Finding your axis

Skills Exchange Day 4

Strength, belief, being good enough

Laura Street

Laura has trained at The Northern School of Contemporary Dance, The Cunningham Studios, Paul Taylor Dance Company, Perri Dance Center and Alvin Aliley Studios in New York. She has performed with a wide range of companies and projects, most notably with Travelling Light Theatre Company and Oily Cart Theatre Company. She is Artistic Director of about NOWish who make immersive movement and sound experiences for young children and their accompanying adults. She is a passionate educator and leads workshops and classes in a number of different settings and recently gained her Early Years Teacher Status. Laura recently became an Associate Artist of Theatre Bristol and became involved in the Skills Exchange through her relationship with Theatre Bristol as an integral contributor and regional representative for the south west in the development of the Artists' Exchange Programme.

On day 4 of the skills exchange, Laura was moved to share her experiences and strategies for managing self care, resilience building, and knowing when you are enough. In an industry in which we set up environments and strategies to support others, Laura talked about how we can find mechanisms to support ourselves and be honest about how we are coping. In her own words she shares her reflections following on from the Skills Exchange week, and some of the practices that support her in her personal and professional work, following struggles with self worth, confidence and emotional value.

There's a sensation that has always been hanging over my shoulder throughout my life, the feeling of someone’s strong, forceful hand about to steer me out of the room I so desperately wanted to be in saying, "you’re not supposed to be here, you’re not enough".

I’m sure it’s a feeling many other artists feel, so I’m here to confess in the hope it will connect with someone who also feels they’re too about to be asked to leave. The AEP Skills Exchange week generated so much light, inspiration, creativity and hope, but all the while I feel the darkness heavy with me. It’s like I had been sent to represent the dark side of living creatively for others, as dance artists so often do.

I am a highly sensitive being and carry a lot of darkness in my soul at all times, it stays with me at my side, sometimes quiet, sometimes screaming and sometimes smothering. Towards the end of the week I put forward my confession to the group. I told them of dark periods, of the abusive relationships, the breakdowns and the messiness. Not to wallow in it, but to share, in case there was someone in the room who carried the same darkness with them, or someone knew someone else who did. I have always been open about the mess that is my brain, from making a point of turning up at events with mascara down my face from the tears of despair, to being honest with the dancers who performed my work with beauty and dedication, that I will always be eternally grateful for. For my brain and work is absolute, there’s no halfway space, it’s in or out and for many years there was no safety net. So I confessed to the AEP group in the hope it might help/inspire/connect, and to talk about the construction of the safety net that was so desperately needed.

I used the image of the axis and the orbit to explain what I meant:

Understanding your orbit

Creative processes are the orbit; commonly, immersive, all consuming and driven by passion. We often live on very little during these periods but the love for the work or the participants that inspire us, and it can be a very precarious way to live. These orbits can spin us into a world where were can’t see out, like spinning for your life in the playground, no longer being able to make out the familiar outline of the school building, and often, unfortunately, the only way is down to make it stop. I had fallen out of a daze too many times, causing some serious damage along the way. Damage which has stayed with me and now needed constant maintenance. So I set about constructing myself an axis that would keep me from spinning too far from my own
natural gravitational pull.

Constructing your axis

Each one of us is brilliantly different, but the world of social media can mean that the lines between ourselves and others can get blurred and you can get lost in others’ identities and needs. I needed to know myself to know what sent me spinning out into deep space, and thus what my axis needed to be constructed of to keep me locked into a healthy orbit. It’s often a rocky road to find what you need to be your axis, with bits of you often flying off at precarious angles and sometimes clouting loved ones in the face as you go. It’s not fun, and it's not healthy to glamorise the suffering artist, as many still do in a, in my opinion, highly irresponsible way; but to acknowledge the dark side of the person who can bring so much light and love to the world. As a wise friend once told me, all the emotions are valid, and I believe as artists we can represent the spectrum for people.

Creating a safe space

A key skill that we discovered we all do during the AEP Skills Exchange week is to create a caring and safe creative environment for people to engage with dance and their own creativity.

But how do we do that? What do we put in place to create this ‘home’ for them and ourselves? Do we think to create it for ourselves?

I shared the practice I had learnt on my massage and bodywork course, a practice that has helped me construct my own axis, when I had existed as only a small pool on the floor.

