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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
If age could
Animated, Summer 1999. If youth knew, if age could... A wry and rather wistful observation which underscores the predicament of the older artist in dance. Mary Brady reflects
In our western, frenetically restless, disposable culture, dance seems all too often the proper domain of the young. Being fit and able bodied and dynamic and healthy is seen generally as the prerogative of youth. Within the professional dance sector the performing career of a dancer often begins to wane after the age of 35. Need it or indeed should it? What are the options? Should we be thinking solely of alternatives, or more proactively of developing different work practice entailing fundamental shifts in our perceptions of what it means to dance - to perform, to create, to participate in dance, at any age.

The present system seems to rest on this well established norm where dance training occurs at an early age in fact the earlier, the better with the expectation that a dancer's career ends during his or her mid 30s. A corollary of this is that the old order is regularly replaced. But discarding the old simply to make way for the new is a wasteful procedure. There are better ways, surely? Options for retraining and reassessment, allowing for and facilitating multiple routes for continued dance practice should form part of a continuum in a dance career rather than 'an either or' extending the boundaries of what constitutes performance dance as a means of enriching (and possibly even liberating) the dance aesthetic to embrace more of life's experiences; developing an aesthetic more accommodating of the shifting performance styles and nuances that older dancers can bring to the artform. Shifting perceptions must be motivated or driven by our dancemakers - by dancers and choreographers. Sustainability and development of the artform do not simply come with frequent new growth over short life cycles. Dance needs its elders as practising artists as well as fulfilling the roles of teachers, mentors, facilitators, writers, and managers.

In part, the predicament of the dancer is created by the rest of us lacking consensus - if not deep concern - about how best to show that we do value them. Practical measures are needed to ensure that adequate provision is made for work to be continued into middle age and beyond. Practical support needs to he available to permit work practices to shift in mid career.

In Ireland we have two laudable systems for honouring and supporting our creative artists. One is through membership of Aosdána, established by the Arts Council - An Chomhairle Ealaion, in 1982. Members elected to Aosdána may apply for the Cnuas, a stipend which is paid to those (members) who wish to devote themselves fully to the practice of their art. The Cnuas is means tested. The Arts Council has also set up a contributory pension scheme for members of Aosdána.

Secondly, creative artists can claim tax exemption on their artistic earnings (Section 195 of the Tax Consolidation Act 1997). This unique combination of state provision for the artist is enjoyed by those working across the mediums of music, literature and the visual arts. Notably, Irish choreographers are absent. The reason this is so, is hard to identify. It would seem to be partly due to a misunderstanding of the creative processes in making dances, compounded by a laissez-faire attitude from dance practitioners. Membership of Aosdána and tax exemption for choreographers would undoubtedly enhance their status and open up greater dialogue and understanding about dance practice.

High profile examples and existing practice clearly signpost the potential of dance to enter a much wider and more richly imaginative terrain. Nederlands Dans Theater III (NDT III) is a fine exemplar and ample testimony to dance performance for older dancers. This company of six dancers ranges in age from 40 to 63. Neither have their performances been diluted nor their aesthetic compromised by this. A testimony to this collective 'body wisdom' is the ability of NDT III to commission and attract works from, arguably some of the most uncompromising choreographers working in dance today: William Forsythe, Macs Ek, Jirí Kylián, Maguy Marin... NDT III's very existence demands further consideration conceptually, challenging as it does, traditional notions of equating capability with age. Equally, Green Candle Dance Company's performance of Tales From A Citadel similarly knocked a road through this cul-de-sac for professional dancers aged over 35.

What we need to ensure now is that such performance models are considered as part of the norm rather than as intriguing experiments; presenting more focused opportunities for dancers and choreographers to develop and articulate aesthetic languages to speak beyond a certain age and to support them whilst doing this. Constructing support mechanisms for this work would be a major step towards ensuring that, quite literally, this body of knowledge has time to fully mature.

Shifting perceptions also means looking at a continuum of participation and opportunity extending the domain to cherish and value diversity and interactions across a wider range. We need to explore, exchange and further develop good models of practice that encourage inclusiveness within the older age sector and between generations.

Green Candle Dance Company's recent performances, at Sadler's Wells, of On The Road to Baghdad - with over 80 performers - aptly exposed the cumulative effects of working with a diverse range of people of every age and background. Of a different nature is Nederlands Dans Theater: comprising three very distinct companies under one artistic umbrella, with the original NDT; NDT II for younger dancers; and NDT III for 'the veterans'. The concept is expansive in both vision and approach. The multiple layers of interaction can only benefit members from all three companies and the aesthetic they propound.

Are we not limiting our vision to see dance with older people solely as a matter of accommodating a series of lines, patterns and steps? Valid and valued though social dancing is, dance has much more to offer, to address and indeed to learn, in adapting to increase longevity and changing life styles. Conversely, health promotion programmes for older people need to be more informed about the creative and imaginative benefits of dance.

How to move this forward I would contend is through multipartnership and/or agency involvement. A combined approach representing the many different areas of expertise and practice involving training programmes that enable expertise to be drawn and exchanged from the multifaceted approach that is required.

In September 1998, Firkin Crane Dance Development Agency based in Cork, piloted a training programme around the subject of Older People in Dance (OPID). The OPID pilot training project was devised and facilitated by Green Candle Dance Company. It took the form of six weekend modules over six months. Over 20 people participated with backgrounds ranging from dancers, carets and managers of older people, as well as interested individuals. What has been exciting and very rewarding about this project has been the involvement and partnership relationship with the Southern Health Board throughout.

Firkin Crane's OPID programme continued with a visit from NDT III to Cork Opera House. This autumn Moving Age - an international symposium far dance and older people - will be examining some of these issues. The Moving Age symposium continues the dynamic between Firkin Crane and The Irish Southern Health Board by charting progress with an evaluation report which will he disseminated following the event. Also by contrasting, comparing and exchanging methods of best practice with international models, we are aiming at a broad representation of delegates including dancemakers, individual artists and practitioners and representative agencies from the focus group.

Older people in dance can he as wide ranging or as specific a definition as it needs to be. We require more concerted approaches to tackle these accumulating and multiple challenges. Moving Age - the name and the notion - is about exploring the range of the definition with a view to being more facilitative, and inclusive, of the potential of dance at any age by naming it and moving it. To paraphrase Hipprocates: "Life is old, the art young."

Mary Brady, Artistic Director, Firkin Crane Dance Development Agency. Contact + 0035 321 507487. Moving Age - an international symposium for dance and older people, 3-5 September, Firkin Crane Centre, Cork. Contact +0035 321 507487

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001