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Animated Edition - Spring 2006
Dancescape - developing dance in a sub region
Sarah Jassal (née Sarah Miles), Sub Regional Dance Development Officer for Solihull, Coventry and Warwickshire outlines the emergence of Dancescape, a new initiative where several local authorities have built a relationship together for the development of dance
Dancescape is the dance development programme for Coventry, Solihull and Warwickshire, a sub region of the West Midlands. It's not the biggest area geographically, though it certainly keeps me busy travelling from place to place, but it is fairly varied within its own geography and demographics - a challenge for any co-ordinated approach to dance activity development taking place here. At the same time, there are many similarities, common goals and shared ambitions in this area, including those for dance.

Supporting Dancescape is a sub regional arts partnership, which consists of all the local authorities in Coventry, Solihull and Warwickshire along with Arts Council England, West Midlands. Sub regional partnerships are a fairly new way of working between Arts Council England and local authorities and when the Coventry, Solihull and Warwickshire arts partnership was formed just over two years ago it was viewed as a vehicle for some new, fresh thinking in the arts in this area. The partnership collectively decided that they would like to dedicate resources and expertise to visual arts, public art and dance, for various reasons ranging from an identified need to a lack of specialist knowledge of those particular artforms in this area, and commissioned research for each. For dance, the results would inform the partnership's decision as to the ways and means of filling those gaps, developing existing and new activity and raising the profile of, what became apparent as being, a successful and progressive sector of the arts in the area.

The research brief outlined nine areas for investigation including; support for dance practitioners, support for dance teachers, audience development for venues and promoters, opportunities for dance participation, funding, dance contacts, dance spaces, successful models elsewhere and recommendations for further development. Following widespread consultation it was recommended that a two year programme of strategic development work should be undertaken, providing sign-posting to training for practitioners, opportunities for the creation of new dance work and touring/participation within less-well served areas, as well as the provision of advice, information and networking.

On the consultant's recommendation the partnership created the role of Sub Regional Dance Development Officer and I took up the post last May. Solihull MBC took the partnership lead in the recruitment process and now takes host and line management responsibilities. The post is supported further and guided by the Steering Group, which consists of the following organisations: Solihull MBC, Coventry University Performing Arts, Motionhouse Dance Theatre, Warwickshire County Council, Arts Council England, West Midlands and another officer from the sub regional arts partnership.

When I started in post it was both exciting and refreshing to discover such a thriving culture of dance in the area as well as a strong dance community. I hoped to be able to bring together, celebrate and raise the profile of the dance already taking place - understanding that I wasn't here to simply instigate new activity and ignore all the good work already happening - and looked forward to building relationships, making networks and working with others to develop new activity and open up opportunities in dance in the sub region.

I spent the first couple of months getting to know those working here in dance. It became apparent that the dance artists living and working in the sub region wished to have more easily accessible opportunities available, particularly for their own professional development, without having to travel around the region or further. This highlighted the security felt by dance artists based in the sub region that they have within their own surroundings, happy to be making their living here with the desire for more opportunities to come to them rather than having to seek them elsewhere. I am currently in discussion with Coventry University Performing Arts, Arts+Media Training and Motionhouse Dance Theatre at Leamington Spa's new cultural quarter to programme a series of professional development activities, which might include master classes or residencies. With an overall theme of artistic inspiration, local professional artists will have the chance to explore their creativity outside the constraints of their usual day.

Similar feelings are experienced by teachers in schools and those responsible for dance within the curriculum and education in the sub region. Whilst dance in education is a particularly strong area of activity here, there are many possibilities for better networking, skills sharing and training opportunities for teachers. With no single local education authority or organisation able to take responsibility for this in the sub region, development and co-ordination of such networking is an opportunity for Dancescape.

