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Animated Edition - Summer 2005
Between the beds...
Thanks to her mum, choreographer Bim Malcolmson began a whole new career devising dances for hospitals
'There's nothing like a good bit of Braque to brighten up your afternoon while you're in for some chemotherapy.' At least that's what I recall my mother, Jane Malcomson, saying.

Jane, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1994, resisted conventional medicine. She lived the last seven years of her life juicing enough carrots to feed a nation, gulping down herbs that smelled like 'I don't even want to go there' while sticking to a diet of no wheat, dairy, sugar... The list was endless. And last but not least, the enemas. Let me tell you, there are moments in life when laughing is extremely hazardous!

Jane's philosophy was quality, not quantity, of life. She tried her level best to fight The Big C with humour and alternative medicine, but in the end it began to eat her alive. At that point there was no choice but to put the herbs on the shelf and begin chemotherapy. This is when the art in Chelsea and Westminster Hospital started to play a huge role in our lives.

Chelsea and Westminster was built and designed with the idea of the arts being integrated into its environment. The building has a large atrium which gives the hospital the feeling of being open and spacious, while the glass roof allows light to pour right through it. The colourful collection of visual art that clothes the walls includes artists such as Eduardo Paolozzi, Patrick Heron, Georges Braque and Sandra Blow.

There are two performance areas. The stage, on the second floor, is an open public space about four metres by twelve where larger performance projects take place. The foyer, on the ground floor, hosts weekly music concerts and is beautifully grounded by its patterned floor.

Jane was in Chelsea and Westminster Hospital for about seven months off and on before she died there. With her came an entourage of my siblings and me, my dad and numerous friends, all of whom spent enormous amounts of time with her everyday, most of all because she refused to eat the food. (Once she had a friend of mine prepare her fresh lobster.)

Life in hospital can be pretty grim, but we used to take Jane around in a wheelchair to look at the art and to concerts. (She was herself a very competent musician). I cannot stress how much of a difference this made. It relieved boredom, inspired conversation, got her out of the ward and generally made us feel better all round. I remember in my bleakest moments what a relief listening to live music was.

I talked to many of the staff about their jobs, asking how they felt about the arts being such a prominent part of hospital culture. They all commented on how much they felt it improved their working environment and made them happier people. This, of course, filtered down to the care we received at the hospital, which I have to say was superb.

It was during this period that my exploration of dance in hospitals began. After a morning ballet class I would show Jane some exercises at the end of her bed, much to the delight of other patients and visitors in the ward. I also began using the stage as a rehearsal space. At the time I was choreographing the opera Eugine Onegin. I had to do my work somewhere. This was a gift, as it enabled me to work creatively as well as be a diversion for Jane, her visitors and the general public. People walk past the stage all the time, plus it can be viewed from many of the wards and the glass lifts constantly rising and falling from floor to floor. So all in all when 'on the stage' one has quite an audience! It was plain that people found the spectacle of me at work intriguing, amusing and delightful.

After Jane died I really wanted to give something back to the hospital and hoped to do this through dance. Susan Loppert, Chelsea and Westminster's former artistic director, was thrilled. She granted permission for me to rehearse and perform there, also suggesting that I contact other hospitals to see if they would be interested in hosting a dance performance.

So it happened Ballet de Bim was born and Life, my first piece made for hospitals, was created. When recruiting dancers I told them that the project was going to be in a hospital and rehearsals would be conducted in a public space, meaning the usual seclusion accorded Western performers during the creative process would likely not apply.

In order to place elements of my artistic practice into context, you should know that at age nineteen I went to Tanzania for two and a half years to dance in the indigenous Muungano Cultural Troupe. I was the sole white member. In this company all rehearsals were held outside, cancelling the notion or need for privacy. There were always other people and children watching, and often laughing when I was first arrived. This was the environment in which my first professional artistic development occurred. The company performed five days a week around Dar-es-salaam, usually to an audience consisting of the whole family - mum, dad, granny, baby. You name it, they were there. Rather than be exclusive to certain age groups, our work was entertainment for all. As I've grown within the dance field, it's become clear how much this experience continues to influence what I do and how I do it.

