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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Barging in
Animated, Summer 2001. The Leeds to Liverpool Canal in Merseyside slices through industrial and urban landscapes - the contrasts are marked. Karen Gallagher offers an insight into an initiative, which encompassed the extremities and diversity of the canal's transient communities and those that live in its vicinity. And speaks candidly about the creation of a pioneering strategy, which is placing dance firmly in the minds of local and national government policymakers, funders, private business and the communities themselves

'At first the canal-side passers-by didn't know how to engage with the work or us and we didn't really know how to respond to them. On occasions they made great pretence to ignore what was going on only taking a second glance when they were a safe distance away. Sometimes they went to great lengths to completely avoid the dance while others didn't bat an eyelid and carried on walking right through the duet, regardless of everything. Perhaps the most memorable being the extraordinary group of women who had walked the whole length of the canal from Leeds to Liverpool and who, even after their long trek, seemed to have the energy to engage in wanting to know what we were doing.

'Five schoolboys became more and more curious. They began watching and then asking questions. We let them have a play with the boxes and paper bags we used as props and gradually they became more involved in the work and with the two dancers -creating a fabulous, spontaneous 20 minute piece - a performance in its own right' reflects Andrea Buckley.

Merseyside Dance Initiative's (MDI) pioneering strategy is endeavouring to place dance firmly in the minds of local government policymakers by embracing an artistic vision which attempts to confound expected boundaries - and which is rooted in community interest and professional development.

However, being an agency of 'small resources' necessitates a high degree of tenacity when working in new, demanding contexts with prominent regional and national partners. In fact, suffice it to say, it lay at the heart of our campaigning for the inclusion of dance through performance and participation. Making dance visible, and finding ways in for a range of communities, is always a challenge, and so the title of our second Millennium Festival project, Barging In became rather apt.

The Leeds to Liverpool Canal in Merseyside slices through industrial and urban landscapes - the contrasts are marked. Bleak, barren, derelict sites soften as you appreciate the environment you visit - a hidden jewel in one of the many tourist attractions of Merseyside.

Our proposal was for dance to take place along a stretch of canal side - outside people's homes, on loading bays and on disused sites owned by British Waterways (BWW). Performance was to be incidental, the idea that dance and visual art would materialise as people passed by, being the main intention.

We were particularly interested in a section of the canal spanning two local authority areas that has Remainder Status only. This means that to date BWW's expenditure, constrained by law, has been inadequate to improve it to a level of maintenance that would be required for regular boating use. We wanted to encompass the extremities and diversity of the transient communities and those that live in the vicinity ... so when travelling from Bootle to Liverpool you experience the changes taking place as you encounter new housing and recreational facilities linked to regenerative strategies for that area.

Critically it transpired that this initiative and the principals underpinning it would meet the Central Environment Agency's policy, which encourages the use of the inland waterways for leisure, recreation, tourism and sport, thus giving Barging In national significance. This enabled us greater leverage in securing a more innovative programme of work to be created, displayed and performed. Cultivating access for local people to not only be able to view the canal in a different light but to see and take part in a variety of events, lay at the heart of our aspirations for this project.

Working in an arena with strategic partners such as BWW; Mersey Canal Forum; The Merseybasin Trust and Liverpool City Council on a major site specific initiative, however, was new for MDI. It entailed a complex planning process spanning some 18 months. Awaiting final confirmation of funding was ever the thorn in our side. In fact, full funding was not in place until two months before the project was scheduled to be complete which drastically impacted on our programme, compacting the time available to deliver it. The final event was non-movable as it linked to the Merseyside River Festival a time when canal traffic would be at its peak.

The central priority, however, was not about how many people would see the work, but what the impact would be on artists (working in such an environment) and on the general public who use the waterway - the bargees /boaters, walkers or cyclists and the people who live in the immediate environment.

Underpinning this was the creation of new opportunities for artists to devise work responsive to an environment and to encourage new partnerships through animating the canal banks with various arts activities. Originally, the focus was to have been solely on dance development with a small injection of other art forms. However, this changed as more funding partners came on board and new artists, showed an interest in becoming involved.

Artists chose their own particular site, and the work created had an emphasis on the historical content of that site. The link into the Merseyside River Festival maximized the transient audience potential, as bargees were encouraged to tour the canal and view work, thus enlivening their journey whilst providing them with diverse approaches to community arts development and performance.

In order to realize these priorities we worked in consultation with artists and local groups to devise three central strands:

Artists in residence
Andrea Buckley spent five days on the canal banks working on new ideas with Pete Shenton and Marie Fitzpatrick. Amy Caswell, Faith Bebbington and Donna Berry created visual artwork in a variety of settings along the canal using it as a source of inspiration and in Amy's case; it became a large sink in which to dye her banners.

Artists performing
Tom Roden and Lisa Dowler took existing work and improvisation and adapted it for performance along the bank side. Whilst Nina Edge installed an array of washing lines and rotary dryers, flapping clothing of everyday life in the summer breeze.

Artists commissioned
Claire Quinn devised a new piece with music and visual art for 20 young people from Liverpool and Sefton. Whilst MDI's community team and Chaturang (a three year South Asian dance development project led by SAMPAD and coordinated regionally by Bisarkha Sarker) hosted a platform of work on a disused site.

Performing clearly emerged as the driver for young and old alike and throughout the week, but especially Sunday afternoon, when local people involved themselves - dancing or singing - with the artists. Some simply took time out of a busy day to pause and watch awhile.

A personal favourite of mine was on father's day when Tom Roden and Dylan Quinn were performing outside people's front doors on the Eldonian Village housing estate, in Liverpool, looking out over the canal. Musicians kicked in on the opposite bank with a heavy rock riff. The next minute Tom and Dylan were joined on their small table for two, by a young boy of about four who started to mimic them, jumping on and off the table and dancing about, the duet had instantly become a trio! It completely encapsulated what Barging In was all about, the public simply engaging with dance because it was there.

Significantly what was achieved was the bringing together of various artforms and people to a site that is rarely used and/or visited. A site that has huge potential for development: physically in terms of new build, environmentally in terms of cleaning up the canal itself and creatively through initiatives as this.

It is not always possible to fully evaluate a project in the short-term as spin-offs continue to occur for some time subsequent to the event. However, we are keen to pursue making Barging In a biennial event. In fact, since the project, the Mersey Canal Forum has become the Merseyside Canal Partnership, a group of public private and voluntary sector organizations committed to securing the greatest benefits for local people and visitors alike to the Leeds to Liverpool Canal in Merseyside. MDI was invited to become a member of the partnership and noted as a main partner alongside BWW, The Groundwork Trust, The Merseybasin Campaign, Central Environment Agency, Liverpool City Council (planning department), Metropolitan Borough of Sefton (planning department), The Ramblers Association and the Inland Waterways Association.

Strategically this is a significant development for us to be part of such a group as it enables the organisation to make a real contribution in the use of arts provision linked to culture, heritage and environment. Having dance inform the working practice of departments such as planning and environment in addition to arts and tourism is the next challenge.

A network of new relationships now exists for MDI with artists, funders, communities and private business. With vision and imagination rooted in community and interest in professional development a lot more can be achieved by and for all concerned.

Karen Gallagher, director, Merseyside Dance Initiative with contributions from Andrea Buckley, independent artist based in Merseyside. Contact MDI on +44 (0) 151 708 8810. Email

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001