  • Opening the space, creating an environment where people can feel at home and welcomed, and you as a practitioner feel safe and secure to work
  • Greeting the participant where they are at that day and at that time, taking time to make a one to one connection so you can hope to understand where they are at
  • Working in a way that protects and cares, but allows you all to really explore and be safe to take risks. This bit takes some real consideration and acknowledgement of individual contexts
  • Closing the space. Bringing down the energy to be able to wrap yourselves up in it and prepare yourself for the next part of your day which will inevitably arrive
  • Taking time to reflect on what happened, how you feel, and recognising that some of your feelings may not in fact be yours. You may be taking other people's ‘stuff’ away with you, so making sure you’re are free to carry forward only what it yours
  • Cleansing. Finding a way to step out from one space and into another without taking baggage with you - a simple act of changing clothes can make all the difference

Axis’ are not permanent structures; what ‘held’ you at one point may no longer be the best thing at another point. To make sure yours is made of the right stuff I suggest two key things that I took away from the AEP week in December;

listen...

really listen...

and stay fluid

(Words by Laura Street)

text, words and understanding

Skills Exchange Day 4

Using text choreographically

Today we played with a few ways in to using text in performance and as part of a creative process. In her own words, Katie Green shared a few of the reasons why she chooses to use text in her work:

  • Point of access: for me, text is one of the tools I use to offer the audience an access point in to the world of the work. As I now mainly work out of theatres in museums, galleries and heritage sites, the audience who see my work often happen upon it by accident, and may have less experience of watching dance (particularly contemporary dance). I hope that using text helps give new dance audiences confidence in their own understanding/interpretation of what they are seeing because, like a recognisable physical gesture, words are something with which they may be able to connect more immediately.
  • Orientation: I use text as part of the ‘orientation process’ for the audience at the beginning of my work; as a way of setting up the performance as an invitation; putting people at ease; giving them just enough information so that they begin to understand what might be expected of them, and then we can work from there - this doesn’t mean we can’t surprise them, but there’s a basic level of understanding, an agreement. Often in the work I make now, the performers talk before they start moving.
  • Poetry and impressionism: I sometimes use text poetically or impressionistically to contribute to building an atmosphere. To give one example, in each section of my work for caves and underground spaces, Beneath Our Feet, we have tried to replicate something about the quality of the section in the way the text is constructed/delivered. So in the ‘disappearing’ section, the text appears to disappear, and is carried away into the sound score, then when it comes back again it is amplified so that it sounds distorted and it’s still not clear where it’s coming from. Or in the section about the movement of water through rock, it extends into long lines of sung text, overlapped and layered between recorded and live sound.
  • Character: I use text as part of developing a sense of character. Because of the contexts in which I work, and the kind of promenade performance I often create (which can be like a danced version of a museum tour), the text I often use can be informative, giving a little historical information upon which we then build imaginatively

I also often use text as stimulus but then don’t use it in the final performance - it has to contribute something to the performance, or why use it?

In terms of approaches to using text, I find it most effective where text is an active partner in the creative process, i.e. we begin by exploring words and fragments composed by our writer-collaborator, poet Anna Selby, that are not in their finished state, and through the devising process we allow the writing to find its final form.

Anna is brilliant because she is so open to the process of us developing her text through physical exploration, and I am fortunate to also work with performers who are happy to/skilled at contributing to the ongoing process of reworking a piece of text.

Before Anna starts writing, I put together a brief that will include:

  • Aims for the writing - why am I using text in this piece?
  • Key themes
  • Source material I’ve identified responding to those themes - can be related pieces of text, but also music, images etc - we have a shared Google Doc to which we both add. This helps us develop a sense of the tone of the writing we are going for in the final piece
  • An idea of overall structure

Anna will then get busy writing away, and as she sends work through, I will work with the performers and dramaturg Tom Cornford to identify the crucial parts of the text to take forward, and feeding back to Anna as the shape of the writing develops. This process of selecting and refining is very important; wherever we use text it has to contribute something to the story-telling, something that we couldn’t achieve through movement alone.

Some of the questions that arose out of/things that we noticed during this session of the AEP Skills Exchange included:

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  • The time it can take to integrate text into the choreographic process; it can be a lengthy process
  • What comes first? Text or movement? Is it best when they can be created simultaneously? In performance, there is a real impact if the movement and text have been developed simultaneously, as this brings an authenticity both to the content and the delivery.
  • Text can be used impressionistically (e.g. through repetition of words and phrases) as well as literally
  • Consider the purpose of the text, and use certain kinds of text for particular kinds of movement
  • Think about the delivery of the text – the tone is really important
  • Dance as a “humanising texture” – it makes the audience aware that the dancers are real people and helps to break down the potential barrier between performer and audience

 

tuning in

Skills Exchange Day 4

Awareness, breath, touch and responsibility

Clare Reynolds

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Clare trained at Laban and holds an MA from Staffordshire University in Community & Participatory Arts. Clare has worked in a range of settings from prison to nursery to hospitals across the Midlands and North-West, specialising in delivering inclusive dance work for children with disabilities. In 2009 Clare founded Restoke (www.restoke.org.uk) alongside two other artists, to make performances and build audiences and participation in Stoke-on-Trent. Restoke's work is socially-driven and has participation at its heart. The Company produces performances in unusual settings in the city, reanimating disused buildings which have historical or community significance. Clare has presented the work of Restoke at Trinity Laban, Chester University, Manchester Metropolitan University, UCLAN, People Dancing International events (Cardiff & Glasgow) and on the Re:bourne 'Overture' programme for emerging community dance artists. Restoke are currently working on Man Up - part arts project part public health intervention, exploring the issues of mental health and masculinity. Man Up will be performed in August 2018. 

