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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Layers and diversity - breaking boundaries in classical construction
Animated, Summer 2000. Take four teams of choreographers, composers and designers. Add students from the Birmingham area with a background in classical dance or music and place in a creative hothouse for one week. And the result? Two performances of four diverse works to sold out houses. Here, Jennifer Jackson, co-founder of Ballet Independents Group, explains how from simple beginnings, with a purposefully limited and prescribed set of resources, Making Work revealed itself as a multi-layered opportunity capable of shifting attitudes and informing thinking and practice as to how and where classical work is made, performed and received

Classical dance and music practitioners face particular challenges in creating new work. Pressured into conforming to existing conventions, it must slot neatly into the expectations of both programmers and audiences for familiar commercial product - ready (and perfectly!) made. Rarely are ballet creators allowed the space for their own artistic concerns, rather than historical or commercial considerations, to be the sole dictate in their processes of making work. Furthermore in much vocational education, strict observation and knowledge of the rules become the end goal rather than the means through which personal creativity is explored. The issue therefore of how creativity within classical forms can be nurtured was central to the thinking behind Making Work...

Our aim was to create a safe and open environment for classically based music and dance students to work with guidance from experienced artists; and to expose these emerging professionals to different creative practices that would push them into new choreographic and performance territory.

The parameters of the Making Work environment were clearly defined - the site of the performances, the time limits, collaboration in the collision of disciplines, contrasting individual approaches, and producing focused performance product via an essentially process oriented approach. We wanted to encourage the use of creative workshop and educational methodology, leading out from the gifts, ideas and concerns of the participants and the given circumstances - and to bring these methodologies into play with the rigour and richness of the classical tradition.

Reflecting on what drove the process and which moments stood out, I come back to our original concept from which distinct threads emerge. The site itself - how with each decision - a way through was made apparent by considerations relating to the performance space. As one building block in our carefully constructed - albeit simple - plan started to crumble, an alternative prop or window emerged for another (potentially stronger) idea to enter the picture. The whole project was perhaps held up by a constant shift of the delicate balance between structure and fluidity.

Ballet Independents Group (BIG) had devised Making Work in partnership with Ann Tennant, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra's (CBSO) Education manager. Although originally conceived for performance in studio space at the DanceXchange, funding bids dictated that the project was postponed - by which time DanceXchange was a construction site. Fortuitously, the CBSO Centre had just been constructed. We shifted the focus for performances to the Centre's rehearsal hall, a simple and beautifully proportioned room that resonates with the human form. Being in it, feeling how the geometric in ballet shapes project into the space, sharpened awareness of the spatial relationships in the room - one's inner space and the space outside the body - it cried out to be danced. Core to the project concept was the meeting of music and dance on their own rigorous and abstract terms - relocation to CBSO opened things up. Planning the project around, from and in this space introduced the need for the designer's eye and sensibility, (including the anarchic spirit inherent in a visual artist's education.) And we landed on our feet - drawing on Linbury Prize finalists (graduates of design courses in 1999) for our four designers with the distinguished Pamela Howard as mentor (whose experience in setting up the Linbury Prize could not have been more relevant to our enterprise).

The picture was now a complex one - music, dance and design together - a crowd. At the introductory workshops musicians and dancers enjoyed interacting with one another, making fluid sketches. They were then joined by the designers - Pamela posed awkward but crucial questions about the relationships between us as artists and who was serving whom. In particular was design there to service the choreographic conception or to be an integral player in the collaboration? Was the music the starting point and structure for the dance (as in most ballet practice) - or was the dance and music purposefully juxtaposed, or the meeting of elements aleatory? The potential combinations were endless - and had to remain open for each of the creative teams to decide. However the ethos that we encouraged and programmed for 'foregrounded partnership' - the meeting and dialogue between distinct disciplines - sensing, recognising the real pre-sense and presence of the people, skills and resources gathered together.

Behind the meeting of elements was something of the methodology from BIG's BC2I courses at the Royal Festival Hall where lateral connections across artistic disciplines inform and liberate thinking in one's own practice.

The choreographers had all participated in these courses and the composers were students at the Birmingham Conservatoire. All came shared classical backgrounds but distinct interests and concerns. We had structured the residency week with an initial two day exploratory period working towards a sharing of fragments of ideas. With most of the residency time still ahead, it was clear that there were four individually distinctive works germinating, which would be nurtured by promoting dialogue between equal - and not so equal partners and music, dance and design working side by side in the same space at the same time.

