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Animated Edition - Summer 2020
It’s Your Move
Sarah Boulter and Adele Wragg, Co-Artistic Directors of Spiltmilk Dance, hand over the creation of their latest work to 100 choreographers with no previous experience of dance

A bit about our work

Spiltmilk Dance is a Midlands-based company making performance work that tours to the heart of communities, alongside delivering community projects in all sorts of settings. Described as ‘dance but not dance, sort of like hiding vegetables in kids food’, our work blends dance and sketch comedy, and always strives to bring intergenerational audiences together for memorable, playful, joyful experiences with great art at their heart.

Inspiration for projects often comes from setting ourselves a challenge; something we think sounds fun but also a bit impossible, then the magic comes in solving the problem we have dreamt up. That brings us to our most recent project, definitely our most ambitious to date! For a long time we have wanted to bring the participatory and touring sides of our practice together, and so It’s Your Move was born.

Here's the idea

We work with 100 members of the public, one of each age from 1-100. Each of these 100 people choreograph a dance on us (five minutes maximum), based on a theme of their choice. We then craft elements of all these dances together to form a touring work.

With this hugely ambitious idea bubbling away we knew it wasn’t something we could just launch into and find all 100 people in one go. We decided instead to split the making process into bite-sized chunks, touring a smaller version of the project across the country, with a key partner in each location. We work with ten choreographers in each area, one from every decade of life, and then bring those ten dances together for a local celebratory performance.

We began in Summer 2019 with a pilot in York supported by York Theatre Royal. In Autumn 2019 we took it to Birmingham supported by Dance Hub Birmingham and community centre Nechells POD, and next we were in Banbury with The Mill Arts Centre and then North London with artsdepot.

The process

Once we had gathered our ten choreographers, we took each individual through a truly collaborative, tailormade process with participants constantly at the centre of all creative choices.

In a typical creative session there would be two dancers, the community choreographer and a choreographic mentor present. The mentor is provided by the company to support and guide the participant through the choreographic process. This role developed into an integral part of the project, ensuring participants felt supported in something brand new for them, that their ideas were listened to, valued, thoroughly explored and genuinely represented in the final work. It is a tricky role to hold as they have this key responsibility to the choreographer but pivotally must ensure thorough notes are taken, that each dance is clearly documented, and footage archived so that any future versions are accurate.

The choreographic process is one that will be familiar to anyone used to developing new work in the studio. We begin with the nugget of an idea from our choreographer, there is a process of creative questioning to get to the heart of what this idea is about. Then the mentor and dancers think on their feet to offer possible creative tasks for the dancers to explore in order to begin to bring the idea to life. This has been a great way for us to refresh our choreographic process and toolkit for exploring ideas; we don’t have time to dwell on the perfect way of doing something, we just have to get moving and try something!

The choreographer then has time to reflect, suggest and mould the movement they are seeing to fit their creative vision - all supported by the choreographic mentor. A truly joyful element of this part of the process is the choreographers’ reaction to these initial improvisations where they see an idea that has previously only existed in their mind begin to take life before their eyes, so many are left extremely moved or fizzing with excitement. This, in turn, has reinvigorated the choreographic process for us as we are reminded of it’s simple magic.

A fresh perspective

The vast majority of community choreographers we have worked with so far have no previous experience of dance, they are just intrigued by the project, the opportunity to create something and lack of pressure to perform. A key idea behind the project is how it enables participation in dance without the pressure of performing, which can be a barrier for many.

The project also offers a new dimension to our performance work; with themes and ideas from diverse voices and a wide range of communities. This has resulted in dances about things we never would have thought of and would never have chosen to make work about.

As mentioned above, our work usually blends dance and comedy and as such, finding ways to interpret the serious issues some choreographers choose has certainly pushed our process. It is important to us to stay true to our company aesthetic whilst also conveying themes authentically, effectively and sensitively. We are continually striving to find this balance throughout the project.

As a company that puts audience experience high on our list of priorities, the beauty of It's Your Move is that we know the themes that are included in the work should appeal to the general public - because they have chosen them!

Inspiration across generations

At a time when many across the country feel frustrated and not listened to, the project invites participants to use the performance they create to tell the world whatever is on their mind. Some are inspired by a passion or hobby (we’ve had pottery making, dragonflies and Facebook to name a few!), some draw on personal experience such as struggles with mental health, and others simply want to make something to their favourite song that will be fun and entertaining.

We have been pleasantly surprised so far by how the choreographers’ choice of theme has so often reflected their stage of life, from a seven year old creating a dance about unicorns, to a 23 year old choreographing about Tinder, and a 72 year old being inspired by themes of love and loss. This has not only given us a rich variety of themes to work with, and pushed our choreographic skills immensely, but also promises to become a final work that really displays the arc of life.

We have found sharing this work in each location to be a brilliant way to bring intergenerational audiences together. Choreographers bring friends and family to see their creations and the nature of the project means people of all ages are exposed to new themes and ideas that they may not have usually choosen to see. For example; our 92 year old choreographer seeing and enjoying an alphabet dance created by a three year old, and a three year old learning about courting in the 1950s to rock n roll music. We would like to push these interactions further in future, perhaps by hosting a whole group question and answer session, so that choreographers have time to ask each other questions about their ideas and processes following the performance.

We love that this project is creating its own community of choreographers that have all been through this unusual, brave, but hopefully fun and rewarding process and we are super excited about reaching our 100 at some point!

We are looking for partners to host the project in other areas to help us reach 100 participants. If your organisation would like to hear more about how to engage your local community in the project please do contact us.

A Note on COVID-19

Alongside the rest of our industry our world has been turned topsy turvy by the COVID-19 pandemic and delivery of It’s Your Move was stopped in it’s tracks in March. However, one of the joys of the project is how adaptable it is and we are now exploring ways to take the project online whilst social distancing prevents sessions taking place in person.

We have just launched the Barnet version of the project, alongside Artsdepot, working with new community choreographers in North London. We are carrying out recruitment online and choreographic sessions via Zoom and though there are some challenges involved (such as dreaming up choreographic tasks for two dancers working remotely!) there will undoubtedly be new creative inspirations that come from working in this way and we’re excited to add these new ‘online’ dances into the It’s Your Move mix.

  1. Abigail’s Alphabet Dance. Performers: Jennifer Manderson-Smith and Sarah Boulter
  2. Freya-Mai’s Unicorn Dance. Performers: Lucy Haighton and Sarah Boulter
  3. Isabelle’s Time Travel Dance. Performers: Jennifer Manderson-Smith and Sarah Boulter
  4. Diana’s Dance About Love and Loss. Performers: Sarah Boulter and Lucy Haighton
  5. Carol’s Tree Dance. Performers: Lucy Haighton and Sarah Boulter
  6. Vic’s Creative Process. Choreographer: Vic Gibson; Performers: Sarah Boulter and Lucy Haighton; Choreographic Mentor: Adele Wragg
  7. Sarah Boulter and Adele Wragg, Co-Artistic Directors of Spiltmilk Dance.

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Animated: Summer 2020