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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Arriving on the tide
Animated, Autumn 1999. Take four commissioning bodies: Canary Wharf, The South Bank, Greenwich Dance Agency and Greenwich and Docklands International Festival, add three artists: Wendy Houstoun, Rosemary Lee and Noel Wallace, performing at three sites, all connected by the Thames, and an audience which arrives on the tide, Brendan Keeney talks frankly about Take Me to the River, an inspired site-specific adventure in the heart of the city
Somebody asked me what I felt about Take Me to the River and I replied that it was pretty much a defining moment for Greenwich Dance Agency (GDA). I suppose if I had thought about the answer a little longer, I would have said that it was pretty much a defining moment for me, as director of GDA.

I must confess that from time to time, my mouth works in advance of my brain and as a rule I do try to carefully monitor my output. However, there are occasions when my enthusiasm overrides my reason and the end result is more positive than one might imagine. I strongly suspect that if I had really stopped to think, and I mean really think, about the consequences of embarking on Take Me to the River, I wonder whether I would have really made the commitment to the project.

It all began in 1996 with a conversation between Theresa Byrgne, the arts and entertainment's manager at Canary Wharf; Alastair Spalding, dance and live arts programmer at the South Bank, and myself. I had just started my new job as director of GDA and I desperately wanted to develop the artistic profile of the organisation and expand our producing role. We shared a common belief that black box theatres provide just one type of canvas for dance artists and that there is an index of possibilities to be investigated through site-sensitive works. We also knew that new audiences needed nurturing with custom-built performance programmes. Finally, we were unanimous in our excitement about the possibility of linking our three buildings by some kind of river journey.

Many conversations ensued as we tried to agree exactly what it was we wanted to do. The process was rather like putting together a jigsaw, we had a number of component pieces, but we were struggling to complete the picture. We knew we wanted to commission three pieces of dance and link them by boat. However, there were a number of questions that needed to be resolved, for example, should we invite one choreographer to oversee the whole event or should we involve three separate artists?

In retrospect, it is quite difficult to plot exactly what and when things began to fall into place. I suppose the first big break for GDA came when we secured our Arts for Everyone (A4E) Lottery award. For the first time the dance agency had some real spending power and we could now pull our weight with our more affluent neighbours. In reality, GDA has never had a commissioning budget. The relatively modest core grant that we receive from the arts funding system, represents less than a fifth of our annual income and simply supports our core programme of activity. Whilst we make every effort to ensure that any earned income, which we receive through the hire of our space, goes directly to supporting artists, if we wish to undertake any large-scale projects, we have to raise the money.

Unfortunately, the A4E award, plus the contributions from the South Bank, Canary Wharf and Greenwich and Docklands International Festival (GDIF), did not provide anything like enough finance to mount the project and we had to embark on a serious fund-raising campaign. The shortfall between our commissioning money, the in-kind support that the separate commissioning organisations could provide (through in-house marketing expertise, rehearsal space, etc.) and the projected earned income from box office receipts and programme sales, still left us with a shortfall of over £40,000.There were nail biting moments and some bitter disappointments; throughout the process it seemed as though when each challenge was resolved another obstacle loomed.

I do not think there was ever a time when we did not harbour some niggling doubts about the feasibility of the project. Even at the last moment we wondered why we had thought it a good idea to invest such a substantial amount of effort and resources in an epic dance adventure the success of which was contingent on it not raining over two successive weekends in July.

There were so many critical moments in the early stages of the process. But probably one of the most memorable setbacks arose when Theresa Byrgne left Canary Wharf to take up a new job. Would her successor, Bill Gee, want to embrace the project with the same commitment and enthusiasm that she had brought to the initial planning process? At that stage the project was pretty much a concept, and a half formed one at that. In addition, it was also apparent that Take Me to the River seemed to take up a disproportionately large amount of time and it also required a substantial amount of, as yet, unsecured funding.

Fortunately, Bill Gee's position was clear from the start, he liked the idea and despite having to deal with the trauma that comes with a move to London and a substantial new workload, he was determined to knock the project into shape. GDIF came on board a little later - they were justifiably apprehensive at first - the project was still at a development stage and required substantial resources. In addition, GDIF needed to be certain that Take Me to the River sat comfortably within overall festival programme and the fact that they were not involved in the preliminary discussions diluted their initial sense of ownership of the project However, Bradley Hemmings, director of GDIF, is a great supporter of dance; he recognised that we had identified the kernel of a good idea and wanted to make Take Me to the River work.

