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Animated Edition - Autumn 2004
Desire of the Light Sweet Crude
Chris Lewis-Smith reflects on the shifting nature of 'community' through the making process of Desire of the Light Sweet Crude, a summer performance project with TAN Dance of South Wales
"We've been offered eight wedding dresses, shall we use them?" This was Carol Brown, Artistic Director of TAN Dance on the phone to me last May, looking ahead to our summer project. This was the eighth, or is it the ninth I've lost count now, in a series of community productions that we have run together. It seemed too good an opportunity to pass up. "Yes", I replied. Weddings, brides, brides to be and a host of associations became our starting point. Theatr Einon in Gorseinon, just west of Swansea, was booked for July 17th.

TAN Dance (Tawe/Afan/Nedd) provides community dance activity for the Swansea, Port Talbot and Neath area of South Wales. It was formerly the West Glamorgan Community Dance Project until Welsh Local Government Reorganization in 1996 shifted the Nation's internal boundaries. Carol's been at the helm since 1987 when she was a lone Animateur with a ghetto blaster, an old school desk and no phone. TAN now has four offices, a full time administrator, three project managers, two development workers and work for twenty free-lance teachers. It's the story of belief, commitment and hard work that others involved in similar organisations will recognise. Last year TAN recorded over twenty thousand people on its registers participating in 159 projects and representing a broad profile of age, background, education and class.

These Summer projects have varied widely from year to year. Some have been theatre based, some site-specific. Most have involved live music played by local musicians. One had a choir. Some have incorporated film and for many, the input of local poet John Howell Jenkins, where his own work and/or text drawn by him from performers themselves, has been at the heart of the work. There are a core of dancers who return year after year and others who have been in at least half of the performances. Last year many of them joined with a large group of asylum seeking families and individuals to create 'Broken Free', performed at Swansea's Theatr Taliesin. A key feature of all these summer performance projects, is that everyone is welcome and that they draw together a diverse range of people with dance skills ranging from beginners to formally trained dancers.

One of the great strengths of community dance must be its capacity to draw together cultural groupings that might otherwise have little interaction, and indeed may have misconceptions of each other. It is a wonderful formula for rediscovering our similarities and learning from our differences. Post-war Britain has seen a great shift in the notion of 'community'. A term that once defined geographic groupings has expanded to embrace cultural groupings that are dispersed within a population. The Village Community is now a label that is sandwiched within a great list of cultural identity labels that are all forms of new 'communities'. Some have gathered the unifying identification stamp of 'community', such as our own dance community, or the Deaf community and the Asian community (nationally speaking). Others may not have collected the term but are no less of one, through a shared cultural interest or inheritance. We might consider for example the terms of the football community, the church-going community, the drum and bass community or the cyber community.

Communities are formed by communication. Isolated individuals who have the same interests but do not interact cannot therefore form communities. It is the bond of shared (communicated) interest that is the gelling agent. Through the blending of different cultural groups, as in the TAN summer projects, new communities come into being. Even though the life of such a group may be only as long as the project that nurtures it, for the duration it is a tribe with its own character and focus. In this light, we may consider ourselves members of several different communities at any one time in our lives, an overlay of interests and home-grounds. Ultimately we are all members of the emerging concept of the 'global community' through our shared human characteristics and dependencies, and our ability to communicate simply by pressing 'send'.

Dance also has the capacity to allow groups from existing individual cultural (and geographic) communities to strengthen and reaffirm their own identities. It is quite possible that, let us say a teenage boy, might hesitate to sign up for a regular dance workshop unless it were a Boy's Group, a culturally secure environment. Within that group he would, we hope, be able to develop skills, explore ideas, share and enjoy dance that is pertinent to his own identity. This, one might argue, is just as important and as relevant as the inter-cultural community group.

On one hand we have the project groups with culturally specific identities and on the other we have the open invite projects to which anyone and everyone is invited to attend forming multi-cultural 'communities' with the common interest of dance. Then we have degrees of cultural combinations between the two. TAN's summer projects draw together both existing culturally specific dance groups and individual dancers, and the different yearly themes change the make up of this enrolment, the community created and, in turn, the sort of experience people have.

