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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Dance persisters
Animated, Autumn 2001. Charlotte Vincent talks about living and working in Sheffield

From the joy of conception, through hard labour, the pain of delivery, and the exhilaration of new birth, dance, and our work related to it, is about creating new beginnings. There are multiple births taking place in Sheffield this year, from the very real arrival of Annabel Dunbar's new baby Ester, to the birth of Danceworks UK (DW) and Vincent Dance Theatre (VDT) as limited companies, and the genesis of a new dance space for Sheffield at Rivelin Works - a warehouse named after the beautiful valley that oozes out of the city into Derbyshire.

People are often surprised to learn that I live in Sheffield, assuming that as a practising artist touring the United Kingdom and mainland Europe I must live in London. I live here not only because of the bleak beauty of the hills and the friendly bus drivers, but because in making a commitment to this city, it, in return, has made a commitment to me.

There is an absence of artistic rivalry here, and in its place seems the will and desire to fill what has been a barren cultural landscape with sparkling activity. This place is humble but proud, full of endeavour, but realistic in its aims. A big, safe village with a heart that has been mangled and bruised by the collapse of the steel industry, but that is willing itself on to resurface as a centre of cultural excellence. A desire to repay the cultural and economic deficit that has existed in Sheffield in the past creates the solid resolve to make enticing new initiatives happen.

Vincent Dance Theatre's long-term aim is to create a sustainable, full-time company based here. This is only possible through the development of solid partnerships with cultural agencies, funders, promoters, participants and audiences. The commitment to and from the city about which I am writing is not purely financial - it grows from cultivating meaningful, honest and strategic relationships with people who care about the future of dance in the region. In Yorkshire, I work with two key dance organisations whose shared aims are to nurture, strengthen and sustain the region's dance ecology. Yorkshire Dance and Danceworks UK (formerly South Yorkshire Dance Consortium) have different remits, one is a National Dance Agency based in Leeds, working across the region, whilst Danceworks is an independent dance development agency whose remit is to boost activity and participation in dance in South Yorkshire. I see part of my role as an artist to provide strong links between the two agencies, both of which support my work, as I do theirs.

I have been a Yorkshire Dance Partner since 1994, a mutually supportive artist-in-residence relationship with the National Dance Agency who commission, support and promote my work.

My relationship with Danceworks also began around 1994, when VDT's first piece was commissioned by Antony Waller at Sheffield and Rotherham Dance Project and funded by Mileva Drljaca at Yorkshire Arts Board, both of whom were founding members of South Yorkshire Dance Consortium (SYDC), a voluntary network of six people; including a large-scale venue promoter (the late Stephen Barry), an independent small scale dance programmer (Sarah Wilsden at The Leadmill) a senior dance lecturer (Penny Hargreaves) a marketer (Annabel Dunbar), a dance animateur (Antony Waller) and a Yorkshire Arts Board's dance officer (Mileva Drljaca).

SYDC's aspirations were to work towards developing a strong dance network of small, middle and large-scale venues ensuring the continued provision of a varied and high quality local, national and international dance programme, to include touring, participation and training throughout South Yorkshire. Their work laid the foundations of a successful promotional model and led to a detailed review of dance in this region, identifying the need to create a small scale touring network, to support the few remaining artists in the region, to encourage visiting artists touring for more than a one-off hit, to transfer participants of dance into a sustainable audience base, to co-commission national and international artists and companies.

In order to move forward, to build new partnerships to practically and realistically address the issues distinct to Yorkshire, the Danceworks 4ward programme was put in place: six inter-related marketing pilots between 1999-2001 which prioritised young people (14 - 30) and town centres. Danceworks is currently in the thick of the final project of this series - the co-commissioning of the exquisite choreographer Michael Clark, a bold and impressive achievement for a dance agency of this size. Clark muses: 'I am working with Danceworks because I hate London and because Phil Oakey and The Human League are from Sheffield.'(1)

With these six projects in place, and acknowledging that three original members of SYDC had moved on to new challenges, SYDC was restructured in 1999, to involve Sheffield Theatres, Sheffield and Barnsley Colleges, Barnsley, Rotherham and Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Councils and Yorkshire Arts, with valuable input and support from independent dancers working in the region. The Danceworks 4ward programme was granted funding from The Arts 4 Everyone main programme, European Regional Development Funding (Objective 2), as well as financial support from the consortium organisations involved.

Launched with a guided bus tour for press, partners and funders to four venues in each local authority to see short dance works, the DW 4ward's programmes main aims were promoted. These have been:

  • artistic development and touring support: to enhance the development of regionally based independent artists and foster better-informed audiences (awarded to Barnsley's Tred Dance Company and Vincent Dance Theatre);
  • a small-scale tour and residency: to establish a small scale-touring network and develop audiences (in particular, young people aged 14-30 with Sharon Donaldson's Arts Beyond Contemporary Dance Company);
  • a middle-scale performance and residency: to increase Danceworks audience base for young men from 27 to 35 per cent (The Featherstonehaughs);
  • a small-scale tour and residency: to increase the contemporary dance audience base in South Yorkshire by at least ten per cent (David Hughes);
  • Commissioning new work: to co-commission and premiere a new work by a national/ international company (the current and final project involving Michael Clark).