As the discussions continued the size and scale of the task became more apparent. We were multiplying all the possible difficulties that one might encounter in making a site-specific work by three and then throwing in a boat journey for good measure. Producing one new piece of dance is a substantial undertaking, however Take Me to the River was a complete different ball game. There were four producing organisations with different agendas, managing three different production budgets, engaging in three separate sets of negotiations with the authorities responsible for each site. Then there was the detail; we would need a small army of stewards and technicians for each site and who would be responsible for the box office arrangements? The key issue was communication, we knew that the process needed to remain inclusive, however, we were also aware that given the number of organisations and individuals involved, it would be impossible to keep everybody fully briefed on the detail of every development. Fortunately, we had already invited Penny Andrews to manage the project and as the problems became apparent she just kept finding solutions.

Having discussed all the possible permutations in some detail we successfully applied for a modest Research and Development grant from London Arts Board to undertake the first practical work. We wanted to ensure that the event celebrated the diversity of dance practice that currently takes place in London, and we concluded that it was not practical to invite one choreographer to make the three separate pieces of work. It was impossible to think of one person who would be available, have the time to commit to a project of this scale and have the profile to attract the required audience numbers. After considerable deliberation, we invited Wendy Houstoun, Rosemary Lee and Noel Wallace to join; and showed them a number of sites in the environs of Greenwich, Canary Wharf and the South Bank. We were also aware that the whole event would require some form of artistic canopy and as a result we invited a writer to join us whose brief was to produce some form of a written stimulus for the choreographers.

The dance artists were asked to select their favoured sites and submit a short proposal outlining how they would respond to the spaces. Fortunately there was no need for discussion or arbitration, Rosemary Lee opted for Greenwich, Wendy Houstoun chose Canary Wharf and Noel Wallace wanted to work at the South Bank. If only everything could have been that simple! It became apparent that the writer's socio-historic perspective did not marry with the thrust of the choreographer's proposals, and we reluctantly concluded, our plans to provide some form of artistic unity, needed a rethink.

What emerged some 18 months later were eight performances over two glorious weekends in July of this year. In reality, to describe Take Me to the River as a performance rather understates the whole experience. The audience assembled at the Painted Hall in the former Naval College in Greenwich where Rosemary Lee presented The Banquet Dances - a cross-generational piece that drew its cast of over 50 non-professional dancers from across London, and the local community. The work was inspired by the space and the performers; the end result was a glorious and emotional celebration of time and the ageing process. The spectators were then shepherded to Greenwich pier and ferried, in a charted boat, to Canary Wharf, where Wendy Houstoun had created a surreal pastiche of a village fete. Houstoun's extremely irreverent interpretation of the traditional English summer celebration provided an excellent vehicle for her unique cocktail of comedy and social comment. After another boat journey from Canary Wharf to the South Bank, and some three hours from when the audience had first entered the Painted Hall, they were now sat on the roof of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The final piece, by Noel Wallace, was inspired by the aspirations of the immigrants who arrived in England in the 1950s from the Caribbean, and the reality that confronted them. John Avery had created a specially commissioned soundscape, that was relayed to the audience for both legs of the boat journey, influenced by the themes of the different dance pieces and featured readings from the works of writer Ian Sinclair.

In our marketing campaign, we subtitled Take Me to the River as a Dance Adventure. However, it was not just an adventure for the audience, it also represented an extraordinary journey for us as a producing organisation. On a practical level we had created a unique opportunity for the choreographers to make new work. We had navigated (excuse the nautical metaphor) a logistical nightmare; for example, did you know that a change in the tide can add 15 minutes to the boat journey from Greenwich to the South Bank? Throughout the project, we juggled with a budget that represented over half the annual turnover of Greenwich Dance Agency: Can you imagine the havoc that such a scenario might play with our cash flow? But, most importantly, we managed to attract almost 2000 people over the two weekends (the boat had a capacity of 250) and they were one of the most diverse audiences that I have ever seen at a dance event.

So why was Take Me to the River a defining moment? On a simple level, we have never embarked on a project that managed to achieve so many of our overall aims such as supporting artists; commissioning new work; creating employment opportunities; developing new audiences and raising the profile of dance. However, perhaps the most important achievement for GDA was the synergy that the whole process engendered between our community, education and professional programme areas. It provided us with an opportunity to look above the parapet and ignore the parameters within which we all too often feel forced to operate. It is amazing how liberating that additional bit of investment can be!

Brendan Keeney, director, Greenwich Dance Agency. Contact +44 (0)20 8293 9741.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001