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Animated Edition - Winter 2006
Alfresco - intergenerational performance
Luca Sylvestrini, Artistic Director of Protein Dance describes the process of making Alfresco a large scale intergenerational piece commissioned as part of Danseopolis, Yorkshire Dance's second community dance festival in Leeds Summer 2005
The opportunity to write about Alfresco, Protein's most recent cross-generational work within a community setting, has offered me the chance to reflect upon my role as a choreographer working within different setting. Commissioned by Yorkshire Dance as part of the second community dance festival Dansopolis, Alfresco brought together a group of 35 people aged between 2 and over 70 for a one night only on the main stage of the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. Assembled into four different groups (parents and toddlers, young people, adults and elders), the participants were actively involved in the creation of a new dance work over a period of six consecutive weekends. Alfresco is now scheduled to return to the Playhouse during British Dance Edition in February 2006.

Over the last eight years Protein Dance has been involved in a variety of educational and community choreographic projects that have gone hand in hand with the creation of the company's repertory. Although separate, these two areas of activity have been feeding each other and shared aims and values. Protein Dance's commitment to work creatively within the community sector and to develop unique projects that bring together dance and theatre lovers of all ages, abilities and walks of life is deeply connected to the company's choreographic mission. Our dance-theatre work is about observing and reflecting the complexity and diversity of human nature and the society we live in. We produce thought provoking, accessible work that audiences can relate to while offering them the opportunity to draw their own conclusions. The company's fresh blend of dance, music and text and the way we use everyday scenarios and emotions offer both professional and non-professional performers the opportunity to explore their creativity in a playful way which encourages both self discovery and team work.

The way I approach the choreographic process when I work with my company has a lot in common with the way I approach any of the community work I get to lead. This similarity relates not only to the sources and ingredients of the work but it concerns how it gets delivered. I tend to work with and around each individual involved in a project, professional and non-professional, absorbing and displaying their history, cultural identity and personality alongside their own physical and theatrical skills. At the same time I make sure that each individual contributes to the formation of a group and of a group energy capable of inspiring us all and feeding the project. I am aware of and I respect the differences of these two worlds and I am not trying to change them. In fact I tend to challenge those differences by often asking non-professional to have a professional attitude and professional to borrow the enthusiasm and spontaneity that non-professionals have.

I strongly believe that working within a community setting should not diminish the importance of commitment and artistic ambition and this is especially important when the project is performance led. It is only through a real understanding of the artistic requirements of becoming part of a creative process and performing in front of an audience that the workshop/project participants get the best out of it. Just taking part it is not enough, the art form contains all the good participatory ingredients that can make this kind of artistic experience relevant on a personal and social level and we ought to nurture them. Everyone that has worked in this field knows what extraordinary results participants can achieve by taking parts in a community project; it can improve or change personal confidence, self-esteem, enthusiasm, respect and understanding for the others.

Out of all the participatory projects that Proteins delivers, I feel particularly close to those including an intergenerational aim. I love the idea of taking people out of their own 'age club' and challenge their understanding of older or younger people. How many times in the course of our lives we have the chance to interact creatively with people of other generations? I believe that dance and theatre can offer the ideal playground where to share and learn from each other.

When I received the Dansopolis' commission I expressed my desire to be able to work towards a real intergenerational project. Having worked in this kind of setting before, I have learned that to bring different age groups together on the night of the performance does not make up for an authentic cross-generational experience. However logistically difficult it seemed, I wanted to work with the four different groups together at some stage of the process and I decided to have all of them together for the first section of the first rehearsal day. Overwhelming as it sounds, those first few hours together clarified my objectives, showed the reality of such a project and tested who was really up for it. It was a challenging start but I do not regret it. Being altogether from the start gave everyone the chance to understand the artistic potential of the project and the amount of responsibility that we all had to take in order to embark on a venture of that kind.

When working with such a large number of different people, it is crucial to select a theme that everyone can relate to. All along you have to think inclusively while trying to make the diversity of the groups an enriching source for the project. I introduced the theme of the outdoors and the title Alfresco as our common ground, a big box that could contain all their different boxes. A collective brainstorm and association game about the theme introduced all the participants to the subject matter and offered me the chance to start discovering their personality and sensitivity.

On the basis of those first discoveries I spend the following three weekends working with the four separate groups, developing their main piece of dance as well as beginning to think about their role during the ensemble moments. Time and scheduling proved to be our biggest enemies but this is normal when you are working simultaneously with several groups so different from each other. Each of them required a specific warm up, a sensible schedule and a customized working process. To build a comfortable relationship and trust with a 2 year old takes more time and a different kind of energy than working with a teenager or an adult. My assistant Bobak Walker and myself soon discovered that we had to be very sensitive, flexible and ready to revise our strategies and working methods with each one of the groups.

Inside each of the groups we had to work not only on the trust towards us but also the trust towards the other participants while continuing to facilitate their confidence with the choreographic process. However over those few weekends we came face to face with some amazing achievements, something that we would not have expected to happen so quickly and so beautifully. A two year old girl terrified about joining the group activities ended up enjoying a six minutes dance without crying or giving up while holding on and playing with her mum. Not to mention how overwhelming it was to see some of the elders coping with remembering steps and use of the space.

In the last two weekends all the four groups were brought back together to create the piece and right from the start I think everyone felt very different compared to that first day. They had already met, they knew they all had been working hard around the same theme and they could not wait to share their creative contribution to the final choreography. I was quite amazed about how quickly and nicely the four different groups melted into one. As I was putting sections together and choreographing their ensemble moments, I saw them helping each other in remembering cues, practising steps and helping with props. This incredible sense of teamwork was key to the success of Alfresco. They carried it forward on stage and the result offered everyone watching a unique theatrical experience.

Probably this was one of the most enriching working experience I have been involved in and one that will keep informing my future work with both professional a non-professional performers. It has reinforced my belief that choreography has a lot to do with understanding and discovering the people you are working with, with the way they are and with their hidden potentials. Almost certainly Alfresco gave to all the participants a unique opportunity to discover something more about themselves. Some of them took what it offered them straight away, some of them will catch it later, while others will be told by their families that they were once part of something called Alfresco.

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Animated: Winter 2006