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Animated Edition - Autumn 2007
Aemilius Sense: alter images, altering lives
Rita Marcalo, Artistic Director of Leeds based dance company Instant Dissidence describes the process of working with community dancers, a film maker and digital artists to create Aemilus Sense
Aemilius Sense, a Community Dance York (CDY) dance for the camera commission, premiered on 22nd October 2006 at York City Screen. The work was commissioned as part of the Arts Council-funded Alter Images project and explores notions of womanhood, playfulness, friendship, and ghosts of suppressed desires.

CDY is an adult community dance group, for adults with previous contemporary dance experience, as well as adults who have never done contemporary dance before. After a period of time running weekly technique classes, the group wanted to add to that activity an engagement with dance as a creative art form. This led them to devise the Alter Images project (an 18-month programme of creative work with a choreographer, a filmmaker and two digital artists), of which Aemilius Sense was part of the final dance for the camera work. I was invited to join the project as a choreographer, along with filmmaker Lucy Barker and digital artists Adam Stanning and Chris Walker (of Bright White).

This article is a reflective look at the process of creating Aemilius Sense. It discusses the different stages of the process from the different perspectives of choreographer, participants, filmmaker and the digital team. In so doing it charts the transformations that the project made to the lives of the participants and to the professional experiences of the artists involved.

The brief
From the outset CDY wanted the project to address the different needs of the participants. For this reason there were two degrees of involvement with the project (weekly technique class and weekly creative workshop leading up to the dance for the camera product), with participants electing to be part of both, or just the technique class recognising that not all participants would want to, or would be able to, engage in the creative process: ten people participated in the full project.

When I joined the project we took as starting point ideas that had already been developed by the group before my arrival. The participants wanted to create a work that reflected their identity as a group of women. Their intention was, therefore, to create a work on the theme of a 'girl's night out' or a 'hen night'. They had a clear vision in terms of costume design, and there was also a sense that there should be a scene is a bar or restaurant.

In addition to these ideas I attempted to keep their motivations for choosing to create a dance for the camera (rather than a live work) at the forefront of our process. As the participants explain, these motivations were, 'to explore our fantasies and create things we would not have been able to do in a live performance piece' (Emily) and to be able to show the work 'in a variety of locations' (Stella). In addition Natasha explains that 'it was the combination of the digital arts and dance that fascinated us. In a utopian ideal we would have liked to combine digital arts with a live performance, but the reality was that we just didn't have the cash.'

Devising process
Rehearsals took place during CDY's regular weekly dance slot for a period of eight months. This made sense from CDY's point of view, however as a choreographer used to working in intense and short periods of time, it was initially challenging for me. It was particularly frustrating to not have enough time to develop an idea, and have to hold onto it until the following week instead. However, once I adapted my practice I began to enjoy the devising process. I found it an immense rich experience to work with a group of creative individuals from all walks of life, and who came to contemporary dance for different reasons and with different strengths.

Each rehearsal began with a contemporary technique class open to all, for technical development was one of the goals of the project. Participants with previous contemporary dance experience explain that they 'developed as dancers', that 'the contact-improvisation was really beneficial to them as a group' (Emily) and that the technique's 'strong, lyrical and earthy qualities were both a challenge to their bodies and increased their bodies' mastery of movement' (Phyllis). Participants with no contemporary dance experience explain that they 'knew nothing of contemporary dance but have gained a basic knowledge of various techniques' (Lyn).

Initially both the participants and I intended my role as a choreographer to be one of facilitation of their ideas. As Natasha explains, 'In the original outset of the project the community group was to use the external artists purely as facilitators of the group's ideas.'

This methodology worked well during the content generation and content development stages of the process. However, once we started creating a structure for the work we needed an overall artistic vision. Given our timescale there was little time for the kind of discussion that would have been needed for us to come up with such a vision as a group. As Natasha Almond explains, 'the reality of sustaining this creative process within the timescale was impossible'. For this reason the participants and I re-negotiated our roles and there was a shift in the 'ownership' of the artistic vision of the work: I was to become responsible for it, and the participants would continue to work as performers/devisers. Although this was an appropriate decision at the time, I know that many participants felt disappointed that they were not more involved in the artistic vision of the work, and I know that finding ways of ensuring that this happens in future projects is something that they are looking at. As Natasha says, 'if I was to do it again I would want to ensure more collaboration between the group and the professional artists, so that the group has a greater opportunity to be involved in the creative process.'

