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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Is it time to invest in success?
Animated, Autumn 1999. Marie McCluskey and Jackie Fahy unpack DansConnect - an innovative performance-led initiative taking dance to where it counts - reaching a staggering 6000 young people throughout the southern region. It is inconceivable then that this exemplary model may be lost through lack of investment
In rural Wiltshire a group of nine to ten year olds is passing a basketball, absorbed in complex manoeuvres used by the visiting dancers as an introductory activity to exchange names and effectively warm up their bodies. Next they learn a sequence from the performance, which they will see later, and then create their own, convincing anyone watching that there really is a basketball in the midst of them. Splitting into teams they build their own game using techniques such as slow motion, replay and repetition. Once secure with the sequence, they add a psyche-out-the-opponent section, and then perform for each other - intelligently providing feedback on what they have seen and experienced. The workshop has ended (far too soon), and the young people feel as if they have been challenged - not only was the experience physical, entertaining and accessible - it raised issues about competing, being part of a team and highlighted the feat of becoming an athlete (or for that matter a dancer). Inherent within this, is the opportunity for young people to encounter professional dancers, to discover more about these motivated, focused and energetic artists. An eagerness and anticipation surfaces as they await the performance. DansConnect is already connecting.

The equipment arrives and is unloaded - dance floors, lights, speakers are transported into the school hall. The excitement mounts - it is time, and all 70 pupils and six staff squash in to watch two dance pieces specifically created for the ten to 14 age range. There is a flash of recognition, young people see the dancers who have just taught them, performing so close, and feel inspired by the creative and physical possibilities of the human body. They also think that all the dancers are incredibly 'cool'...

Many young people are disadvantaged because of geographical location, lack of finance or access to aesthetic experience. There is also currently, a lack of appropriate professional performance work that engages young people. In the main, the majority of touring work is targeted at GCSE level and above, and so there exists a real gap in the provision for this vital age group, who, given the right formula, will connect. They are ripe to become the audience of the future, just waiting to be captured and captivated. Furthermore, although there is a great deal of good education work, there is often a mismatch between the expectations aroused by the educational activities and the experience of the subsequent performance. DansConnect has attempted to overcome these barriers by devising an audience-led dance education project, funded by an Arts for Everyone (A4E) Lottery grant of £180,000. Its aim is to address these issues by providing a positive experience of dance for young people aged between ten to 14 years, and to develop a dance audience for the future, by performing high quality driven choreography which young people will view as inspiring, and which importantly, is not curriculum centred.

A staggering 6000 young people saw DansConnect performing and 3500, of whom 1300 were boys, participated in workshops. This far exceeded our original expectation. Throughout the project, market research was conducted by Oxford-based Marketing the Arts (MAX), in order to determine the opinions of young people towards dance in general, and specifically, the creation of the performance; and to monitor their response to the performances and workshops. What was to clearly emerge, and was subsequently documented (although it is something that Swindon Dance (SD) knew from its 21 years of involvement with artists and educators) was the fact that young people most appreciate music and themes relating to their own experience. It was also found that the interactive workshop element is crucial and leads to an enhanced overall experience and deeper understanding of, the choreographic processes involved. Finally, it has proven invaluable in enabling the dancers to play a key role in developing trust, confidence and empathy for the artform.

In order to succeed in delivering dance that was relevant to this age group, the performance had to be dynamic, energetic, physical and captivating. The choreographers therefore had to meet the challenge of creating dance that was artistically rigorous and stimulating, yet appeal to popular youth attitudes and tastes. It was also vital that they had a track record of interest in youth work and believed in the aims of DansConnect.

Four pieces were commissioned as this provided choice and versatility for the difference in age and experience of various groups. The choreographers, Scott Ambler, Jonathan Lunn, Nikky Smedley and Banksy, known for the calibre and integrity of their work as artists, were fully supportive of the company's ethos and stated intention to deliver quality choreography and workshops; sharing the belief that if we as an industry are to continue to develop audiences, people have to witness and be touched by excellence whilst they are young.

Scott Ambler's Office Practise inspired by the Diet Coke advertisement, The Eleven O'clock Break, featured five office workers going about their daily business, answering telephones, dropping pens, arriving late; and was set amidst a backdrop of office politics where impressing the boss, peer jealousy and the office party were the norm. Young people immediately recognised the patterns of their own daily routine at school, sitting at desks - seeing everyday movements exaggerated, developed, set to music and becoming dance.

One work was by far the young peoples' favourite. Above the Rim, choreographed by Banksy, a street dancer who received his training on the Swindon College Foundation Dance Course and then at the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, combined the raw urban and club-like energy of street and/or break dance with lyrical contemporary sections, within the context of basketball. Set to Janet Jackson, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Lonnie Liston Smith and Jacky Terrason, it provided an obvious access point, especially to boys, as they did not necessarily associate it with, nor think of it as, dance - it connected with the life of young people today.

