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Animated Edition - Autumn 2004
Living dance forwards, learning it backwards
Unafraid to ask tough questions about identity, culture and visibility, Swindon Dance and its work as a National Dance Agency is about role models, difference and people - its mantra, to dispel the perception that artists are ephemeral. Here Scilla Dyke talks to director Marie McCluskey MBE about igniting talent, evolving practice and generating understanding from grass roots to excellence
Swindon Dance has been pioneering action research and development - opening doors that the next generation can step through - for more than 25 years. To underestimate the potency of this work - the relevance of the journey - would be not to recognise one of the most influential developments in British Dance. Born out of a natural empathy, respect and understanding there exists Deborah Baddoo, director State of Emergency and producer The Mission believes "a genuine desire to effect change, to risk take, to push boundaries in the development of culturally diverse dance forms. There are no empty statements, just delivery." (1)

Unafraid to ask tough questions surrounding cultural identity and inclusion, the work of Swindon Dance is about role models, difference and people - its mantra: to dispel the perception that artists are ephemeral. But arguably it is only at this juncture - some 25 years on - that it is logistically possible to track the pathways the Agency has forged for the artists and choreographers with whom it has worked that have demanded and helped "create a vision for black dance." (2)

Swindon Dance was born in an era that saw the emergence of young black dancers discovering their vocation through a growing youth dance movement. These 'safe environments' enabled first generation dancers - the agencies, the animateurs - to grow up together, forge structural relationships, create tracks. The emergence of a National Youth Dance Festival in Leicester in 1979 marked the beginnings of a formal platform for their work, and many of this first generation went on to become professional dancers including Jean Jenefer Charles and Pearl Jordan (Bullies Ballerinas) and Edward Lynch (Phoenix and RJC).

This period also marked the launch of Swindon Dance's Foundation Course (3) - the only access Foundation Dance provision available in Britain at that time. It attracted many young black dancers and was to foster a unique growing ground (nursery) for some extraordinarily talented young people - many going on to train at Rambert Dance Company, London School of Contemporary Dance and Central School of Ballet including Darrell Toulon, artistic director of Graz Opera. Concurrently, Swindon hosted one of their first Associate Artists residencies - forging long-term links with Namron who became a role model for many of these students.

However, it was during a visit and open audition by Dance Theatre of Harlem in the early 1980's that questions began to resonate with McCluskey: "Why for example were British black dancers not reaching their full potential once undergoing vocational training? Why were there no black dancers in flagship companies? Why was the first generation of dancers feeling that it would be the 'next generation' that would make it? How could this be strategically addressed?"

A Churchill Scholarship to the United States (US) to undertake research into the training and development of black dance students at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center and Dance Theatre of Harlem School began to offer the clues/answers and where Marie witnessed first hand, and perhaps for the first time, the power of what dancers could aspire to - "fantastic black dance artists - role models. At the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, consummate professionals worked with understanding but did not overcompensate."

Visits to Public Schools in Hispanic Harlem to observe dance education programmes delivered by professional companies and research with Elliot Feld's Dance Company - with its inclusive 'from the cradle to the grave' approach, tackling real access issues for young people through classical ballet - further elucidated McCluskey's thinking. There was an implicit understanding of the families and the issues they faced and a support structure that enabled young people to achieve. Today this would fall under the remit of social inclusion, but in the 1980s it was radical.

This was to have a profound effect on McCluskey's vision for Swindon - it brought together names, experiences, enabling her to understand the differences - namely "the US's respect for legacy and its roots - but its ability to move on whilst still retaining empathy. In contrast Western Europe which, it seemed, had a history of finding its roots and then cutting them."

Crucially, the British journey would prove very different - "it could not replicate the US. The art verses education debate prevailed - tension and criticism surrounded technical artistry versus choreographic content. It starkly juxtaposed the excitement generated by the then current companies - Phoenix and Kokuma - who were drawing people into dance."

By the early 1990s key black artists were creating vibrant work. Nevertheless, the debate surrounding 'art' and artistry prevailed. A Digital Dance Award enabled Swindon Dance to set up Inner-rhythms bringing black dancers and choreographers together with world-class mentors - to explore the aesthetic of their choreography. Working with an artist-led steering group that included Brenda Edwards (formerly London Contemporary Dance Theatre and English National Ballet) and Carolene Hind (Jiving Lindy Hoppers) Inner-rhythms was headed by Ailey recommended mentors - Carmencita Romero, an original member of Dunham Company (teaching Dunham technique); Bebe Miller an acclaimed post modernist black choreographer; Jazz teacher Mickey Davidson guest performer with the original Whiteys Lindy Hoppers and T Ross, practising Horton technique.

It was to prove a mixture of serendipity and 'divine intervention' as it transpired that the visiting mentors had either spent their early career or had had a strong connection with the Clarke Dance Centre in New York - one of the original bases not only for Ailey but for many black dancers. The culmination, Brenda Edwards recalls, of this potent combination was the creation of a platform of work, "so ahead of time - it addressed every single issue relevant in 21st Century Britain - including the fact that black people saw us as white dancers... our identity seemingly invisible" (4) something Edwards particularly empathised with, since at that time she was the first black dancer to guest in a UK classical ballet company (English National Ballet).

