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Animated Edition - Winter 2006
Critical faculties
Donald Hutera goes behind bars to try and discover the most criminally beneficial moves
I'm going to prison this Friday. I announced to anyone who'd listen to me in early October. Perhaps I sounded a little too eager, because nobody bothered to ask when I hoped to be released. My incarceration was, in truth, false and short-lived. Dance United had invited me to HMP Holloway, in north London, to see a performance of a piece called Edge and, beyond that, to get a taste of the company's extensive work behind bars.

London is so big that any place I can reach and return from on foot earns instant gratitude. Holloway is, conveniently, my local prison venue. Its welcome proximity was somewhat offset by an emphatically worded, bullet-point list of rules issued along with the invite. Among these were warnings about no entry for late-comers, a request for two forms of ID, and instructions about bringing in as few personal items as possible (including an absolute ban on mobile phones, cameras or electrical equipment).

As it happened, after a short wait the large crowd milling about outside Holloway's entrance was admitted into a holding area without any identity or security checks whatsoever. Visit a prison and you expect at least a little light frisking, if not a full-blown, grab-your-ankles inspection. This laxity was a surprise. Maybe the authorities deemed anyone attending a dance presentation to be automatically benign.

It was only later that I came across a report in Time Out magazine about the notorious Holloway, London's sole women's prison. The article enumerated scandals and flaws, and the place as a whole was labelled a byword for failure in the criminal justice system.

Hmmmm. Maybe dance is particularly valuable as a potential agent of change in just such a punitive - or, depending on how you look at it, rehabilitative - environment. Dance United certainly thinks so. The embedded dance company the organisation has established at Holloway is one of four long-term partnerships it enjoys within the UK's criminal justice system. The premise is: to promote positive mental and physical health among people in custody.

Here come the grimmest bits of this column: According to a 2002 survey of the health care needs of prisoners, 60% of women rated their own health as fair, poor or very poor. Other statistics around women in prison are equally depressing. 57% released from prison in 2001 were reconvicted within two years. 66% have a drug problem, and the same percentages are mothers. 70% of sentenced females suffer from two of more mental disorders, while 37% have previously attempted suicide. Furthermore, in a recent needs analysis conducted at Holloway, more than 80% of prisoners reported suffering from depression. 39% of those surveyed in November 2004 were involved in a procedure for those who self-harm.

Dance United doesn't claim to offer a cure for these ills but, at the very least, by going and getting women (or, in other strands of the company's prison work, young males) to move around and learn about what they and their bodies are capable of is highly unlikely to do any damage. And it might just do a helluva lot of good.

Edge at Holloway was the fruit of three weeks of workshops delivered by the Dance United team, for only a few hours a day, to just ten women recruited from both the healthcare unit and the rest of the prison population. (For the record, Holloway can hold a maximum of 495.) All but one had no previous experience of contemporary dance. Did they realise what gifts they had at their disposal? I'm referring to both the size of the audience - apart from Dance United's guest list, each prisoner was allowed to invite ten people - and the really generous space in which the work was shown. Most dance-makers on the outside would kill for this kind of exposure and creative room to breathe.

The piece began with a short film prologue of women moving singly along the edge of a wall, accompanied by voice-over poetry. Clad in orange tops and brown trousers, and with chairs as the set, the live performers (eleven, counting the participation of a non-incarcerated dance artist) shifted between relatively simple but broadly expressive ensemble patterns and passages into which a lot of meaning and attendant feelings could be read. The soundtrack - Philip Glass, Violin Concerto - helped up the emotional ante.

Not all of 'Edge' was unique to these women. The skeleton of the dance, we were informed during the post-show Q & A, was choreographed three years ago. Within this structure there were pockets of time and space in which the Holloway cast could devise, with guidance, its own material. All of 'Edge' was performed with sincerity and the kind of unguarded dedication that made me wonder who these women really are as individuals, and what they might come up with if allowed more time to develop their skills (and the chance to break through the aural atmosphere imposed by Glass' score). But as an inaugural effort, and given the constraints of its creation this version of Edge was a pretty remarkable and brave achievement. It certainly earned the dancers, Holloway's supportive staff and Dance United loads of goodwill. If the company's prison-based programmes continue to grow and yield such results, I suspect I'd not be alone in my willingness to go into lock-up with them again.

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Donald Hutera writes regularly for The Times, Time Out, Dance Europe, Dance Now and many other publications. He edited the autumn 2003 and summer 2005 editions of Animated.

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Animated: Winter 2006