 

On day 4 of the Skills Exchange, Clare offered some warm up exercises with a focus on touch, increasing our awareness of our own bodies and breath, considering our responsibility to ourselves and others when in 'service' to dancers who have limited understanding of the moving body. In her own words she shares her thoughts:

TUNING IN

In my work with Restoke we work a lot on 'tuning in' to our own bodies; as an ensemble of diverse participants; and to the sites we work in. The dancers I work with have to model what it is to fully inhabit our bodies, to make genuine and often unspoken connections and to support others to feel comfortable to do the same.

Inspired by the previous days discussions about balancing the duty of care we all hold in community dance, with artistry and integrity, I thought I'd look at some physical ways we could practice this.

We went through the following exercises:

  • Emotional register – 2 words to describe how we felt that morning. Encouraging open and honest responses without having to explain, and importantly without judgment or apology. To be aware that all feelings were valid in the room.
  • Introducing someone else and saying something positive about them – an opportunity to share what we've noticed about others throughout the week; a chance to balance out how we feel with how others view us. We all seemed to agree that kindness was a key part of our practices, and as artists we look for opportunity to foster kindness within the groups we work with.
  • Body-work in pairs – tuning in to our partners breath, offering touch, taking weight and creating more space and softness within the body. Progressing into moving, both with and without our partners touch. Touch can help to ground us in our bodies, It can teach us more about our bodies and is also a natural way to connect with others and find deeper levels of trust.
  • Closed eyes pair work - taking our partner on a walk which builds into dance, testing their boundaries and comfort zones. I was interested in how the eyes open partner could maintain artistic interest and choices alongside their increased level of responsibility and duty of care to the eyes-closed partner.
  • Sensory exploration – giving our partner an eyes closed exploration of part of the room, to heighten their other senses and get to know the room without the reliance on vision. We then played back our partners exploration to them. I often use this as a tool in site-specific work, to ensure we're not only responding to sites using our vision, but also tuning into the other sensory information of the places we create work in.

After each part we had a discussion in our partners, but both with closed eyes. To again take away vision to notice the impact on the way we listen or speak. We rely so much on our sight and temporarily taking it away is such a useful tool for re-connecting with our bodies and our other senses, allowing these to guide our interests and movement explorations.

DOCUMENTING AND EVALUTING

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I briefly discussed Restoke's work which is rooted in the city where I was born and raised, Stoke-on-Trent. Our commitment to this specific place can bring challenges of showcasing our work to a larger audience, so we have in recent years taken documenting and evaluating our projects more seriously. Film and photography has become an important aspect of capturing the moments of magic in our process and performances which are impossible to sum up in words. This also creates a dialogue with a larger audience and brings more people closer to our work.

We collaborate with artist Nicola Winstanley who is highly experienced in creative consultation and evaluation. She joins us in the participatory aspects of our work, to document, question and find creative methods for collecting and presenting feedback. I shared Nicola's evaluation report from our most recent project, which is also online HERE

For our next project Nicola will create an exhibition which reveals some of the processes, successes and challenges of our work to showcase at the final performances, but this will also have it's own life and will tour to public places to connect more people to our methods and learning in an accessible and artistic output.

Again this led to discussions around what additional skills we may need to bring into our projects in order for them to have a greater impact. Unpicking the roles of an artist, what skills we should have and what we need to bring in, has been a key theme this week... and it's so different for each artist and each project. Collaboration has always been at the heart of Restoke's work, and our team of artists and participants expands as we identify the skills and experiences we need to keep growing.

(Words by Clare Reynolds)

collaborative processes

Skills Exchange Day 4

Collectivism, Activism, Autonomy and Agency

Rachel Fullegar

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Rachel trained at Northern School of Contemporary Dance and co-founded Gracefool Collective, devising “post-intellectual-pseudo-spiritual-feminist-comedy-dance,” and performing internationally. Previous Gracefool commissions include: Furnace (West Yorkshire Playhouse), Arrivals/Departures (NSCD), Reveal Festival (Bolton Octagon), Northern Connections 2015 & 2017, Choreodrome (The Place), CARP (Barnsley Civic) and CATAPULT - awarded to the most exceptional emerging dance-makers in the North. Recent achievements include a 22-date, 4- & 5-star run at the Edinburgh Fringe as part of the prestigious Underbelly Untapped Programme showcasing innovative new writing and, a tour of northern venues, presenting double bill: Convicts and Lunatics, with renowned Red Ladder Theatre.

