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Audiences of the present
Animated, Autumn 1999. Susana Garcia and Nigel Warrack contemplate the value placed on childrens dance and report on the recent debate on Dance and Theatre Provision for Children in the UK and Abroad, part of The Flying Gorillas Day at Ballroom Blitz 99

One of the things that prompted us to arrange this discussion was the variety of labels that people have tagged on to our show. When we perform in schools, it is called education work. In special schools it is therapy. Theatres book us in the name of widening access. We never seem to be doing what we like to think we are doing, which is making art for children. The notion of dance as art for children seems to be problematic for the English. The comparison with other countries is embarrassing; the comparison with other artforms humiliating.

Literature is perhaps the best example. Most book shops have rows of children's classics - famous works of art for children, many of them equally enjoyed by adults. Winnie the Pooh is now available in Sanskrit. Several months ago the Charing Cross Road was awash with 11 year olds queuing to spend their pocket money on the latest Harry Potter novel by Joanne Rowling. Most nine year olds who read one Roald Dahl book will get through the whole collection and in the process become hooked on reading for life. It is hard to imagine that any of these authors set out to educate, to provide therapy or to widen access. They were making art for children.

The film Antz is, apparently, a children's film. It features cutting edge animation and has a performance by one the century's comic geniuses, Woody Allen. Its story achieves philosophical depth without claiming to be 'issue based' and it gets top billing in the big cinemas. It is a mainstream work of art for children. As was Toy Story, Beauty and the Beast, Mary Poppins and so on.

In music the list is longer, and includes Schumann's Kinderszenen, Ravel's Mother Goose Suite, Prokovief's Peter and the Wolf and Benjamin Britten's The Young Persons Guide to the Orchestra. Peter Maxwell Davies, one of our most important avant-garde composers, began his career writing for young people at Cirencester Grammar School and continues to work with children from Hoy Primary School in the Orkney Islands. Miles Davies and Dizzy Gillespie have both been regular guests on Sesame Street. But what about dance? Well, Sir Frederick Ashton choreographed Tales from Beatrix Potter... and that is about it. However, the story is quite different abroad and here we offer several brief comparisons with other countries. On a recent project in Kerala, South India, we were invited to conduct workshops for three children's theatre companies set up by former pupils of the late Professor G. Sankara Pillai, something of a guru in contemporary Indian theatre but almost unheard of here; although several noted directors, amongst them Sir Peter Brooke, travelled to Kerala especially to train with him. Pillai's stated belief that no community is complete without a water supply, cultivable land, a place of worship and a theatre, was enough to inspire us to go and find out more. The level of skill and creativity in each of the three companies was astonishing and frankly terrifying to someone who was supposed to be teaching them. The level of integration of dance, music and theatre was far more advanced than anything we have seen in England.

We have been saying England rather than Britain because one of the countries that does it better is Scotland. On a recent visit to the Scottish International Children's Festival, we were entertained and inspired by companies from Canada, Ireland and Scotland. Some of the works were major new commissions, others were pieces which had been researched and refined over several years; allowing these professional companies to present work with creative depth and technical excellence.

When touring in Holland we noticed that performance for children, usually including dance, is simply accepted as part of any mainstream theatre programme - not an education or outreach programme - they just seem to believe in art for children as well as adults.

England lags desperately behind in terms of quantity as well as quality. Other artforms do it better; abroad does it better.

This was the premise from which the debate started. Many issues were touched on; but for convenience and clarity we have placed them under the following headings, from a transcription by Sara Houston. (See panel)

The panel comprised

  • Sue Hoyle (SH), general manager, Contemporary Dance Trust and panel chair

  • Brian Bishop (BB), children's programmer, Warwick Arts Centre

  • Tony Graham (TG), director, Unicorn Theatre for Children

  • Nigel Warrack (NW), joint artistic director, The Flying Gorillas.

Contributors from the audience

  • Susana Garcia (SG), joint artistic director, The Flying Gorillas

  • Emma Gladstone (EG), programmer, The Place Theatre

  • Judi McCartney (JMcC), general manager, IndependDance

  • Colin Marsh (CM), general manager, IndepenDance.

