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Animated Edition - Spring 2008
Industrial strength partnership
Donald Hutera reports on a developing dance partnership between industrial south Wales and Silesia in Poland
In 2002 the Silesian Dance Festival (or, to use its official title, the Annual International Contemporary Dance Conference and Performance Festival) invited Diversions, the national dance company of Wales, to perform in southern Poland. The festival is one of many initiatives of the Silesian Dance Theatre (STD), a company founded circa 1991 by dancer and choreographer Jacek Luminski. Its headquarters are in Bytom, a frankly unprepossessing city situated in one of the most heavily industrialised areas of Poland.

The SDT claims to be Poland's first professional modern dance group. It is also, without question, one of the country's driving forces in the field of dance. The same could be said of Diversions. Headed by Ann Sholem and Roy Campbell-Moore, and based in the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, Diversions has survived for a quarter-century. Like the SDT, it arose out of a landscape marked (some would say 'scarred') by a strong industrial history. Indeed, according to Herian, a promotional consortium of local authorities, national statutory bodies and voluntary organisations subtitled 'Heritage in Action,' Wales was the first industrial nation.

The above is the bare-bones backdrop for a conference that was held principally in Cardiff in October 2007. Entitled The Impact of Dance and the Arts in the Regeneration of Post-Industrial Societies, the two-day event was organised to highlight the activities of the Silesia/South Wales Dance Exchange Project. Along with Diversions and the SDT, the other partners in this tri-part project include The Valleys Dance Initiative (operating under the auspices of Community Dance Wales and itself a partnership between the Arts Council of Wales and the six southeast local authorities of Blaenau Gwent, Bridgend, Carephilly, Merthyr Tydfil, Rhondda Cynon Taf and Torfaen), the Park & Dare Theatre in Treorchy, and Cultural Services of Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council.

If the above list of organisations seems weighted in favour of the Welsh, the conference provided a compensatory platform for a small delegation of Poles - civic dignitaries, tourism officers, SDT management, even a sociologist. They came to The Senedd, an airily modern building beside the Wales Millennium Centre that affords a splendid view of Cardiff Bay, and to the Diversions Dance House, located at the side of the WMC, to share information about Silesia and its legacy of mining and industry; to underline the parallels between the region and South Wales; and to point out the positive links between cultural development and social change. In the words of one Polish guest speaker, 'You are lucky because you didn't have Communism and Soviet oppression. In the first moment, in 1989, it was difficult for us to find and use positive examples because nobody was framing the transformation from a fully controlled Communist economy to a free-market economy. Now, after eighteen years, we have a normal economy. We are starting later, but we have joined the great European family. We have faced the same problems as you here in Wales: to tell our neighbours that we are not only a region of heavy industry, but also a region of culture. At this moment the experiences of our friends could be very useful for us.'

Early in this decade I visited Bytom (population: 200,000+) as a guest of the Silesian Dance Festival, an event that in 2008 will celebrate its 15th anniversary. Due to tight scheduling my experience of the city was limited, mainly split between the SDT's theatre/conference building and my hotel. But, as hinted at earlier, Bytom would be unlikely to rank high on any list of the most desirable European metropolises. The SDT was then and, although I could be mistaken, remains akin to an oasis in a cultural desert. The festival's civic and regional settings may have seemed grim, but the people I met - by which I mean the organisers, fellow international guests and the numerous, avid young dancers and dance students who participated in workshops and attended lectures and performances - were another matter altogether. Everyone present seemed dedicated to the cause of culture, with an emphasis on dance. The feeling was strong, especially among the Poles, that they needed this art form in their lives. What's more, they knew how it might transform the lives of others.

A similar spirit seems to permeate the Silesia/South Wales Dance Exchange Project. Printed material that had been prepared for conference delegates was clear and thorough. To summarise, the purpose behind the project is to examine the contribution that dance (and the arts in general) can make to community development and regeneration via education, participation and professional performance activities, all of which help to restore cultural identity, bolster communication and enhance self-esteem.

