Listening

AEP Conversations' in Hertfordshire

AEP Conversations' in Hertfordshire

Today was the first of our AEP, Artists’ Conversations tour dates, and our first collaboration is with BEEE Creative, Dance Re:Ignite programme in Hertfordshire

Artists’ Conversations are bespoke to the group, and are initiated by a dialogue around the core themes of the AEP - Artistry, Roles, Resilience and People.

Future Leadership

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.

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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..! 

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)

the listening approach

Skills Exchange Day 1

Identity and relationality

Katie Green

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Katie Green formed company 'Made by Katie Green' in 2006 and has a breadth of experience creating large-scale commissions for particular communities and specific sites, and delivering participation projects for children and young people. Since 2013 her work has focused on creating choreography in museums and heritage sites. She has created new work for the British Museum, Ipswich Museum and most recently a promenade work entitled Choreographing the Collection for the bicentenary of Dulwich Picture Gallery 2017. She is currently working with Kents Cavern in Torquay to develop a new promenade work for caves and underground sites called Beneath Our Feet.

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Today Katie offered a short practical session through which she shared her thoughts and enabled us to explore a ‘listening approach’ to directing. In her own words she shares the thoughts behind her practice practice:

 

By ‘listening approach’, I mean that I wanted to reflect on the ways in which I had, over time, integrated my experience working with a mentor and being a mentor myself into my experience directing groups of people (including both professionals and non-professionals) in a choreographic context. For me this means facilitating a working environment or ‘holding a space’ in which other people feel free to create their best work, rather than one that is explicitly about me and my process; the idea being that if I can guide people to create something that is as much from them as from me, it will have more integrity, it will say what it is intended to say more deeply or fully because it is not only about me and my agenda; it is about people more universally, and about what it means to be human.

This was the thing that I found most challenging when I started working professionally - finding the way in which I wanted to lead a group of people in order to get the best out of them and therefore to create the best work. Over time, I have become most aware of the deliberate choices I make about managing a rehearsal or workshop in the way I want to, when I have been in contexts that are at odds with my way of working.

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My ‘listening approach’ to directing

Although not an exhaustive list, in no particular order, and in no way intended to represent the only or ‘right’ way of leading a group creative process, here are a few of the things I have noticed about my decision-making process when directing a group:

  • every decision is deliberate, no matter how seemingly insignificant, but it is important that it doesn’t feel deliberate (or academic perhaps) to the participants

  • I am not in my own work; I feel that in order to ‘listen’ and respond to what is happening I need to have distance from the physical experience of being in the work

  • Everything I do is geared towards allowing people to feel free to create their best work, and I think seeming to diminish my role in the process (whilst actually being very in control of the process!) is an important part of that

  • I am super-prepared when I start rehearsals (e.g. collecting words, images, music references, videos), so that I can ideally allow what the dancers are doing to call to mind related ideas from my pool of research rather than always having to react to completely new information; it also means I can be more adaptable to the working process, because if something isn’t working, we can try something else

  • The majority of my preparation centres around thinking how to set up creative tasks, how to build things up in stages or layers and how much information to give and when

  • One of the challenging things I find in a creative process is knowing when to allow the exploration to meander, and when it needs to be more focussed, or to lead to something becoming ‘set’. If I really think about it, I’m pretty much always trying to achieve something quite focussed (which is why I use time limitations in my creative process a lot of the time, so I don’t allow things to run on for an excessively long period of time), but there are certainly times when I allow participants to understand the time limitation, and times when I keep it to myself (including if what we’re doing takes us in an unexpected direction). It is essential to me that there is a period of research and development at the beginning of a new project, a time for play, when I can be less clear about what the final outcome will be

  • I talk to the dancers with whom I’m collaborating throughout the process - asking for feedback, asking about how it feels to be in the piece from inside - everyone’s contribution is equally valued

  • The relationships and small gestures established outside the studio are as important as the way we interact within the studio - small touches like providing tea and biscuits, writing thank you notes, handing over responsibilities for warm up (or sometimes taking the responsibility for this myself when it seems necessary), game-playing are a really important part of my choice-making process about my choreography, as important as the creative content

  • I always develop material in collaboration with dancers in response to creative tasks, I never teach my own material (in both my professional and my commissioned work, which has sometimes involved non-dancers and has therefore been quite challenging to stand by at times!)