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Rachel is a co-founder of ProDanceLeeds and sits on the Yorkshire Dance Advisory Board and Leeds Dance Partnership steering group. Her specialism is leading challenging groups who have had limited experience of or access to movement. She is currently working on an empowerment project in Aldecar, Derbyshire with thirteen females of 13 years old; all from deprived backgrounds, with little to no experience of the arts and a multitude of difficulties within the home and school environment. 

For Yorkshire Dance Rachel have been a co-lead on the Young at Arts programme for older adults, creating fun, experimental, creative experiences. She co-leads 'Raised', an integrated dance company for adults. The group are supported by Yorkshire Dance and have been recognised for their high quality of work by other organisations such as Mind the Gap, West Yorkshire Playhouse and Tin Arts and, by Arts Council England. Rachel is sessional lecturer for Northern School of Contemporary Dance since 2014, and an Associate Artist for The Bunbury Banter Theatre Company, delivering on their community and professional projects.

 

Rachel's workshop drew on the notion that our art form has influence outside of the creative process and product. It reflected on ideas about how our personal politics and values drive our practice. In her own words she describes the thinking behind her process:

My own creative practice explores collectivism and hierarchies. It poses questions about our interactions, highlighting where there is dissonance and coherence. It is inherently collaborative, working to break down creator/performer/participant hierarchies by using group devising processes that facilitate autonomy and agency. 

It reflects some of my core values:

  • It is important for self-belief to see ourselves as individuals as well as part of communities.
  • A combination of contributions can only make life richer for all.
  • Equity can be built through fostering empathy, acknowledging and celebrating difference, and opening our eyes to the value of others.

Often, within community settings, I am given a brief that aims to utilise art to meet a need of some kind. Those organising/funding the activity require a legacy for those involved. My skills are employed to offer possibilities to groups that are relevant outside of our time spent together.

Whatever need is identified, I often find that it is important for my groups to find a sense of their own self worth and feel the support of others in their community.

When designing my offer in any setting, it is important to acknowledge that within this role I do not have all the answers and cannot provide one fix for all problems. If I did believe that that was my role, I would not be acknowledging the wealth of experience and creativity already within those communities. The meeting between the community and me must involve a mutual exchange. Without this, I cannot expect that a community will feel they have something to offer and therefore cannot expect a legacy where groups feel empowered.

Therefore, my offer involves looking at the skills and experience I have as an artist and understanding their relevance to my groups and to wider society. In my workshop as part of the AEP, my tasks posed the question:

What is naturally involved in a collaborative creative process, that can contribute to the empowering of a group?

The tasks I offered aim to foster skills that can lead to increased involvement in the decision making process, in order to work towards greater ownership of the final creation and to build confidence, agency, and responsibility. One particular activity involved dividing the group into partnerships. Each individual was given a secret task that they must encourage their partner to do. The one rule the group were given was that talking was not allowed.

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Example instructions were:

‘You must encourage your partner to introduce themselves to at least five people’
‘You must encourage your partner to travel in a circle five times and do a victory dance at the end’

The group had to figure out how to encourage and persuade through action, body language and tone, while non-verbally deciding who gets to have their task completed first.

The task had some degree of uncertainty in my initial instruction - I did not specify you had to complete the task one at a time, or at the same time. Likewise, the phrase, ‘you must encourage’ does not mean the task has to be completed. The group had to negotiate with one another, watch others, and find ways of working together to create their own desired outcome. Through tasks like this, a group can find ways to regard the unknown as an exciting challenge and an opportunity to offer suggestions to one another. 

In a community setting, this task would be repeated to find new ways of negotiating. Eventually, the group members would be invited to offer their own instructions to the task. 

In all my approaches within community settings, the following is crucial:

  • Making opportunities for those who have had little experience of creation to find the skills the skills that may be useful for creation and to offer them ways to contribute using these skills.
  • Offering discussion opportunities to reflect upon roles in the process as individuals and as part of the group, to ensure critical reflection on how we contribute to a task or idea.
  • Emphasis on the importance of each member’s contribution to the task, however big or small, to foster the group’s sense of value of all those involved and allow us all to learn from each other.
  • Employment of humour and play as tools to generate ideas and to provide an atmosphere within which we can take supported risks.

All of the above contribute to developing artistic skill, but also develop a recognition of  agency and how an individual can be crucial in supporting others.

Joy, play, creativity in the everyday

Skills Exchange Day 3

All the right questions

Tim Casson

The session that Tim Casson led on day 3 of the AEP Skills Exchange focussed on how he engages people with the joy of dance by asking the ‘right questions’. In a joint discussion with Tom Hobden, we considered the different ways we ask questions of our dancers - to develop empathy, to make connections, to find shared interests and to demystify the world of creativity, to enable people in the community to access dance. In his own words, Tim reflects in his blog post below on some of the questions he asks himself and the groups he works with, and offers a few thoughts on his practice as a community artist.

