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Animated Edition - Spring 2006
An international festival and local community impact: the Woking perspective
Eckhard Thiemann, Director of Woking Dance Festival, describes how a high profile international dance festival is transforming itself into a year round programme of high quality opportunities to widen participation and increase audiences for dance
Woking is probably unique in the UK in hosting and funding a large-scale international dance festival. Woking is a relatively small, although fast-growing town of 90,000 inhabitants, set in the heart of densely populated Surrey. It enjoys excellent transport connections (London: 25 minutes with frequent trains), is a transport hub and home to a number of large businesses. Yet, when I meet people and speak about the festival, I am often surprised how many people are not aware of the town or its location, especially when talking to international colleagues. To my initial amusement and now increasing frustration - we are very often misunderstood as the Working Dance Festival or the Walking Dance Festival (and I have stopped blaming my remnant German accent for this). This linguistic confusion somehow encapsulates the special circumstances of the town and dance development within it. Woking lies on the fringes of a main cosmopolitan centre, yet it is not rural. It has local communities that range from long term residents, who have witnessed a radical transformation from historic smaller village centres to urban environments, to the largest Asian population in Surrey, to recent residents attracted to the town through its convenient location to London, Heathrow and the South East.

How does dance engage with these communities, as audiences and as participants - and how does a festival contribute to the town's cultural life and community development? These are some of the questions we frequently ask ourselves at Woking Dance Festival, and frequently discuss with our colleagues at Woking Borough Council. But before I try to present our current perspective, it is worth giving a brief glance at the history of the festival:

Woking Dance Festival started in 1995 as a biennial dance festival with initially two broad, simple aims. It aimed to put the then recently completed New Victoria Theatre 'on the map' as a dance venue and it aimed to put Woking 'on the map' as a location of a high quality arts event that will develop the town's profile well beyond its geographical location. So somehow the first aims were weighted towards audience development for the theatre and an enhanced image for the town.

Following the huge success of the first festival (then called Woking Dance Umbrella), which brought Mark Morris for the first time to the UK, the immediate question was: how do we keep the momentum, and the interest of our local audience between the festival periods. How can we ensure that the festival is sustained for the population of Woking, and how can it be embedded in the local community. The festival was then programmed by Dance Umbrella, who - as a London-based organisation - understandably could only play a limited role in leading ongoing dance development. Woking Borough Council, with some project funding from South East Arts, enabled the employment of a locally-based community dance development officer, whose brief it was to develop dance opportunities in between the festival periods and to manage the community programme during the biennial festivals.

This model - with two separate funding streams, and managerial operations, ran for nearly seven years - leading to three further festivals and a range of community initiatives, and a programme of classes.

In 2001 Dance Umbrella decided to concentrate on its London festival and to discontinue to programme regional festivals. This major change in the structure of the festival offered a welcome opportunity to reflect on the role of the festival, how it engages with the local community, how community participation connects with the artistic programme and how the non-festival period programme supports the 'main' festival. The major change was that since 2002 all aspects of the festival were brought together into a single organisation, planned, managed and delivered from Woking.

So how does a festival programme tie in with long-term community development - and how do we distinguish between the festival programme and our non-festival events? Our answer is that all our work is an encounter with high quality artists. This encounter can be in the theatre, but also outside it; it can be witnessing the art form as audience, or experiencing it as a participant. But it should be a 'special event' - an event that will be an enhanced experience beyond regular activity and provision. So we made some simple, maybe radical decisions: we do not run regular activities, such as classes, regular groups, weekly activities and long-term projects. We bring in the 'special' the 'enhanced project', the pilot of a new idea or present dance in a new location. There is a range of providers for regular dance activity. We work, for instance, in close partnership with Surrey County Arts - Dance, who manage youth dance groups across the county, including Woking. Our festival offers these groups a platform to perform and share their work, and we jointly commission new works for the Surrey County Youth Dance Company from artists appearing at the festival.

One of the main changes in 2002 in the partnership with the local authority is that Woking Borough Council now supports us with one annual grant, rather than two separate streams for the festival and the community programme. While this may seem to be a cosmetic administrative change, I believe that it underlines a fundamental belief that the artistic programme and community involvement are not mutually exclusive aims, but that only through deep intermeshing of an artistic ambitious programme with community interaction, can we sustain the impact of the festival. It also demonstrates that an international programme, which can be perceived as expensive and labour intensive is not mutually exclusive with grass-root community development. We try to break down the classic division between programming and community development. We don't have an education officer or access officer or similar posts. We have project managers, as each project has an artistic and access/education dimension.

But I suppose the other question to ask is, how can a dance festival support the vision an aims of a local authority? From the above, it is relatively easy to see how a festival can raise the profile of a town, but how does it support community development aims. Woking has a community development strategy and is currently working on an arts action plan. Woking Dance Festival features in both documents as a vehicle to deliver some of the Council's aims.

During consultation conducted for the Woking Community Strategy, the council established that the local community value personal health and well-being as well as integrated and accessible cultural services. These values are used in both the 2004 Cultural Strategy and the 2006 Arts Development Plan, which recognise the important partnership role Woking Dance Festival plays in contributing to the economic vitality of the borough as well as encouraging health and wellbeing and a spirit of innovation in how arts services are delivered.

Stephanie Carter, Arts and Events Co-ordinator for Community Services, views the grant aiding of organisations like Woking Dance Festival as 'a vital way of ensuring the provision of quality cultural services for the Borough. Woking Dance Festival provides an internationally renowned arts service for Woking that successfully engages with not just our local community, but dance audiences from across the South East.'

It is the artistic expertise of a festival that can be utilised to reach sectors of the communities who otherwise rarely engage with dance. We commissioned Carol Brown to create a site-specific performance to mark the beginning of the construction period of The Lightbox - Woking's new museum and art gallery. Carol worked with a group of over 50s and local primary school children, alongside three professional dancers to create Radiance TOPOS in Sept 2005. We presented The Kurdish Garden, a wonderful interactive dance and technology performance by Italian company TPO. The culturally diverse content of the show and the family-friendly format, led to a group visit of 50 members of the Ethnic Languages Minorities Achievement Team - most of whom had never visited a dance performance before. And in May of this year we present Oogly Boogly, an imaginative, improvisatory event for babies and their grown ups.

The festival also contributes to the Council's own strategic initiatives. Each October, Woking celebrates the Woking One World Week - a profile-raising series of events to celebrate cultural diversity and international understanding. Over the past four years WDF contributed with a professional dance performances, presenting Imlata, Sankalpam, Vincent Mantsoe and Robert Hylton as part of this week - each supported by an education and access project. We are now planning with the Woking Town Centre Management Team to bring more events into the town centre directly, free events to animate the urban spaces.

What is the future from here? I believe our relationship with the local authority will become even deeper in the future. The original main aim of the festival as an 'image enhancer' for the town will probably give way to a stronger emphasis to help deliver some of the key aims of Woking's community strategy. We are currently investigating if our biennial model is necessarily the right cycle to achieve this. Maybe more, shorter 'festival bursts' could engage even more local people without undermining the high profile of the international festival. Festivals, just like local authorities, are always in a state of change, aiming to serve the shifting demographics of our residents, audiences and communities. The relationship with our local authority is a key element of our success, and the 'package' of direct community involvement and high profile supports many of the Woking's strategic community aims.

For further information about Woking Dance Festival, contact 01483 726438 or info@wokingdancefestival.co.uk or visit www.wokingdancefestival.co.uk

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Animated: Spring 2006