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Animated Edition - Spring 2006
Alert to a sense of place
Dance Development Artist Joanne Thomson explores how 'council speak' can support the range of dance activities she undertakes with the people of Epping Forest
My first thoughts when I was invited to work temporarily for Epping Forest Arts, a local authority arts service, were 'where on earth is Epping and dancing for a council?' I imagined a sea of grey suits and arts activities that had long since seen any fresh creativity. Well, nearly six years later and I'm still here. This misconception is common. Yes, there is the conventional side that most local authorities find difficult to break away from, but bubbling underneath this layer is exciting, innovative and developmental arts work. Artist-led projects focus on children, young people, disabled people, older people and those at risk of being excluded from mainstream arts activities.

At Epping Forest Arts (EFA) we are lucky. We are not just an Arts Officer desperately trying to pull together many freelance artists, but we are a strong team of eight - a collection of arts managers, administrators and artists. This make up is still quite unusual and special for a Local Authority that has consistently supported the work since its inception in the late 1980's. Epping Forest District Council (EFDC) and its senior management have supported this service through consistent core funding and although occasionally we still have to fight for it, we have the freedom to run our programme as we feel best for the team and the community.

Now for the 'council speak'. EFDC policy for the arts states that:

"The Council supports the arts in recognition of the vital contribution that they make to the quality of life and to community identity; to the enhancement of the built and natural environment; to mental, physical and spiritual health; the local economy."

Through this the Council's objective is: "To enable all sections of the community to have access to a wide range of arts provision of high quality."

The Council is committed to the provision of wide, accessible opportunities for people within the district to take part in the arts as participants, spectators and as local artists. EFA acts as the strategic planning agency for the arts and provides a range of professional services in order to facilitate the development of the arts. This includes the direct provision of projects, performances, classes and workshops, run by professional artists, companies and by the Council's own artists.

This 'council speak' is important, because it is the Council that underpins the team and provides a foundation from which EFA can launch their work. They are a ready-made organisation with a face, a structured network of departments for finance, human resources, policy, public relations and much more. This support mechanism coupled with relative financial security and a large team of experienced arts professionals, who have a desire to be ambitious and inventive, creates a position whereby we can use the district as a canvas. We can creatively engage with residents and their surroundings and have the ability to be innovative and initiate groundbreaking site-specific work in our programme. In response to this Arts Council England East has acknowledged our achievements. For the third time since 2001, EFA have been given a significant award in recognition of our work that has enabled us to develop a three-year programme of projects and events that explore and celebrate Epping Forest District's community, history, heritage and environment.

The EFA artists share the same ethos and aim to work towards the same understanding of artist-led but community driven ideas and projects. This relies upon strong, healthy relationships with other organisations and establishments throughout the district and beyond. These links include schools and educational institutions, residential care homes, community centres and groups, voluntary groups, local artists plus internal connections including Sports Development, Community & Leisure teams and the countryside management team Country Care.

Dance development artist
So where does the Dance Development Artist (DDA) fit in amongst all of this? The DDA was part funded by EFDC and the Arts Council England East in the days when they financially supported developmental posts. However, in acknowledgement of the benefits that this role provides, EFDC have confirmed the status of this post by securing its financial position internally.

The DDA role involves shaping the whole arts programme in collaboration with the other members of the team. Whenever anyone has asked me about what I do I always find myself saying, 'I have the best of both worlds'. Not only do I have the regular opportunities to be inspired and creative in my teaching and choreography, but I also plan, implement, manage and evaluate projects and events on the dance programme. I find that being in touch with the community on a grass roots level, allows me to encourage individuals and groups to explore their interest in dance. I can provide support and expertise that enables them to develop their creative and physical abilities. This greatly informs how I administer and manage the developmental work. The DDA co-ordinates freelance dance teachers and visiting companies and integrates their work with on-going activities in the district. It is also important for them to work in close collaboration with other artists to ensure the inclusion of dance in multi-art form projects. It is essential for the DDA to value the links that are made with those that are associated with dance locally and to ensure close consultation with county and regional dance agencies to guarantee a district and national overview.

Dance programme and initiatives
One of the main priorities of EFDC is children and young people. Therefore much of the dance programme is dedicated towards providing creative, accessible and high quality dance experiences for this age group. This also includes specific projects and events to encourage boys' participation. In order to establish a much needed infrastructure to support local after school youth dance activity, Youth Dance Is On The Move was created. This initiative works towards supporting parents and freelance dance teachers to be responsible for their own dance provision. Making youth dance sustainable allows the DDA to continue developing and reaching out to other schools and groups whilst providing ownership and a supportive network.

Throughout the year the youth dance programme is structured through workshops, one-off and intensive projects, educational residencies, site-specific work and community dance performance platforms. This has incorporated work with various dance artists and companies locally, nationally and internationally. Companies visiting the district this year include Badejo Arts, Irie! Dance Theatre and in partnership with essexdance New York based dance and technology company Troika Ranch.

Arts Alert and A Sense of Place are umbrella initiatives that focus on offering intensive arts experiences for disabled people and older people. Both programmes work in partnership with either those providing education and care for people with physical disabilities, behavioural and/or learning disabilities or older people in residential care centres and sheltered housing schemes. Dance, film, photography, music and creative writing are all used along with the participant's own experiences and memories to produce meaningful work, performances and exhibitions.

Glimpses of the Inferno was a mid-scale event based loosely upon Dante's epic poem The Divine Comedy. The performance was a culmination and celebration of a year-long project involving six dance and multi-media artists from across the globe. In collaboration with primary, secondary school pupils, students with physical and learning difficulties and local amateur musicians, the project was artistically ambitious as it sought to combine professional artists work with material created by the performers. It was a great success for all involved as each artist and participant came away having explored new ways of working and learnt new skills and confidence in devising and performance.

At Epping Forest Arts we have a long-standing tradition of creating night time lantern lit performance events. In collaboration with Country Care these events promote community awareness and enhance the quality of local nature reserves through environmental arts practice. Bird Song explored ways of creating an installation with dance, visual arts and storytelling. Silk bird puppets guided the audience through the magical wood. Lanterns were woven into the trees and platforms for dance and storytellers were hidden in the bushes. This work is currently being further developed in partnership with Country Care to include artists working as mediators or facilitators engendering relationships between people and between people and place.

In conclusion, these are words and priorities that when combined together create the philosophy and emphasis that the EFA team is continuously striving towards:
  • Structure
  • Support Network
  • Financial Security & Growth
  • Expertise
  • Creative Team
  • Innovative Local Authority
  • Experience
  • Commitment
  • High Quality
  • Inspiring
  • Accessibility
  • Developmental.
The relationship between a council and an arts team is not always straightforward. But when there is a strong commitment to working in collaboration, all partners benefit. From the young to the old, with people of all abilities, from counsellor to the creative artist, this can really push forward the boundaries and be forward thinking in its future arts and dance development.

Joanne Thomson can be contacted on 01992 564558 or email

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Animated: Spring 2006