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Animated Edition - Winter 2007
A story, a joke, a sense of human contact... Journeys through dance and communities
Fergus Early, Artistic Director of Green Candle Dance Company offers a personal insight into a lifetime inhabiting dance
I am a socialist. Somehow that's not the easiest thing to admit in today's world, but it has to be said. I feel as if I've always been a socialist though it probably became conscious at about the age of 12 when I started stealing the Manchester Guardian from the library at White Lodge, the junior Royal Ballet School, to read on our daily trip to do class at the upper school in Baron's Court. My faith in the Catholicism I was brought up to was eroded under the usual adolescent sexual pressures and I was never again tempted to embrace a major orthodoxy, whether political, religious or philosophical. But I was, and remain, a socialist and a humanist.

Even as a young ballet dancer I was lucky enough to join the Royal Ballet at the exact moment that Peter Brinson was launching Ballet for All, an educational performance group based on the Royal Ballet Touring Company. In those early days, Peter was the only other person I knew in the ballet world who voted Labour and with whom I could have any sort of political discussion. Peter encouraged my choreography and gave me responsibilities to rehearse and oversee his 'ballet-plays'. Peter was a committed educationalist - he wanted to elucidate, to give a sense of context to this curious hothouse art form called ballet. His script for The Story of Coppelia hinged upon the siege of Paris of 1870; his World of Giselle married the ballet back into the fervid world of the Romantic poets from which it sprang. His Twelfth Rose (a history of ballet) resurrected the text of Louis XIV's first public appearance as the Sun King, emphasising the sheer political power play of the young Louis' promise to 'burn away the cobwebs of Europe' (a text I translated). Ballet for All began with lecture demonstrations and continued to perform in schools and small theatres throughout its life. Its brief was to proselytise, to reach people who knew nothing of ballet and to convert them to its wonders while giving them something to think about. These performances were for something - at least for something more than the titillation of the moneyed classes.

It was here, too, that I learned something of the craft of constructing work that combined dance, live music and text. Peter's ballet plays were brilliantly researched and structured and I found myself at 20 or so choreographing and directing a company of six dancers, two actors and a pianist (and even on occasion a small orchestra). To achieve the needed integration, the actors were often required to dance and here was my first lesson in working with other than trained dancers.

It was also my first sustained exposure to modern dance. As early as 1965, Peter Brinson and Robin Howard put together a short season at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, of Graham and classical dance, comparing the techniques through class demonstrations and repertoire pieces. The Graham dancers included Bob Cohan, Ethel Winter and Mary Hinkson and I made my first ever piece of professional choreography - a short pas de deux for Sandra Conley and Kerrison Cook - for this programme. Later, Peter would construct a whole touring show for Ballet for All on this theme, with dancers from the fledgling London Contemporary Dance Theatre, like Siobhan Davies, Celeste Dandeker, Namron, Bob Smith, joining young Royal Ballet dancers in a joint production that compared the approaches of modern dance and ballet.

When, after six years with the Royal Ballet, I left to teach and study at the Place, the London School of Contemporary Dance in the early 70's, I came face to face with feminism, the first and greatest of the liberation movements of the 70s and 80s. Feminism, anti-racism, gay liberation, disability equality and many others ran hand in hand with the radical art movements of the time like performance art, new dance, free music, fringe theatre and, yes, community art. These times, these ideas, shaped me and provide some of the logic of my subsequent career.

The Place was the first stage of a kind of re-education: many opportunities to choreograph for open 'workshop' evenings and for large numbers of students, to collaborate with composers, to perform in strange and poetic pieces of performance art by the likes of Jacky Lansley and Sally Potter, to do classes and workshops with dozens of different teachers and choreographers - Bill Louther, Meredith Monk, Matt Mattox, Carolyn Carlson, Dick Kuch, Jane Dudley, Cleo Nordi to name but a few. I taught ballet, dance composition, some historical dance, partnering, to the motley bunch of students (many of them already trained artists in other disciplines - film-making, visual arts, theatre - or refugees from ballet, and many my own age or older) who made up the first few years of the Place's intake.

This time at the Place in the early 70s was valuable and formative, but eventually convention began to creep up on the previously adventurous atmosphere and I felt it was time to move on.

The next few years were extraordinary. Inspired by the zeitgeist, we formed collectives. I joined up with a group of experienced dancers who were looking for ways to re-examine their experience as dancers and choreographers. We briefly inhabited various freezing and inappropriate spaces, living off unemployment benefit and small amounts of freelance teaching, choreographing and performing, before discovering a space at the top of an old tea warehouse in Butler's Wharf. This became X6 Dance Space and was our base for four years. At X6 we introduced the work of Mary Fulkerson (then head of dance at Dartington College), Steve Paxton, Lisa Nelson and others to the English dance community in what can be seen as a critical moment in post modern dance in this country. This dance, principally contact improvisation and release work, offered the potential for access without the years of specialised training required by ballet, Graham and Cunningham alike. These were lessons that were easily transferable in later years to the community contexts that I would increasingly inhabit. The democratic structures inherent in these forms chimed well with the anti-hierarchic emphasis of our political thinking and of the processes of teaching, learning and choreographing dance that we were investigating at the time. Although we were in one sense in an ivory tower at X6 (or at least a very well-seasoned wooden one), we were absorbing information that had potentially universal application.