Life, featuring seven dancers, explored a journey between birth and death. I chose this broad subject for two reasons. Firstly, in commemoration of my late mother. Secondly, hospitals are extraordinary places: on one floor life is entered and, on another, exited. How bizarre! Yet real, too. We rehearsed the piece on the stage. As expected, the process was as important to the project as the performance itself. There's nothing like eight girls doing barre on a Sunday morning! Grown-ups and children alike stared, laughed, asked us what we were doing and dog-whistled. Sometimes the physiotherapists needed to share the space, meaning the rehearsal was gathered into a tighter unit so that the patients could run around us. Other times little kids who fancied a go would join in, in their own way and much to the despair (and secret joy) of their parents.

And then came our first performance. I'm not a great one for elaborate lighting or special effects. The sole prop in Life was a balloon. What a mistake! I took precautions. The morning of the first performance I had four helium balloons when only one was needed. Yet accident after accident occurred until we were down to our last one. About fifteen minutes before showtime I was out the front making final preparations when BANG, there it went! My heart sank. All the shops were closed. What now? Nina, the hospital's performance co-ordinator, had the brilliant idea of going to the children's wards and asking if anyone would lend us one of their balloons! This went down a treat. Not only did a balloon come down, but so did its owner in her wheelchair, plus a load of other kids in their chairs, beds and on foot. It was great. I'll never forget her face when she saw her balloon in the performance. It made her day.

On our first tour we performed at Chelsea and Westminster and St. Thomas', London. On our second we went to Chelsea and Westminster, the Royal Brompton, the Harefield, Central Middlesex and St. Bartholomew's. During the latter we performed Vitu Vizuri ('good things' in Swahili), a twenty-minute piece for four dancers, in main public spaces. We also presented a two and a half minute duet in a total of twenty-one wards. I appeared in both pieces.

Although foyers and dining rooms are not conventional dance environments, certain theatrical conventions are still maintained. The invisible line dividing performer from audience is clearly drawn. Performing in wards is a totally different story. There it's not like you do your bit in a specifically defined area, everyone applauds and all go home. For starters you have to find a space in which you actually can perform, and this can be anywhere - at the ends of or between beds, in amongst chemo machines, in a corner or against a wall. (For practical purposes the duet was choreographed with a focus on the upper body, so that it didn't travel.) The intimacy of the experience, extraordinary in itself, was heightened by the enormous range of responses we received. Some people who'd never seen dance before were totally blasé about the whole thing. They didn't know what dance was nor, quite frankly, did they care. At such close quarters this attitude was no secret to us as performers! And yet others were fascinated. We spoke with a lot of patients afterwards who were incredibly open about their responses, to the work, their relationship to dance and their own lives.

One patient's mother burst into tears because her daughter had been a dancer. She started to show us loads of pictures of her daughter before she'd become ill. A really glorious moment occurred when a visitor arrived just after we'd finished the duet. The first thing he said to his seriously ill mate was, 'I haven't seen you looking so perky for a long time!'

The catchment areas of hospitals in different parts of London vary enormously. This became extremely apparent in the wards. At the Royal Brompton, in Chelsea, patients applauded after our performances almost as if we were in a legtimate theatre. St. Bartholomew's is in the East End. This proved interesting for two reasons. Firstly, our clothing was not suitable for the Muslim community, something I hadn't been sensitive to (but will be in the future). Secondly, Cockney men en masse in an all-male ward is a character-building experience.

Imagine two contemporary dancers, Rita Berto Martins and myself, in black tights and these kind of trendy, skin-tight tops from Kookai doing a slow, lyrical duet with bodies fluidly enveloping and skin cascading across skin. What was I thinking? Obviously not all-male wards! We hit our starting position, the music was turned on and so, it seems, was the audience. 'Ere, Bert, they had better get the 'eart attack machine down 'ere' was the first comment that bellowed out as we began the first delicate movements of our arms, and so it continued...'If I tell my mates that there are dancing girls in the wards they will all be down 'ere!'....'No, Stan. If I told my mates down the pub, they wouldn't believe it. They'd think I'd bin in 'ere too long an' was hallucinatin'!' Rita and I had to breathe very deeply so as not to crack up ourselves as this tennis match of loud comments volleyed over our heads.

'Success is to make someone smile everyday,' Jane said, shortly before she died. Rehearsing and performing in hospitals certainly does that. Next time I'll take care to wear more appropriate clothing. Having said that, my next project at Central Middlesex hospital is a collaboration with two artists who are exploring new designs in hospital gowns. I think the title is going to be Mind the Gap. I'll just have to make sure that the subject matter is suitably camouflaged.

Bim Malcolmson can be reached at bim@macunlimited.net

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Animated: Summer 2005