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Animated Edition - Spring 2006
African peoples' dance and the DARE project in Liverpool
Rachel Rogers and Karen Gallagher of Merseyside Dance Initiative outline the development in African Peoples' Dance in Liverpool and the professional development opportunities that are part of the process
Francis Angol is currently artist in residence at Merseyside Dance Initiative (MDI) as part of the Dance Artist in A Rare Environment (DARE) project, now in its third year. This project gives artists the opportunity to engage in practical research and development into their own choreographic style and techniques - in this case, contemporary African dance - over a concentrated period of six months. Francis' period of residence runs from October 2005 to April 2006. During this time he will focus on several key areas, his aim being the practical and theoretical development of his movement language and pedagogy. Elements of his residency include:
  • Studio time for solo work
  • Development of two performance pieces to be shown at the Leap Festival 06
  • Practical research work with local dance artists and dance students
  • Documentation of the process and a written evaluation of the project and its outcome.
This project represents a huge investment in young dance artists from Liverpool and provides a significant and concentrated period of professional level African dance training for artists in the region.

So, why an African Peoples' Dance (APD) artist for the DARE project 05/06 and why is professional development in this area so important?

In 1987 Delado Dance and Drumming Company were awarded funding by Merseyside Arts. The company, who began as a community dance project and developed into a community and professional company, had been in existence since 1981 were committed 'to community, passing on skills, creating opportunity and access to the arts for local people...cultivating home grown talent with over 95%...locally born or living in the area of Liverpool 8' (1). Unfortunately in 1998 the company folded due to administrative problems. However, the funding they were awarded was set aside and earmarked for development in APD.

Established in 1993, MDI have repeatedly proven their commitment to the development of APD. In 1995 'as part of their annual application to North West Arts Board MDI initiated the task of identifying and updating the development of black dance in the Merseyside area since the report Black Dance Development on Merseyside by Susanne Burns in 1991' (2).

In 1996 MDI produced an audit detailing APD activity, key organisations and individuals supporting the work, it also highlighted that many of the recommendations made by Burns had not been achieved. The gaps in provision were clearly identified as: grass roots activity - linking with both young people and the older generation in the community; professional development - providing training opportunities in technique, choreography and administration and providing choreographic platforms for new work; archiving - lack of documentation makes evaluation of work difficult and makes it difficult for work to be visible in any historical context.

The recommendations from this audit were to establish a dance worker post specific to APD, set up regular community and professional level classes, provide administrative support, develop professional provision and touring of work and to pilot a professional dance company. A pilot project was set up in 1996/97 with further funds from North West Arts Board and Liverpool City Council to further profile 'black dance'. This incorporated, training led by local and national artists, co-commissioning of work by Badejo Arts and generally identifying ways to profile more performance work across the city.

In 1999, Dance Northwest (DNW), the national dance agency for the region, initiated a three-year project to explore the development of traditional forms of African and Caribbean dance. The reasons behind the initiation of the project were very similar to the problems identified in the 1995 report by MDI - lack of training opportunities, lack of investment, lack of local and regional focus therefore poor communication with artists delivering APD. Dance Northwest was determined to put these ideas into action.

In 2001, DNW devolved the responsibility of project delivery to MDI and Dance Initiative Grater Manchester (DIGM), both agencies employing part time APD dance workers and each approaching the project in accordance with the specific needs of their communities and therefore creating very different programmes. The final report on this project highlights its achievements and clearly shows how the APD programme has developed over the lifetime of this project. Many of the recommendations from previous reports are now in place and APD is more visible in both areas with regular classes running and some provision being made for professional level training. MDI's African Youth Summer School is now a well established project, many schools and colleges specifically request African dance workshops or projects and African dance is established on the syllabus of Liverpool Hope University, though only as part of a 'fusion' module.

More recently, moving on the recommendations from this report, Dance Northwest led by MDI and DIGM hosted parallel APD events as part of Black History Month in October 2005. DIGM's Afro Vibes Forum involved lectures, interactive discussions and practical sessions on the importance of commanding respect for yourself as an artist and maintaining standards of professionalism. MDI's Cultiv8 seminar and the three-day Cultural Awakening performance festival brought to the fore many issues facing APD artists across the UK. Speakers included: Sydney Bartley, Minister of Culture and Education for Jamaica, L'Antoinette Stines, Artistic Director of L'Acadco, Deborah Badoo, Director of State of Emergency, David Knight, Senior Lecturer at University College Lancaster and Francis Angol, Artistic Director of Movement Angol.

Again there were calls for more professional development in APD and an investment in a dance school for African and Caribbean Dance. The festival also provided a forum for exchange of ideas and already we are seeing links being made and new projects being developed. Plans for a second Cultiv8 and Cultural Awakening festival for October 2007 are well underway.

Inviting Francis Angol to Liverpool for the DARE project 2006 is a natural progression of both MDI's APD programme but also its ongoing relationship with the artist and a wish by MDI to invest in his future artistic development.

