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Animated Edition - Winter 2008
Breathing space
Donald Hutera explores the work of Breathing Space in nurturing health and emotional well being
Joe Moran might well be one of the most soft-spoken people on the planet. His actions, however, speak much louder than his words. An affably boyish 30 year-old, Moran is both a dance artist and apractising psychotherapist. He is also the director of Breathing Space,an ambitious programme of participatory dance projects for people whose lives are affected by illness and life-changing conditions.

Breathing Space exists under the auspices of the independent arts charity FallingWide. Moran and Gaby Agis, a long-time innovator in collaborative performance, founded the London-based organisation in 2001. Its three strands of interest are performance events, artist development and Breathing Space. The aim of this last is to explore movement and dance as a creative way to nurture health and emotional well-being, and through this to provide a 'breathing space' for those living with illness as well as for carers and health practitioners.

It was in 2007 that children became a focus point for the activities of Breathing Space. In large part this was thanks to a three-year grant of £126,000 from the True Colours Trust, one of the Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts, plus the welcome support of individual patrons.These generous funds have allowed Moran and a small but experienced team of artists to begin to develop a dedicated children's programme that to date has been delivered in partnership with a handful of hospices, hospital schools and adolescent psychiatric units throughout the UK. Among them are Helen House in Oxford, the Evelina Children's Hospital and Snowfield Adolescent Psychiatric Unit in London, Rainbows Children's Hospice in Loughborough and its Hampton counterpart,Shooting Star.

One of Moran's goals in year two of the children's programme is to double the number of organisations with which Breathing Space collaborates. This desire to extend its reach is consistent with the versatility with which he and Agis steer Falling Wide. 'Placing dance in different contexts where it might not traditionally be is at the heart of what we're doing,' he says over cake and coffee at Toynbee Studios, the East London arts complex where Falling Wide has its headquarters. 'And so we'll take dance to a health setting, or an art gallery, or a tube station. The idea is to create new audiences and experiences by bringing work into new environments.'

A word about the Breathing Space 'faculty' may be useful here. Cecilia Macfarlane is an independent dance artist based in Oxford who, in addition to running the intergenerational dance company Crossover, is a senior lecturer in Arts in the Community at Coventry University.Kirstie Richardson is a dancer, a free-lance education officer with Richard Alston Dance Company and English National Ballet, and a teacher on the CandoCo Foundation Course in Dance. Usha Mahenthiralingam is a mixed-media and movement artist living in Nottingham and working within the health, environmental and education sectors. Given such disparate backgrounds, and the degree of genuine admiration at play among these artists, it's a good bet that the sessions Breathing Space offers areof a high standard. Certainly those involved in delivering them speak positively about the programme and its ethos.

'Working in these environments as a dance artist and not as a therapist challenges me,'Richardson avows. 'I question everything, constantly exploring new ways to share my art form. It confirms to me that dance is an integral part of all of our lives, and that working with and in our bodies, with reath, touch and sensation, is full of possibility and opportunity.'

Richardson's statement alludes to a common bias that Moran knows Breathing Space might always come up against. He refers to it as 'that dreaded word, therapy. As a description it's used to denigrate; if something is seen as therapeutic then almost automatically it becomes less artistically valuable.' What lifts Breathing Space above this prejudicial norm is, in his view, essential to its functioning. 'All of our projects are about the needs of the organisations we work with, and are very client-centred. That's the framework we have, and the context. Fundamentally the projects are also artist-centred, and very much determined by what each independent artist is bringing. We all have backgrounds in somatic practice as well as many other things. But we're artists and not - to use a famous expression - dancing social workers.And because we're all bringing our own practice to Breathing Space, we're very alive in what we do.'

As an outsider unable to attend any Breathing Space sessions mainly for reasons of confidentiality, I was hungry for details about what Moran's team can offer. 'My way into these sessions, especially with young children, is usually through stories,' says Richardson. 'We'll first read a book together and then elaborate on it. For example, a story about going into space may take us all on a journey. We then explore this through textures and qualities. Throughout the session I initiate a number of improvisations. If we're working with a soft quality, I may use feathers and then touch to explore this, or the group might work inpairs to create a soft, tactile duet.' Inclusivity is one of her watch words. 'In the sessions I always set up a drawing corner for those who don't want to participate but would like to stay in the room. By the end the whole group may come together to draw, make masks and soon.'

Macfarlane outlines a similar pattern. 'The structure is based on my dance class in any setting. To start with we'll have an icebreaker. Maybe it'll be a name game, just to see how people move in response to name, and then a warm-up to see what movement vocabulary they have.' She goes on to mention choreographic tasks based upon a theme, and the use of props and objects such as tiny feathers, balloons or stretchy fabrics that can be pulled and released. 'There might be some weight-bearing, too, just to enable a resident to breathe deeper,rest on someone and relax a moment. Movement for those who can't do anything other than breathe is manifest through blowing. And if someone is too fragile to be touched an object can be used in between them and others. We might also use oranges, because they're round ands weet-smelling and they have a colour. All the senses can come into play.

'There's no reason why a child who apparently has very little movement can't make it a form of expression,' Macfarlane adds.'At the end of day you want children to participate and be a part of making it, whatever it is.' She speaks of 'taking it to another level,'meaning having a dancer manifest and embody a child's ideas for movement. This, she says, would further erase the notion of 'We can do,but you can't.'