 

The Session

We began by playing two of my favourite games, both stolen and adapted from theatre; Soundball and the Monster Game.

Questions arising from these games included:

  • If this is a game, is it still dance?
  • What is the minimum number of words I can use to teach these games?
  • Can the games be taught only via the body?
  • How observant can we be of others?
  • How much do we commit to the ideas that are proposed?
  • Will we accept what is proposed by others?
  • Are we having fun yet?
  • How can we play this game ‘better’?
  • How silly can we be?
  • Where are our boundaries?
  • Do we feel safe enough to be silly?
  • How can we feel safe enough to be silly?
  • Should we laugh in a warm up?
  • Should we laugh this much in a warm up?
  • Are we dancing yet?

 

Playing monsters! Photo by Rachel Cherry

Playing monsters! Photo by Rachel Cherry

 

We then went on to do a rather expedited version of ‘The Dance WE Made’, my flagship project that invites (often untrained) participants to choreograph on professional dancers, with no experience required.

This began with some training around methods of ‘translation’, as TDWM uses a fundamental principle of ‘conversation into choreography’ to create new movement as quickly and simply as possible - a process we call ‘collection’.

The movements created are then compiled by the performer, and subsequently directed by the participant, crucially putting them in control of the material - we call this the ‘edit’.

The new dance is then performed, usually in the space in which it has been created, and it’s also often recorded and placed online for anyone to see.

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Some of the questions I ask around this process are:

  • What questions can I ask that are Choreographically useful?
  • What questions provide responses that offer a variety of interpretations?
  • What questions would avoid negative associations, and aren’t too emotionally loaded?
  • What questions can I ask that ensure the participant doesn’t have to think too much?
  • How can I get the participant to trust me very quickly?
  • How can I acknowledge the weirdness, so that we can just get on with making dances?
  • What does it mean if someone turns me down - do they hate dance/me/themselves?
  • How can I work in a way that expands the participant’s view of what dance can be?
  • How can I make this process simple?
  • How can I make this process speedy?
  • How can I process that much information?
  • How can I make a dance about that?
  • How can we talk about dance without using jargon?
  • Will this experience change how they see themselves/dance/me?
  • And how would I ever know?

 

My Practice

A lot of my work as a community artist, uses participants (often members of a local community) as the primary source of inspiration; bringing to life their thoughts, ideas, experiences and stories.

On reflection, I think I began working in this way because of a combination of my own fear that I had nothing to say, and being inspired by having worked in various community settings and witnessing the untapped creativity that all humans seem to possess - no matter how many times people protested and told me that they’re “not creative”.

My perception of a lot of community engaged practice that uses the participants’ stories and experiences as source material, is that it is often ‘issue based’ and defaults to a certain heaviness. It’s not difficult to see why; we live in a world of darkness, struggle, and challenge, so these are possibly easier for us to access - particularly when working with participant groups who have been brought together because of their specific challenges.

I suppose, my response to this perceived heaviness was to make sure that my personal practice would be focussed on finding the joy, and ‘The Dance WE Made’ is an example of this.

In creating the project, the first question I asked myself was; ‘I know that dance is joyful, but if the concept of ‘dance’ feels too intimidating for the participant, then what is their ‘way in’?’

At first glance TDWM may seem superficial; we pose everyday questions through 5 minute small-talk filled interactions about breakfast, journeys, birthdays etc.

These topics are chosen for very specific reasons: they are not difficult to form an opinion about, responses can be found within recent memory, and we (mostly) avoid unlocking any sort of emotional angst (In 6 years I’ve not had anyone tell me about a traumatic breakfast they had…). Fundamentally, they provide us with a simple and universal ‘way in’ for the participant; all they need to do is have a chat and the dance will happen.

The second question I asked was one of balance, “Does it always have to be all about the participant? As artists, could we use this to challenge and develop our craft and creativity?

Yes, TDWM is about engaging participants with dance, and ensuring their experience is positive - it’s as much about advocacy as engagement. But it’s also about developing and acknowledging our artistry and choreographic skill.

Whether in a workshop setting, or in public with people on the street, we never know how someone will respond to the questions we ask; so the challenge for artists within TDWM is how we take these ordinary conversations, and make them extraordinary by ‘translating’ them into movement.

In my opinion, dancers are amazingly skilled super-beings! So this process isn’t just about making a dance. TDWM presents the virtuosity of creativity as the performance itself, by channelling the creativity that is within us all - and having the performers push that further, in collaboration with the participant and in real time.

Then it becomes about joy - we see the participants enjoyment in co-creating, seeing their ideas brought to life, and the pride of watching their ideas performed by a highly skilled professional dancer, who has in-turn been creatively challenged.

It’s as much about artist as it is about participant - and I hope this squashes a preconception about community engaged practice. Community work, doesn’t only have to be about the community and their experience, there’s a great deal in it for the artists too. Working with communities is artistic, creative, surprising, human and challenging.