Prevalent questions - now and then
Whilst seed funding enabled Swindon Dance's early ambitions to be realised, the prevalent questions remained: "How to sustain long-term - real access to real excellence - as opposed to short lived initiatives or 'quick fix' solutions. When set against a backdrop of a constantly evolving demographic profile, cultural mix and influx of transient peoples (Swindon is a place where people 'pass through' whether by train, motorway or job and a staging post for many UK arrivals), it presents threats but also real opportunities for long-term development - broadening the debate on identity, culture, visibility - particularly how to sustain provision and build opportunities for the future. Transient populations for example can bring world-class artists who randomly ignite talent, evolve practice, understanding and thinking. One such 'arrival' was Vidya Thirunarayan from the renowned Kaleshetra School in Madras who has enabled Swindon Dance to establish a sustained development of Bharata Natyam work. Over a decade this has led to the creation of Mugdha youth and adult companies and been central to the development of Sankalpmam and her co directorship."

Undoubtedly, Swindon's 'tools for change' have engendered leadership and profile. "But", McCluskey reflects, "as issues of inclusion, cultural identity, third generation women and visibility come of age, it is critical that the voices fuelling these are fresh. The foremost issue is how the learning is 'passed on' so that it is not lost. What is the platform?"

Initiatives such as REflexions, curated by Maria Ryan, a more recent arrival to Swindon's "extended dance family", has created a "fellowship" where like-minded black artists dance, debate, support and network. Bringing some of Britain's most influential black artists to the region including Deborah Baddoo (State of Emergency and The Mission) and Brenda Edwards (HIP), it also offers an ongoing platform to be seen, heard and to hear. Importantly, it encourages open dialogue between artists and those in the dance industry that artists rely on for support.

First generation artists such as Namron debate, alongside a new generation, the "forever unanswered: What is black dance? Whose Dance, Whose Aesthetic? and Decibel and Beyond." (5)

"Decibel for example", Ryan reflects, "has highlighted programming issues, the need for appropriate venues, the cultural differences between white contemporary and classical ballet, of the importance for artists to engage in processes - not create 'off the peg pieces' - of art that is not perceived as high profile." A crucial and integral feature then, is the opportunity to see work in progress and three female artists - Jeannette Brooks (The Dance Movement), Menelva Harry (Gelede Dance Company) and Suzette Neptune (Indigo Dance Company) all created work for the REflexions Platform in June 2004.

From access to excellence - lessons learnt
So what does excellence in reality mean to Swindon Dance? What are the lessons learnt?

Firstly, there is a need for sustained strategic development as opposed to 'short term fixes' or short-lived policies. Many relationships forged with outstanding artists, companies and centres of excellence - Namron, Jackie Guy, Vidya Thirunarayan, Sankalpam, RJC, Phoenix, Bullies Ballerinas and Northern School of Contemporary Dance - are a result of two decade's continuous development and investment.

How can funding for projects which outlive their initial 'kickstart' be replaced - or rather, what happens when a 'good idea' develops into a core strand of an Agency's business? Mugdha is an example. Initially developed through sponsorship - it has become a core activity. The benefit of such a partnership is twofold "artistic respect - the trust, belief and integrity of the partner making it real and realistic and a process where the artist's vision helps the Agency take risks..." (6)

Work of a 'culturally diverse' nature can be more costly. African and Asian dance requires investment - artists needing to refresh, take sabbaticals or "time and space to have creative dialogue - the interaction between dancer and musician articulates 'the magic' and ignites on stage..." (7) and is often crucial to the integrity of the performance.

The issue of 'quality' in performance and choreography has yet to be fully addressed - who is equipped to judge the 'quality' of an aesthetic of a different culture? Maria Ryan observes: "We have not come to terms with our work in its own right... our vocabulary - a mixture of styles - is not allowed to be what it wants to be: hybrid. Labels are too readily put on it. There is a massive surge of wonderful black work centred around Street, Hip Hop loved by "real" audiences... but the more juicy, diverse 'stuff' - amalgamated, intricate, dense... needs space, room to breath, understanding - not put in a box ... Black female dance artists are being overlooked, misunderstood or critiqued out of context - their work not always perceived as quality by funders. There is a real absence of exposure. I never knew what context my own work should be in nor what the 'voice' I long for people to hear and understand is." (8)

Artists who possess specialist skills and knowledge - the 'jewels' - can benefit the region. Local and national agencies need special partnerships, schemes, additional funds which "acknowledge artists as their own definition of success changes. If this fails," reflects Thirunarayan, "the artists vision must remain strong enough to continue... there is a crossroads in faith, in vision..." (9)

"Crucially there is a need to advocate a way forward, for a mandate for independence based on trust, continuity and investment if our artists are to take ownership swiftly, visibly - to find voices distinct to their practice which will equip them to become key players nationally and internationally.

"Dance can be a powerful tool of change. We live it forwards and learn it backwards. Swindon Dance, its artists, its choreographers, have experienced a lot of learning, a lot of living... But the constant dynamic of action research is that we cannot always know the answers at the beginning of the journey. The problem for dance is it is an ephemeral form... you only have the moment for it to emerge. How many more generations have to pass before we start to address some of the learning?"

Marie McCluskey is the director of Swindon National Dance Agency. For information see or email

1. Baddoo, D., Director, State of Emergency Ltd and producer,The Mission., 2004
2. Gamble, J., Freelance arts manager and life coach, 2004
3. Swindon Dance National Dance Agency formerly known as Thamesdown
4. Edwards, B., Independent dance artist, 2004
5,8. Ryan, M., Independent dance artist and curator, REflexions, 2004
6,7,9. Thirunarayan, V., Co director Sankalpam, 2004

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Animated: Autumn 2004