As well as with schools, strong relationships have been built between Dancescape and key organisations/ agencies working in dance and education. Dancescape is involved with the Boys2Dance project at Warwick Arts Centre, in partnership with Being Frank Physical Theatre, in planning for a future programme of boys dance activity in schools across the sub region to culminate in a national boys dance conference and congress. Dancescape has also recently been working with Warwickshire Arts Zone in research and professional development, sharing the model of the already successful Warwickshire Special Schools Dance Festival.

Opportunities for youth dance across the sub region complement dance activity in schools. Dancescape, along with some key providers of dance for young people in the area, such as Coventry Performing Arts Service's Coventry Youth Dance, have come together to build existing activity and begin to form a sub regional youth dance network, which in turn will form part of the West Midlands youth dance infrastructure that is currently being developed. It is hoped that by pooling existing skills whilst developing opportunities for networking and showcases, the sub region will soon have its own youth dance community.

Community dance provision across the sub region is relatively disparate with far less activity in particular parts, such as North Warwickshire, Nuneaton & Bedworth, Rugby and Stratford districts. We set about trying to redress this in-balance by taking a more co-ordinated approach, with a focus on dance and health. A complication that occurred in the early stages of developing this project was identifying key partners, particularly in the areas where there is no Arts Development Officer currently in post, or where an Arts Development Officer has few contacts. Some lateral thinking was required to identify potential non-arts partners, such as the Healthy Living Networks and Social Services. This has resulted in the development of a number of projects, including a roll out programme of tea dance activity for over 50's in Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council's Sheltered Housing schemes.

Other areas of dance in the sub region that require specific development include the provision of activity for disabled people: whilst there is a strong dance culture within the special schools the same cannot be said for work with disabled adults. To this end Wolfgang Stange has been invited to work with the Rainbow Sunshine group in Bedworth over nine weeks towards a performance, and will be both important and revolutionary for the area. As an example of attempting to take a co-ordinated approach to all aspects of dance development in the sub region, this project will also offer the opportunity for two dance artists to be mentored by Wolfgang to develop specialist expertise within the sub region on which we can draw for other projects in the future.

An important element of raising the profile of dance within the sub region for Dancescape is to work with venues, promoters and companies in programming performances and other activity to develop audiences. There is a large breadth of dance programmed across the sub region with small, middle, large scale and community venues, and Dancescape is working to support each venue and its audience development individually as well as to provide a network between them.

It took very little time for me to fully realise that partnership working would be key to Dancescape's programme and its success. Dancescape's partners are integral in the development of all the projects, whether providing space, expertise or funding. Our budget for overall project delivery is very small, so we have to be certain that projects and any money spent are strategically viable. This also means that a major part of my role is to work with partners to source additional funds for projects and support them in making necessary applications. It is vital that all partners have a sense of ownership of a project and understand their own importance to each project as well knowing that we are working together for the longer term and the bigger picture.

However, possibly the biggest challenge of all in working sub regionally is, just that. It would be possible for me to work full time on dance development in any one of our districts, which means that my five days a week can end up being spread fairly thinly across the area as a whole. Whilst working on all of the current individual projects I have to constantly 'have a handle' on what's happening where and work on the development of a project in one area whilst delivering a project in another. It's really easy to become engrossed in what's happening in this area alone, with no time, or even need, to look across the borders of the sub region and further afield. However, it is important for me to do this to inform the partnership and steering group of other dance development agency models and to help make decisions about the future of Dancescape.

Currently, we are in year one of a two year strategic programme and it will be the responsibility of the partnership to decide whether dance requires the same level of commitment post-May 2007 and whether Dancescape will continue. We're currently researching other similar agencies and models in order to suggest how this might happen, but at the same time I have to make sure it will be possible for some kind of legacy to be left by Dancescape if it wasn't the provider of a dance development programme for Coventry, Solihull and Warwickshire in the future.

For more information about Dancescape, any of its projects or sub regional dance development, contact sjassal@solihull.gov.uk

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Animated: Spring 2006