In May 2006 Wales Arts International, with in-kind support from the SDT, funded a research trip to Silesia for Park & Dare's Judi Hughes and Angharad James of Community Dance Wales. Their purpose was to learn more about the communities of Upper Silesia in particular, and the socio-economic conditions of working and living in the region. They were keen to discover what had already been achieved in terms of cultural community projects, contemporary dance and general artistic development in post-industrial Poland. By comparing methods and policies of creative community work there and in Wales, they could better assess the potential for an international exchange of skills and knowledge. Once this groundwork had been laid, SDT's then-manager Adam Kowalski made a reciprocal visit to Cardiff and South Wales' valleys in October of that same year for further research, discussion and planning.

Perhaps a bit more context would be useful to understand the project's stated reach. South Wales and Upper Silesia have similar characteristics because of the heavy industry that shaped the cultural and natural landscape of both areas. The economic changes that followed the collapse of these industries created a plethora of social problems that transformed and, in many case, demoralised each region's communities. All of the project's partners champion arts and culture as a means of countering such debilitating circumstances and instigating positive change. They recognise that any work done should involve local communities in the full process of artistic creation. This, they feel, is of vital importance if any significant improvement is to be achieved in areas endangered not only by socio-economic instability, but also the concomitant mind-set of self-devaluation and the loss of a traditional cultural environment. Furthermore, artistic projects that help to solve social problems can also facilitate connections between allegedly antagonistic groups (e.g., youth and seniors, workers and the unemployed, people with and without disabilities). There is, additionally, a desire to foster professional development by focusing on exchanges involving practitioners who can deliver dance and creative outreach work in local communities in both Wales and Poland. The first of these exchanges have already taken place, in autumn 2007 (with performance shown at the conference that were the result of two Polish dancers having visited Wales) and spring 2008.

The conference filled its audience with facts and figures about Silesia and Bytom, to such an extent - and with such earnestness - that occasionally I longed to nip out and run around the block or crack a few jokes. It was, however, intriguing to listen to the Polish contingent bandy about such phrases as 'new models of social capital and corporate social responsibility,' 'a transitional flow of ideas regarding new regionalism and problem-solving' and 'the necessity of human capital.' What has art, and specifically dance, got to do with all of this? As indicated above, the project is fuelled by a genuine faith that dance/the arts can function as a catalyst for change on multiple levels. It seems obvious that as members of what I would call underdog nations, the people of Wales and Poland - or certainly those spearheading this project - would wish to use culture to better their own and others' lives. Simultaneously, they'd doubtless like to be recognised for their achievements in artistic and socio-cultural spheres. Kowalski put it neatly when he declared that 'being an artist or a cultural institution is about more than just creating art. The Silesian Dance Theatre has a role in connecting communities, countries and societies. By creating art we can create a new reality.' In one memorable phrase about the company's mission he cited the use of 'self-expression as a tool for shaping democratic attitudes and ways of thinking.'

Kowalski also spoke of 'opening Bytom to the world and bringing the world to Bytom.' This global consciousness chimes in with the strategic aspirations of city leaders to shake off the coal dust and turn Bytom into a modern European cultural centre. What little I saw of it may not have unduly impressed me, and yet Bytom is clearly no cultural wasteland. Apart from the Silesian Dance Festival each summer, there are annual celebrations of theatre, new music and even antiques alongside a range of amateur, folkloric and pop culture events in both the city and the region. But there is, in Kowalski's words, a difference between 'creating serious culture versus filling free time.' On that score, the SDT is the most active, important and internationally connected arts organisation that Bytom has: a professional dance company that throughout its history has provided dancers with ample opportunities to develop their skills and, when not touring, regularly deliver loads of community work at home.