It was still some years, however, before I was to move definitively into the area that has become known as 'community dance'. These were years of founding Chisenhale Dance Space (the successor to X6), touring solo shows like the biography of my father, Are You Right There, Michael, Are You Right, teaching at Leicester Polytechnic (now De Montfort University) and choreographing movement for many plays and musicals at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, where I acquired more skill in combining spoken word and movement.

In 1984, inspired by my two-year old daughter, I set out to make my first production designed for a young audience. Ubu! was based on the absurdist play, Ubu Roi, and devised by myself, Patricia Bardi (a fellow founder of Chisenhale and improvising dancer and vocalist), and jazz trumpeter Jim Dvorak. It was aimed at a primary school audience and we toured it to mainstream and special schools all over the country. Children (both with and without learning disabilities) delighted in its rumbustious improvisation and the nonsense language we spoke. For me, it was revelatory: large and appreciative audiences, a chance to indulge in narrative dance theatre, comedy, grotesquery and a market that seemed to be hungry for the work.

Over the next two years, I hatched a plan to form a community-based dance company, working from Chisenhale and operating mainly in the East London boroughs of Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Newham. The Gulbenkian Foundation and the Arts Officers of those boroughs funded a feasibility plan and eventually, in January 1987, we launched Green Candle with a new show for five to ten year olds, Oonagh and Finn, based on an Irish folk tale of giants.

Then, as now, the work centred on performance. I believe passionately in live performance as one of the great ways to consider the world and tell stories that expand our understanding and our common humanity. For me, this pre-supposes a relationship with the audience that is at times (as in much comedy) explicit and direct and at others no less present for being unstated.

There is no doubt that my early experience as a character dancer with the Royal Ballet influenced this direction. Here the tradition of great character dancers like Leonide Massine and Alexander Grant was very much alive, owing much to music hall, clowning and the theatricalised folk dance common in classical ballets. In fact, a lot of the dancing that I did was not classical ballet at all, and I am grateful to this day for the versatility and breadth this offered me as a performer and choreographer.

Parallel to this love of performance, runs a deep-seated affection for the processes of teaching and learning. I have always resisted the trend to separate 'education' from performance. Company dancers have always been expected to lead workshops and we audition and train them accordingly. Our aim is always to keep the teaching and performing work as equal and interdependent partners.

So here we have some of the key ingredients: a commitment to equality and human communality; a wide range of techniques and languages for working and communicating with both trained and untrained dancers; a love of dance, theatre, narrative, comedy; a belief in the presence of a dancer in us all; a love of direct communication; a sense of the sheer delight to be found in teaching and learning.

I'm not sure how my own personal odyssey relates to how 'community dance' has become such a prominent feature of this country's artistic ecology. Perhaps the insularity and lack of self-confidence within the dance world has almost forced the development of an alternative structure that reaches out to people in a way that the main theatrical dance forms find problematic. Compare dance to theatre - a classical actor can slip easily from rarefied classical drama to the most demotic - Shakespeare to Coronation Street. Dance lacks this wide spectrum of popular acceptance and 'theatre dance' is still seen either as esoteric and out of reach or as thinly disguised pornography by a very large part of the population. Community dance has perhaps filled a gaping hole between these two (mis)conceptions. All of us in the field know that somewhere in everybody there is a dancer, that dance is universal, life enhancing, healthful, and that given opportunity and encouragement almost anybody alive can and will dance. We know that there is a hunger, both for participation and for being an audience, but that opportunities need to be approachable and unthreatening. We have all of us developed our practice in different ways, meeting the needs of different communities, finding new and effective contexts and perhaps watching with wry smiles as governments, funders and academics discover things some of us have known for decades - that there are demonstrable links between dance and health, that dance can promote social inclusion, be a tool in combating anti-social behaviour, help learning of all sorts and much more besides - in short that dance is a significant force for what might be called good.

Green Candle's performance form - a mix of dance, musical and play - attempts to circumvent people's resistance to pure dance. At the same time, the communities that we address, children and young people, older people, people with disabilities, are on the whole unprejudiced and non-judgmental: provided there is something tangible to grasp - a story, a joke, a sense of human contact - they will come with you to some extraordinary places. They will observe the smallest nuances, marvel at virtuosity, be moved by sadness, be roused by humour, make demanding intellectual journeys, and all without a trace of world-weariness, snobbery or carping criticism. If for no other reason, we might well choose to do this work for the sake of the audiences. But it's more than that. For all my skills and experience, if I can't reach these audiences, connect with these participants, I will have failed. For we have all been young, we will all be old (if we're lucky), we are all differently-abled, we all have wildly different genetic make-ups. If you believe in some kind of equality and in a common humanity then you have to believe that we dance for ourselves: we dance to recognise ourselves in everybody and everybody in ourselves.


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Animated: Winter 2007