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Animated Edition - Spring 2003
ArtistLink
Jacqueline Gray is director of Hampshire Dance, here she talks about Artistlink, a professional development members scheme for local dancers
I joined Hampshire Dance as its first full-time Dance Director in August 1999 and quickly became aware that Hampshire boasted a relatively buoyant, yet essentially fragmented local dance ecology. This consisted of well-established national artists such as Vidya Thirunarayan, co-director of Sankalpam and Sacha Lee co-director of Retina Dance Co. and regional dance companies Ginger Dance Theatre and Soma/Numa. A number of independent dancers, teachers and final year dance studies students also helped make up the dance community.

Support for local dance artists had developed on a project-by-project basis, as funding allowed. Examples of this included commissioning dance artist Detta Howe for Shed in 1994, which led to the formation of regional dance company Ginger Dance Theatre and developing four weekend choreographic intensives in 98/99 facilitated by leading artists such as Kim Brandstrup and Jeremy James under the Choreographic Creators series.

Additionally, the southern region had benefited from a clear and strategic steer from the dance department of what was then Southern Arts Board (Arts Council England - South East), which helped to support a framework of dance agencies (Swindon Dance, Hampshire Dance, Bucks Dance) and local dance providers and linked us together to offer a regional map of professional development opportunities in the south.

Finding the resources to sustain professional development opportunities at local level was challenging. One of our key priorities continues to be nurturing and supporting our local dance community - the people we rely upon to create an exciting and vibrant local dance network. ArtistLink, a members' scheme offering ongoing professional development for local dance artists, dance practitioners and advance level students was set up two years ago to answer this need.

This was a grassroots initiative, responding to open meetings and questionnaires from the dance constituency. Gathering evidence of this need enabled us to secure one-off strategic funding from the former regional arts board to instigate a plan for ongoing development. This seed funding was used as leverage to secure initial partnership funding and in-kind support from the county council and two local authorities.

ArtistLink offers a range of continual professional development opportunities. These include regular advanced level technique classes, day and weekend intensives and open company class with visiting artists. In addition, we host network meetings, offer reduced hire studio space at The Point and work in partnership with the education authority to provide INSET training for teachers.

A regular newsletter The Link, and an e-group keeps members informed of the latest news, courses and vacancies both locally and nationally.

ArtistLink is about local skills support. One success of the scheme is the ability of the agency to respond to local needs, resources permitting. In addition to inviting national artists to Hampshire, we also encourage ArtistLink members to develop their own practice by engaging them, for example, to lead technique classes, choreographic workshops and to offer peer mentor support.

Co-Director of Soma/Numa and college lecturer, Debbie Lee-Anthony sums up her experience of ArtistLink. 'The regular technique classes are paramount to my ongoing development as a dancer, nurturing and encouraging me in aspects of mind, body and spirit. The opportunity to teach other professionals further pushes and challenges my teaching practice. This in turn keeps my self-confidence up, so easy to lose if one is not teaching other professionals on a regular basis.'

Responding to local needs of promoters and ArtistLink members led to Hampshire Dance commissioning six of its dancers in 2002 to create a piece suitable for performance at a number of outdoor summer festivals in Hampshire. Tiring of 'jaunty juggling acts' and 'crazy contortionists' Basingstoke & Deane's arts development officer Rob Iliffe asked the simple question, 'what about dance?' when programming the summer arts festival. Conscious that many ArtistLink members wished to have more performance opportunities, this was an obvious chance for Hampshire Dance to bring the two together through an ArtistLink commission.

Six local dancers were invited to work together, forming the company Brownian Motion, to create a work suitable for three festivals in Basingstoke, Eastleigh and Andover. Having worked recently with Lois Taylor and Attik Dance during its tour of Gut Reaction, we felt that Lois' experience of dance for unusual spaces was ideal for this project. Lois was delighted to be approached to act as director and mentor for the festival commission, which also involved experienced local choreographer and ArtistLink member, Debbie Lee-Anthony, as an outside eye.

As Lizzie Swinford, a dancer on this project described, 'Not everyone is an entrepreneur. When people are not at a stage where they feel ready to strike out on their own they may need a kick start and for six dancers in Hampshire the foundation of Brownian Motion provided just that last summer.' Lizzie added, 'although slightly unsure of ourselves at first, we grew in confidence as we worked together. By the end of the making process I think we were all pretty impressed by what we had seen in each other.'

On recently moving to Hampshire from Newcastle, Karen Piper was initially sceptical about the local dance opportunities that would be available and was preparing herself to travel to Brighton or London. Karen applied successfully to be in the performance group and says 'perhaps the most enjoyable aspect was the support from ArtistLink to commission this piece. This was a wonderful opportunity for myself, particularly being new to the region. The entire experience was huge amounts of fun and a great learning experience'

Dance artists and practitioners often work in isolation and have limited opportunity to network and learn of what peers and colleagues are doing. Through The Link newsletter, the ArtistLink email group and regional events, local practitioners can make invaluable contacts, often leading to their own informal networks, work opportunities and friendships. It is important that dancers remain proactive in this and attend meetings and events, where possible. To help facilitate this, Hampshire Dance and The Point arranged a 'Meet The Neighbours' event in November 2002 to encourage new contacts and an awareness of the new, bigger Art Council England South East region for its dance artists and practitioners.

