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Animated Edition - Spring 2006
Choose your collaborators carefully
Chris Fogg, Director of Dance and Theatre at Take Art in Somerset describes the range of work and important 'friendships' that have developed in support of greater participation in dance
A former county arts officer I knew once had a sign up in his office, which read: 'Partnerships are the temporary suspension of hostilities for the purpose of securing funding.' Cynical as this is, I suspect it is a sentiment that many of us may recognise.

When I first began developing arts projects in Nottinghamshire some seven years ago, I received these four words of simple advice from François Matarasso: 'Choose your collaborators carefully.' Simple to say, but not always easy to follow - nevertheless they have become my mantra whenever I am at the start of setting up a new project.

Partnerships, we are told constantly, are the way we must work, and all of us, I am sure, strive to observe this much-repeated maxim, but as a concept it is already, I believe, in danger of becoming meaningless. What do we mean by partnership working? I prefer to pursue friendships - friendships which are open, honest, in which we can make mistakes, share ideas and develop trust. Only then can we truly begin to work creatively together.

Two years ago Take Art, an arts organisation founded in 1987, was invited to become the new county dance agency for Somerset. This decision in itself reflected a new way of thinking. Take Art was asked precisely because over a period of 15 years it has evolved organically through the creation of a whole range of partnerships between local authorities, other arts and non-arts organisations.

Beginning as a rural touring scheme - we still promote more than 150 live professional shows in villages and small towns across the county in all art forms - we then developed a programme of long-term residencies, placing artists in a community setting to develop a participatory project, whose specific themes would always be shaped by the particular needs of the partners involved. To this is always added a commission, in whatever the art form, for the artist to create during, and as a result of, the residency. This has led to, for example, a Sculpture Trail along the River Parrett; a film project with the Youth Justice Board; a Story Walk through Cheddar Gorge; the installation of Serena de la Hay's landmark Willow Man by the side of the M5. In all of these projects (under the banner of Take Art: Create), the results were only made possible through the ongoing development of collaborations with artists, communities, organisations and local authorities.

Arising out of Take Art: Create, we noticed that one particular sector was frequently being overlooked - early years: children of 0-5 years old, their families, carers and teachers. To fill this gap we developed Take Art: Start. Using the model of practice from Reggio Emilia in Italy as our inspiration, we set up an ongoing range of projects across all art forms, working in children's centres, playgroups, pre-schools and Foundation settings within schools, in a close association with Sure Start and the Somerset County Council Early Years Development Partnership, to provide a comprehensive package of workshops and training.

So - when we were invited to form Take Art: Dance, we were able to draw on these years of experience of close collaborative working to develop a new county dance agency that was fit for purpose, as well as serving the needs of dancers and audiences in the 21st century. In January 2004 a three year Dance Strategy was launched for Somerset as a joint initiative signed up to equally by Take Art, Dance South West, Arts Council England South West, Somerset County Council, plus the five District Councils of Somerset, at an event where a Somerset-based dance company - Influx - performed a piece of work-in-progress.

At the heart of this strategy we have thrown down a gauntlet: is there such a thing as a rural dance aesthetic? How does place influence the work that dancers might make? To this end, we worked once again in partnership, with Dance South West and the Foundation for Community Dance, to support the Country Dancing? symposium held in Somerset in May 2005, and featured in the Autumn 2005 edition of Animated. Among other important results that emerged from that event, the six dance companies currently based in Somerset have received a discernible surge in interest, and find themselves much in demand.

In addition to the support as a dance agency that we offer to professional dance artists in the county, we have continued to develop projects that build on the experience of Take Art partnership working, using dance to directly address the current local authority priorities of: stronger, safer communities; children & young people; older people; healthier communities; economic development and enterprise.

Two such projects are: Alive & Kicking and Tide & Time.

Tide & Time
is a multi-arts project co-ordinated by Take Art, which for the past 18 months has been exploring change in coastal communities around the south-west peninsula. With funding from the Arts Council, Esmee Fairbairn, and a raft of local authorities from across the region, the project has seen dancers, musicians, photographers, digital artists, poets and film-makers working in settings as diverse as a prison on Portland, the Fish Festival at Newlyn, at Butlin's in Minehead, and a day centre in Porlock. It has produced work as wide ranging as belly dancing on a beach, a crab walk in Babbacombe, a sound walk in Watchet, and a dance film fission/fusion set against the backdrop of the Hinckley Point Power Station.

The Tide & Time exhibition, which will bring together examples of the 18 separate strands of this project, will be at Exeter Phoenix throughout March 2006. 1,000 people, 631 miles of coast, 25 artists, eight art forms - one chance to experience it...

Alive & Kicking is a two year dance & health project beginning in April 2006, which will provide opportunities for young people to engage in a range of dance and movement opportunities. What is distinctive about this project is the nature and breadth of the partnership that has been brought together by Take Art to make it happen.

Using the Government's drive towards a healthier nation, as outlined in the Wanless Report, and set against the growing concerns of the rise in levels of obesity in young people, Take Art: Dance has developed the Alive & Kicking project with Sport England, who see the project as an ideal opportunity to reach those young people - typically teenage girls - who are not attracted to participate in competitive sports. The partnership also includes the Somerset Activity & Sports Partnership (SASP), who provide a county-wide service, delivering a range of sport and physical activity for young people and who have been looking for ways to extend the depth and breadth of the dance programmes they have been running to date.

The project comes in two strands: Kick Start, which will work principally with early years children, their families, teachers and carers, to establish healthy movement habits early on, and which has brought the LEA Early Years Development Association into the partnership; and Kick Off, which will work with young people both inside and outside of formal education settings. This strand has then brought the South Somerset & West Somerset District Schools Clusters into the partnership, which has been further strengthened by support from those two districts' local authority arts officers, as well as matched funding from Arts Council England.

Together this partnership will steer the Alive & Kicking project through a specifically targeted programme of workshops, training for teachers and other dance practitioners, summer schools, and two performance tours, in which the team of three Dance Artists delivering the programme (Anna Brown, Lucy Howell and Gabi Manzi) will devise and perform specially designed new work for both settings.

The strength of the partnership that underpins this project means that we shall be able to implement flexible and innovative evaluation procedures to monitor its progress, with a view to subsequent developments in the future. Already Sport England is expressing considerable interest in an accompanying piece of research that can champion the role of dance in helping to meet the government's targets of increasing sustainable levels of physical activity among the nation's young people.

So, I would use the experience of Take Art to argue against the cynicism of that sign above the arts officer's desk. And while yes, I would agree that partnership working has become an over-used, often meaningless phrase, I still take to heart the words of François Matarasso and try to 'choose my collaborators carefully'. For then, together, we can develop the friendship necessary to move forward with the same spirit of excited optimism that first got any of us involved in working in the arts. I am supported in this optimism by the most important friendships of all - that of the Take Art team which, since 1987, has grown from one person working alone in a space no bigger than a cupboard, to our present location in a converted flax mill in the heart of the Somerset countryside, within a creative cluster of other arts organisations, with a staff of 13 (and growing); and that of Dance South West, which is genuinely a 21st century organisation that has re-defined the notion of a national dance agency with its crucial shift away from buildings, towards people, and the encouraging of the kind of new friendship groups that I have tried to describe in this article.

For further details about Take Art: Dance contact chris@takeart.org or call 01460 249450. For more specific information about the Alive & Kicking project contact rose@takeart.org

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Animated: Spring 2006