My devising process often involves an initial period of 'play' around apparently unconnected ideas and images, and the creation of metaphoric 'spaces' in the work that can then be inhabited by each performer as the person that they are. During this process I often choose to occlude the motivations behind creative tasks, for I believe that it is 'doing' which generates 'identity', and not the other way around: that is, I find that the material is more believable if I ask performers to engage in tasks that might lead them to perceive themselves as particular characters, rather than to ask them to 'act out' those character. However, particularly for those inexperienced in devising processes, this was at times confusing. As Stella Jackson says, 'at the start it was hard for everyone to understand what we were doing'. And as Natasha explains, 'I found it difficult not to know the music and set in my own head the relationships between the characters in the piece. The group had many ideas as to the narrative and relationships of the characters, which would change and make it difficult to focus and develop characters and their relationship with each other.'

One of the biggest challenges for the participants was that of performance and expression. The nature of this challenge was different for each participant depending whether they had previous performance experience or not. For Emily Barrett, with previous performance experience, the project enabled her to take her expressive abilities to a different level. She explains that it gave her 'the opportunity to really challenge and express herself as a performance artist', and that she 'ended up really embodying the role she played in a dramatic way, which was challenging but ultimately transformative'.

On the other hand Lyn, with limited performance experience, says: 'the issue of artistic expression did scare me at first. But after spending time with the group I gained lots of confidence and actually enjoyed performing.'

Filming process
As a dance artist, the opportunity to participate in this process meant that I realised a long-term ambition: to develop choreographic work for the camera. The learning was incredible, particularly when it came to the collaboration with Lucy Barker, the filmmaker. Lucy says: 'I always found it interesting, when me and you got together, the difference between the thinking of a filmmaker and a dancer/performer/choreographer. How our minds jumped in different ways from one thing to another. For example you would say 'and then Emily lies on the table' and I would say but what about the plates and the big bowl? Where do they go?'

Lucy's practice involves detailed storyboarding where every detail is thought through, whereas mine involves developing and structuring material organically, resolving each problem as it presents itself. The beautiful thing was that these fundamental differences ultimately metamorphosed into a different and new collaborative process, and we both enjoyed being open to this change.

Throughout the devising process Lucy regularly watched rehearsals, was involved in choosing filming sites, and we had regular 'concept' meetings. Out of our collaboration a second shift in the 'ownership' of the work's artistic vision occurred. She began to 'filmicly' interpret what had been, up to this point, my choreographic vision. This, in turn, led me to think of the first shift in the 'ownership' of the artistic vision from participants to choreographer. I also wondered if the same would happen a third time, during the forthcoming interactions between Lucy and digital artists Adam Stanning and Chris Walker.

Digital effects
After the editing process, Lucy began her collaboration with digital artists Adam Stanning and Chris Walker. In my view, this collaboration was of a different nature than the previous collaborations between the participants and me, and between Lucy and I. Indeed, rather than the expected third shift in the 'ownership' of the artistic vision, the collaboration between Lucy and the digital artists was of a more technical than conceptual nature, and it involved the realisation of very specific digital effects.

In hindsight I believe that the digital artists should have been involved in the devising process with the participants in the same way that Lucy was. Indeed, I believe that some of the participants' digital effect ideas were lost in the communication between me and Lucy and between Lucy and the digital artists, whereas this happened less with their film ideas because of Lucy's involvement in the devising process. Budgetary constraints and a very tight timescale had impacted on this part of the process considerably.

Performance, screening and beyond
In June 2006 we presented a live version of the work as part of York Dance Week 2006. This was a showing of work in progress that enabled us to gain feedback from the work prior to editing, and provided a performance opportunity for the participants. The official screening took place on 22nd October 2006 at York City Screen. It was an exciting and very well attended night, and it was amazing to see the work on the big screen. CDY are planning to undertake a series of screenings and discussions of their experience with other community dance groups across the country.

The project has inspired the participants in a variety of ways. Emily Barrett has been inspired to apply for Arts Council funding and create physical theatre based on ideas of her own that she desperately wants to explore..

For Lyn the project made her feel a valuable member of the team that was eager to achieve something 'she would never have thought possible'.

Natasha considers that the experience of the process was 'fantastic to be a member of a community group and to be involved in an opportunity such as this, to learn and understand other art forms and how they could be used together'.

For Lucy Barker the project 'challenged her abilities and developed her skills and confidence in working collaboratively with new people and on ambitious projects'.

Both Lucy and I enjoyed working together so much that I have invited her to integrate Instant Dissidence as a filmmaker and designer, for our 2007/2008 touring production White Out Conditions - in which Emily, a participant in Aemilius Sense, is involved.

After the intense experience of creating the dance for the camera work, I have now left CDY as they move onto working with other artists and thinking about other creative projects. The parting was emotional, for during a 12-month period we became a company - a unit - working towards a common goal, and exploring the limits of what we all thought we could achieve. We danced, we laughed, we choreographed, we got drunk, we rehearsed, we cried, we filmed, we froze to death on the beach, we got wet... we made an art work.

Rita Marcalo is can be contacted on

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Animated: Autumn 2007