Each group had a different perception of how they wished the audience to experience their work - a potential technical nightmare in a venue with few theatrical mechanisms. We decided on three intervals - untypical of classical programming - which engaged the audience in the experiment; so that they sat or stood in a different configuration for each work and during the intervals were to be seen intent on writing feedback to the creators in response to the invitation to Be a critic for the night. This aspect became part of the audience experience, and a way of encouraging deeper reflection on the works themselves. A further layer of feedback came from David Bintley (Birmingham Royal Ballet director), Sakari Oramo (CBSO Music director), David Massingham (DanceXchange director) and Pamela Howard.

They met informally with the individual creative teams immediately after the second performance to discuss the works from their particular perspective as fellow artists and experts in their fields of dance, music or design.

As music and dance mentors, Judith Weir, Susie Crow and I provided core artistic support. We followed the teams' creative process throughout the residency week trying to be invisible and present, intervening occasionally and finding time for discussion about creating and bringing the pieces to performance. Judith, who as CBSO composer in residence from 1995 to 1998 knew the orchestra well, had judiciously assigned the four CBSO players to different creative teams. They played a pivotal role in bringing their professional expertise as players to the rehearsal process and mediating between the creative aspirations of the composers and the players. Susie mused that here the role of mentor must be like that of a film producer - our remit stretching to design support, production and location management - whatever needed doing. As practising artists aspects of the experience in the studio of not 'doing' were uncomfortable and felt almost voyeuristic. What does it take to combine watching, waiting, giving space and asking questions with offering guidance and strong opinion - to balance contrary elements so that the focus remains on someone else's work?

Mentoring seems to open up new roles and spaces where acute observation, professional objectivity and sympathy with the creators and their ideas are all necessary as a basis for communication. Amongst my observations, I was aware of the privilege of being both 'in (and out) of the act', one of delicacy and preciousness, and sharing the intimacy of the creative process.

Prior to Making Work, the young composers in particular were anxious to know what might act as a springboard for their collaborations. Our only creative brief was to take the hall space as a starting point in each discipline, encouraging the students to embrace the concept that architecture or movement alone do not make a building - rather, it is the tension and relationship between them that the life happens. Below are two contrasting accounts by Eva Perdiki and Libby Blindell who reflect on their experience of the process. From the same start and shared backgrounds, encouragingly individual interpretations of the space emerged. Libby's had at its heart something concrete - a black cloth conjured in response to the geometric dimensions of the room. Eva's was more ephemeral and got to the heart of the project's aim. The emergence of new life and narrative from the meeting of the abstract elements of dance, music and design in this space at this time - and at the same time resonating with other times and spaces. For all the creators there were different and on their own terms, equally remarkable, achievements.

Eva Perdiki
Collaboration is a challenging process, especially when trying to create a piece within a week. My group decided to work closely so that the dancers, musicians and design interacted as much as possible. The final product to emerge was interesting and surprising, since we did not have a set idea of the piece from the beginning - we just let the work happen as part of the process. Both the composer and the choreographer decided to give the freedom to the dancers and musicians to create their own material, within limits, which was both challenging and exciting for the performers. The music was pretty much dependent on the dance and the dance dependent on the music, which brought dancers and musicians together, not only in the actual piece, but also backstage. I am surprised at what we achieved in only a week. We really did not have the time to sit back and see the piece happening with the set, costume and lighting nor a way of finding moments that could have been developed to make the piece stronger and complete. Nevertheless, it was an extraordinary experience which gave everyone a good 'taste' of collaboration (choreographers, composers, designers, dancers and musicians).

Libby Blindell
For me Making Work was an exciting and extremely challenging project. But with the raw talented dancers and enthusiastic young musicians we all knew we were in for a 'good' time. Both the composer and I wanted to be experimental but were anchored by our designer, who had solid ideas. And who had, on the first day, already purchased a big black cloth, which totally daunted me. In fact, this proved to be the most challenging thing of all. But having easy-going dancers full of innovative suggestions enabled us to overcome any tension and get on with the project. We needed to focus, and the big black cloth presented itself thus.

Conflicting ideas took up the best part of the week - Jim Hoult (composer), Sigyn Stenqvist (designer) and myself could set nothing. Sometimes we simply got together - the musicians played what they had been working on and the dancers shared what we had been concentrating on. Ultimately, the atmosphere we had created was what made things come together and the pass_ black cloth seemed to suddenly fit in with what we had all wanted to create. Everything clashed but somehow we all liked it. I did not want there to have to be a reason for anything, and choreographically, design and music wise, I wanted the audience to interpret at will ... Let us hope they did "Here's to Dirty Dog!"

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001