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Animated Edition - Winter 2005
Diagnostic dance
David Massingham outlines the emergence of Shift, a project for young men with mental health issues, and asks how are we to develop new practice without stepping into the unknown?
As a National Dance Agency artistic director, I seem to find myself increasingly in a state of dilemma. I think my undecided mind-set is resolvable but I wonder if the Arts Council's schizophrenic nature is a similar condition or something else altogether.

I have long held the view that dance can really make a difference in terms of health, both mental and physical. Its ability to increase the body's potential is fairly obvious to most people. When it comes to what appear to be less measurable outcomes such as how the mind can be exercised through creative movement, there seems to be a lack of certainty and indeed a lack of belief that if it can make a difference, it is really a worthwhile way of achieving that difference.

Shift, the dance and mental health project that DanceXchange (Dx) has just begun, was partially born from an age-old argument I had with a doctor friend of mine, who once pointed out to me that what I did in the arts was fun but what he did was save lives. I was really pleased to find that Dx was doing an amazing children's hospital project, 'Dancing From The Heart', when I arrived as Director in 1999.

Its success was wholly satisfying and has profoundly affected the way the Birmingham Children's Hospital works in terms of holistic treatment of very ill patients. More emphasis is now put on the quality of the lives of children through mental and physical stimulation. Dance Artists continue to work at the Birmingham Children's Hospital today.

It is this 'quality of life' focus that brought about the unique partnership involved in Shift. Since the planned opening of the new Birmingham Hippodrome partnership building, DanceXchange and Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) have talked about the immediate local community and doing a project that would be focused there. Then when Optima Housing, which is responsible for the mammoth rebuilding/regeneration scheme in this community, approached us to do an arts and health project, it seemed that a marriage was to be made in heaven.

Very quickly, a unique partnership formed between Dx, BRB, Optima, Ladywood Healthy Living Centre and the Belleview Medical Centre. The latter two partners are directly responsible for serving the community and were eager to grow arts practice in such a deprived area.

From the beginning, everyone was in agreement about the project's driving force and overall aims. It was to be an arts led project focusing on young men with mental health issues.

At the time of writing, a lead artist, Dylan Quinn, has been appointed as well as four other dance professionals who will work as a team to develop the creative process. This process is an open-ended adventure until we know what types of problems the participants are facing.

Only one decision has been made about how the creative process may end in a product. That is to create a dance film. This will definitely not be a film of a dance but an artistic creation in its own right, that features movement. We believe the film will accommodate for participants who may drop in and out or not be around as the project comes to a close. Their valuable creativity will be captured and they can therefore see for themselves how they have contributed even if they have not been able to stay the course.

We see Shift as an action research project that will seek to understand how dance can help young men on the cusp of dropping out of mainstream education or who are unable to get into, or sustain a work pattern due to low self esteem and associated mental conditions such as moderate depression. We will know how it has been effective through an exhaustive ongoing evaluation that is literally part of the project itself. There will also be a psychiatrist who will participate in the activities and help steer the artistic team, particularly if any difficulties arise.

Post the showing of the film and any other potential artistic product such as a performance, we will offer ways for the young men to develop into other dance related activities to support their ongoing positive experience.

Despite my long held beliefs about the potential of dance in this sort of health arena, I am concerned that the Government are driving the Arts Council ever further to see art as a vehicle instead of an end in itself. However, with my beliefs firmly emblazoned on my chest and as I said, a marriage made in heaven, an application for funding was made.

The Arts Council almost funded this project nearly three years ago as part of their one-off 'Dance Included' scheme. Having just failed to make it into the funding pot (Shift was in the final shortlist of ten but only six got the dosh) with what has always been described as a unique project, this unique partnership has suffered over two years of highs and lows, being told to 'do this' and 'do that' and 'have you thought about this - YES!', to the point that the project was almost certainly going to be scrapped. It was the last gasp of emotional enthusiasm from our health partners that resuscitated it, and then Shift was finally funded.

The Arts Council appeared to be saying that DanceXchange and BRB would potentially not be able to handle this difficult project and 'what if it fails?'. Given both organisations' track records and resources, it seems incredible that we were deemed a risk as spenders of arts and health funds. And as to the project 'failing', how are we to develop new practice in this area without thinking imaginatively and then stepping into the unknown.

Social inclusion now seems to swamp the arts debate. I suppose it really comes down to the overall aims of the project, how the artistic process is handled and how good the art is at the end of the day.

I am hoping in the case of Shift that we (Dx and BRB) have trusted in the art itself to bring about the results we want as opposed to making what we think is a perfect fit for the target group. My dilemma is, am I kidding myself into believing that we are really out to make great art in Shift or are we inevitably going to be happiest if the young men appear to have had a useful experience and the art they were involved in making is alright too?

Interestingly, along the way, one potential lead artist who was absolutely wanting to lead the project was jettisoned because he appeared to be 'too arty' and there were fears that the young men may not be able to relate to him or his processes despite an amazing track record of working in the most difficult communities and contexts.

What I think I am saying is this project has already curbed its risk-taking appetite for a more certain route. If we are trying to expose the participants to true creativity, can this be done when the producers themselves are adverse to adventure?

The target group is itself a real challenge and the logistics of the project may yet be seriously tricky because of the participants' circumstances and issues. If this is the real risk of Shift, then lets be honest and say this is a health led project that involves art not an arts led project that focuses on health.

For more information on Shift, please call Sarah Arnaud on 0121 689 3172, email sarah.arnauld@dancexchange.org.uk or visit www.dancexchange.org.uk

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Animated: Winter 2005