Children, as 'first time users' of the arts, deserve the highest standards, otherwise we risk putting them off for life
TG:
There is only one position that we all have to take and it is that we have to aspire to a level of art and of artistry because that is ultimately all we have got. The market driven activities that we are all susceptible to, the idea that we are somehow an adjunct to literacy development is a road to nowhere. To some extent we have colluded with our own marginalization because we are not prepared to look people in the eye and say what we do when we work with children is the same as anybody does when they are creating art for any audience.
SG: When you are creating a piece of work, you are not thinking: Is anyone going to like this? Rather, do I like it? Do I think it is exciting, do I think it is funny? If you spend your whole time worrying about the children's, or an audience's reaction, you lose the artistic impulse and you will probably end up being condescending.
BB: The reason we programme for children is not because we are hoisted by our own petard to our marketing department, but because children are members of the community of the West Midlands that we serve; and as such they deserve the best in all the artforms that we programme, as does anyone else. Children are audiences of the present; they are not audiences of the future.
TG: At the Unicorn one of our mottoes is that we have to rise to the level of a child's imagination.

Children are not valued in English society
TG
: Children are second class citizens. They have no economic status and therefore do not take value in so far as the people who decide the rules in our society are concerned; and of course, the funding responds to that. I think one of the reasons other societies do it better is to do with the way children are perceived. We know that in other European societies children are more welcome in cafes, more welcome in public places; whilst here they are always a nuisance.
NW: Children let you know what they think - if they are interested you can here a pin drop, and if you are funny they laugh out loud. If you are boring you get shouts of "boring!" which you do not get from an adult audience unless you do stand-up comedy.
BB: A lot of people working in theatre do not think children are intelligent enough to understand art, so they do not see children as a legitimate audience.
SG: There is some work which is just not suitable for children and some of that work is excellent. There is no point in forcing artists to work with children if they do not want to. The problem is that if you do choose to work with children no one takes you seriously and it is even more difficult to get support.
EG: I think there are two things about dance. One is, because it is so easy to participate - in that the companies use it educationally - but not professionally. It is still seen as a Cinderella artform and artists are still struggling for it to be seen as a serious and established form and that creates a sort of preciousness which does not encourage professional children's work. The other reason is, that most contemporary work that is made is abstract; and people think it is hard for children to link into things which do not have narrative in the obvious sense.
TG: If you look in The Guardian just before Christmas this year Michael Billington will talk about the importance of children's theatre, and he will say that it is more imaginative than 95 per cent of what goes on in theatre for adults. Where is Michael Billington the rest of the year? We happen to have one extremely good critic in The Guardian, Lynn Gardner, who actually does engage in this debate. But editors, let alone the critics, do not want to know.
NW: Really the only way to get critics to come to see children's shows is to ask the female ones who have children.
EG: This is another issue. I have kids, but there are very few dancers who have got children and in our office at The Place, with a dozen people around me, I am the only one with a child. Alistair (Spalding) does not have children; John (Ashford) does not have children; Val (Bourne) does not have children, The three main people in London do not have children.

Children's work has no economic value
JMcC
: Many years ago I managed Janet Smith and Dancers and one of the pieces, called Enchanted Places, was actually based on the Winnie the Pooh Stories. We went from one night stands to three or four nights, or even full weeks in theatres. The theatres would have taken shows like this again and again; but it was not seen as art, and there was no status to it. Theatres knew they were going to get an audience because families came along, so there was huge potential.
NW: We did a season at Riverside Studios with The Flying Gorillas last year. In the course of one week, with day time schools shows, we performed to over a 1000 children. On the Saturday many of them came again, this time bringing their parents. The box office calculated that they had 80 adults from the local community entering the theatre to see a live show for the first time. The person in charge of their audience-building programme loved us.

Suggestions for a way forward
SH
: People should write to Action for Children's Art.
TG: Also join the Association of Professional Theatres for Children and Young People (APT). Ten years ago the state of play in Scotland was pretty poor. There was TAG which was like the national touring company for young people; but there was not much else, certainly in terms of funding. Ten years on the Scottish Arts Council decided to allocate 20 per cent of its funds to children's work. So 20 per cent of every funding initiative - every public scheme - has to involve children. So I wrote to The Stage a week after this happened, and said that I thought this was interesting. If 20 per cent of the population is children then it seems quite a reasonable thing to happen in England as well as Scotland, does it not? There as a resounding silence from the Arts Council of England.
BB: Writing letters to David Blunkett or Chris Smith is obviously helpful. It strikes me that if you want to raise the profile of this then you want to get a group of people together.
EG: If there is a debate with dance or with theatre that we could put on in the season (Spring Loaded), I would be really happy to.
NW: I know I have only come with problems not solutions but certainly if this debate can continue at a higher level then we are moving forward.

Susana Garcia and Nigel Warrack, joint artistic directors, The Flying Gorillas.
Transcript from a debate at The Voice Box, South Bank Centre, London,
31 July 1999. Contact the Flying Gorillas on +44 (0)20 8362 5595 or email n.warrack@mdx.ac.uk

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001