge and insight about myself, and how I relate to other people and the environment around me. All from moving, exploring and playing with the props / tools / toys that we were provided with.

I consider improvisation to be a form of play, but as it’s often very structured and goal- orientated, I think the sense of freedom can be lost. I think as performers, we’re extremely lucky to have the opportunity to freely explore a movement, a piece of music, a prop or a subject matter, and that as part of a creative process, this should not be used simply as an introduction or a way to get started, but should be constantly revisited and researched. We’re also free to play dress up, to become other characters and encourage the imagination of our audience to join us, which is of course a key reason why Joe Public wants to go to the theatre: everyone wants to be able to experience something ‘other’.

My car boot is currently stocked with, among other things, a Barbie skateboard, thousands of ping-pong balls and a bag of sand. These things have been used, and will be again, to encourage playfulness in dancers young and old, of many years’ experience or of none, and the results both artistic and experiential are great and, I’m sure, a hundred times better than if I just taught some new moves.

So don’t be a grownup. OK, be a grownup, but be a grownup who can play. If it’s good enough for Einstein…
 

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I, Dancer

So, I have this theory.

It may not be new or earth-shattering, but it’s something that’s been playing on my mind these last few weeks.

Ask me what it is to be a professional dancer and I give a very vague answer. It’s more of an extended “Errr…” with a slight shrug, coupled with an apologetic smile. The results are very unglamorous, but the moment passes, the conversation moves on, and I feel somewhat mystified with my answer. It’s not that I’m dispassionate about what I do, it’s that the term “dancer” is an elusive one, even to me.

Often I feel my problem is the discrepancy with language. You say potato and I say, well… potato. Like any good essay, the beginning is governed by the shaping of your own definition, applying parameters to what it is you are writing about. Place those parameters up in life and it is easy to think that you are missing out on something, conversely, fail to shape them to some degree and you enter a stupor (exhibit A).

I think I may be able to eradicate future vague (read: embarrassing) situations if I solidify my identity by not living a semi-detached lifestyle, but rather embracing a full-bodied experience of dancerdom, whatever shape and definition it takes. More and more I realize a path to “success” is elusive if you can’t find within yourself what success means to you, and the means you have to achieve it.

And so my theoretical proposition is this: the artist is lived, not acquired.

Acquiring something begs for definition. Living something allows for life to grow and shape itself, a career/job/calling can develop and extend beyond the boundaries that have been set up. How many times are your inspirations been those who step outside what you’ve expected? If I’m to surprise myself, really push myself, and fall into the lifestyle I crave, it defies definition.

So enter project Exiting Stupor.

It is giving myself permission to surprise myself.

It is being and living the dancer and not believing it’s something that I’ll create for myself in an instant. I’ve been training for years, thinking and acting like a dancer for years and yet I’m still waiting for the moment when I feel like I am a dancer – strange, isn’t it? It’s not your conventional job. There are no parameters, guidelines or timelines. The “dancer” is as individual as the person and that’s what makes them fascinating – it’s what keeps art interesting, moving, and developing, because a deep-seated interest in every human being is what it is like to be another.

It’s time to play. To exist. To live.

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Improvise. Do whatever you like…

Forty-five minutes into my first class with Chisato Ohno, I remember thinking to myself, ‘why are we still doing the warm up…?’. That was a good few years ago, and now Chisato’s Gaga–based class is one of my favourite and most valued to go to. This improvisational technique is a movement language, developed by Ohad Naharin, Artistic Director of the world-renowned Batsheva Dance Company in Israel.

The language used within a Gaga class encourages flow and complete fluidity in the body, with form and set exercises often as a secondary concern. And when a set exercise is subtly introduced, the ease of movement and release in the body as a result of the improvisational exploration is incredible.

Recently I attended class with Winifred Burnett-Smith, a dancer with Hofesh Shechter Company. Expecting hardcore floorwork and thighs of steel by the end of class, I was pleasantly surprised and refreshed to find the effortlessness with which my body performed the set phrases of Hofesh repertory, following a similar Gagaesque opening to the class (as of course, Hofesh’s origins are also with Batsheva).

I’ve known for many years throughout my experience of teaching integrated dance that improvisational exercises are a much more successful way of introducing movement and dance, an understandably alien thing to many people! To offer up an image, shape, idea or piece of music to explore at one’s own will presents much less pressure than ‘learn this dance and do it in front of everyone else’.

The wonderful young people that make up the StopGAP Youth Company have come to define improvisation as ‘make it up’, or ‘do whatever you like’, ideas which I’m happy for them to stick with as they investigate new ways of moving and responding to images and tasks. It allows freedom and individuality, minimalises embarrassment, and removes any concern of getting things wrong.

On my way to an audition recently I received a text from a friend: ‘Just shake it’, it said. As it turned out, this was great advice, as in addition to a well–executed phrase of strong choreography, what the panel really wanted to see was improvisation to a chosen piece of music. So, I ‘made it up’, I ‘did whatever I liked’, I ‘shook it’. And I got the job.

I wonder, though, about the role of improvisation in performance. I think this must prove to be a much tougher task than improvisation within a class setting. Is it fair to one’s audience to demonstrate what is essentially one’s own personal exploration? Or is this what makes such a performance more interesting? Of course improvisational performances still have to be rehearsed, and so presents itself the challenge of the material being fresh each time: each time must be as the first time, as with performing scripted text.

I think, when watching an improvised performance work, I enjoy the knowledge that the performer may not know what will happen next; in a way it perhaps makes me feel more part of the performance than when watching a carefully choreographed work. I think we get more of an insight into the individual when watching someone improvise. Performance in general either leads the performer to become something completely other than themselves, or to expose something quite personal. And perhaps through improvisation they are more inclined to reveal something of themselves; the spontaneity does not provide such a mask.

Certainly when teaching I use these improvisational tasks to get to know a new group, to suss out how each dancer responds, and what they’re comfortable doing. And I observe self-confidence grow, and see delight in movement. There’s a lot to be said for ‘making it up’.

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Namaste, Every Which Way

‘Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth’, ‘Breathe in through your nose and out through your nose’, ‘Send the heels down into the floor to lift the hips’, ‘Make sure you don’t push the heels into the floor to lift the hips’, ‘Arch the lower back’, ‘Keep the lower back in neutral’ 'There's no point in doing yoga, you're flexible enough' 'You don't need to be flexible to do yoga'……

These are just a sample of the various pieces of advice and instruction I’ve been given in recent classes. Over the last few weeks I have attended Pilates classes in both matwork and reformer, hot yoga and partner yoga classes and explored Girotonics. You’d be forgiven for thinking that I am now tied up in knots, not knowing which way is up. Well not quite, but it has had me thinking.

I do these classes to support my dance technique, and because I’m fascinated by the effects they can have on the dancing body, and bodies in general. The physical benefits are of course evident, improving strength, balance, muscle tone and flexibility. But I think above all the awareness of one’s own physicality that these various practices brings about is hugely valuable, for anyone, not just dancers. I know that I feel much more tired after a day in front of the laptop than I do after a day's moving; we must be kind to our bodies even when they're not performing split leaps or spring ball changes (insert favourite move here!).

