Skills Exchange Day 3
All the right questions
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.