While all this sounds well and good, I can't help but wonder how success is measured in a dance-in-health context. Is its impact visible and immediate or best gauged in the long-term?'We're working with different groups and in different conditions,'explains Moran, 'so what our aims, potential outcomes and successes might be varies. We're in hospices with young children who may be very close to the end of their lives. There's such a range of complex needs and conditions within that setting. The reality of it can be overwhelming and profound, and the concept of hope is changed. A lot of it is about relieving feelings of stress and isolation. We've come to the realisation that maybe the blink of a child's eye is enough. We'll also be in hospital schools where the children don't necessarily have terminal conditions, or we'll work in psychiatric units with children from a completely different age group (13 to 18) with a focus on mental health. There you have different intentions supporting the expression of young people, the integration of working together in group and the ways of balancing of their imbalances.' Dance, he firmly believes, can deal with all of it.

As alluded to above, the hospice work can be heart-rending. All of the Breathing Space artists receive support to cope with the emotional demands under which they may be placed. Such supervision better facilitates both self and collective evaluation. 'We tend to work with psychotherapists who maybe have some body orientation in their practice and background,' says Moran. 'We'll meet in the studio and talk about what's been happening and maybe even move, if appropriate. For example, we worked with a woman who'd been a dancer.With her we did lots of moving, all kinds of enactment and ritual. It was thrilling.'

During its first year Breathing Space has tested out a gamut of situations, from one-off to weekly sessions to staff orientations. 'Now we're looking at what is working and how we can evolve the programme,' says Moran. 'In hospice and, to a degree, in psychiatric settings dance is often the least considered art form, and for many reasons. It's often seen as intimidating and exposing: "Oh,don't make me do that. I'll make a fool myself." It's important for us to try to address that by having a dialogue with the places where we work, giving taster sessions with staff or sending out a DVD to give them a flavour of what we do. There are huge assumptions about what that might be. I can imagine people think we're going to come and do dance routines with children strapped up to dialysis machines,' he laughs. 'And yet health practitioners want always to increase their skills. By engaging in movement and dance they can complement and evolve from what they already do tremendously.'

But surely Moran and his team have met with some resistance? 'The places we go into areso busy,' Macfarlane remarks. 'We come in as some kind of a luxury. Are we imposing something on them? Are we sure they really want it? Personal assistants know the children more than anyone apart from the parents. If they don't want to do the work or are nervous or fearful,the child becomes the victim. The key is to be really flexible and find ways to engage them.'

Moran agrees. 'I completely understand where the health community is coming from. In the main their duty of care is to protect and look after these children and young people. They may have initial suspicions, but they're really incredibly open. We know that in each setting we're working with individuals who have lives and histories and experience. We want to be respectful and appreciative of that, and not just come in and tell people what to do. It's about building a relationship, and understanding the needs of each organisation and what they hope to achieve. Then it becomes a collaboration. We just have to get people on side.

Clive Niallis a teacher at Snowsfields, the adolescent psychiatric unit at Guy's Hospital in London. After some initial skepticism - 'Misplacing what you think other people's responses might be,' he calls it - he's acquired a huge faith in the transformative power of Breathing Space and the arts in general. 'Self-esteem is nearly always an issue with young people. Working with a group of professional artists is great for them. It enables them to look into parts of themselves where they don't usually look. And they appreciate the fact that we on the staff participate in the sessions right alongside them.'

Clearly Breathing Space is meant to set up as welcoming a situation as possible. 'It may be that we're at a particular location for a whole day,' says Moran. 'There we'll create space for people just to be and to talk, and for parents and siblings to come together with the residents and staff.' The family element is crucial, as is strengthening the bond between children and their adult carers. 'They constantly say to us, "I'd never have gotten him or her to do that!"about this or that child. Working with us is a way to reconstitute these relationships, and to allow for a much greater possibility for creative expression, stimulation and all the psychological benefits that stem from that.'

Asked to clarify what Breathing Space can offer artists, Moran is upbeat and subjective. 'It's been thrilling to be able to develop my practice as a dancer and teacher of dance within a psychiatric context. It's informed my work choreographically, and it's tremendously confidence-building. You really have to pull it out of the bag and draw on all your resources around children or teen-agers. They don't give you a lot of slack.

'We're not medical professionals by any means,' he continues. 'Our expertise as artists is being mixed in with the expertise of our partner organisations. I think artists are excited by that. That's been important for us as we develop the team. We're interested in dialogue.We know that we're part of a whole ecology, so we have an openness about what others are doing. We're learning loads about what we can contribute, and refining that all the time. What are the kinds of packages that we're taking into places, what are the different options of things we can do and how can we engage a whole new group of artists to come and work with us on that?

'We might have a submission programme,' Moran says, gazing into the future. 'Say I've got ten grand a year, or forty, or whatever. There could be two bursaries annually to which we'd invite artists to respond, to really engage their imaginations. I can just say, "I have X amount of money, so just pitch a project to us and we'll support you." This is just a seed of an idea. It's all funding-based, so who knows where it will go. I'd want to avoid it being super-competitive. But I do like the idea of someone coming in with a proposal that I'd never have dreamt of.'


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Animated: Winter 2008