My experiences of Pilates, yoga and Girotonics have led me to question whether, while of course each extremely valuable in their own right, there becomes elements of contradiction between the various practices. I know there are moments in my yoga classes where things only make sense by applying something I’ve learnt in Pilates, and then there are moments when something makes no sense at all, perhaps because my body is used to doing things in a certain way.

I think this reflects something which dancers may well experience when taking a range of classes in a range of techniques and styles. One teacher’s desired way of moving is often completely opposed to another’s, we might take a Cunningham class one week and a release class the following week, each with different advice as to how best to use our bodies, and what to strive for.

Whilst dancers should of course be adaptable and versatile, I think there's an element for everyone of wanting to discover one’s own signature style, as opposed to simply being robots or puppets who instantly morph perfectly into the preferred movement style of the choreographer or teacher they're working with.

I guess it’s up to us as artists to discover for ourselves what our ideal is. To harvest the elements of the various practices and experiences and in turn develop our own individual practice. Joseph Pilates’ exploration into his method came as a result of health problems as a child, and then through his experience as a gymnast, boxer, diver and body-builder. Interestingly, he also worked with Rudolf Laban. Juliu Horvarth, after suffering an injury which ended his dance career, originally dubbed his practise (now known as Gyrokinesis) ‘Yoga for Dancers’. These methods have evolved over many years, and continue to do so, which is why things are constantly changing, new standards are being set, and new ideals for the moving body are being represented. This has to be what keeps things interesting.

Whilst having roots in dance, these practices are now benefiting people from all walks of life. And out of these practices come the fitness fads; the zumbas and the body sculpts. These are somehow more easily accessible and perhaps less intimidating than the spiritualism of yoga or the focus of Pilates. But either way, we all know that keeping our bodies moving, in whatever which way, will allow us to reap the rewards physically and, sometimes more importantly, mentally.

I will continue to explore these things, I will probably continue to be a bit confused (nay, curious), but I'll do this with a body that is, hopefully, aware and intuitive to what it needs and how to work efficiently, even on 'laptop days' when much less actual movement happens.

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Re:Made Weekend

Why do music and dance work so well together? In a debate at Birkbeck about what ‘dance’ is, one of my fellow students argued that all dance is a response to music, that music is intrinsic to dance. I completely disagree with this idea on many levels and not least of all because of the implications this would have on deaf people’s engagement with dance. You can get all John Cage on me and argue that all sound or lack thereof can be perceived of as ‘music’ but you can listen to music without seeing or knowing the source and you can experience dance without hearing its intended (or unintended) aural accompaniment. Having said that, there is something almost magical in how well the two work together. A piece of choreography can be accompanied by and even dependent upon the visual design running through its costume, props, set and staging. The choice of venue and use of the space will fundamentally affect how the audience reads the work. The dancers themselves, their shapes, physical facilities, genders, ages, nationalities and even facial bone structures will all have a bearing on the audience’s interpretation of what they are seeing but nothing, it seems, will make a stronger impression on the audience than the relationship between the music and the dance.

Given the vitality of the relationship between the two art forms I don’t think enough attention is paid to developing dance students' relationships with music; instead it seems that musicality is to be developed by a process of osmosis. I know I’m an unusual person in that I haven’t spent a lot of time listening to music through my life: I’m a very ‘wordy’ person and although I generally abhor silence, it's BBC Radio 4 I choose to fill the void with rather than music. Part of the reason for this is, and other people who have the same relationship with music as me feel the same, is that I ‘can’t hear myself think’ when music is playing. I can’t tune out on music the same way as I can with the spoken word but nor do I find it easy to just sit, listen and concentrate on it. Unfortunately this has left me rather woefully lacking in the knowledge of music department and every time I need to source music for either dance or drama it can be quite an arduous process if I’m looking to use music outside of my very camp commercial pop and musical theatre musical taste!

I have been lucky to have danced to live music a lot though. At Birkbeck, all technique classes are accompanied by live music, generally piano for ballet and an eclectic variety of modern, world and percussive instruments for contemporary. My favourite so far has been the electric cello in conjunction with one of those ‘looping’ pedals (apologies, music jargon is not my strong point). The sound from the cello seemed to fill the room as it built in layers and it felt as though the sound became tangible in the space to dance within - amazing. Dancing with live accompaniment has so many advantages: the tempo can be adjusted, unconventional rhythms can be explored, phrasing and rhythm can be emphasised so that dancers can attune to the music and, most importantly, the human elements of music-making can be appreciated and a relationship between dancer and musician can be forged.

Of course live music is expensive (although musicians will probably disagree with that) and therefore recorded music is unfortunately the norm, particularly for novice choreographers like me. Therefore when I saw that Rambert Dance Company were offering a weekend workshop of collaboration between dance students and alumni of the London Sinfonietta Orchestra academy, I leapt at the chance. The idea of the weekend was to take Rambert’s version of Nijinksy’s L’Après-midi d’un faune and Mark Baldwin’s recent reimagining of it entitled What Wild Ecstasy as a starting point for music composition and choreography created via collaborative processes. As if that wasn’t great enough, the 2 day workshop only cost £40. Jealous? This is why it pays to be on every mailing list going!

The workshop seemed especially exciting for me as it would provide both an opportunity to work on choreography but also there would be the opportunity to network with the musicians which hopefully will prove useful in the future when I will be looking for new music!

The actual workshop itself packed a lot in. We began each day with a joint physical warm-up session then we separated so that as dancers we had a release-based technique class and the musicians would go to another studio and work on a group composition. On both days, we then joined together again so that the end of our technique class was danced to music that they had created, and this culminated in a whole group improvisation where the musicians were working together on a complex improvisational score and the dancers were using the sequence we’d learnt and then playing around with it as the basis for a dance improvisation. Although mostly improvised because of the common language of the phrase the dancers were playing with and the rules that the musicians had set themselves, the exercise did pull the whole group together and create an interesting visual and aural spectacle.

On both days, we watched Nijinksy’s L’Après-Midi d’un faune and we were tasked with drawing various thematic ideas from the piece as inspiration for our own work. In the groups I was in, we drew upon the ideas of ritual, power and bacchanalian celebration which all lend themselves easily as starting points for choreographic ideas. Deborah Galloway (dance animateur) and Mark Bowden (music fellow) from Rambert explained to us that most ‘collaboration’ between musicians and dancers actually happens separately with ideas being discussed and then each party going away and working on their material and then meeting together again and continuing their process in that way. However, during this workshop, they wanted to experiment with what happened with various groupings of dancers and musicians and working together, improvising together and also taking time apart in our groups if we needed it. Early on we worked in small groups of 2 or 3. Personally I found this most productive as our roles were obviously clearly defined and the short solo I created around ritual with Alice, a flautist, was selected for the end of workshop ‘sharing’.

