Photography by Rachel Cherry
Photography by Rachel Cherry
From Top, left to right:
Jessica Gibson, Megan Pinder, Ellie Smith, James Fogerty
Becky Smithson, Charlotte Jones, Clare Farrow, Tara Baker
The AEP as a democratic leadership model for the future…
I believe a key component of strong leadership is a focus on a humanness, a sense that good leadership comes from a desire to relate to and connect with people on a human level… I have invested my human nature into the AEP, and that leaves me vulnerable. But that vulnerability and an acknowledgement of the power of vulnerability is part of the process that has led me to this programme… This I believe is the power of independent artists. Their ability to adapt, be vulnerable, change minds and turn sharp corners quickly, makes them a powerful leading force.
The AEP is an innovation in leadership and a radical new model for the the provision of artists development. It is a facilitated, democratic, process and not a directive experience. It is a brave statement made by a group of independent artists expressing their need for change; the outcome and the start of that change is the AEP...
The evolution of the AEP…
Two years ago, when I began the process of developing this programme, I was discontented with what I saw available to me in professional development, and I was noticing a growing tendency or expectation that artists ‘augment’ their practice with CPD that dealt with specificity… a “dance for” model of learning. These models had been deeply honed by other artists and the CPD offered gave an insight into one practice from one artist only.
What I struggled with most was that this model of CPD leadership was so removed from the foundations of my own democratic leadership approach, and one which I believed to be at the centre of community engaged practice. It has a ‘learn from the expert’ style, which is something I don’t believe in as fundamentally I don’t believe we are ever experts in a transient art form which is embodied socially, culturally and politically.
I wanted to understand what impact this notion of ‘expert’ might be having on the shape of artists practice and how ‘evidence’ was impacting artists sense of self-significance. Enhancing the value of the self can enable you to enhance your understanding of the value of others. It is my absolute belief that our practice and artistry can be exponentially improved through a deepened self-respect and confidence, and the AEP seeks to offer this for dance artists.
So I undertook considerable research and development which involved observing practice across a wide range of settings. What I saw very quickly was a divide between classes, led by teachers, observing a model of practice learned from ‘experts’; versus exploratory creative practice led by artists, with curiosity and interest in the dancers in front of them.
What I deduced from this was that the quality of engagement was so much higher for the dancers involved in the exploratory and artistic practice. It enabled them to be heard, have agency, be accountable and equal co-creators of their own experience. Fundamental values behind my own practice and the notion of what I understand community dance to be (for more information on this research please get in touch).
So in my next phase of R&D, I set about talking to a cross section of independent artists whose practice I felt really did sit in that artistic, co-creative place; to find out what their values were, what their inspiration was, why they felt there might be this divide in practice, and what they felt needed to be done to address it. I called this Artists’ Conversations, and this strand has been fundamental to the development of the AEP.
Core themes / values emerged from these artists conversations, and they formed the backbone of the AEP development process. I was saddened to hear that levels of resilience were low, artists felt a lack of value placed on their contribution to the dance ecology, they felt the pressure of the multitude of roles they had to embody and that their curiosity for and about people / humanity, was compromised – there were many who felt close to burn-out. These dance artists are changemakers; leaders of the future, but they did not feel heard and they did not feel that there were any support systems in place for them. They felt they had fallen into a gap in provision.
Most notably, there was nowhere obvious where these artists could see their own values reflected back at them. This felt isolating. The values that I feel are essential to my work are mirrored by the other artists that I work with, but artists I spoke to were sadly seeing less and less of these values in the organisations that they worked for.
So ultimately, the AEP came about in order to provide a democratic space to champion artists skills and support their development; independently. I brought artists together who aligned with the values of practice that I saw in my research, and who I felt could offer me and each other, something that existing artists development was not offering.
The AEP is a support system that exists without organisational bias and can support ultimately from a values system that mirrors the creative practice of the artists involved – supportiveness, equality, democracy, voice, curiosity, attention, empathy. It might seem radical to suggest that an independent group of artists can offer more for one another than industry leading bodies, but that radical stand is empowering and provocative, and this is exactly what a democratic, community practice is all about – pushing buttons which make us think differently about what is available to us, and scratching on the surface to make change… The AEP artists are all change-makers and I felt I could make a brave step knowing that I had a community of artists backing this programme and that ultimately it would lead me to be able to support others.
What will you get from the AEP…
The AEP isn’t a model with an evidence base, and it doesn’t offer a take home structure to be replicated. But it does have a unique template – I like to think of it as a score which remains fluid and ensures that everyone in the process is heard, and held. The AEP is a team approach – the team all understand the collective goal to support one another towards an empowered change. The model acknowledges the importance of:
Active Listening (really listening!)
Engaging people (being heard and considered; contributing to self-worth)
Empowering and activating (feeling you are supported inspired action)
Purpose (understanding your worth and what you are meant to do)
The AEP is a Skills Exchange programme – that doesn’t mean we swap ideas and take them away – the AEP is not right for you if you are looking for someone to offer you specific tasks, or lesson plans to replicate. Instead the premise of this programme is that we reflect in artists development, the same values and processes that we as artists use in our own leadership practice. In our facilitation practice we are activists, breaking down hierarchy, making space for voices to emerge and potential to unfold. In CPD this should also be the case. A traditional model of one voice leadership works no better in CPD than it does in community dance practice. That’s not to say that a directive approach isn’t useful in certain phases of life and career. But for those artists at the ‘mid-career’ level, this approach is not satisfying our professional development.
AEP founded on values of humanity and artistry – all the artists involved came from a socially engaged, community practice, and thus the conversations and foundations of the programme emerge from a fascination with people, curiosity, desire to interrogate, perseverance of spirit and dedication to improvement. And from this we could see that by working together, a better self could emerge for the benefit of our work. And that a better work meant a more engaging artistic process for the dancers we work with.
What I’m conscious of is that it could sound like a collective back patting, but in fact it is hard, it is interrogatory, the AEP involves vulnerability, conflict, questioning, answering, being without answers, running at issues head first and knowing that in this vulnerability was a powerful force and a truth that we were able to wear as an amour and support ourselves to make change, for ourselves, for our dancers, for our audiences…
To take part in the AEP process is to reach out for a change…and find what you want next.
And if you do join in, you are guaranteed the following:
A carefully crafted experience which supports you to feel you can learn and contribute in equal measure
We will all dance together
We will all stimulate discussion
You will be encouraged to remain forward focused
You will take away a sense of acceptance
You will be seen and heard
You will experience a generous spirit of investigation; this is a sharing process, not a battle ground
You will feel rejuvenated; an oxygenation of your practice
You will be stimulated artistically
You will feel a surge of confidence, resilience and trust in yourself
You will take away a support network which is powerful and can be your catalyst for great change
If this sounds like it’s for you: Join in..!
Skills Exchange Day 4
Strength, belief, being good enough
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;
and stay fluid
(Words by Laura Street)
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:
- 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
Skills Exchange Day 4
Awareness, breath, touch and responsibility
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:
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
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)
Skills Exchange Day 4
Collectivism, Activism, Autonomy and Agency
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.
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.
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.