In an attempt to galvanise the relevance for the APD programme in Liverpool and the importance of professional development in APD, Maxine Brown, MDI's APD Officer interviewed Francis Angol about his experience at MDI.

Maxine Brown
- How has the DARE project been a benefit to you so far?

Francis Angol
- So far it has given me the rare opportunity to take time out for personal and professional development in the field of APD, as you know there is little structural development of the art form in this country.

MB - How is the work you are doing beneficial to the dancers you are working with at the moment?

FA - It's given them the opportunity to develop their own skills base and add to their vocabulary - adding to their global knowledge of dance and giving them an understanding of how another choreographer works, showing them another approach which they can draw upon. It's about self-development and increasing their physical vocabulary. It will allow them to take time out to work with another choreographer and see how they approach the work. They can compare this to the way they work and use it in future as a reference point. It is exposing them to another physical language and allowing them to develop in an area they are not familiar with and it will challenge them, it will allow them to step outside their box and experience another dance language, it will enhance what they have adding to their pool of knowledge - experience is never wasted. It is a platform of self-development and exploration and the opportunity to develop their own choreographic and performance skills as the artists have the opportunity to perform in the LEAP festival in March. This project will also give them the opportunity to promote and develop the art of APD in Liverpool and the UK in general and in so doing, it is helping to breakdown barriers allow a greater understanding of the art form.

MB - How do you feel the APD work at MDI can help develop work in this field?

FA - One way APD work can help in Liverpool is by not only focusing on artists themselves but to develop a programme that targets promoters, critics, theatre programmers and the educational institutions. Educating them about APD is so important because a lot of these people lack knowledge and understanding of the art form and therefore tend to shy away from it. MDI can really help by educating these people who are in effect the 'gatekeepers' of the visibility of the art form.

MB - How can we extend the field of knowledge of the local dance artists?

FA - In a number of ways, by trying to break down the dancers' own barriers towards the art form, a lot of the reasons why African and Caribbean dance is not at the level it should be here in the UK is the attitude of people, a lot of professional dancers shy away from the art form. After one workshop at MDI a young female contemporary dancer came to me an said she was glad she had taken part. She had never attended any classes in African dance before because the though she couldn't do it and was in fact afraid of the technicalities of the form, now she had taken part this barrier had been lifted. So again it's lack of understanding and exposure of to the art form.

Also, by trying to provide or create a resource where dancers can get archival information - to develop a library so dancers can come and research the form and empower themselves with the knowledge of the form.

And by bringing a wider range of technical skills to the local dance community. African and Caribbean dance is so vast, there are so many techniques, you've got to really expose artists to as much of the art form as possible, that's the only way you're going to make it more visible. Creating performance opportunities and continuing to promote them in a very serious way will really help. So often a little bit of cash is thrown at a project in the hopes that people will attend. Continuing to have a very serious approach to the practice of African and Caribbean dance is so vital. In a lot of cases when workshops and master classes are held, they are not targeted at the right people, they are often targeted at only the local community, which is great because local and community artists need that exposure but the training needs to happen at another level too. You also need to target professionals, tutors, lecturers - these people need to understand that African and Caribbean dance is a very deep an complicated art form, one which is bound up in history and culture.

MB - How relevant do you think ADP is in the UK?

FA - APD is extremely relevant in the UK, purely because APD is an integral part of British culture full stop.

MB - Do you think APD is about education or evolution?

FA - It is both about educating the masses and also about evolution, they go hand in hand. I believe in preserving tradition by adapting to the present. The present is where the evolution happens; preserving tradition is part of education, if you don't know where you come from, how do you know where you are going? And it's not just about black kids, it's about British children, whether you're Asian, Spanish, Greek, Eastern European, Turkish, it's about kids who are born and nurtured here, they need to know the history of Britain and the APD is an integral part of British culture - Britain has made it so, there's no getting away from it.

The educational side is very important too. There is a lot of vital information about the contribution black people have made to the history of Britain which has been kept locked away and therefore young people are not exposed to it in this country. We talk about cultural diversity and everyone living together as one, the only way that can happen is if everyone understands each other, respects and appreciates each other's culture. Culture is a gift to be shared and experienced not locked away or segregated or divided, it doesn't work in isolation - things evolve and develop...

MB - What is next for you now?

FA - My next move is to draw from this experience here in Liverpool with MDI, to really create a firm foundation for myself as a choreographer and for my company as a performance company working in the field of contemporary African Dance, to develop, to promote and advocate for APD. Also to really strive to create a platform of visibility for my work and in doing so, be an advocate for African Peoples Dance.

For more information about APD, LEAP or MDI contact Rachel Rogers/Maxine Brown on 0151 708 8810 or visit www.merseysidedance.co.uk

References
1. Morgan, Toni 1995- MDI Report: African Peoples Dance In Merseyside Audit, Provision 1991 - 1995 - p4
2. Gallagher, Karen 1996 - MDI Report: African Peoples Dance In Merseyside Audit, Provision 1991 - 1995 - p1

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Animated: Spring 2006