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Animated Edition - Winter 2005
Dancing detectives open the box
Yael Owen from Coventry's Performing Arts Service introduces us to Beingfrank: a new dance company developing work with and for boys and young men in the West Midlands

Prologue
"I don't know why you're looking for me? I'm always here; it's just a bookshop in a back alley, down a dirty street in the wrong end of town. It was a Thursday I suppose. Yes it must have been a Thursday; it always rains on a Thursday. You see the shop; it's a basement shop with five steps down from the street level. I always get a small delivery of books on a Thursday and they leave them just in front of the door, to remind me I suppose...." (Innocence, 2002)

The mysterious character of the bookseller from Beingfrank's production 'Innocence', leads the audience in a tale of detectives, mobsters, books and bodies. Inspired by the books of Raymond Chandler and images from 'Film Noir' a Bookseller, a mysterious women and a Mobster create a triangle of suspicion in a murder investigation.

Beingfrank Physical Theatre was formed in August 2002 the brainchild of Artistic Director, David Mckenna. David's aims were to develop a specific performance style, to obtain close links within the local community, but most importantly to create exciting and challenging dance, specifically aimed at boys and young men: "I wanted to create a company that would enable boys and young men to be inspired about dance at a young age and at the same time see it as being 'masculine'. I was about 18 myself before I was exposed to performance that I could relate to as a male dancer."

With these aims in mind 'Innocence' was conceived. It was to be dance project, which would take place over two weeks designed specifically for boys with very little dance experience and perhaps little initial interest. Primarily, the project would offer these boys the opportunity to engage in energetic, athletic and exciting dance workshops and to experience dance from a purely male perspective in a safe and professional context. David recognised and made it a requirement that the work would also promote and contribute toward 'life-skills' such as leadership, decision-making, co-operation and confidence. The latter culminating in the second week of the project; the option to perform with the three male members of the company.

Scene 1: Beginnings
In August 2002 the Arts Council funded a period of research and development by Beingfrank that was called 'Mortified'. David worked in collaboration with two artists, Philip Riley and Simon Piasecksi devising a performance structure, which comprised of text and dance. The process of creating, and, more specifically structuring, was approached from a duel perspective. Sections were devised that could be performed both by the professional artists and by the young male dancers, at times exclusively and as an ensemble.

This important period of research reflected the beginnings of the creation of the 'Innocence' model. It enabled Beingfrank to develop not only an exciting performance structure designed specifically to inspire and empower boys and young men in the context of dance practice, but helped to consolidate David's artistic and vision and form the basis for a future company philosophy; "To provide an opportunity for young boys to develop their own ideas in dance through the participation of physical and athletic workshops ... to promote knowledge, skill and understanding of dance through performance, composition and appreciation of each others work"

After a showing of 'Mortified', a talkback discussion and using the structure developed, the first production of 'Innocence' took place in the Performing Arts Department at Stafford College of Further Education in January 2003. The project ran for one week, with three professional artists, David Mckenna, Simon Piasecksi and Mark Anderson with Mark Worth as an associate artist. A fundamental aim of the project in Stafford was to address the issue of improving male student retention in performing arts, particularly in the area of movement and dance. Course Leader at the time Michelle Piasecka comments; "Male students in particular were targeted for this project as student data for performing arts indicated that retention and achievement was lower for males than females.... Therefore, we felt it important to encourage our male students to consider dance as an art form, which they could take actively, have ownership of and was something they could enjoy." The participants, young male performing art students aged 16-20, created the concepts for their group sections and performed the show to a full house in the college theatre space. The performance was a great success and a huge achievement for the artists and the boys involved.

This first production of 'Innocence' was truly a defining experience for Beingfrank. It illustrated the quality of work that could be produced by the company; it upheld excellent teaching and professional practice and proved to the students, that dance could be an exciting, enjoyable and rewarding activity. Michelle Piasecka concludes "In terms of student retention and achievement the project undoubtedly achieved its aim ... Beingfrank had instilled in our male students a sense of pride and real achievement, and this, for me, was the project's true success."

Scene 2: Developments
Following the initial success of 'Innocence' in Stafford the company's reputation for quality, exciting and entertaining performance has grown. Perhaps more importantly, recognition has begun to increase, concerning both the significance and effect this work has had in furthering the development of boys dance.

In a number of cases, this has lead to proven increased interest in dance within the curriculum, especially in two Staffordshire and one Warwickshire school, who have been a part of the 'Innocence' project: "It's been amazing to have such a high percentage of interest from the boys in general, so many of them want to go on to take part in the performance week of the project. I feel that the company leaves the boys with a positive perception about dance and I feel especially proud of the reported increase in GCSE take up from some boys who have experienced the project." says Mckenna.

