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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Apart from the Road 2
Animated, Summer 2001. The relationship between art and community work is subtle and complex, as Catherine Hale discovers in an interview with Rosemary Lee about her new work Apart from the Road
Apart from the Road was a dance project without any obvious 'choreography', with no stage, with an audience that has probably never attended a dance event before and with 'performers' some of whose lives were so beset by problems that they sometimes could not show up to 'rehearsal'. So how did this extraordinary event unfold with a team determined not to compromise artistic integrity for some kind of woolly paternalism?

Rosemary found herself in the unusual position, she says, of an 'art director', 'weaving together' the work of various participants, not least the two other artists she chose to collaborate with: filmmaker Nic Sandiland and poet Chrissie Gittins. The most important players, though, were the children themselves, a class of 25 aged eight to nine. Some of their lives are very marginalized, either because of unemployment, because they come from traveller families or because they are refugees. The emotional and social problems they experience were often portrayed in their bodies and would implode into their dancing. 'We wanted to make them less invisible and raise their status' says Rosemary. Their needs and their voice became the steering force of the artistic direction.

There were also the residents of Barking and Dagenham to consider, who were perhaps encountering dance for the first time. A series of installations in their local library seemed the best way to broach that encounter. It would be more permanent than a live performance. (This proved apt given the very transient passage of many of the children through the neighbourhood.) And it would be more intimate and locally resonant than a broadcast performance. 'It is not a theatrical work in the obvious sense, its scale is human and accessible - child-sized and non-threatening', says Rosemary.

As she described the project, Rosemary's aims and intentions in meeting the children's needs through the workshops seemed inextricable from her vision of how she wanted to portray them in the films. And this vision was itself informed by consideration of their audience. But of course, this seamless unity was forged by negotiations and challenges along the way.

Her vision for the project when she was first commissioned was dominated by the presence of the road. The A13 trunk road out of London ploughs through and fragments the communities of Barking and Dagenham on its way east - communities already undermined by high unemployment. Industrial wastelands on either side hedge its people into a concrete landscape. Exploring notions of belonging and growing up in this ostensibly alienating environment were artistically compelling at the outset. But these ideas had to be radically rethought once the children became involved.

In the first week at Marsh Green School, they all looked at a map together of the neighbourhood. Whereas Rosemary had seen barren post-industrial spaces, fertile with potential for reclaiming and re-inhabiting, the children saw only their local supermarket and garage. 'Some of them didn't really have a clue what was beyond their front door.' She realised that her vision of the place was irrelevant to them, especially as many were widely dispersed around the Borough. Trying to impose it on them would not have yielded authentic insights. More poignantly, talking about belonging in Dagenham brought up the complexity and trauma around the subject of 'home' for the many refugees in the class. By the end of the year 12 children would leave the class, many of them rehoused and moved to other schools. 'I felt it was an area I couldn't even touch on. I didn't have the training, language skills, and didn't know how to deal with what it might bring up', she recalls.

So the focus of the workshops shifted away from place to the children's identities as individuals. How they saw themselves now, in relation to their past and to their dreams and wishes for the future. Rosemary's aim was to make miniature portraits of the children both individually and as a group and to expose their personalities rather than 'polish up' their performance. 'I wanted them captured as they were - shy or confident, self aware or not -the transient nature of the class made it difficult to develop this process - even in the last week we had two new girls who have never met us before'...

One way of exploring identity was through the signature dances. The children created a solo for themselves by making shapes of the letters in their name and then giving those shapes qualities of movement or of elements that they found attractive. 'They each have the same task but their personality comes through in the choices they make about the way they move,' says Rosemary 'My aim was that each child should be equal and that everyone would have their solo filmed, no matter how far they'd come with it.'