And one of the challenges that I love, is working out the right questions to get engage people with dance in creative, joyful and meaningful ways.

Empathy, awareness, human experience

Skills Exchange Day 3

20 Questions

Tom Hobden

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Tom Hobden is a choreographer, teacher, dance education consultant, mentor and co-artistic director of UNIT which he co-founded in 2014 with film director Kate Flurrie. The company produces three strands of work including touring productions and projects involving participatory casts, stand alone films presented in film festivals across Europe and creative learning projects and consultancy for young dancers, graduates, and dance organisations. Tom is regarded as a leader in community dance practice and most known for his intergenerational performances and long-standing work with boys in dance. Tom was an Associate Artist of DanceEast from 2014-17.  

 

 

Tom Hobden led the Skills Exchange artists through a creative process to highlight the principles behind his practice and what led him to the development of his current work '20 Questions'. 20 Questions is an intergenerational piece developed with local people with varying experience of dance. Every performer in the show goes on a process with Tom and co-director Kate Flurrie; learning who they are, who they were and who they might like to be; finding the answers to these big questions through movement. 

 

The workshop led by Tom began with an improvisation which opened us up to our internal and external perception and awareness - first taking in the room and everything in your immediate environment; then bringing attention to yourself, your feelings, how you travel, your state of alertness. Lasty we directed our attention to each other - to really see each other, look in each others eyes and connect. The workshop is designed to draw your attention to the choices you make when moving, give you the autonomy to make better choices or different choices, to break rules, find new possibilities and shift your habits.

The whole process for the improvisation is to learn about others, build empathy physically and emotionally. How do they move? What moves them to move? I observe where confidence comes in movement choices and try to enhance this. I challenge habits and encourage them to freely move. I let myself go as a teacher to set the example and enjoy the sensation of moving to show the joy in moving to others. The process takes as long as they feel comfortable in letting themselves go and to start to introduce play and joy.
— Tom Hobden

20 questions process: 

Tom then led us through the choreographic process of his piece 20 Questions.

  • In partners ask one question ‘ how would your friends describe you?’ 
  • One partner will listen; we build a strong human connection through the sharing of relatable experience
  • One partner listens for clues that will help them to make a a short movement solo. They listen for character, movement in their lives, clues that might help build a movement task
  • It is the responsibility of both partners to make the movement, but it must capture something of the person. I ask the partner to consider if they were making a dance portrait what elements must be included (would it be fast, slow, gestural, large movement)
  • Once the movement has been made it is the responsibility of both to move as freely/expressively as they can. The observer is looking for the person to be themselves. The solo should be totally fresh, playful and always with room to change. The pair can work together to made adaptations which enable more of the person to show through
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The process evolved from my desire to work with anybody. I always wanted to capture something beautiful in every person. The process is purposefully quick to try and let people be themselves without too much rehearsal. I fundamentally believe that all movement created is beautiful and that anything created is valid as long as the individual feels it truly expresses them.
— Tom Hobden

Questions and considerations arising from this exploration included:

  • Drawing from real human experience. How does this process stay motivational and positive for the participant? How does the artist protect his or herself from the intensity of the emotional sharing?
  • Asking questions. Choreographic process applied to the questions to ensure they are layered effectively and ordered in such a way that supports the dancer.
  • Using gesture to represent feelings and experiences. Mime to abstraction. Turning the ordinary into the extraordinary.
  • Building empathy and supportiveness quickly for people involves being wholehearted and vulnerable yourself. Your ability to be responsive involves resilience.

Ensemble and Collectivity

Skills Exchange Day 3

Group, individual, autonomy and leadership

On Skills Exchange Day 3, Hannah and Danielle collaborated to deliver a workshop exploring their joint interest of collectivity and ensemble from very different perspectives. 

Hannah shared her thoughts on the ensemble as a uniting concept in which dancers communicate through shared action. Questions and thoughts arising from Hannah's workshop included:

  • The concept of knowing your role within a group and feeling a sense of achievement from the defined boundaries that are established
  • The rhythmic nature of moving as a tribe and how this unites us in our breath and action. The power of the collective
  • The natural hierarchy of our senses - exploring how we tune in to each other through sight and sound and then finding ways to tune in without using our primary - exploring ways to tune in to one another through style of movement, touch
  • How do we make decisions as a collective without a leader? What influences us? What makes us move? What makes us stop? How can we make the boundaries between us clearer in order to be a truly non hierarchic collective? (links to the notion of our role as an artist and ways to blur the lines between artist and dancer in order to break down the structures of power - see the role of the artist)
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Hannah's workshop tasks highlighted these concepts and left us questioning: 

  • How aware are we of the space? Of each other? Of our options?
  • When we facilitate ‘ensemble working’, how are decisions made? Who’s voice is heard? What are our frustrations with the process? What limits us?