  • I acknowledge that the movement material belongs to the dancers, including in programme notes (so I most often credit myself as the ‘Director’ of a project now, with responsibility for the choreography ‘in collaboration’ with all of the dancers, making it clear that they ‘own’ it; if there have been earlier stages of research and development, I also acknowledge the input of dancers who took part in the R&D, but weren’t then able to participate in the final project). I believe that by owning the material, the dancers will embody it more fully. This doesn’t mean that for a specific purpose, I won’t ask dancers to share their material with each other, but they do that, not me.

  • Knowing when to speak and when to stay quiet - there will be times when I intervene in a rehearsal, and times when I specifically don’t - knowing when to do what can be very tricky! Sometimes solving ‘problems’ in a rehearsal has to come from the dancers themselves, from inside the process, and what I would suggest to solve a problem (particularly with contact material for example) could actually make the situation worse. Sometimes however I need to intervene in order for the work to progress (e.g. during later parts of the process, or to push people in a new direction, which perhaps differs from their natural instinct)

  • I share certain information about the broader project (e.g. structuring of material, transitions, other production elements) with the dancers only at certain times - choosing when to let people know things. Often the people with whom I’m working will ask to know about the next stage of the process, and I will always just try to be open about why I’m holding something back (e.g. being honest if I think the structure of something might change). When the structure of something starts to become a little clearer, I then start to share information about this in quite a detailed way (using rolls of paper or post-it notes for example, and/or asking dancers to keep their own notebook with key information).

  • Having said this, I think it’s important to acknowledge the uncertainty of the process, and for me to own the things that don’t go so well, because they will usually be because I’ve made a choice that isn’t working. I’m very open about the workings of the situation at times, and I think this is to acknowledge with my dancers that it’s all in hand, that I do know what I’m doing! (or at least I’m doing something for a specific purpose). If we try something in rehearsal and I can’t see the way forward from there I’ll acknowledge that and either take it away overnight, for a couple of days, or we might discuss it as a group

  • Where it is possible within my budget for a project I will, acknowledging that different people have different skill sets, invite various practitioners in to a studio to work on specific elements of the process e.g. a designer, writer, composer, a dramaturg, a rehearsal director

  • I very often use music (or take away music) in order to shift the atmosphere, dynamic of a particular task.

(Words by Katie Green)

listening, trusting, playing

Skills Exchange Day 1

Today we began the AEP Skills Exchange featuring Danielle Teale, Tim Casson, Clare Reynolds, Tom Hobden, Sarah Lewis, Katie Green, Rachel Fullegar, Lizz Fort, Jo Rhodes, Beth Peters, Hannah Robertshaw and Laura Street. 

Play, connection, trust and listening

Hannah Robertshaw and Tim Casson

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Tim is a Performer, Choreographer and Dance Educator. He has performed internationally and taught extensively for Jasmin Vardimon Company, creating their JV2 postgraduate programme, and has also performed for Nigel Charnock and Ben Wright. Tim regularly leads educational projects for a wide range of dance organisations, such as Sadler’s Wells, where he has worked extensively with the National Youth Dance Company. Tim has previously held Associate Artist positions at Pavilion Dance South West and dancedigital (UK), created the World Record Breaking online performance project, ‘The Dance WE Made’ and directs his company ‘Casson & Friends’, creating accessible work with a focus on collaboration, interaction and joy.

 

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Hannah trained as a dancer and worked between 2002 and 2013 as a Dance Artist and latterly as Artistic Producer for Ludus Dance in the North West of England. She has led community dance projects nationally and internationally working with partners such as The British Council, The Greek Council for Refugees and Big Dance. Hannah is now Programmes Director for Yorkshire Dance, supporting independent artists and partnership projects across the Yorkshire Region. Alongside her strategic development work, Hannah is a practicing dance artist with a specialism in movement play and community building through dance. Hannah has led movement play workshops for clients such as Common Purpose, Bradford University International Peace Studies, Arup Engineering and the law firm Irwin Mitchell. 

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Hannah and Tim took us through a warm-up to put us in the shoes of the dancers we work with. We considered:

  • Being together and being alert - how do we communicate the need to stay connected with the process to our dancers through interactive tasks
  • Opening the space for contribution, accumulating movement and being responsive to people's movements offers
  • Simplicity of instructions - setting clear rules and seeing how easy it is to develop relationships and movement material out of very simple gestures such as walk, sit down, stand still
  • Conversational movement - listening to and respecting each other
  • Exploring our ability to trust and let go of control by giving another person the role of the driver - how do we as artists step into the passive role
  • Working as a team, lead and follow and democratic leadership
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