We spent most of our devising time working on different ways to improvise with each other. We started with the music leading and me following the music, sometimes dancing with it and sometimes contrary to it, then we tried the same process but with Alice following my movement. It felt great when I would move my body and suddenly the sound would be echoing my movements. We decided that we wanted to create more of a conversation between the sound and the dance so we would incorporate elements of the music leading, the dance leading and also doing different things to each other and we would trust our instincts through the improvisation rather than set up a precise structure to follow. I think this worked well because it stopped any predictable patterns becoming evident to the audience, and it also meant that we could inject vigour and energy into each other’s work when we felt like the piece needed boosting.

The main task which we worked on over the workshop was in 3 larger groups. The group I was in had lots of dancers and only 3 musicians; another group had more musicians than dancers and another group had 2 of each. This was largely an experiment to see how the various groupings would affect the process. In our group, communication between the dancers and the musicians worked very well but amongst the dancers, particularly on the first day, it was certainly a case of too many chiefs. Everybody wanted to contribute and work hard, which was great, but as soon as an idea was suggested, instead of spending some time committing to it and trying it out, another idea was suggested and another and another… We got most of our work done when we split ourselves into small groups within the big group to choreograph material and then we came together to piece it together. However, after feedback on the first day, we seemed to have a more unified vision of what we were trying to create and we also switched from a largely choreographic mode to a rehearsal mode which brought us together and helped make our piece look more polished.

There were some elements of the piece I quite liked but naturally in a situation where you are collaborating with so many people, not everything was how I personally would have liked it to be. I know this element frustrated other people on the workshop and also some of the musicians would have liked to have worked less on improvisation and more on solid composition. I had entered the workshop with the intention of experiencing the process of collaboration, and in that sense, learning the things that don’t work for you is just as important as finding what does work. I had a great time doing this workshop and have kept in touch with some of the people involved.

Next month I’ll be in a dance photoshoot by one of the musicians (who is also a photographer) and we will also hopefully be working together on dance / music projects in the future! Watch this space.

All photos by Farrah Riley Gray for Rambert Dance Company

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That’s Entertainment?

A friend recently described to me how she considers herself to be entertained if she has been moved, upset, or even traumatised by a piece of dance or theatre. And I think I know what she means. I recently saw Fleur Darkin’s ‘Experience’, and while there was much beautiful movement and clever use of props and speech throughout, the part which engaged me the most was the ‘London’ moment, referencing last summer’s riots with heavy and disjointed electric guitar, flashing bright lights and wild jumps, stamps and screams. In this most raw and exposed moment of the work, the human trauma was evident, and I loved it.

Anyone involved in a creative process or seeking to make work has probably realised that it’s much easier to create movement based on upsetting or negative subject matter. When I was at university this certainly seemed to be the case, where pieces set in asylums or about death and destruction were rife, and there were only a handful of colourful and lighthearted works.

It seems there is much more to get your teeth into, much more emotion in the uglier side of life. But as an audience, what is it we expect when we buy tickets to a show? There are some who will expect beautiful lines, incredible physiques, and pretty movement: something beautiful which can be taken at face value. I myself expect much more from dance performance, and it was only recently that I grasped this; in fact it was whilst watching the recent Channel 4 documentary on Damien Hirst’s upcoming retrospective exhibition at the Tate.

I began to consider the opinions of Hirst’s critics, whose party line seems to be, ‘that’s not art’. I think I’d previously considered my expectation of visual art to be beautiful brushstrokes and an attractive subject, a pretty picture. Now, I do not profess to be in any way an expert; in fact I’m a bit of a novice in knowledge of visual art, but I think what Hirst does goes much deeper, and taps into those human experiences, even traumas, which I relish in dance. As he discussed his various works, which span decades, he talked predominantly of the subject matter, rather than the finished product; he encouraged the viewer to look much further than simply what the eye beholds, and to explore why and how the work came about, and to what it refers. Working with themes of human loneliness, and the juxtaposition of life and death, his often gruesome images present the viewer with environments which urge you to question what you know and how you feel.

Surely this is something we’d all like to gain from artistic experience? Hirst’s work is far from what one would consider to be aesthetically pleasing. Perhaps that’s why it’s ‘not art’. But I think there has to be much more said for something with a bit of soul, vs. something which demonstrates perfect technique.

I recently saw the Javier de Frutos / Pet Shop Boys collaboration ‘The Most Incredible Thing’. Sure, it looked good. The dancers’ physicality was incredible, and the choreography showcased this well. But it left me unsatisfied, and asking the question of what is the best way to engage, or indeed entertain an audience. Multiple perfect fouetté turns are of course impressive, but when does this become simply showing off? I wanted more soul, a more human element, something I could relate to.

Of course, the wonderful thing about the arts is that everyone experiences things differently. That’s why we have access to such a range of exceptional works. And of course, one man’s waste is another man’s treasure; one man’s dead cow is another’s incredible thing. I would encourage you, though, to look at little closer at the ‘waste’, you may just be entertained.

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An evening of community dance, would you bypass?

I believe that community dance, that catch-all umbrella term which seems to mean such different things to different people, is a wonderful thing. Dance can enrich the lives of all who encounter it, and it seems odd to even categorise some of it as community and some of it as what… cliquey? Not for everyone? Superior, perhaps? Yes, those dancers gifted with hypermobility have always and will always have the quality of ‘the other’ about them but they were born that way. We can all dance. Our backgrounds, abilities and bodies will lead us to dance differently and want different things from dance but whether what we are doing is the result of imitating music videos in our bedrooms with friends, running around in a garden with a silk scarf and being expressive á la Isadora Duncan, performing the culmination of months of rehearsal and planning for that year’s Rock Challenge performance or taking to the stage at Sadler’s Wells for the première of the latest work by today’s hottest big-shot name, we are all dancing.

Last week I had the pleasure of watching Spring Blast 2012: A Showcase of Community Dance at the Civic Theatre in Chelmsford which was co-ordinated by DanceDigital, an agency dedicated to developing dance in Hertfordshire and Essex with a specific focus on integrating dance with modern-day technology. I attended this performance as one of my fellow students at Birkbeck, Dawn Botchway, was performing in Laura Horn’s Back to Black and I’m really glad that I ventured out of town because I got to see a really interesting range of dance performed to a very high standard which was entertaining and which left me on a real dance ‘high’.

12 different groups performed in the showcase, most of which were comprised of school-aged dancers, although 3 dances were performed by the two adult groups, and there was a diverse range of experience and technical ability on display. One thing which united all the groups was the professionalism in terms of performance technique and the amount of rehearsal that had gone into the dances performed that evening. Perhaps when some people think about watching ‘community dance’, they think about watching the informal sharings which often happen at the end of short workshops; I performed in one myself on Sunday afternoon. These are often meant to be a demonstration of a process undergone throughout the workshop, and they don’t tend to nor should they result in particularly polished performances, although they are very valuable and interesting in their own right. It was great, however, to see a ‘showcase’ where the performers had not only had the benefit of training in and for most, if not all, being creative with their styles of dance, but they had also benefited from rehearsing properly to heighten their performance standard which enabled them to showcase their talents effectively.