As a consequence, a number of innovative schemes have been developed in partnership with the company by varying schools and institutions to host 'Innocence' projects. These have all resulted not only in successful performances, but have proven to leave the boys involved with a new perspective on dance and movement activities... "We had Dave come in and he showed us how to make a dance of mountains which was wicked" (Sam, aged 12)

One such initiative was in Staffordshire, and was spearheaded by Sheila Fulford in early 2004. It consisted of joint local authority funding for three Staffordshire based performing arts status schools to take part in 'Innocence'. This joint approach not only assisted with organising and funding the project, but also importantly provided a catalyst to link the schools, which was a major objective that Fulford had to achieve. This project ran over two weeks with taster sessions in the first week in all three schools and boys then choosing to carry on into the devising and performing process in week two. The final piece was performed at the Patrick Centre, DanceXchange, Birmingham, again with a high degree of satisfaction felt by all concerned.

Following this, 'Innocence' residencies have continued to take place at a number of schools throughout the West Midlands: Henley in Arden High School, North Leamington School and Foxford School, and most recently four schools in Coventry: Woodway Park, the West Wood, Lyng Hall and Finham Park, in partnership with Performing Arts Service, Coventry. The final performance of the Coventry schools consortium project was at Coventry University, and led Sarah Jackson (Deputy Head of Performing Arts Service - Dance and Drama) to comment "It was clear that Beingfrank company members are excellent role models... this is a memorable and, for some of the boys, a life changing experience".

As recently as May 2004, a report submitted to the Department of Culture Media and Sport by the National Dance Teachers Association, highlights boys dance as a major area for improvement in dance education and brings attention the "growing awareness that boys should have equal entitlement and access to dance as girls". As many schools continue to separate the PE curriculum for boys and girls, it is true to say that access to dance for boys, has been (and to some extent continues to be) in danger of decline. Not only this, but for many boys the early separation from dance as a valid and exciting physical activity at school, can lead to distorted future perceptions and experience of dance as a whole. When seen in this context, the validity and value of the work that Beingfrank has generated, in a relatively short timeframe, has been recognised and evidenced as making a vital and positive contribution to the notion of Boys Dance, in the often, challenging school environment.

Scene 3: New Ventures, Pandora's Box
By October 2005, Beingfrank Physical Theatre aims to have devised and toured a full-length performance piece called 'Pandora's Box', which will be built on the model developed for 'Innocence'. An initial framework will be devised, in which both the professionals and participants will eventually build the final performance, through residencies and collaborations. This new project will see the company develop in a number of ways, including the integration of live music, film and image projection and a number of additional performers. However, remaining always as the pivot of the company's work and philosophy will be its focus upon the creation of a physical, athletic and vibrant movement vocabulary, about subjects that will appeal especially to boys and young men.

David McKenna says "The performance will explore characters hidden truths ... will investigate hidden feelings from a young male perspective, investigating the social expectations of being a male in today's society, dealing with the armoury worn on the outside, together with the sensitive, caring and sometimes vulnerable inside." These issues will of course be dealt with in the style that has become so successful and the trademark of Beingfrank's work, using the silent films of the 1920's as inspiration; all of the performers will explore their own experiences of hidden mistakes, secret dealings with temptation and the consequences these actions may invite.

The company is also pioneering an initiative called 'Boys 2 Dance' in partnership with Warwick Arts Centre Education Liaison Department. This initiative is a three-year project, due to begin in September 2005, which will address and develop boys dance in three sub-regional areas of the Midlands: Coventry, Solihull and Warwickshire. The primary aim of the project is to spearhead excellence in the presentation and teaching of boys dance and to establish a National example of good practice in the field. Within this, Beingfrank will seek to promote, perform and sustain boys dance, which is physically challenging, exciting and inspiring for participants and audiences alike.

Since its creation in 2002, Beingfrank Physical Theatre has established itself as a pioneering example of entertaining performance and good practice in the field of boys dance. As 'Innocence' continues to receive bookings, Pandora's Box awaits to be made and the 'Boys 2 Dance' initiative gathers momentum, it appears that with Beingfrank, the future of boys dance is in safe and capable hands.

Epilogue:
...I'll buy you a drink Charlie, but not a night; that costs more than you have my friend and we both know that. I've known you for a long time ... a long time. When you asked me to help I didn't want to. Not because I didn't like you Charlie, but because of the possibility of this moment... (Pandora's Box)

Yael Owen is a Professional Dance Practitioner and Team Leader - Dance/Performing Arts Service Coventry, or see www.beingfrank.co.uk

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Animated: Winter 2005