These concepts encouraged us to question how we give autonomy to participants working as a collective when there is one overall leader; which leads us to the theme of my recent research Collectivity and Intimacy.

In my workshop I shared the working processed behind my research with people with Parkinson's. The Collectivity and Intimacy project was developed out of a curiosity for the teaching method of collectivity which is used in dance for Parkinson's to make best use of mirror neurons and external cueing, which is a highly researched and a proven tool for supporting people with Parkinson's to move with more fluidity and intention.

My research interrogates this teaching practice and questions whether it can be considered inclusive, as it is led by external direction (either visual, auditory, verbal or tactile) by the artist. In the process of researching I have worked with dancers with Parkinson's to experiment with handing over the autonomy to the dancers and how we go about this. I am interested in how we could embed tools for internal cueing within our artistic teaching practice. Some of the tools I experimented with included somatic, mind-body imagery; guided visual imagery; breath; interpretation of words. All of these stimuli were used to encourage freedom of interpretation in the body.

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The discussion occurring from this session included

  • Blurring lines between artistic practice and therapy - how do we ensure that we are providing an artistic experience which is inspired by ideas and concepts, rather than developing content which is responsive to need and disability
  • What is the value of dance designed FOR..? Is this a different form of inclusive dance, made accessible to a particular demographic due to highly streamlined and meticulously constructed methodology, rather than due to its open access and inclusive approach to all people?
  • How are we inclusive when working with collective or Ensemble style approaches to dance
  • How do we find a balance between directive approaches to delivery versus democratic leadership in artistic and teaching practice? Where do we place the most value?
  • There is a power in collective initiation of movement, change or action
  • There is a power in self determined initiation of movement, change or action
  • Refreshing and updating our approaches to these two contrasting states can enable participants to continue to experience the power of both

playful creativity

Skills Exchange Day 3

Breaking habits, evolving creative thinking

Jo Rhodes

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Jo has been an independent dance artist for fifteen years and is passionate about creativity, dance, health, education and partnership working. She has received funding to create and tour issue based work, been commissioned by various youth dance companies and produced a dance and health film project screened nationally and internationally. Jo has developed bespoke training for teachers in school settings, in addition to facilitating and devising professional development courses across the UK, for both specialist and non-specialist practitioners. These include at the Royal Ballet School for Young Creatives (Youth Dance England) and for The Place. She has authored national publications, such as ‘Commissioning Dance for Health and Well-Being’ and spoken at multi-sector conferences about dance as a vehicle for learning. Currently Jo teaches for Children and Youth Dance and the adult programme at The Place, for Siobhan Davies Dance (primary programme), and is an Animateur for Essential Alston. Jo is supported by Dance Enterprise Ideas Fund and Arts Council England in directing a collaborative dance and film project (co-produced by East London Dance), that puts young people at the heart of healthy messages.

To warm-up on day three, Jo shared a number of tasks which demonstrated her thinking around how we might foster creativity in choreography in a playful way whilst connecting things we already know and solving problems.

We explored multiple tasks that encourage listening, observing and responding to a partner by offering a number of choices in improvisation and through game play.

Initially we explored the simple instruction initiated by the words ‘Beside, Beneath, Between, Beyond’. We extended our choices further by layering the conversation with more voices, differing textures and tones of voice, a change in the rate and pace of the conversation and considering deliberate choices to use or not use contact. We discussed playing with the extremes of whole body action and small gestural movement, as well as literal and more abstract material.

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Secondly, we developed this into static contact work making shapes in pairs, thinking about the offering of contact from different body parts, and whether it was weight bearing or not. By playing the game and trying out multiple possible ways of creating contact, we naturally changed from known contact to unknown and less habitual material. Pairs were tasked with choosing to ‘stick’ or ‘twist’ with their shape in limited time constraints; asking each other – ‘What Else?’

Stages of layering in this task:

The space in between the shapes - fill the transitions by considering why the shape changes. What initiates the change - asking collaborators to consider afterwards if the duet felt different now? Did it lend itself to a semi-narrative - supportive, hostile, comical, hold tension, reciprocal etc.

Define the focus - make deliberate choices as to where the gaze is directed. What does this add, change, bring to the table?

