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Animated Edition - Summer 2005
Critical faculties
From city slicker to nature boy: Donald Hutera discovers latent tree-hugging tendencies in the middle of a somewhere called Somerset
It's good to surprise yourself. Little did I think, when the new year kicked in, that in May I'd be hugging trees in Somerset. A city-dweller like me? I move fast and play hard, bouncing between pavements and performances like a rubber ball. My preferred jungle is urban. Or so I thought.

My catalyst for arboreal intimacy was Country Dancing? That's not a question, but rather the interrogative title of a symposium - or conversation, as Dance South West's Kate Castle framed it - organised by DSW in an Arts Council-supported partnership with the Foundation for Community Dance, the National Rural Touring Forum and the arts development agency Take Art.

For two and half days a large, diverse group of dance and arts-related bods gathered in 16th-century Dillington House, now a posh conference/education centre just outside Ilminster. There Castle and Co sought responses to questions like:

  • How does where we live affect the work we make?
  • Is support for contemporary dance practice weighted towards inner cities?
  • How do we encourage and enable artists to move between different contexts and environments?
  • How do we enable more people of all ages to watch and take part in dance where they live?

You can soak up answers to these and other topics in the next issue of Animated. In the meantime, please indulge me in musings triggered and impressions gleaned by being out in the sticks.

Okay, I take that back. If it accomplished nothing else, Country Dancing? has helped reshape my thinking about the amorphous concept of rural arts. That is, cultural activities occurring in the middle of somewhere. Formerly, from my lofty position as a London resident, I might've written 'in the middle of nowhere.' Now I know better. 'Nowhere', for instance, is not necessarily how the people who live and work there would like to think of it.

Consider Jukka Ristolainen and his partner, Saila Reiniö. This charming young couple live in the Finnish forest, in a severely isolated area with no easy access to daily class. Nature is their teacher, necessity their training. As CD?'s resident artists they showed, shared and spoke about many things: body awareness, chopping wood, finding the stillness and coping with the silence inside themselves, self-validation.

Jukka and Saila say they'll stay based in the middle of their particular somewhere for a minimum of ten years. They're not the only ones willing to make the trade-off that comes with living and/or creating far from the madding crowd. Louise Richards, of Motionhouse, and independent dance artist Helen Poynor (see Animated Spring 2005) both professed happiness, even pride at not being mainstream.

Attitudes and opinions aplenty float around both sides of the perceived city/country divide. At CD? I chaired a session on artists development. The panelists were Scottish indie artist Frank ('Artists who are any good will find a way to develop themselves') McConnell, Take Art's Chris Fogg and John Ashford, theatre director at The Place. The latter brought an ironic awareness of his provocative role as symbol of London-centric authority. One of John's key points is that in order to be taken seriously, artists need to go where the audience is. Or, as he himself puts it, 'As a socially-based, minority art, dance needs a critical mass to come alive, which is why it's metropolitan.' You can bet that put some noises out of joint.

Writer/researcher François Matarasso came up with the umbrella phrase 'slow dance' for work made away from the strictly and maybe narrowly urban pressure-cooker. But, he cautioned, 'It would be very sad if rural became the latest kind of orientalism that we indulge in.' Claire Smith, of Rural Touring Network, neatly explained the difference between city venues (where audiences are often seen as interlopers) versus those in non-urban settings (where artists are the guests of the venue and its local populace). The Eden Project's Sue Hill spoke of 'genuinely new approaches to making work validated in a public realm' and 'engagement with the audience versus developing artistic skill.' I'm also partial to Anthony (The Works, Creative Partnerships) Waller's notion of the bedrock importance of work that 'creates indelible memories.'

Post CD? I wonder what artists and audiences outside the big urban centres want and need, and how much of an overlap there is. I'm curious about who's 'out there' and what they're doing, where, and how. What satisfies them, and why? Do they have greater focus away from cosmopolitan distractions? Do they ever feel marginalised, or are they too busy moving about nationally or internationally?

Here's where I'll risk waxing touchy-feely. Thanks to the fab Finns, and especially Helen Poynor, I now have a soft spot for Dillington House's 'wilderness.' Jukka and Saila conducted a tour of these groomed grounds up a gentle hill near the mansion. Helen, in a telescoped taster session of her methods, allowed us to claim it for ourselves. Split into pairs, we led each other 'into the woods' - one guiding open-eyed, the other eyes shut. After this sensory-heightening introduction, Poynor sent us off on our own. Our instruction were to find a spot (or let one pick you), locate yourself in your body and then locate your body in the environment.

Yours truly wound up straddling the magnificently thick, curved trunk of a low-lying tree. No, it wasn't an erotic encounter (although I did think about what it would've been like to be doing this naked, except I'm not big on chafing). Nor did I feel particularly self-conscious, let alone 'performative,' about it. If anything, I was tree-conscious. As in hooked into the sad, glorious, ancient, enduring essence of tree. It all ended too soon. But if this is part of what dance research away from the congested, noisy city entails, sign me up now.

Donald Hutera writes regularly for The Times, Time Out, Dance Europe, Dance Now and many other publications. He edited the autumn 2003 edition of Animated - and this one, too.

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Animated: Summer 2005