They begin their solos solemnly, standing small and forlorn at the back of the gym before the unblinking gaze of the camera. But soon something inside them clambers out. Boys, as well as girls, leaping, shaking and shimmying for all their worth, grin ecstatically as their bodies liberate them momentarily from the hardship of everyday life. Then, hesitantly, they walk right up to the camera and sign their name, as if on the lens, with their noses. Their gaze - curious, bold or coy pierces through that of the camera. They become subjects claiming authorship, no longer the silent, nameless recipients of a 'welfare state'.

It is not just clever direction and camera technique that creates the poignancy of these videos, but the obvious fact that the children are genuinely empowered by their experience. This is an example of the union of art with social action. Rosemary says: 'Dancing gave them [the refugees] an equal status, for the first time, to the English-speaking children. Their confidence rose like wildfire within a week ... I think there's no question that the dancing improved their language skills because they could suddenly communicate through their dancing.'

The sleeping dances and the accompanying poetry about their dreams also developed from the children themselves. Here they are filmed from above rolling over on a sea of blue gym mats so they look weightless and unburdened. It grew out of the children's love for the relaxation times at the end of the workshops: 'I always wanted the sleeping theme but it became much more affirmed ... the quiet time was absolutely their favourite bit of the workshop, they craved it ... To me that was reflective of the noise in their lives, the constant presence of the television perhaps', says Rosemary.

On many occasions, the poetry and dance workshops drew inspiration from each other. Chrissie Gittins developed poems with the children based on the movement qualities they explored in the signature dances. 'The kids had a very direct experience of language though dance,' she says. 'If they were asked to freeze, they did it. They weren't asked to spell the word, they were asked to do what the word meant. It made me realise that children experience things much more strongly through their bodies than through their intellect. Certainly, it helped children with literacy problems or who had English as a second language. I would mime action and say the word at the same time so they were able to learn what it meant.'

Whilst these dances emerged very much from the needs and responses of the children, the hill dance is the one where the artists' vision emerges most clearly. The children were told to be 'weather gods' summoning in the clouds and winds. They stand in a line on Castle Green, a low man-made mound on the edge of the A13. Their procession is framed surreally against the sky, with the tops of articulated lorries sailing silently by in the foreground. This is another image, more 'dreamlike and otherworldly' of them in the landscape. 'I hope it will fit in with their poems and with their imaginings', says Rosemary.

'As far as I could see the children's need was for love more than anything.' By enabling a positive experience of their bodies, and hence of their entire being, dancing proved an ideal way to meet these needs. The challenge faced by the team was to give unconditional acceptance and permission to this class of children intensively for a whole week at a time, and then leave without undermining the discipline of the school and the authority of the teachers who are there throughout the year.

Making a work of art out of the experience was the other challenge. Despite the best intentions, there were times when encouraging free play and spontaneity conflicted with trying to direct a dance video. ('I'm my own worst enemy', says Rosemary) Some children who were extremely resistant to directions, lacking the social skills to join in with group activities, needed validation for any small thing they chose to contribute. Turning a camera on them afterwards and asking them to follow instructions seemed to them like a betrayal. Rosemary and the team have decided to resolve this dilemma in the editing by making their recalcitrance an integral part of the documents wherever possible. Unfortunately, the nature of the school setting meant that there were occasions when it was impossible to include two children with special needs in the filming. All the children are present through their poetry nonetheless.

'I had to approach the whole thing with a clear plan of how things should be - but having to cope with new children and lost children meant I could not hold on too tight - I had to be freer myself -. that was quite liberating.' The exhibition gives a delicate portrait of these children through the interrelationship of words, movement and film. But when asked about her development as an artist through the project, Rosemary was reluctant to claim merit or authorship for it in the same way as for her more 'theatrical' work. 'My aim was to let the children have fun and get excited by moving their bodies about a bit. That was enough for me. I'm so aware of some of their living conditions that I can't ask myself whether I'm being fulfilled as an artist here, it doesn't enter into my head.' Perhaps she was right. Yet, its careful elicitation of a heightened reality and its concern for authentic representation make Apart from the Road a highly crafted and compelling piece of art.

Catherine Hale, freelance writer. Email

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001