We are sad to report that, shortly after this blog was published, Anthony died peacefully at home on Friday 17 March 2017. Our thoughts are with his partner, family and friends. We are grateful to Anthony for his valuable and unique contribution to community dance.
Anthony and I have known one another and been in touch, on and off, for over 40 years. As founder members of Ludus we danced alongside one another in such deathless roles as Edward Lear (me) and his cat Foss (a role Anthony embraced with bravado, despite a costume that made up in copious brown velour what it singularly lacked in style).
But recently it struck me that Anthony had never written about how, alongside his colleague Joan Ewart, he initiated the community dance project at Ludus in the early 1980s – and how his radical politics had been central to this decision, as well as being a key influence on the performances we created. At a time when the arts, and dance in particular, seem to be being squeezed from the curriculum by the EBacc, and when political activism is collectivised via social media, it seemed important to recall what was perhaps a simpler time, and one in which the centre of political gravity had not yet started its long move to the right. So I asked him if he fancied writing something that would tell the story and put it in context, and Anthony jumped at the idea.
So here it is.
Christopher is an Honorary Life Member of People Dancing and former Director of Creative Teaching and Learning at The Place.
Ludus North West Dance In Education (DIE) Company was created in Lancaster in 1975 and constituted as a co-operative in 1976 by four of us who were dancers, teachers, creators and political activists. We had no other financial resources than a grant of £500 from the Arts Council to start the company. The building we occupied in Lancaster was supplied I think by Lancashire Education Authority without charge. Our personal finances came from other employment or as in my case the dole. The first job payment we received came from the Manpower Services Commission (MSC). I lived in a gay and lesbian collective in Lancaster at the time and two of my housemates had been involved in setting up what was then called a Battered Wives’ Refuge and they had funded the jobs at the refuge from the MSC. The MSC weekly pay was a bit above the rate of dole payments. So we gave it a shot by following them and applying to the MSC.
We all thought we didn’t stand a chance but were surprised when our application was accepted. I think that enabled us to employ two other workers to work alongside four performers - an administrator and a stage manager/driver. We earned income once we were out on the road touring, from junior and secondary schools, colleges and youth clubs. As Ludus became established and built a good reputation, longer contracts were made with us by some of the Local Education Authorities, not only in the north west but also by Local Authorities in other parts of the country. When the MSC funding ended we received a grant from North West Arts and subsequently from the Arts Council of England.
(Photos, left: unknown c.1999; centre and right: Brian J Slater Photography)
In the UK at that time the dance profession inhabited a very conservative culture. Outside of that mainstream, from the 1960s onwards, had sprung up innovative dancers and choreographers who were exploring new dance concepts and techniques. Their activities became known as New Dance. Ludus didn’t really fit into any of that. Though what we were doing was recognised as unique and innovative within the existing dance practices by the dance profession.
During 1975 to 1976 we spent a day a week in St Martin’s College gym hall – again without charge as one of our performers worked at the college as a lecturer and made this arrangement - working on the physical and conceptual ideas we had for Ludus as preparation for launching our company.
The concept of Ludus DIE was a replication in dance of what the Theatre In Education (TIE) companies were doing at that time. There were a lot of TIE companies in this country at that time. They were educators as well as artists. Each of their programmes had a specific theme. Their practice in junior and secondary schools, young peoples’ clubs, colleges and occasionally in theatres, was intended to give a brand new experience, stimulating feeling and thinking about each theme in a medium that would feel fresh and accessible to children and young people.
To achieve this, the TIE companies created performances around a specific theme which was central to the TIE experience. The whole package included the performance, theatre workshops for children and young people to make their own explorations of the theme, discussion workshops and teaching materials that included references to other useful materials that teachers and youth workers could use for follow up. And Ludus as a DIE company did the same.
The themes each TIE company chose depended on the values of its members. The themes were often about current issues in society and in local communities. What interested me more were TIE companies that made politics an explicit part of their practice. We devised DIE programmes on themes such as domestic violence, racism and unemployment and nuclear power. One DIE programme that we devised, Paper Tiger, was special to my heart. News of the Cultural Revolution in China had bowled me over. And whatever doubts I had about what was actually going on, I was inspired by a nation prepared to examine what culture meant and willing to turn everything over and start again. Paper Tiger was for Junior schools and was about making collective decisions. We placed this theme in modern revolutionary China. Part of our aim was to add to the existing Junior school curriculum different teaching about China. The teaching had been focused on the past and on Imperial China. We ambitiously wanted to help schools make a curriculum change on this topic. And I like to think that in many cases we succeeded. This DIE programme was very well received and because it required a lot of classroom work by the children in advance of the Ludus visit for the children to be able to get sufficient learning from the programme, we often arrived at a school to have the surprising experience of seeing the school corridors and classrooms festooned with Chinese objects and the creative work the children had already done on this programme. Silk slippers, sprightly coloured banners, and copies of Chairman Mao’s little red book, packed with his revolutionary slogans, and promoting the revolution with their bold red covers.
