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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Apart from the Road 1
Animated, Summer 2001. A collection of whispered poems and miniature dances drawn from the urban landscape at the edge of East London... Laraine Fisher speaks candidly about this significant initiative

Deep within the confines of a local civic library a group of children have quietly taken over... Apart from the Road is a dance, film and poetry installation that opened in Barking Central Library on 28 June 2001. It is the culmination of a year-long project led by director and choreographer Rosemary Lee, filmmaker Nic Sandiland and poet Chrissie Gittins with pupils at Marsh Green Primary School in Dagenham. Marsh Green is a tiny primary school located in outer East London, dwarfed by the giant Ford Dagenham car works factory and adjacent to the busy A13 trunk road. Over the past year, the artists have been intermittently in residence at the school as well as filming the children at different locations around the Borough.

The long-term nature of this project meant that it could develop organically. Originally, it was set to explore the children's notion of home and identity in the Borough's industrial and residential landscape. But the transient nature of the school population - some of the children are refugees, others are in some form of care or foster home, several have been placed there on a short-term basis before being moved to a more permanent location; raised difficult issues requiring sensitive handling and a high degree of flexibility by all partners. Each time the artists returned to the school, for example, new faces greeted them. Furthermore, because the project spanned two academic years one of the original class teachers changed too which raised a number of issues. Would the new teacher want to take the project on in addition to her already full workload? Fortunately, through a process of nurturing and mentoring from within the school, she was fully prepared for the project and a willing partner.

Apart from the Road has been very much artist-led. Rosemary chose the location, the participants - in this case, children - and the type of project she wanted to do. As the commissioning body, it was East London Dance's role to broker connections, partnerships and dialogues where none existed previously. These were developed throughout the project and have been integral to its success. They can of course produce the most rewarding outcomes as well as major frustrations. Nevertheless, without a dynamic team of partners equally committed to the project the problems encountered could have been far greater. As the commissioning body we had to be 'multi-lingual' - communicating and mediating effectively between the artists, the school, the library, the arts department at Barking and Dagenham Council and all the project funders - talking a number of different languages at any one time - making the right approach and saying the right things.

The library agreed to take on an unusual role and additional workload by hosting the installation. Convincing the school and the library about the project was not difficult - but the scenario may have been very different. How, for example, do you talk about the creative dance process with someone who does not have a frame of reference about what it involves? It became evident that this needed to be done by the artists themselves - a necessity to meet with project partners and talk about what they wanted to do, their aspirations, stating the case and making the arguments - and it worked.

Such a process, however, demands a high level of trust as well as flexibility - both have been significant elements of the project. The school had to trust the artists to work with the children off-curriculum on dance, poetry and film, and to argue for the disruption of the core national curriculum. Equally, we as the commissioning body were required to take a back seat during the creative process. We were fortunate - the artists rose to the challenges with integrity, sensitivity and discretion.

But what happens when project partners are not so supportive? Or they do not buy-in fully to the concept? How do you create a dialogue when a relationship is difficult and at the worst unsupportive and hostile? It can be hard to accept that others do not believe in the project as you do.

Site-specific work is an effective way of tackling problems such as this - it challenges existing notions of the theatrical experience and, arguably, makes the arts far more visible and therefore accessible. Apart from the Road is placed within the very fabric of the library - amongst the books, the overhead information signs, filing cabinets and reading desks. Going to see a production in a theatre is far more tangible than visiting the library but actually, what could be more natural. We hope that the location of the project will capture audiences who would never have gone to see it in a more conventional theatrical location or even engage those who are hostile to the arts.

In East London site-specific projects are not only a practicality - Barking and Dagenham does not have a theatre - it is a pivotal way of making the arts part of the fabric of people's lives - perhaps even make art less rarefied and more of a norm. So how do you monitor such a long-term outcome? More projects of a similar nature would be one way, but what about less tangible or quantifiable outcomes? How, for example, do you quantify a child's growth in confidence? What value do you give to a child having the opportunity to take part in a project such as this? The processes involved in creating Apart from the Road have been as important as the final installation itself, if not more so. Yet the actual installation is small and does not reflect the process of creation, which has been so vital to its success. So how do you tell people about it? Perhaps it is the wider issue of raising the profile and recognising the value of community arts in general. After all, without this hands-on experience where artists meet communities we might not have growing audiences or even artists for the future.

Laraine Fisher, general manager, East London Dance. Contact +44 (0)208 2791050. Email office@eastlondondance.org

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001