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Animated Edition - Spring 2007
Dance City: embracing diversity
Janet Archer, Chief Executive and Artistic Director of Dance City in Newcastle, reflects on the influences that fed into the development of a diversity strategy that works for them
Dance City moved into its new purpose built building almost eighteen months ago. Since then it has changed its profile dramatically, increasing both its audience and its participation base significantly. The organisation has doubled in size and is now a magnet for people from a wide range of different backgrounds and ages and experiences. In Autumn 2006 I received this letter....

Dear Director
I attended a performance at Dance City on Saturday evening. I was with friends, all of us between 70 and 80 years of age. Your sales staff warned us MANY times, on the phone and later as a group, that there would be swearing and nudity in this performance.

We'd like to tell you that the swearing all but passed us by and that we see more nudity on a Monday night in the Bigg Market. We was robbed!

We enjoyed the night. We'll come again.

Best wishes
Betty Weiner

It was from a group of attenders at the premiere of Gemma Higginbotham and Philippe Blanchard's new creation One's company, two's a crowd at Dance City, last September. I thought it was a great letter. And a real celebration of the fact that Dance City is increasingly attracting diverse and unexpected audiences for the work we present here. It was also a very telling piece of communication.

Campai, the agency promoting the company says in their PR material that "their (Gemma and Philippe's) rich and innovative dance vocabulary is pushed further in the exploration of the individual in society, our human need to bond and the games that we play within our social relationships." Betty Weiner and her friends clearly agreed. And I can't express deeply enough how important it is to me to continue to develop an environment where people feel confident enough to assert their individual taste and dare to experiment with individual choices that break the mould, as clearly this group did by choosing to buy tickets for something which in a million years we would not have thought about marketing to them.

I was recently tasked with completing Dance City's Diversity Strategy. A process which really made me sit down and think about where I stood in relation to thinking about individuality and difference and how critically important it is to strive for a cultural environment where mutual respect allows for difference and not only tolerates it, but celebrates it.

Diversity is a complex subject area. As stated in the Scottish Arts Council's Diversity Strategy "The term encompasses a number of views and sentiments, some of which may sometimes sound contradictory."

Dance City's starting point in thinking about this issue is the principal that we want to respect human dignity through the recognition of each person/group's cultural rights. We are committed to individual cultural identity and its expression through dance and the arts. But we are also committed to the notion of hybridity and believe that dance is at the forefront of the 21st century move to challenge ideas and perceptions about art and its identity in modern day society. Hybridity is intrinsic to dance both as a contemporary art form - you rarely see pure dance on stage without other art influences, and as an important social and community tool that sees dance bringing communities together to engage and pass on traditional and contemporary dance traditions.

The North East of England is an interesting environment to work in. It is according to the Commission for Race Equality, the least diverse of England's nine regions. At the last census point in 2001 the population base contained 96.4% White British residents.

I don't have up to date figures for where we have moved onto, but we've certainly seen a shift in our demographics, with a much more visibly diverse population and a discernible increase in the breadth and range of languages you can hear on the street. With the opening up of rights for disabled people through the Disability Discrimination Act and the consequent new levels of care being taken with building provision, we are beginning to witness highly imaginative projects led by disabled people, something that access constraints would have limited until now. Added to all of this is the impact that that the North East's cultural renaissance has had on all of us in terms of transforming the region into an outward looking and culturally ambitious landscape that has seen new organisations such as Gem Arts and Arcadea thrive and flourish.

It feels good to be part of an environment that is beginning to open up. And that sense of confidence is certainly beginning to impact on the work we are seeing on our stages. I have no space to articulate the full list of projects we have seen over the past eighteen months, but here are some of them as a small taster of the exciting new sense of adventure that is emanating from this newly diverse place.

Caroline Bowditch in collaboration with Antonio M. Cabrita and Sittibancha Bamphen made an ambitious installation experiment during Dance City's COLINA laboratory which saw performers from a wide range of different backgrounds meeting and parting on the stairwell of a car park opposite Dance City, following instructions from Sittibancha calling them from his mobile from a completely different location. A film of a previous showing was projected concurrently.

Caroline is a wheelchair user, who has produced some extraordinary work over the past few years including tear, presented at Dance City and Stratford Circus and this two: girl jonah, presented at British Dance Edition in Leeds, with Fiona Wright. She is currently working as a performer with Adam Benjamin and Scottish Dance Theatre creating a new work, Angels of Incidence, which is touring this Spring.

Garner Harris, has recently made a terrific solo called The Liberation of the Urban Tribesman, set in and around a stunning steel cage designed by Andy Stephenson. Garner was a founder member of Union Dance Company in London, before relocating to the region a decade ago. Having resigned from dance to pursue a commercial career, he has recently decided to return, and has established a community interest company to develop performance and education work in the region.

Steve Wright created Export/Import, planned to tour in 2007, that explores three cultures coming together and whose performers include the exquisite Apple X.Yang, originally from China and now based in the North East. Steve was a member of Dance City's community team before establishing a freelance career route.

The Vamos Festival launched their major festival of Spanish and Portuguese speaking global cultures here in 2006 as did the Mimosa Disability Arts Festival and the Great North Run Cultural Programme with a special commission by Neville Campbell for eight dancers.

We have presented international artists including Saburo Teshigawara from Japan, Vincent Mantsoe from South Africa as well as welcoming local communities through working in partnership with the Pakistani Cultural Society, the Chinese Centre, the Russian Community Centre and Movers and Shakers.

The final thought that's popped into my head relates to choices and how we make them. When I chose to work with Liv Lorent in 1993, I was criticised by some for being foolish in taking on a young difficult rebel, whose work was perceived to be outside of the mainstream dance scene at the time, and who was thought by most to be too diverse to really 'make it'. Since then she has created her own touring dance company employing ten or so dancers, she's won a Jerwood Prize, an Arts Foundation Prize and a Herald Angel. She's been commissioned twice by Scottish Dance Theatre and recently received the following critical acclaim for her recent work, currently on tour with George Piper Dances.

"Propeller, a duet by Liv Lorent for Panchenko and Nunn, operates from a radically different dynamic, a gluey form of unstable balances and blindly groping embraces, which occasionally transfixes into moments of sharp, silvery beauty." Judith Mackrell, The Guardian.

Long live radically different. Let's keep on balancing through instability, and I really hope that everyone can keep seeing those sharp silvery beauteous moments that come out of our embracing each others' individuality with warmth and openness. I profoundly believe that we can move towards a more secure and humane society if we do.


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Animated: Spring 2007