I found Drum dance and Drama Queen by Alimah Dance, examples of belly dancing, particularly interesting because for me these exemplified what community dance is all about. Here was a group of women, evidently with various levels of confidence and experience in terms of performance dance, sensitively arranged on the stage and looking fabulous in colourful, diva-esque yet tasteful costumes, unified by their obvious love of dance and sharing that feeling with us. I haven’t previously been a fan of belly dancing - too much exposure to gyrating flesh for too long generally - but Lynn Bywater’s choreography layered enough interesting variations on the basic gyrating action, exploring each fully but changing just before we could become tired of it. The skill required in mounting and balancing on the small Talal drum was evident and special mention must go to the performer in the second row for refusing to be defeated!

If there are any luddites out there who still question the value of dance in education (David Willetts MP?), Reflections by Eastwood School explored the complex theme of being happy with your body and was a strong example of how dance can be used to tackle complex emotional and psychological issues that are particular relevant to teenagers; a recent survey by YMCA as part of their body confidence campaign found that nearly half of 14 year old girls had already attempted a ‘diet’: terrifying. All art forms are both reflective and creative and allow participants space to contemplate their ideas and to test them out in various ways through making and sharing. Dancers can have a complex relationship with body image and if during the creation of this dance even just one of the dancers involved had a chance to explore and resolve any negative feelings they had in relation to this subject then, in my opinion, it holds untold worth. From a choreographic perspective I would have preferred more abstraction as the combination of lyrics, mime and tone of the performance lacked subtlety but I was very glad to see a piece of work that tackled such a challenging and relevant subject matter head-on.

Laura Horn’s Back to Black performed by Hertfordshire Adult Contemporary was an abstract dance to a particularly soulful version of Amy Winehouse’s ballad of the same name which explored movement through space as initiated by the dancers’ pelvises and also played with varied dynamics within the movement. Nearly all of the dancers in this piece were dance teachers themselves, and it was fascinating to see professionals perform alongside the other various groups in the evening. The most distinctive feature which separated them was the subtlety and detail that they brought to their performances, which to a certain extent is to be expected. I found the piece most interesting when the dancers were separated in space and yet still connected within the framework of a duet, very beautiful.

Other highlights included The Boswells School performing Mark Jones’ Never let me go and Bam Bam Boogies A Showcase of dance styles. Both of these streetdance-inspired (and waacking, house, hip-hop and old school jazz) dances were performed by incredibly talented young dancers who didn’t miss a beat, had musicality coming out of every pore and just broadcasted their energy into the performance. The Bam Bam Boogies, with a wider variety of styles in their choreography, had the opportunity to transition in and out of a more fluid dance style but both companies entertained me more than Diversity and Flawless, both of whom I’ve seen live.

The contemporary dance highlight of the evening, out of a very strong and diverse range of works, was Focus Youth Dance Company’s Manipulate by Robert Gentle. Strong lighting and projection design created a 3D hyper-designed world throughout the space, as the projections were also reflected off the dancers’ bodies as well as the back wall/screen. Classical lines became distorted and manipulations in relationships between the dancers and dancers manipulating each other’s extremely articulate bodies created a fascinating and at times sinister world. Out of every piece of the evening this was the one with the most potential to become a full-length evening work due to the richness of its choreography, design and talents of its dancers. They are certainly a company to keep an eye on.

I’m so glad that I went to this evening of ‘community dance’. I’ve come away far less enthused by professional shows I’ve seen and it’s not because I viewed the evening with a different mind-set than when I watch shows normally, which of course I did to some extent, but because of how much passion, energy and dance talent there was on stage and how well that was shared with the audience. If that’s what ‘community dance’ means then put flowers in my hair and I’ll join the commune.

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DV8 Disappoint

Did DV8’s verbatim production of Can we talk about this? have to be monotonous? Was it contempt for the audience which drove them to relentlessly lambast us with noise and superfluous motion, or was it because of the subject matter? Does Lloyd Newson, to paraphrase, consider himself ‘morally superior’ to us?

If I sound provoked and angry, then perhaps Lloyd Newson has achieved precisely what he set out to do. Can we talk about this? is a passionate polemic about multiculturalism, the dangers inherent in ‘submissively’ allowing rights to freedom of speech to be eroded and about the brutal atrocities that have been committed either as a supposed defence against criticism of Islam by extremists or within some Muslim communities while exercising some interpretations of Sharia law.

Just because DV8 are employing verbatim theatre techniques, in that all the words spoken in the production were reproduced word for word from ‘real-life’ sources, doesn’t mean they are all true. Verbatim doesn’t mean Gospel. Repeatedly we are told that Muslim women can’t divorce their husbands. This is true but Muslim women can dissolve their marriages, although they will probably have to return all their wedding gifts to their ex-husband. Unjust obviously but this knowledge does nuance the bigotry argument; amongst the barrage of facts and chilling statistics this was mentioned, once, briefly as a riposte.

The above example is perhaps trivial, although I don’t consider women’s rights trivial, when compared to some of the atrocities including domestic abuse, rape, murder, assassination and terrorism presented in the production and I don’t mean to denigrate its subject matter in any way. What has really fired me up, however, is how Lloyd Newson has taken this opportunity for DV8 and for the debate as a whole and not created a masterpiece.

There was beautiful dancing in the production. But so what? If I want to see beautiful movement for beautiful movement’s sake then I will go and see NDT2, or some ballet or any number of fantastic abstract contemporary dance companies. What I want from ‘Physical Theatre’, what I want from DV8, world-renowned masters of the genre, is movement which adds to the production. Movement which deepens arguments, which enlightens me to motivation and emotion. I want movement which reveals the inner world of the characters and illustrates it corporeally. I want to be surprised, shocked, fascinated and moved myself. I also want a chance to watch it, for it to speak for itself.

40 minutes in, I had calculated that about 15% of the choreography actually came close to doing any of the above. By the end of the arduous 80-minute production, this had risen to 20%. That’s 16 minutes' worth, or 1 in every 5 out of a show which contained constant movement, the majority of which was based on a movement vocabulary of endlessly repeating gestures with the same staccato rhythm as the words in the constant endless speech which over-scored the piece. I left with a headache.

In DV8's 1992 work Strange Fish, Lloyd Newson’s choreography portrayed solidarity, desire, loneliness, heartache, disappointment and joy. The choreography both advanced the plot and revealed aspects of the characters. A conflicted character was revealed through a hula-hoop which was used both to seduce and to act as a chaste force field. It enabled lascivious dancing but also represented commitment. In Can we talk about this?, one of the highlights was listening to the words of former Labour MP Ann Cryer in a fascinating exposition on forced marriage and how she fought to get it debated in parliament while she was variously perched in a contact / Acro Yoga duet on a male actor while drinking a cup of tea. Oh, how we laughed when she left the saucer on his head. In the words of Frantic Assembly, ‘Don’t make somebody become a table or a chair that then gets sat on – this is not physical theatre, it is demeaning’. It can be argued that this movement sequence represented the cushy life of those in Westminster and their detachment from ‘reality’ and that it provided some welcome light-hearted relief from the rest of the work. It was also cheap and obvious.

