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Animated Edition - Spring 2005
Critical faculties
Mature critic Donald Hutera eats his carrots and counts his lucky grey hairs
Last year I received a press release from English National Ballet, notifying me of the company's annual Healthier Dancer Programme. 'The centrepiece of Healthier Dancer 2004 will be a lecture by GMTV's nutrition expert, Amanda Ursell,' it said. 'Amanda will give the dancers expert advice on devising an optimum eating plan for maintaining stamina and flexibility, taking into account the rigours of a dancer's working day which can often finish at 10.30pm.'

The first time I read those sentences I thought it said 'opium eating plan.' Now maybe that's a small error, a mistake anyone might've made if they were reading quickly. But what if it isn't?

I ate all my carrots when I was young. At least I think I did. If I remember correctly. I'm still chomping on raw ones at the age of 48. But my eyes are beginning to go. I can't always find the smaller streets in the A to Z now, especially if the light isn't bright enough. Recently I bought a triple-set of magnifying glasses from one of those everything's-a-pound stores. Just in case.

And then there's memory, to which I alluded above. I'm at a point where I've lived long enough to have begun to mess up my once-crystalline chronological accuracy, especially regarding family and personal history. It was permanently damaged more than a decade ago, in the wake of my mother's and sister's deaths two years and four days apart. (Ah-ha! Witness the vestiges of numerical exactitude!)

People are rightly concerned about the healthier dancer. But what about the healthier critic? No one talks about strategies for keeping my eyes sharp, or my often sedentary body well-exercised, well-rested and well-fed. And if you think a dancer's working day is bad by maybe ending at half ten, depending upon deadlines mine has been known to finish at dawn.

Because I'm involved in journalism, my poor old head is often littered with deadlines and headlines, figures and facts. According to the 2001 Census, for example, there are now more people over 60 than there are under 16. And have you heard the latest? Apparently 80 is the new 60. I wonder if it follows that 50, which is not far off for me, is the new 30...

During the past year I've had reason to see dance which has helped me to question my own feelings - not necessarily fears - about ageing.

The nearly thirty members of the Lilian Baylis Over-60s Performance Group has been meeting every Friday for more than a decade. Based out of Sadler's Wells, this winter the group was more poetically rechristened The Company of Elders. The new moniker coincided with their involvement with Clara Andermatt, part of a series of UK visits by Portuguese dance-makers dubbed Movimento4 and co- sponsored by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. Under her guidance, sixteen of the Elders created the charmed half-hour performance Natural. Clad in black casual glam, the cast explored 'what we think we lost getting to this age and what we may have gained' with imagination, vigour, wit and honesty.

Working with Andermatt, Sheila Dickie says, has boosted the group's confidence and taken it 'to a different level. They had to look so deeply into themselves.' As a member of the education department at the Wells, Dickie has witnessed the growth of the Elders almost since its inception. Over the years the members have been offered workshops in everything from Pilates to dance a la Isadora Duncan to stage musicals. More recently, some of the company men were piloted by Jonzi D in a hip hop piece about public transport for presentation during the Wells' all-ages, all-abilities Connect Festival.

The cast of Natural has been invited to perform the piece in Portugal. Seven of the Elders have also been invited to Moscow by Barbara Kane to take part in events celebrating the hundred years since Isadora began teaching in Russia. Funds will need to be raised to support these trips. I hope they make it to both places. Even if they don't, it's plain that the rewards of dancing are many and varied.

'Dance should be on the national health,' Dickie declares. 'It trains the memory and, in a group like this, promotes camaraderie. They're always doing something new. That's exciting. And it keeps them young. They all feel much fitter. Some have lost weight. Others can now run up the stairs without getting breathless.'

That's all well and good for the healthier mature dancer. For dance-watchers, what's the appeal of a group like the Elders, or the work of American Liz Lerman's inter-generational troupe, or New York-based husband-and-wife team David Gordon and Valda Setterfield, or certain veteran members of Pina Bausch's extraordinary Tanztheater Wuppertal? To me the answer is simple: life experience.

'Mature dancers use their intelligence onstage in ways that you can't when you're 20 or even 30,' claims former Ballet Rambert dancer Ann (no relation to Sheila) Dickie. 'At a certain age you're no longer under pressure to prove anything. If you dance, you do it because you want to.' Yet most of the dance world's infrastructures and support systems cater to the younger side of the creative scale, especially in youth-obsessed Western culture.

Ann, approaching sixty herself, set up her company From Here to Maturity in 2000 to redress the balance. I'll leave the last word to her. 'I would so like to increase opportunities for older dancers,' she says. 'I also want to challenge audience perceptions. Perhaps they wouldn't feel so alienated from contemporary dance if they saw more people onstage who, in their eyes, are closer to themselves.'

Donald Hutera writes regularly for The Times, Time Out, Dance Europe, Dance Now and many other publications. Email donald.hutera@virgin.net

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Animated: Spring 2005