In order to disrupt the predictability of the duet, pairs were to set the pace of the duet. Joining another pair, they had to respond to a simple stop and go command. In this way the rate of the duet was manipulated in ways that were not natural or anticipated.

resilience

Skills Exchange Day 2

Self, support and emotional vulnerability

Sarah Lewis

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Sarah graduated from London Contemporary Dance School in 2007. She joined Verve08, the graduate dance company at Northern School of Contemporary Dance, touring venues in England, Scotland, Ireland and Finland, and won best international performance at the ITS Festival Amsterdam. Sarah works with professional artists, students and community dancers, teaching and choreographing regionally and nationally, independently and for companies including Norfolk Dance, DanceEast, English National Ballet, Richard Alston Dance Company and Rambert. In 2012 Sarah was mentored by Rosemary Lee choreographing a large scale community project in Norfolk with a live choir. Since 2011, she has regularly performed with SMITH dancetheatre, including rural and national touring of Agnes & Walter; a little love story, The Devil's Mischief, commissioned by The Pace Prize 2012 and After the fall: A little Morality Play, commissioned by Norfolk and Norwich Festival 2015. In 2013, Sarah founded Glass House Dance with co-director Laura McGill and in 2014, together became Escalator Outdoors artists, creating and touring dance for outdoor and unusual spaces nationally. In 2015 they were commissioned to make and tour a new interactive dance performance to tour to residential homes, day centres and hospitals, accessible for people living with dementia. Glass House Dance are associate artists at Norwich Arts Centre and Sarah and Laura are members of the Norfolk Dance Artist Collective. Sarah is also a qualified yoga teacher, having completed her 200hour yoga teacher training with the World Conscious Yoga Family in Rishikesh, India and teaches regular classes as well as classes specifically designed for dancers and dance students.
 

I have spoken about burnout and resilience building to many dancers across my work and I have been personally affected by the negative impact that lack of support for resilience as an individual and in organisations can have for your physical and mental health and wellbeing. In my research preparing for the AEP launch, I was interested to hear that many artists are struggling in the same way to find a sense of self, life and work balance and to stand up for their values when under pressure to survive. As part of the AEP Skills Exchange Sarah Lewis offered a workshop and discussion on resilience practices to support the artists to understand their values and what they are uncompromising on...

What is resilience? 

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  • What are your concerns around your own resilience or the resilience of the people around you?
  • Where or when do you feel you are lacking or missing resilience in your life?
  • What are your symptoms of burnout/stress or overwhelm?
  • What do you do at these times?
  • What might a resilient Self look like?

From my training and background with The Well House, Resilience building is Based on the practices of yoga, mindfulness and meditation to support people to be able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions or situations by becoming experts in themselves.

The emotional regulation model

In their book, Mindfulness for health (2013), Burch and Penman outline 3 distinct parts of our emotional system:

  • Avoidance
  • Achievement
  • Soothing/contentment

All three systems are equally important. Too much or not enough of any part causes our whole emotional system to destabilise and become less resilient.

In a sector (and a western culture) which values achievements, and avoids illness and even rest, we are predisposed towards a less resilient lifestyle. Anecdotally I would argue that for most dance artists the balance can be readdressed, and this was echoed around the AEP artists group.

Values reflection - a personal task:
I asked people to firstly draw a big circle and within it write the main aspects and activities in your life with the things you spend most time doing in the centre, the least time doing towards the outside and virtually no time doing on the outside.

On a second piece of paper I asked people to scribe their values in any way they wanted. They could write their personal values or things they valued. They could write in list form or in another circle.

On a third piece of paper I asked the group to rewrite the first circle only this time considering what it would look like if you were being true to your values.

This task is reflecting on how things are and how things might be. It’s a task to do regularly to check in, in order to create a more resilient and sustainable lifestyle. Resilience isn’t only about having practices that support us in our working life, though there are many, but to build a life that supports our health and wellbeing, which may then enable us to invest in other people, our artistic practice and making a difference (if that is indeed one of our values!).

Muddling ethics and values:
I’m also very interested in how the values and ethics of our culture and the dance sector in which we operate regularly, can often be inseparable from our own personal values and ethics. I don’t believe the values and ethics of the dance culture; from training through to professional practice, currently supports the health and wellbeing of the individual. Because we are conditioned from a young age within a specific construct of dance ethics and values, it can be very challenging for people to see the difference between the work ethic of dancing practice and the ethics that should inform our daily living. 

A few statements came up this week that highlight this, for example when describing the enormity of workload oe artist stated; ‘well we’re just used to doing all this’. The expectation is that we can just manage / cope with the sheer volume of work that we all carry out and that this is supposed to be acceptable. If we carry on this same culture there will be more burnout, stress, and ill health physically, mentally and emotionally. This is only until we can start to look for our own ways of working that supports our own needs. 

Another discussion topic led us to share the working demands placed upon us by larger organisations who don’t necessarily support our needs to reinforce our resilience. We talk about supportive infrastructures or supervision as a pipedream idea, rather than a necessity to support the sustainability of the artist. This included conversations around the psychological support that may be needed in challenging projects or to support the wellbeing of artists through processes. 

The question is; if we as artists can start to put clear and rigorous parameters in place for our working conditions both in our personal practice and also be met by partnering organisations then will the culture and values of the sector start to shift? 

(Words by Sarah Lewis)
www.sarahlewisdance.com
www.glasshousedance.co.uk