Perhaps I’m missing the genius in the work. I will agree that it can be theatrically powerful to take the inflamed and hyperbolic words of someone who is clearly devoted to their cause, and to portray that in a sober and measured tone. Not ‘colouring’ the words to highlight their significance in case the audience is missing the point. However, do this for 80 minutes while you rail against the supposedly unchallenged subordination of ‘British’ culture to the sanctity of all ideas ‘multicultural’, and you end up sounding overly worthy, more Fahrenheit 9/11 than An Inconvenient Truth.

There were opportunities for brilliance throughout the piece. A dance theatre portrayal of a scantily-clad Aayan Hirsi Ali, screen-writer of Submission the film which led to its director Theo Van Gogh’s (yes a distant relative) assassination, of the famous scene where lines from the Koran are inscribed on a woman’s body but also made to look like bruises resulting from domestic violence was one of those opportunities. It was good but it should have been devastating.

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Learning Through Art

The 'Burka Banksy' is how the female graffiti artist in Kabul is dubbed, in an article I found in a magazine left by a recycling-minded fellow South West Trains passenger. Shamsia Hassani sprays depictions of Muslim women, highlighting their oppression and position in modern society. She works in secret for fear of her safety, but still commits to making herself and her convictions in her own beliefs heard through her art. She is also a professor of Fine Art at Kabul University, and wants the modern style of her work to highlight the archaic views that Afghan women face.

I came across this article during the same week that I saw DV8's current work 'Can We Talk About This?', Lloyd Newson's latest politically-charged piece of dance theatre which tackles the subject of Islamic extremism and the stories of individuals who have fallen victim to the extreme and brutal actions of those with fundamental beliefs. Whether or not I enjoyed the work is not particularly relevant here. What matters is that I learned something, I was educated.

I learned in a way that I've not been able to from news bulletins, newspaper articles and documentaries on the subject. Although I have been aware and concerned about the escalating awfulness that is happening throughout the world in the name of religion, I’d not yet come across a way of accessing information and understanding that allowed real connection to the human element of the facts, figures and statistics. And for me, that’s what Newson’s DV8 provided.

I was never very good at nor interested in history at school. Dates tended to go in one ear and out the other, along with names of fortresses and of monarchs crowned and slain. That was until I began to study war poetry and literature in my A-Level English Lit. course. Through the writings of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon in their poetry, and Sebastian Faulks’ ‘Birdsong’, the inconsequential dates and faceless names suddenly became very real, very upsetting, and very relevant to my life.

Children’s author Michael Morpurgo, who wrote the hugely successful War Horse, writes from the point of view of the horse on the frontline in WW1. In an effort to bring history alive for readers for generations after these events, he uses this innovative way of storytelling to connect and make relevant these things which are so important and yet so easily ignored.

Another subject I was never particularly enthralled with in my younger years was Maths. I can’t say that much has changed since then, although watching Hamish McPherson and Martine Painter’s ‘Meeting Place’ at Resolution! 2012 encouraged me to take a tentative step towards finding an interest in numbers and scientific patterns. Hamish and Martine play with visually unfolding an algorithmic formula: a series of instructions, a mathematical way of describing a sequence, used in computing, the stock market and other such seemingly alien contexts. However, seeing these things embodied on a stage made me interested, and encouraged me to think on something I’d never have considered relevant to my life. And of course it is: this laptop is using algorithms as I type, and yours as you read.

I think that artists, whatever their medium, hold great responsibility to the subject matter that they choose, and the information that they present. Whether their audience are experts on the given topic, or novices, the power that an artist / writer / choreographer has to influence and educate their audience is huge, and should not be underestimated, least of all by the artist / writer / choreographer themselves. They’re then faced with the decision of how to relay the information. Should art be impartial? Should it advocate an opinion for its viewer to take or leave, or should it merely present a balanced view of the subject matter, so as to remain unbiased? I’m not sure, and there will be conflicting opinions on the artist’s right to persuade their audience of one thing or another. Art can reach people in a way that text books and news reports can’t, whether it be on the streets of Kabul, on the pages of a story book, or on the stage at The National. If it gets people talking, thinking, and interested in something they would otherwise have ignored, then surely that’s a triumph.

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Frantic Assembly

I was lucky enough to get a place on Frantic Assembly's latest series of physical theatre workshops. As a company they use a lot of dance in their productions to explore the subtext in the work they produce. They find their movement vocabulary for each production through task-based choreographic exercises. For example, one of the tasks from their production of 'Lovesong' was to recreate the way that you casually brush away a piece of fluff etc from a lover's clothing, mid-conversation, without interrupting the flow or them reacting to your having invaded their personal space. From this starting point an intimate duet developed that travelled through space and included lifts and weight-sharing. The end result was a highly physicalised yet gentle and tender duet that from an audience perspective demonstrated the loving nature and ease within the relationship of the characters. We also explored how changes in dynamic, use of focus or using unison movement etc changed the reading of the duet and therefore opened further choreographic potential from a very simple starting point.

Several of Frantic's rehearsal workshop techniques follow structures like the one above in that specific pathways of movement are not set absolutely but it is the intention behind the movement that drives it. I.e. in the example above I was visualising the fluff and removing it instead of thinking that my hand was coming to my partner's shoulder and then spiralling away anti-clockwise through space. Once this intentionally pedestrian movement vocabulary has been generated (or assimilated from another source, e.g. boxing club warm-up movements in the case of 'Beautiful Burnout'), Frantic will then use strong compositional devices regarding pathways through space and the finding of movement and spatial connections between two or more different sequences to structure the dance as a whole. The combination of the highly stylised structure and yet very pedestrian or 'ordinary' movement combined with their gravity-defying lifts and often frenetic pace come together to produce their signature style which is both very exciting and accessible to audiences.

One of the real strengths about Frantic Assembly is the care and attention they place on the environment in the workshop room and, as they told us, it is the same in their company rehearsals. They have developed several warm-up games that they use to effectively develop unity and team work, co-ordination, musicality/working to complex counts and to enable creative and playful engagement with the various devising tasks they set. As they either develop their own games or have adapted existing games to suit their purposes every exercise works towards the aims they
have set for each particular session. No random games of zip-zap-boing just because 'that's what you do'.

One of the early lifting exercises I particularly enjoyed involved being lifted to arms' length above 5 people's heads. The lifters were arranged in an open-ended rectangle shape (horse-shoe) and were standing almost shoulder to shoulder and the liftee walked, and later ran, into the open-ended aspect before being gently lifted to arm's length by the 5, vertically, and then being lowered down. The liftee then joined the lifters, starting at position #a (see below), and all the lifters rotated around one position with the person originally at position #b leaving the horse-shoe and joining the queue of people being lifted. We had 20 people in the group overall and ran 2 sets of this exercise simultaneously and co-ordinated the timing of the lifts so that the group still worked as a whole and also that each group fed into the queues of the other group. Like a big lifting machine in a factory.