Another area of professional training we offer is a unique accredited training course for practitioners wishing to work with disabled people. The course, DanceCaperBility, is a seven-day foundation course suitable for disabled and non-disabled practitioners, artists and those working on a regular basis with disabled people.

Development of the course was in direct response to the wishes of our local dance practitioners, who felt they lacked knowledge and experience in this important area of work, and had no opportunity to acquire these skills. We were very lucky to have pockets of existing good practice in Hampshire on which to base this area of training. In particular, Horndean Community School has hosted an established performance group of learning disabled adults, Commonweal, for a number of years. In addition, dance worker Penny Rance has been leading this work locally for the past eight years, almost as a one-woman crusade.

Building on Penny's experience, we were able to develop a foundation course involving leading practitioners who work with a range of abilities and disabilities. The course included members of CandoCo, Wolfgang Stange of AMICI, Jasmine Pasch, The Place Dance Services working with RNIB and local disabled dance groups.

Following the course in spring 2001, new opportunities for disabled children and young adults to attend dance classes were created, through mentoring support and shadowing opportunities for participants of the DanceCaperBility course. Course member Lizzie Swinford commented, 'as someone with an interest in dance and disability, the first steps into this area of work appeared a bit of a mystery. Hampshire Dance's DanceCaperBility course was an excellent antidote to this uncertainty. A series of weekend workshops with experts and practitioners provided windows into different working methods and opportunities for sharing and discussion amongst participants. For me it was an eye-opening and memorable event, which was put into context through the shadowing and mentoring some months later.'

The second DanceCaperBility training course began in spring 2003, in partnership with King Alfred's College, Winchester. Course tutors include Adam Benjamin, Jasmine Pasch, members of Anjali, a learning disabled dance company and StopGap, an integrated dance company. Disabled participants have been actively encouraged through targeted publicity and full training bursaries. Four of the present course members are physically disabled and/or learning disabled.

One of the challenges for us on devising the course is to ensure that accreditation may be achieved by all participants in a way that allows for each person's ability and access requirements, whilst satisfying the academic level set by King Alfred's College. A journal recording the personal development of each participant is primarily used in this and may be submitted in a variety of formats, including audio-recorded self-reflection and video evidence of any current work of the group. The range of people and their varied life and teaching experiences, have greatly enriched the learning experience and peer group support offered by this course.

Much of our work is developed through strong partnerships and working relationships. Hampshire Dance is based at The Point in Eastleigh, a regional dance venue, and benefits from in-kind support for elements of our artistic programme. In May 2002, I was thrilled to be invited by the regional arts council on a Go See with colleague Lucy Frazer, Dance Development Manager at The Point to visit Le Centre Choreographique National in Le Havre, northern France. The visit was inspirational on a number of levels.

The choreographer in residence is presently Hervé Robbe, who is supported by Company Director, Carole Rambaud. During the visit, we learned of the excellent level of support for its artists that the French arts funding system provides, where choreographers and their directors are employed on three-year contracts and assigned to one of a network of national choreographic centres across France. The company dancers are employed for extended periods to work with the choreographer AND are paid by the state for the times when the company is not rehearsing or performing. The facilities at the Choreographic Centre in Le Havre are fantastic and are largely dedicated for the use of the resident company, including full technical support and flexible studio theatre space.

The Centre is supported by neighbouring theatre, Le Volcan, an impressive building erupting out of the ground as its name implies. During our visit, we were thrilled to attend the performance by La Compagne Montalvo-Hervieu of its exhilarating and highly entertaining performance, Babelle Heureuse. Visits like this one can be inspirational on a number of levels and have helped greatly in informing our vision for a new strategic partnership between Hampshire Dance and The Point. The over-arching aim of this vision is to bring together two key dance organisations to develop a Centre of Excellence for dance in the region. A cornerstone of this is our wish to increase the opportunities for regional and national artists to develop and thrive and to continue improving the support for our local dance ecology.

When considering ongoing development of the artform, the artist and the agency or organisation it is easy to forget oneself in the day to day reality of making the things we do work. Visits like the one to France are highlights, but how do we continue to nurture ourselves? Peers, colleagues and mentors are very important. I am lucky to be part of Dance Managers support programme, developed by Arts Council England, and facilitated by Lyn Howells. The group meets for the third time shortly and includes dance managers from across the country. Being part of the group is both stimulating and comforting. It is reassuring to know that we often wrestle with the same problems and can empathise and encourage each other as we navigate our daily work challenges and take time to celebrate when work or life goes well - including one marriage and three babies over the short time we have been a group, though not between group members!

Jacqueline Gray is director of Hampshire Dance, email info@hampshiredance.org.uk or visit www.hampshiredance.org.uk

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Animated: Spring 2003