This year's production, Desire of the Light Sweet Crude, enrolled for the first time an all female cast (even the unborn child carried by one of the dancers is, I hear, a girl). Perhaps this was not altogether surprising given the subject matter. With the dresses as our start point, Carol and I had decided on two themes. Broadly they were the ideas of looking at the appeal of marriage from a teenager's perspective and what constitutes a 'desirable woman' (part 1 of the show subtitled Above Rubies) and of the conflict between showing outer commitment and inner doubts through the perspective of a bride-to-be (part 2 subtitled Second Thoughts). If TAN Dance did not include provision for such a wide range of specific cultural, age, ability and gender groups in its year-in year-out activity, then I think we might have re-considered our theme, as we had enrolled no males. However, the wedding dresses had set the ball rolling. Rumour of them had spread. Dancers keen to be involved had already begun to make work at home, based on Carol's and my own early thoughts! It felt as though a momentum was building before we had started, an excitement and energy like a wind out at sea that we just needed to divert into the venues that were booked for the making process.

TAN's system of enrolment for these projects, though perhaps not unique, is possibly a model of good practice and as such, worthy of mention. The system allows people to fit the project in around family, school or working commitments etc. resulting in a broad cross section of ages and background being able to participate. An invite is sent out to every person who has phoned TAN with an interest in dance over the previous four years, plus to over seven hundred other regulars. The invite outlines the project and on a chart, a two-week 'making' schedule covering seven days a week is laid out, sectioned into blocks of morning, afternoon and evening sessions for each day. Participants are asked to sign the times that they can attend. This automatically forms groups, which we adjust if necessary, and the resultant schedule is returned. Depending on their availability, some people may be in two or three groups, others with less time may simply be in one small section of the production. All dancers are asked to come together for a final day before the performance to put the whole thing together.

All this makes for an intensive couple of weeks for Carol and myself and good preparation is essential. We have developed a good working rapport over the years and adjust our working formulas according to the theme, venue and cross section of the participants. To date we have always worked with a narrative structure constructing the work from 'core' choreography, set by ourselves, and creative input from the dancers. In Desire of the Light Sweet Crude, this 'core' material contained movement metaphors, pertaining to the theme, that dancers drew on in their creative work. By including elements of this vocabulary in their own choreography, performers created material that reflected moments from the 'core', threading a visual identity into the whole work. Two weeks isn't long to make a full-length evening's performance but it is remarkable what can be achieved with the wonderful energy and enthusiasm of the dancers, and plenty of careful planning!

So what of the dresses? Well, they looked quite extraordinary. Where else does one see eight 'brides' in one place, swishing and swirling meters of expensive white fabric, glowing in side-lighting against darkness? In Above Rubies, teenagers flinched from images of marriage while, in a private moment, one of them tried on what might have been her mother's veil. A belly dancer swayed sensuously behind her own black veil. A flamenco dancer stamped out her woman's passion and dignity. A mother and her two month-old daughter danced a duet, and a choreography of 'work never done' was performed by women with brief cases in one hand and shopping in the other, pushed and pulled one way then the other by invisible demanding forces.

In Second Thoughts, brides to be, bathed in a deep blue light, rose from sleeping on their wedding dresses to practice the walk down the isle. While they practiced perfection, film projected behind them exposed their doubts through text, written on skin, revealed through an unbuttoned dress.

As I watched the performance from the lighting box I was, as I have always been with these productions, enormously impressed by the achievement and integrity that the performers bring to the stage. It has something to do with their commitment to both the project and to each other, and the formation of a temporary 'community', small cultural chunks joined together in a shared creative process with a common goal.

The familiar vacuum felt by everyone involved, including myself, as people say goodbye and drive away into the night when it's over, is, I am sure, a small grieving process for a brief lived family in which no matter what cultural banner people arrive and leave under, all work positively together. The legacy of such projects is, I hope, a quiet knowing that in all our disparate allegiances, we are probably all far more the same than we are different.

Chris Lewis-Smith is a Senior Lecturer at Bath Spa University College, email c.lewis-smith@bathspa.ac.uk or contact TAN Dance on tan.dance@virgin.net

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Animated: Autumn 2004