X
X X
#a X X #b
/\
|
|

Queue


I find it a liberating experience to be lifted. Trusting other people to support your weight, especially when you are being lifted to high places or are upside down or in any other precarious position, takes a lot of confidence but to know that the support is there for you and that you are safe and that you now have access to a new playing field of space is extremely exciting.

Therapeutic aspect aside it is also very useful to be able to use this type of movement when creating theatre as the spectacle and thrill of a gravity-defying lift conveys directly to an audience. Neil Bettles, the workshop leader, talked about the range of movement vocabulary involved in each Frantic piece and how the style of each production, while carrying similarities, is very different but that it is the lifts that people always talk about first. I think this is understandable as the lifts, even when not particularly acrobatic, provide strong standout moments that the audience can a) remember as an individual movement within a dance and b) provide a strong kinaesthetic thrill in that the audience feels, to some degree, the movement they are watching but within their own bodies.

I could write for days about my experience of Frantic Assembly so far and I know I will return to their concepts and ideas for a long time in my own work in the future. For anyone who hasn't seen them I can't recommend them enough. Get tickets to their shows, get on their mailing list and sign up for a workshop, persuade your school/college or University to bring them in for a residency, buy their book (the frantic assembly guide to devising theatre) and bring Frantic into your life. I promise I'm not on commission, I've just gained so much from my experience with them and loved every minute of it.

I have some exciting Frantic-related projects coming up soon including workshops I'm going to be leading in a school and for the RedTIE theatre company on the Isle of Wight (yes I am available for hire as workshop leader ;o) and something even bigger which I don't want to talk too much about just yet for fear of jinxing it, but watch this space!

Lewis x


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Wanting and wishing

My first performance on my dance degree course is fast approaching (2 weeks today!), and last night at Uni we started to work on the structure of the piece which has developed from the improvisation exercises we have been working on in our choreography module.

I've always had a fairly conflicted opinion of improvisation tasks. When I first began my training at Coventry, we had a weekly lecture on improvisation for the entire year working from early solo tasks and culminating in a giant Contact Improvisation Jam at the end of the year with all 3 year groups involved (and chocolate being thrown in too, I seem to remember!).

I was very uncomfortable with the improvisation process for a long time. I can find it very difficult to move beyond my inhibitions when I don't know what I'm supposed to be doing and although the classes were very well structured it took me a long time to get past this. However, as I became more familiar with the process I started to enjoy the tasks more and when we moved onto working in Contact Improvisation I couldn't get enough of it.

Restarting my dance training now (a good few years later), a lot of my inhibitions have returned. In one workshop, based on Isadora Duncan's work, I just froze completely at the point where we were set the most 'free' to run around and play with the silk scarves. I have since made a resolution to just 'go with it completely' in any situation like that and to see what comes of it. I know that from the outside looking in on improvisation that the audience isn't judgemental and that it is the people who most fully engage with the improvisation score that become the most watchable. The confronting your fears by attacking them approach.

Back at Coventry I did, however, very much believe that improvisation was a tool that was invaluable in a workshop environment but that wasn't particularly interesting as a performance tool. I remember watching a piece of improvised music and dance but not being particularly engaged by it. Although at that time, and also currently but this is starting to change, my tastes in dance lean more towards the dance theatre genre and I like expression, narrative forms and character.

Since studying choreology at Birkbeck, however, I feel like my eyes have been opened to how dance itself communicates. Previously my reading of a piece was certainly affected by the movement content but I would have struggled to explain why and the more abstract it was the less I would engage with it generally. Now my brain is more capable of interpreting the movement content itself i.e. the arm is moving continuously and then there is an impulse in its rhythm - why is that happening, how does that affect the piece overall? When I watched Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker! recently, despite being an avid fan of his work normally, I was disappointed in what I perceived as a lack of 'dance' in the piece (as opposed to mimed sequences). I know that he himself says that he is not the choreographer to look to for dance for dance's sake and I wouldn't want to judge his work on that basis, it just didn't reflect what I was looking for at the time.

The piece that we are creating for our performance (Friday March 23rd @ The Place wink) is based on an improvisational structure and is very much pure dance. As I said before this type of work wouldn't normally engage me but with my now more open mind and more sophisticated viewing of dance I am able to see the opportunities in this type of work. Last night we were set the improvisation score and we danced it for 45 minutes continuously. Incredibly it only felt like 10 - 15 minutes and our course tutor and course co-ordinator watched the whole thing and they also said that it was so engaging that they didn't notice the time passing either. The parameters of the score mean that frequently encounters happen between us as dancers and we have a logic to follow that makes our actions affect the other dancer. Either one of us will have to move away from the other person or, as we can only travel parallel to the audience across the stage we can become trapped in between two other dancers. The variety of ways these encounters can play out are incredibly rich and as we have the option of being very stubborn and imposing our will upon the other dancers the dramatic tension can reach very high levels. It is the various natures of these encounters and our solo journeys that inspired our tutor, Eva Recacha, to name the piece Wanting and wishing.

As a choreography student the piece is especially useful because we get to be both performer and director of the work. If while performing I feel that the piece could do with a radical change at any particular moment I can introduce a completely different dynamic. Alternatively I can blend in with other actions already happening in the space and develop those. Very quickly our group become just as focussed on the listening as on the performing and it was this blend that kept the piece interesting and prevented it from becoming self-indulgent because we always kept in mind the perspective of the outsider and how engaging what was happening was.

I had been thinking recently that one of the main reasons for the use of solo work and improvisation techniques in choreography workshops was simply because it is easier to work with a group this way. I'm glad that I've decided to stop being so cynical, trust my teachers and to fully embrace the tasks as I can see now how rich this practice is. I think the piece of advice we received that helped me make the most sense of it was that improvising isn't about not knowing what you're doing - instead it is to know exactly what you are doing in the moment but to be completely open minded about what you are going to do next.

Next week I'm going to be writing about the 4 workshops with Frantic Assembly that I'll have just completed. They're such an interesting company and I can't wait to share with you what we've been up to.

Lewis x

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I feel the fear…

These recent months have seen me make the decision to venture away from the safety of a full-time salaried position with a dance company, and into the freelance dance world.  And, when you put it like that, one might wonder why. Why plunge yourself into doubt, worry and financial uncertainty? Why place yourself as a small fish in an extremely large pond, a pond full of incredibly talented and driven fellow artists, who all want the same thing as you do?

A phrase that has recurred in my mind many times during this period of transition has been ‘Do something every day that scares you’. Now, I’m not opposed to taking on scary challenges; I have skydived (or have I skydove!?) from 14,000 feet, I have travelled to some fairly unsettling destinations, and, I’m proud to say, I can bravely place a cup over a spider of considerable size. I think, though, it is the things that require you to put yourself out there, to allow others to judge you and to admit that you desperately want something that causes a different, and very real kind of fear. A fear of what it is I am unsure. Perhaps it is of rejection, perhaps of embarrassment, or of failure.

