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Animated Edition - Autumn 2006
Cultural shift
Caroline Bowditch reports on her extraordinary experience of East London Dance's innovative choreographic development programme for disabled dance artists, which took place at Stratford Circus in Autumn 2005
The programme is the first outcome of a Dance Producers Award for research into an international disability dance festival made by Arts Council England in 2002. Cultural Shift was a pilot professional development and mentoring programme that included a series of practical workshops and seminars, and commissions to create and perform new work. It supported five disabled choreographers, Caroline Bowditch, Thomas Clark, Jo Dunbar, Mark Smith and Tom St. Louis to develop new work that was premiered at Stratford Circus as part of Xposure05.

I have been a performance artist working in dance and theatre for the past 15 years but I think I'd always wanted to be a choreographer. I never had the confidence to trust that I had a good enough idea. Last September I was one of five disabled people invited to take part in a programme called Cultural Shift, initiated and managed by East London Dance, (ELD), whose whole purpose was to develop disabled choreographers.

I remember being contacted by Polly Risbridger from ELD late in 2004 to ask me what, as a disabled dancer, I thought would be important to include in a programme aimed at developing disabled choreographers. We talked about structure for the programme, possible workshop leaders, length of sessions etc. I passed on my suggestions and hung up the phone wishing her every success with the programme and wishing I lived in London so that I would have a chance to be involved. The idea of Cultural Shift buzzed in my head for the next 18 months until I had the chance, along with ten others, to audition for a place in the programme. When I received an outline for the 12 day workshop and seminar programme it was clear to me that it had been structured in direct response to the suggestions that had been received from disabled dance artists and other insightful people throughout the country during the research period. All of the five trainee choreographers that were eventually selected were at different stages of their artistic development and had all come from different backgrounds, from bricklaying to the arts - with dance and choreography as our common interest and bond.

The programme started with us going back to look at all of the essentials of choreography - the starting points and different stimuli we could use when creating movement material, how to structure a piece, what type of soundtrack do I have, how do I light my piece. Every day brought a new person in for us to steal wisdom from and more importantly for me, to receive feedback from. Before Cultural Shift I had found it really hard to get any 'real' constructive feedback or criticism on work I had been involved in as I feel there is often a 'protective layer' that surrounds work produced in a disability dance context. One of my personal aims for Cultural Shift was to receive feedback and have some idea as to whether or not I had potential to produce work that was of a quality and standard worthy of being shown in a professional context.

Our workshop leaders ranged from professional disabled dancers, well known contemporary choreographers, artistic directors, dance critics to hip hop artists. I embarked on several of the sessions with some scepticism but my feelings always turned out to be inaccurate. We had sessions around the business not just the artistic side of choreography, which I found invaluable. We saw shows and then deconstructed and analysed them.

Throughout this process we were being taught to reflect, question, discuss and challenge what we were seeing. We were being encouraged to develop a critical eye that we could then turn to our own work. We were being taught how to take control of what people saw, felt and thought about our work. We were invited to ask our peers specific questions about our work in order to get feedback that was actually going to aid our development.

Following the 12 days of workshops each trainee choreographer had nine weeks use of studio space, a small production budget, eight hours with a mentor and an invitation to create new work to show at a platform event, which was held at Stratford Circus as part of the Xposure Festival. The way we used each of these elements was an individual choice and each of us engaged with the process differently. Despite the fact that we had all gone through the same training sessions the work that we produced was extremely diverse. This production phase presented us with not only artistic choices but also the harsh reality of having to choose dancers, manage rehearsal schedules and trying, for one choreographer, to coordinate up to eight dancers, producing publicity copy, sorting out costumes and making technical choices around lighting and music. I quickly learnt that choreography was really about making decisions, many of them difficult.

I think I took the easy option and chose to make a solo piece on someone else. Our rehearsal schedule was based on when my dancer wasn't in New York and I had a fantastic mentor, Yael Flexer, who took time out of her busy schedule to venture to Newcastle in an attempt to help me make this piece be a success. I decided to throw another few challenges into the pot for myself by choosing not to do the piece in the theatre but in the foyer/bar area, as I am particularly interested in producing site specific work - oh yeah, and the audience had to view it from the balconies above, oh and have a film running on all the TV's in the venue of relevant text from the piece, projected onto two naked bodies - one of which was mine - and have the rest of the text, which was spoken by me and recorded, to be run at the same time as a projection of the words I was speaking - WHAT A NIGHTMARE!!! Somehow it worked and no one at East London Dance ever told me I couldn't try it or do it in this way. It stressed the technicians a bit but they made it happen! I was given total artistic licence to go with my creative idea, and all the staff at ELD made it happen and gave me their full support. The piece was very well received and since then it has been perreformed three more times in the North East.

The fantastic thing about Cultural Shift, apart from the fact that I do now really believe I can be and am a choreographer, is that from the beginning to the end of the process every one of us was treated as a professional - and every one of us stepped up to that. An expectation was placed on us to arrive on time, participate and engage fully and to conduct ourselves professionally and we all did it. As Goethe said 'Treat a wo/man as s/he is, s/he will remain so. Treat a wo/man the way s/he can be and ought to be, and s/he will become as s/he can be and should be.'

Cultural Shift worked extraordinarily well as a model. It was well researched and well organised. Time, energy and effort had been invested in the planning and delivery of this programme and as a participant this was evident. I hope that it becomes a regular part of ELD's artistic programme and that other dance development agencies throughout the country make the most of the groundwork that ELD has done and start to invest in the development of disabled choreographers in the regions. I feel this really could be the beginning of a very necessary Cultural Shift in dance and disability in the UK.

Cultural Shift was conceived by Anthony Peppiatt, Development Director at East London Dance, and project managed by Jo Parkes and Polly Risbridger. The programme was developed in consultation with the advisory group which included Angus McKenzie-Davies, Louise Katerega, Ju Gosling, Theresa Beattie and Emily Horwood. The mentoring programme was overseen by Sarah Scott and mentors included Yael Flexer, Cheryl McChesney, Bettina Strickler, Frank Bock, Adam Benjamin and Jeanefer Jean-Charles. Specialist input came from a whole host of specialistswas delivered by: Jo Verrant, Jo Parkes, StopGAP Dance Company, Adam Benjamin, Donald Hutera, Jonzi D, Kiki Gale, Claire Russ, Jo Butterworth, Rachel Shipp and Marc Brew. The programme was funded by Arts Council England and European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).

Caroline Bowditch is a freelance choreographer, dancer and arts consultant, and a Board member of the Foundation for Community Dance. She can be contacted on

For more information about Cultural Shift and the work of East London Dance contact 020 8279 1050 or email

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Animated: Autumn 2006