All the performances within the programme have been accompanied by workshops, masterclasses, discussions, road shows or promotional incentives such as loyalty cards including ticket deals for other Danceworks events or free and/or subsidised transport. The programme of work also included an in-depth research package to inform the future development of dance in South Yorkshire, which has fed into the planning for the next three years of activity.

These projects have planted the seeds for ongoing relationships between Danceworks and the artists involved, whilst also increasing audience attendance and regional participation in dance. Between 1999 and 2000, over 57,000 people attended a contemporary dance event in South Yorkshire, and male attendance grew by 11 per cent - a major achievement for Danceworks, an agency run by a staff of one and a half.

'Supporting the artist' is a phrase well used by agencies across the United Kingdom but which often falls short of its stated intent. Danceworks puts its money where its mouth is; for example, VDT has been in receipt of funding, marketing, financial, emotional and in-kind support over the last two years. This partnership has ranged from making sure we sold out in the Crucible Studio through a substantial marketing campaign, to offering the company a subsidised desk space within the Cultural Industries Quarter in Sheffield, at a crucial stage of our development. In return, I have joined the Danceworks board of directors, I advocate their work internationally and in the United Kingdom, support the staff on a day-to-day basis, introduce creative approaches to difficulties and regularly discuss the many-shared aspects of jobs, from fundraising through to proofing design work. Sharing an office really works for us, bringing sanity and hilarity into the more humdrum administrative aspects of running small businesses, as well as sharing ideas, feedback, food and student volunteers. As women working in the arts from differing ends of the spectrum - promotion and making work - we have become close and trusting friends through the pursuit of shared creative vision.

Looking beyond the DW4ward programme, the foundations of successful models working in South Yorkshire include, transferring partnerships into sustainable audience bases; marketing and press support for artists and venues; co-commissioning artists regionally, nationally and internationally and the production of a recognisable, generic Danceworks brochure. The identified gaps within this region reflect the national perspective - a deficit of administrative and market research support for artists.

And on the artistic front, the next three years herald a spring 2002 small scale residency Street Wise with Robert Hylton, plans to develop commissioning and touring projects on the small to middle scale circuit both internationally and nationally, the launch of two annual artistic development awards; the hosting of choreographic platforms in Sheffield in partnership with Yorkshire Dance and a management advice service. VDT's ongoing partnership may possibly see an autumn 2002 pilot middle-scale residency and tour of work made for the first time in Sheffield (work is usually devised in Leeds).

The commissioning strand is an important aspect of the Danceworks programme. At present, the agency is working with Michael Clark, co-commissioning his new work for 2001 alongside Berlin's Hebbel Theater, Italy's Roma Europa Festival, the Chaillot Theatre in Paris and Dance Umbrella, London. This extraordinary commission secures the British premiere in Sheffield, raising the profile of high quality, cutting-edge dance in South Yorkshire, as well as increasing awareness of Danceworks as an independent dance agency that has a role to play in the European circuit.

Working with Michael has other benefits for both the artist and the agency including national and international press involvement on a large-scale, the production of a video diary (directed by Dan O'Neill) which will be a useful documentary, promotional tool and impressive archive for the future, and a series of masterclasses for professional dancers and students taking place in Sheffield - a rare training opportunity in South Yorkshire.

The strenuous journey towards gaining national and international recognition is one which Vincent Dance Theatre and Danceworks currently share. With work in Poland, Austria and Germany this year, and support from The British Council and the Arts Council of England, VDT are making real progress on the European front as well as continuing our nationwide touring of new work across the United Kingdom.

As interesting and compelling as touring can be, this constant state of flux means you are often blind to the opportunities that are sitting quietly on your own doorstep. In looking outwards, you are often in a stronger position to then re-look in. VDT has just been awarded Priority Funding from Yorkshire Arts to develop a dance space in Sheffield in the Cultural Industries Quarter, in partnership with Danceworks. Although intended primarily as a home base for VDT, the development of this space is a mouth-watering opportunity to develop independent and community dance in Sheffield. A space, at last, to breathe, to play, to make, to teach, to think. Curated in partnership with Danceworks and Yorkshire Dance, Rivelin Works intends to provide an access point for involvement and participation in quality dance here in South Yorkshire, as well as providing a simple rehearsal space for fellow creative companies such as Third Angel and Sheffield Theatres.

Another new beginning. Another project to nurture as it stretches and grows.

Visit www.vincentdt.com Contact Dance works on +44 (0)114 221 0313. Email danceworks@workstation.org.uk

Vincent Dance Theatre's new work Drop Dead Gorgeous will tour the UK, Germany and Poland.

Michael Clark's new work, with set design by Sarah Lucas, premieres in the UK on October 2001 at The Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001