A choreographer recently repeated to me some advice he’d been given; that dance, improvisation and creativity requires the ‘willingness to appear foolish’. And I think that’s the key to it. That if you go into things with your eyes wide open, willing to appear foolish, then the act of simply doing, of giving something a go, whatever the result, becomes a triumph in itself. I have certainly found this to be true in my experiences of this wonderful world of freelancing. Through seeking opportunities to volunteer, join company classes, wear crazy headgear, introduce myself to people; to just do things, I have found great satisfaction and fulfillment. Without the concern that these things may be unpaid, or that no one is giving me a constant pat on the back and telling me I’m great, I can allow myself to enjoy things as they happen, and not to continually worry about where something’s leading, or having to justify what I’m doing.

I learnt recently of something that the Chinese refer to as ‘Dangerous Opportunities’. They’re moments that test our actions and responses to certain situations, difficult situations, that enter our lives unexpectedly. It is how we deal with these situations that are the things that define us, and carve our path through life. Surely these moments are to be embraced, even exploited, as much as possible to make the best of the opportunity that they provide.

So, I will continue in this life of unexpected opportunity and requirement to appear foolish. Because, beyond and above the financial worries, and the (more than occasional) self - doubt, it is rich, it is exciting, and I’m glad to be one more fish in this huge and incredible pond. Bring on the freelance fear.

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Can’t we all have a chance to dance Hollywood?

 

It was a highlight on Christmas day to sit down with three generations of family and watch the journey of one of Britain’s most famous ballerinas, Darcey Bussell, conquer one of the greatest challenges within dance: paying tribute to the Hollywood legends of Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

I couldn’t think of a more dedicated, passionate and caring dancer than Darcey Bussell; with numerous charity shows since retiring from the Royal Ballet in 2007 and actively promoting dance through publishing her own children’s books, guest judging on Strictly Come Dancing, and becoming a board member for Sydney Dance Company, dance never seems to stop running through her blood. It was fascinating to watch her journey of learning the three classical Hollywood routines paying dedication to Fred Astaire in an interpretation of ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’, Ginger Rogers in ‘Cheek to Cheek’, and to Singin’ in the Rain stars in ‘Good Morning’.

As much as I came away from the programme filled with knowledge of dance in Hollywood and the difficult challenges faced by dancers today taking on the same movement; I couldn’t help think of how amazing the opportunity would be for every other dancer in the UK to have had the opportunity to learn and perform these legendary routines. Bussell is a beautiful and technical performer and was a joy to watch perform these renowned pieces of choreography. But, with over twenty years of performing professionally, wouldn’t it have been great to have shared this experience with those just as talented and capable, but with a lack of experience due to a drop in opportunities?

With only sixty-eight dance companies being regularly funded in the UK over this past year by Arts Council England and with funding being cut over the whole dance industry in the UK, we’ve all been hit hard in one way or another! It made me wonder why the BBC didn’t offer this opportunity to dancers across the UK through an open audition process, with Darcey Bussell being the presenter and mentor throughout the programme, in order to draw in the public when the programme is screened on Christmas Day.

It irritated me the more I thought of what could have been made of the programme in order to benefit others within the industry. It was extremely clear the amount of money spent on this one show: choreographer Kim Gavin was joined by the gifted conductor John Wilson to create the great artistic produce of choreography and accompaniment which the show couldn’t have run without. The rehearsal venues and performance space would have taken a lot from the budget unless funded otherwise. Costumes were flawless, especially the dress custom made for Darcey for the famous number ‘Cheek to Cheek’.

There has been a very big debate within an online forum on the quality and accuracy of the choreography and the set, and a lot of people were disappointed in Bussell’s final recorded performances and commented on her movement as ‘awkward and uncomfortable’. I think Bussell did a fantastic job and she never set out to achieve perfection in balance with the Hollywood stars. She took on the challenge to present to people the huge influence the dances of Hollywood are to the journey of where dance is today. She achieved this! I simply believe that with individuals in the arts industry within the United Kingdom struggling to find jobs and opportunities at the moment, being dropped from companies which are closing due to funding cuts resulting in more competition for jobs, others should have and could have had the opportunity to share this unbelievable experience with one of UK’s best loved dancers!

‘Darcey Bussell dances Hollywood’ was shown on 25th December 2011 on BBC2 at 6.30pm-8.00pm

You can still catch it on BBC Iplayer here

 

 

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Including Inclusivity

The term ‘inclusivity’ has resonated far and wide in recent years, with dance companies deeming themselves inclusive by providing inclusive or ‘integrated’ practice in their work, with particular examples regarding gender or the integration of able-bodied and disabled-bodied dancers. The increase of inclusivity is indeed commendable, but arguably the use of the term highlights how long our arts practices have previously excluded this. Are able bodies and disabled bodies not all performers? If I am too small to ride on a rollercoaster, it is disabling me from getting on, but I am still classed the same as another human being who is tall enough – the difference is trivial. Whilst the use of the term inclusive appears to echo equality, it draws attention to the fact that there is a conscious effort to make this happen rather than observing it happen naturally, which I believe emphasises the segregation. In my eyes, all dancers are dancers, if they’ve got one leg, short hair or brown eyes, and the segregation that occurs is the result of many years of aesthetic context.

A number of dance companies have developed inclusive practice to a great extent, for example CandoCo Dance Company (www.candoco.co.uk) recently celebrated their 20th birthday, demonstrating two decades of hard work in this particular area of the sector. The company is renowned for working with performers regardless of the perceived ‘dance body type’ that has surrounded the majority of the arts for years. The company is made up of 7 dancers with the vast majority of performers turned away, as their funding simply does not enable them to hire more dancers.  Aside from this, it could be argued that their practice of employing a small number of dancers is still inclusive, treating every performer in the same way regardless of age, gender or ability.

Recently companies have had to restrict numbers and monitor skill base even more closely than before; with so many cuts to arts budgets, payments simply cannot be as widely spread and such a venture of total inclusion cannot be supported, despite the fact the Arts Council prioritises diversity over conventional arts. While CandoCo and StopGAP cannot afford to hire more dancers, they do not limit their practice and continue to work with over 12,000 other people per year, for example through their youth dance company and other projects. StopGAP Dance Company (www.stopgap.uk.com) is another example, recruiting only 5 full-time dancers but actively involved in external activities including workshops, education residencies, talks and more.

The work of dance organisations in inclusive practice must be celebrated, to keep the sector of dance alive in all areas it currently embodies. However I feel to label the practice as inclusive is problematic, as I believe organisations should practice inclusivity anyway by working with participants, rather than labelling them with socially constructed terms and restricting work to certain dancers. Undoubtedly, some dancers may be disadvantaged in terms of, for example, an energetic dance piece including older dancers, yet the work should still be available to them in some shape or form, for example through the opportunities offered by Sadler’s Wells’ Company of Elders (www.sadlerswells.com/page/company-of-elders). To deny dancers their passion for dance, whoever they are, should not be the practice endorsed by any dance company. In restricting dancers, we are restricting the arts in an already limited environment.

