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Animated Edition - Autumn 2006
Diamonds in Doncaster, bowlers in Birnam Wood
Protein Dance sets out in all its work to break down barriers and perceptions of what dance should be. Rather than presenting abstract narratives to a specialist audience, its innovative dance theatre pieces are grounded in everyday life and are frequently performed in non-theatre spaces, from Wapping Power Station to the local pub. Its most recent show, Big Sale, is a relentless blitzkrieg on the world of images we all live in now, where the fakery of 'reality' TV meets the wake-up call of the streets and where celebrity is the most desirable commodity in the great knocking shop of postmodern life. Protein's risk-taking attitude extends into its participatory work, too, most recently in its Real Life/Real Dance project in Pupil Referral Units in Doncaster and Essex. Richard Ings, former editor of Animated, was there for most of it
It's another departure at the crack of dawn, this time making the train with seconds to spare and gaspingly finding my way to the table where Bettina Strickler, Natasha 'Tash' Gilmore and Phil Hill have already begun the day's banter. We're off to Doncaster again. It's a tough gig in many respects, even given the usual deal for dancers. In two hours or so, we'll be unloading ourselves at The Point (the home of Doncaster Community Arts), an unlikely, airy arts oasis close to the city centre, where we head for the dance studio to cue up the music, stretch and rehearse the routines - or in my case, as the elderly evaluator of the project, to slump on the floor with my notebook and voice recorder at the ready. The groups the dancers have been working with are all from Pupil Referral Units (PRUs), which is an even looser term than usual here, as the groups include a group of teenaged mothers and mothers-to-be and another, smaller cohort of young women at risk of prostitution as well as half a dozen boys from a more conventional PRU. Closer to Protein's London home is Birnam Wood PRU, in Hornchurch, where the company has been working with a group of younger students - nearer 14 than 16, the median age in Doncaster.

The project began back in October with a few taster sessions and is set to finish in March 2006. Though that sounds like a long and sustained engagement, in fact the number of contact sessions, running through February and March, is relatively modest - Protein does a lot with project funding but has yet to secure the regular support it deserves. That means, fairly early on in the process, that the pressure is on to create and rehearse the dances that will feature in two short films - the tangible product of all these labours.

Fast-forward to June 23 and the company's Real Life/Real Dance conference at Stratford Circus, hosted by East London Dance, the company's partner at Birnam Wood (as DARTS was in Doncaster). The two Protein films are shown to a gathering of artists and arts workers, PRU staff and funders, all of them committed in one degree or another to making dance interventions in PRUs and similar institutions; the Doncaster film is screened before my talk-show interview with Bettina and Tash.

Filmmaker Roswitha Chesher has skilfully shaped several sequences into a dynamic narrative, contrasting girl-band capers with more stylish Marilyn Monroe manoeuvres, setting these against the postures and acrobatics of sharp-suited boy bouncers. This collage effect was a concept developed by the dancers that cleverly accommodated the obligation to keep the groups separate for filming (as well as for the actual dance sessions leading up to this). The subject matter, too, was a deliberate choice, based on what the dancers thought - accurately, it turned out - that young people might relate to. This choice in this context might seem surprising to some, as if the company were colluding with the shallow world it satirises in Big Sale. My response to this would be that it is a tough and confusing world out there for many young people, bombarded by mixed messages from our media and our government and constantly lured by the siren-call of material pleasures, from getting the right clothes to taking the cool drugs. It is too easy to feel left out and lacking, especially if you come from a background of poverty or abuse. By taking on the roles of vamp or bouncer or girl band star these young people are playing with the trappings of Big Sale but turning them into art in a process that has given them a rare sense of achievement and pleasure.

On the face of it, the film produced at Birnam Wood seems to have come from a more innocent age. It takes the form of a cabaret, featuring a series of comic and acrobatic turns, and - unlikely as it might seem, given our assumptions about young people in PRUs - evokes the gentle mayhem of 1920s silent movies. I visited the PRU a week or two ago, when four of the young boys who had taken part in the project were shown the film. They greeted it with pure pleasure and hoots of laughter at the high jinks on screen. What I think they and the older students in Doncaster have experienced is a transformation, seeing themselves literally in a different guise - diamonds in Doncaster, bowlers in Birnam Wood - and in a different role, presented to their teachers and their families and their friends and anyone else who cares to watch as a glamorous alternative to the grim labels and the tags they are usually identified by.

How then does one judge such work? As the evaluator of the project, I have no one easy answer to that question but prefer to explore it on a number of levels - aesthetic, social, structural and so on. Much of what I am currently writing on this project is intended purely for the company and its funders, in the hope it might help them in defining what has been achieved (or not) and how that might inform its future work with so-called 'hard to reach' young people. What can be affirmed, I believe, is that such interventions as these are no different from any other artistic enterprise: they begin in risk and end in some uncertainty. Did it work? Who benefited and in what way? For how long? And, where it did clearly seem to work at some level, why did it work?

We live in a culture that is besotted with measurement and accountability, as if the impact of an artistic experience - making art or simply witnessing it - could ever be pinned down, like an exam result. We make a questionable divide between process and product - as if Hamlet, for example, wasn't constantly changing as different performers and different generations interpret it and as if, in the course of Protein working with young people, for example, there weren't creative epiphanies where someone produced a definitive gesture or captured a dance routine in one go. We also separate out the worthy stuff from the true art, as if art is too narrow to achieve a social benefit alongside or as part of delivering aesthetic excellence.

Yet, of course, we have to produce evidence of impact if we are to take this work further in the real world, particularly in the formal education sector which continues, despite its best teachers, to focus on measuring, judging and labelling young people, and my report will include data from pupil attendance sheets and formal responses from PRU staff as well as testimony from a whole range of participants, most of it attesting to the benefits of the project. But, although a realist in this respect, I believe that such projects are more about giving positive power to disenfranchised individuals than placating institutions or satisfying government targets on social inclusion.

Protein Dance worked with the following Pupil Referral Units between October 2005 and March 2006: DONCASTER Beckett Road Centre, Hexthorpe Centre, JASP, DLP and the Young Parents Centre, EAST LONDON, Birnam Wood. For further information about the company, visit the website at www.proteindance.co.uk

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Animated: Autumn 2006