However, DansConnect was more than an audience development project. A major aim was to provide full-time jobs and artistic and personal development for the dancers; particularly those at the start of their careers. In the present climate of short-term portfolio or project work and shoestring budgets, it is becoming harder for succeeding generations of dancers to get started in the profession; let alone maintain their technical standard and extend their knowledge base. DansConnect has provided a model of good practice in this area - the dancers had regular classes with outstanding professional teachers: Leesa Phillips, classical ballet and contemporary; Yvonne Evans (Voyd), jazz; Pete Purdy, contemporary, with guest teachers such as Lauren Potter and Wayne McGregor. This mixed schedule of techniques was essential for retaining and building the dancer's strength and fitness, and to meet the differing physical demands of the performance. The dancer's were also given intensive training in 'safe exercise' and overall fitness from Jill Elbourne, educational exercise consultant, who also works on Dance UK's Healthier Dancer Programme.

Company members also received the necessary training and skills to be able to effectively deliver the educational work to young people. This included 'safe exercise', teaching techniques and choreographing for youth and community contexts. Those dancers with previous teaching experience appreciated the constructive, practical feedback they received; whilst those teaching for the first time learnt from the expertise of SD's education team. 'Try-out' workshops were set-up with volunteers from SD youth groups, so that all the facets of the educational programme could be tested, with each dancer having an opportunity to try-out their skills in a supportive environment before the tour commenced. The dancers, in collaboration with the education team,developed all the workshop material, and the training proved invaluable in building individual dancer's confidence as well as a cohesive company. The artistic and technical development of the dancers over the year was clearly visible and they are currently successfully auditioning for work.

There were surprises along the way. Whilst the impact on young people of high energy and physical performances was anticipated; their appeal for an adult audience was an added bonus, serving to act as an introduction to contemporary dance in regional venues. For example at Forest Arts they considered the programme to be: "One of the most refreshing dance performances anyone has seen in a very long time - the company were obviously enjoying themselves, which transferred to the audience." This subsequently prompted a group of regional promoters to offer a further commission.

DansConnect's home was Churchfields Secondary School where it has been instrumental in their successful bid for funding to become a school of excellence for the performing arts. The company also provided them with positive male role models offering an additional focus to boys' dance which has provided positive validation of dance amongst staff and pupils. Headmaster, Ian Taylor wrote: "You have brought a whole new dimension to education here at Churchfields and I know the young people have benefited enormously from the work you've done with them. I too, have thoroughly enjoyed your performances and, I must confess, now have a better and deeper appreciation of dance."

In the early days of A4E, the need to have a planned exit strategy was one of the most daunting facets for any organisation. It was impossible to predict with any degree of accuracy how an organisation could exit from a project that has had injected, over a short period of time, a massive amount of additional activity and funding. Whilst SD was able to predict the potential legacy of DansConnect (based on past experience), the actual outcomes and the volume of demand for follow-up work have surpassed expectation and will inevitably create a challenge for the organisation. For those A4E projects not attached to an established or ongoing organisation it begs the question: Are people being left in limbo?

In response to this demand, ambitious and optimistic plans for a DansConnect 2, to start in Autumn 2000, are underway, to coincide with SD's 21st anniversary. However, despite the success of the original project, the reality is that there are no immediate or easy ways to raise funds. The A4E award enabled a quality experience for both audience and artists to take place. To replace this level of funding is a challenge, but one that SD feels compelled to meet, in order to ensure that there are future audiences for dance and ongoing supportive initiatives for artists. It is therefore all the more ironic that to date there is no arts funding system that has managed to devise a way to acknowledge and reward success, to maximise and build on good ideas whilst they are still 'bubbling'. Perhaps it is time for the arts world to develop a more entrepreneurial approach to investment in success? It is inconceivable that a commercial business would let a proven model disappear through lack of investment. There is of course new money available tied up in schemes such as the Regional Arts Lottery Programme and New Audiences, and the proposed project should be infinitely attractive to corporate sponsors. The problem for DansConnect is that it may happen too late. By the time applications are written and processed, the moment may have gone and the momentum lost.

SD is committed to the DansConnect model, which has provided inspirational access to professional dance performance for thousands of young people.

The question is, is there a vision prepared to invest in an exemplary model?

Marie McCluskey, director, Swindon Dance National Dance Agency and Jackie Fahy, artistic director, DansConnect. Contact Swindon Dance on +44 (0) 1793 463210 and DansConnect an +44 (0)1793 487472.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001