'Everything Adam said was true of why Diversions started,' Campbell-Moore echoed when his turn to speak came. 'What we does in Wales is not unusual. It's what modern dance does. It's a philosophy of living through your art form, and of self-expression and creativity.' It was revealing to hear him talk in public and then, as a coach took conference members to the Park & Dare to see local groups of youths and seniors perform, more informally to me. With his vast body of experience as an artistic leader in South Wales, Campbell-Moore is well placed to comment on what an uphill struggle it can be to implement even the most viable of community programmes. The level of insularity and apathy in the Valleys has sometimes been, as he put it, 'staggering.' He was honest in countering the notion that 'the people deserve the best.' Not that he himself believes that they don't. Rather, he says, such ideas and initiatives often fall flat. 'You might want to do something here, but it spits you out. It rejects its talented best. There's no school, no audience, and so they [by which he meant artists] all leave.'

And yet, despite such a dramatic pronouncement, Campbell-Moore and his colleagues both within and outside of Diversions persevere. Others who attended the conference - like Polly Hamilton, head of Cultural Services for the RCTC Borough Council, or Rachel Robertson, the Dance in Education and Training Co-ordinator of RCTC Arts - don't view the current situation as a black hole. On the one hand, as was pointed out, there is a perception that the Valleys are places of poor health, unemployment and low morale. The flipside is the post-devolution optimism of an enthusiastic independent arts sector, the increasing popularity of venues like the Muni Arts Centre in Pontypridd, Aberdare's Coliseum Theatre and the Park & Dare, and evidence that partnership in the creative industries can work. (It may be worth noting here that the total participation in arts activities in the RCT for 2005/06 is said to have been over 24 thousand people in 2500-plus sessions, with audience figures approaching 3,600.) 'What we're moving into is a knowledge-based economy,' Hamilton said during her conference presentation. 'Dance is the obvious catalyst. It helps people with that transition. After music, it became the thing that's gotten people really excited because of the physical strength involved. People in the Valleys are very emotional. They like to touch.' She stressed the importance of the Valleys in the contemporary cultural life of Wales, which 'comes out of a history of freedom of speech, dissent and promoting tolerance.' There is, she added, a need 'to recognise that it's authentic and valuable and internationally appreciated.'

Another valuable presentation came courtesy of Krzysztof Roman, director of the Szombierki Power Station. A symbol of Upper Silesia's industrial heritage, this imposing edifice has been given a new lease of life by playing host to concerts, performances (including by the SDT), exhibitions, sporting events and large-scale social functions. 'The power station became the venture for architects and town planners to be able to heal the wounds in the urban tissues,' Roman explained. 'The building that doesn't produce energy any more is potentially the biggest producer in the world of culture.' Now all that's needed is to find an investor or partners to help the power station establish a firm purpose and identity and thereby achieve a sustainable future. Until such time, Roman can still take pride in it as model of 'the conversion of industrial energy into creative energy.'

The conference concluded with an open discussion about how this project might develop further. Hamilton remarked about its potential 'to open artists' thinking to more international ways of working' and to further 'an understanding not just of practice, but the values behind practice.' It was generally agreed that the project could expand its reach by attracting more long-term international partners in the spheres of education, business and the arts, and that it likewise needed a high profile (including in the press) in order to be kept on the political agenda. There was also little doubt about its usefulness as a means of learning about and promoting tolerance of other cultures, an especially pertinent point given the influx of Poles in the UK. Siri Wigdel, the dance officer of the Arts Council of Wales, inserted just the right note of caution. 'We've been given plenty of lovely soft evidence about the project,' she said. 'In my experience, it takes a decade to establish a relationship of this kind before you can say what it is, and to collect and disseminate evidence about it. Where is the hard evidence?' The question was, of course, partly rhetorical. It was Wigdel, too, who pointed out the almost choreographic link between people and the places where they live and work. Specifically she meant the Welsh and Polish communities whose existence revolved around movement up, down and around the hills and valleys and into the earth itself. It is those people that the Silesia/South Wales Dance Exchange Project effectively honours, and to the benefit of their descendants.   
       
For more information visit:
Diversions Diversions - the Dance Company of Wales: www.diversionsdance.co.uk
Silesian Dance Theatre: www.stt.art.pl
Wales Arts International: www.wai.org.uk
Community Dance Wales: www.communitydancewales.com

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Animated: Spring 2008