(Photo, left: Brian J Slater Photography; Photo, right: Anthony Briggs)
One of the UK’s largest dance festivals at the time was Dance Umbrella. They invited us to perform at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith some of our DIE shows in one of their early festivals. It wasn’t so much that we were country bumpkins who had turned up in the big smoke but for me a wonder that our Lancaster project was recognised at a national level. We were also invited in 1978 to take part in Vancouver’s International Children’s Festival. After the Festival performances, Ludus did a three-week tour of schools, presenting our DIE programmes in one of the boroughs of the city. Ludus was invited back to Canada in 1981 and these positive experiences have helped Ludus to develop our international networks.
Making the most of an opportunity
We launched the Ludus community dance project in 1982. The studio in the building Ludus worked in was used to create and rehearse the main touring shows. For much of the year while the company was on tour the studio was vacant and unused. We saw there was an opportunity to make use of the studio in these vacant periods.
Myself and Joan Ewert, both administrators for Ludus by that time, had the idea to create the community dance project. Our inspiration came partly from witnessing in action the newly established community dance projects that had sprung up: Rubicon Dance in Cardiff, Yorkshire Dance in Leeds, Cheshire Dance Workshop in Winsford and Swindon Dance in Swindon. The other part of my inspiration was realising this was a political opportunity to influence positive change. The community dance project’s events brought people together who shared a common interest. It was a chance to bring the political concept 'the personal is the political' alive through an experience of collectivism and the potential for taking collectivist action.
Our mission for the Ludus community dance project consisted of many elements:
- create opportunities for everyone in our town to do different kinds of dance
- create fresh social opportunities and make new friends for everyone through dancing in our studio through dancing together
- create other ways for everyone to express themselves
- provide technique training at different levels in different dance forms
- provide support and advice for anyone who wanted to further their dance interests
- and for me the political element was inspiring an activism for everyone to change how they think and live.
Myself and Joan made a proposal to the whole company about setting up the community dance project. Ludus ran as a cooperative so inclusive discussions and decisions were made involving everyone. Our proposal included replacing one of the Ludus DIE performers with a lead Community Dance Worker for our project. There was understandably a concern among the performers about losing a dancer and the decision not to take up our proposal was made. I think Joan and myself agreed to work some more on the proposal and submit it again to the collective at a later date.
We did this about six months later, during which time a lot of discussion about the proposal went on between everyone, and the second time our proposal was accepted. We appointed Gil Graystone as our Community Dance Worker. Gil had exactly the skills and experience we needed and like the rest of us was a natural born educator.
We devised a schedule of weekly classes in dance and exercise for all ages and abilities. We included all the usual dance styles, plus creative dance, movement classes for young children, a toddlers and parents class for early years’ children, making dances (choreography) and special interest classes like Tai Chi. We also ran weekend workshops and seasonal workshops in the spring, summer and winter holidays. We made a principle that anyone who worked on the project had to involve themselves in teaching. I taught two sessions on Saturday mornings for children: Fun Dance and Creative Dance. Parents and family members were always encouraged to stay and watch the class. And some classes were devised for children and parents to take part together. Sometimes my ideas for a teaching theme were too ambitious. To work on weight factors in moving for the older Saturday morning juniors, I came up with Schopenhauer’s phrase “Walking is permanently prevented falling” and wrote that on large sheets which I put around the studio walls. This simply foxed the children and their parents. I also recall devising an evening class for men called Me Tarzan!
to explore issues around masculinity. That class attracted no interest whatsoever.
(Tom Lally Photography)
Putting out the prairie fire?
I worked as a performer and teacher at Ludus DIE from 1975 to 1980 and as a Ludus Administrator from 1982 to 1985.
Funding for the Ludus DIE company from the Arts Council of England (ACE) came to an end in 2011. This followed a disastrous period of drastic austerity measures taken by the government to prevent the national economy from going bust. It required local authorities to make substantial financial cuts to their budgets. It left Education in the lurch, with school halls used more and more for exams (rather dance performances) and schools reluctant to spend their small and diminishing budgets on visiting artists. School bookings fell. And in this situation ACE withdrew its funding for creating and touring the DIE programme. But ACE continued to fund the community dance project - which provided a useful base for ongoing fundraising - from the charitable sector, individual donors and other sources and partnerships. These fundraising efforts are going well, enabling the community dance project to explore new ideas and challenges.
The Ludus community dance project met the needs and interests of our local community very well and was an almost instant success. The project has grown from strength to strength since it started and that prairie fire of enthusiasm, innovation and inspiration remains inextinguishable today.
8 February 2017