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We can do it...together!

Great teamwork is the only way we create the breakthroughs that define our careers’ – Pat Riley

Huddled on a busy London tube on the way to a rehearsal, with an office man’s armpit in my face and trying to grab on to anything to prevent me from stumbling and standing on someone’s foot, I managed to look at the above quote in an article in a local London newspaper. Since then it has stuck in my mind and I realise more and more every day how much this relates to everyone who pursues a career within this crazy world of dance.

Whether you are a performer, choreographer, teacher, writer, administrator, or a member of a funding team, to name but a few: we all rely on others in order to progress in the careers we wish to achieve.

Having the job title of ‘principal dancer’ is a dream many one day wish to achieve. The key word of ‘principal’ highlights you as a soloist. A dancer who will be in the spotlight with everyone’s eyes watching you, waiting for their minds to take a snapshot of something memorable which is why they paid so much to see you.  However, if you look into a dance performer’s career path, they wouldn’t be anywhere without others helping them build a yellow brick road to their ultimate career goal. Teachers throughout a dancer’s training are relied upon to train their class in the correct techniques which are wanted and needed in the industry, which evolves and changes constantly. Without teachers’ criticism,  performers would be stuck with nowhere to go.

A performer will then work for a choreographer whose work depends on their dancers attending all rehearsals and training independently in order to present the dance at its best. A choreographer therefore requires assistance when applying for funding in order to achieve the goal of their dance work being presented to the public in the appropriate venue, with correct aesthetics such as costumes and lighting. Funding incorporates a lot of help from dance administrators who are needed to provide health and safety documents when a work is being performed, pay slips for dancers and more importantly, advertising the choreographer’s work to the public and press teams in order for everyone to gain profit and for their work to continue. Without one of these essential individuals, the other would be useless.

Last week I was hired to be one of two hundred dancers in the filming of a television commercial in Covent Garden. There was one five-hour rehearsal which brought everyone together for the first time for the revelation of the costume; an all-in-one skin-coloured body suit which did everything but protect us all from the freezing cold morning air. With such simple choreography my mind questioned why dancers specifically had to be hired for the job, as any individual with some kind of co-ordination could raise both arms in the air and curl over. However, the filming was to take place at 7am the next morning and as soon as I arrived, I found my answer. The teamwork and enthusiasm we all seem to contain automatically raises morale to an ultimate high. It was essential for everyone to work together for the piece to work. To keep us all from catching a cold, constant hopping and huddling together brought conversation on where everyone had come from. There was such an array of answers the list would fill a page. From dancers still in training, graduates auditioning at every opportunity around shift work, dancers in companies, and even competitors from the popular TV show ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ who have danced for the whole world to see. Without one of us turning up for the filming, the piece wouldn’t work and it was a great feeling when we achieved the right shot and all of us broke into applause and enthusiastic cheers.

That one job made me realize how without one another we cannot get to where we want to go. So let’s unite and be stronger together, rather than remaining weak on our own. Those who are out for themselves and not interested in helping others will realize this one day and regret being selfish. Those who get pushed out of the way in an audition by those who stride to the front prove to those on the panel that you don’t need to be at the front to stand out from a crowd.  If your choreography is refused funding, get baking those cakes and organising events that will help until someone realises how amazing your work is and agrees to fund you. If you have dance students who don’t want to listen and make your life a lot harder by refusing to take their socks off in class, or want to do anything but actually listen, carry on; ignorance is bliss and see how long it takes them to realize that being part of a class is better than watching.

We can do it… together!


The TV commercial

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The relevance of repertoire in the twenty-first century

With the world of dance evolving at such an overwhelming pace, it is comprehensible that some may argue that a dance company’s repertory is no longer relevant to the sector. Focusing on two of the most predominant strands – ballet and modern dance – we see such an influx of new choreographers and new work that older works may get forgotten. Alternatively, with such innovative ideas and collaborations emerging, artistic directors may feel it necessary to drop repertory works in order to make room for newer works which complement today’s social and cultural context which continues to change.

 

Ballet companies of vast range have recently been seen to instate successors of their current artistic directors; although we are not privy to all the reasons behind these alterations, we may speculate that these may be due to the changing demands of dance audiences and indeed the skills of the dancers. For example, the employment of Wayne McGregor by The Royal Ballet: a match made in heaven? In their inception, ballet and abstract dance were worlds apart, yet The Royal Ballet has demonstrated to the dance world by its grandiose stance that it is indeed healthy and appropriate to work diversely, challenging dancers and audiences’ perceptions alike. McGregor with his own company, Random Dance, is light years away from the virtuosity and splendour of The Royal Ballet (all subjective, of course), yet the two share dance in the incredible skill and flexibility conveyed by all his dancers. Furthermore, with Kevin O’Hare appointed as the new Artistic Director of the company, we might even expect to see him reaching past Monica Mason into the repertory sundry in the reworking of pieces that have been silent for so long.

 

Whilst there is much capacity for the creation of new works by companies of any kind, it is arguable that the creation of new may also come through the rejuvenation of old. To reference The Royal Ballet again, Mason’s production of Balanchine's Jewels earlier this year was indeed a jewel, enabling audiences to view a work over fifty years old by such a prestigious and renowned choreographer. Jewels may even be viewed as ‘new’ old work that is as relevant today as it was when it was first created. Often older works become the defining features of ballet and modern dance companies alike, creating the legacy of the company and carving out its history. In other instances, the culmination of newer and newer works may refine the company’s stance. The Merce Cunningham Dance Company, for example, has performed works created by Cunningham between 1942 and 2009, with Cunningham constantly seeking to question norms and break through perceived dance boundaries throughout his expansive career. His innumerate collaborations and experiments with technology greatly informed his work, enabling him to continue to create excitement and curiosity.

 

To consider the number of past works by great choreographers that have been lost throughout dance history is to embark on an incomprehensible journey. Those that have survived, however, have done so through the use of notation, video archives and second and third generation dancers of any one company. Throughout the growth of modern dance, Martha Graham refused initially to have her works filmed, maintaining distance from commerciality. The dance world is extremely lucky to retain few of her initial company members, able to pass on her work and legacy. In a similar vein, Cunningham instructed his company to disband following his death and the company’s legacy tour, due to the fact he did not want his company to continue under another’s name. Whilst these examples may seem a little melodramatic, their work was their lives. However, recently it has become even more so apparent that choreographers are ‘guesting’ with other companies to work in collaboration with contrasting principles and techniques. As a result, the tightly linked network of the dance world becomes even more clear and it is therefore arguable that to ensure no more works than necessary are lost, we must all join forces and support each others’ ventures.

 

 

 

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