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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Millipede
Animated, Spring 2001. A thousand feet crossing cultural boundaries - intercultural, interdisciplinary, issue based and site-specific! Five hundred young people from across London and a little beyond, brought ten weeks of work to fruition in performances at The Museum of London in and around the galleries for a promenading audience. John Martin explains how the work of Pan-Centre for Intercultural Arts is engaging the community in high quality creativity
'Where's the stage?' was the most common question as the young performers of Millipede arrived at The Museum of London for their first rehearsals. By the end of five performances they all knew, and enjoyed the fact that everywhere can be a stage: a catwalk above a museum gallery, the galleries and exhibition spaces themselves, the bookshop, even the exterior garden viewed through the great plate glass windows from inside.

Pan-Centre for Intercultural Arts (Pan) specialises in creating work at the meeting points of cultures and much of our work grows from a dance and physical theatre basis. So, when dancer, teacher and performance-maker Mita Banerjee began planning this mass youth event she knew that she could draw from our considerable pool of artists from many backgrounds, to give the participants a broad and rich vocabulary from which to create their performances.

The word 'intercultural' is now more commonly used than when we first used it in London 14 years ago, but is still confused with 'multi-cultural'. Intercultural performance is the work that emerges from meetings of cultures. It is both age-old and very current in our multi-racial, multi-cultural society. It is not one thing, but the many styles which spring up when we are exposed to, and excited by, more than one tradition.

For Millipede every participating group was led by at least two artists from different backgrounds. This could have been a West African dancer working with a contemporary Chinese choreographer, or a western contemporary dance teacher working with a British Asian specialist. Through this mechanism, the vocabularies passed on to the participants showed a wide range of physical possibilities, which they were invited to draw from as they created their work. In no instance did Pan's artists choreograph or prescribe the performance pieces. In each of the 18 groups, the ten-week period was devoted primarily to encouraging the creativity of the performers. Whether they were a primary school group, a weekend community club, or undergraduate performing students the process enabled them to react to the vocabularies given and offer their way of making work from which new, unexpected, and fascinating ideas emerged.

What was this creative work about?
It is part of Pan's ethos that young people (and older ones too) find it easier to create if there is a subject, an issue, with which they can engage. The subject matter for Millipede comes from the heart of our work, the roots of interculturalism and, most important, the realities of all the participants. Migration is a hot political issue; it is also the history of all London's inhabitants. London is a city built by immigrants was the starting point for the work. It is also a city, which has constantly been changed and enriched by waves of additional migration for almost 2,000 years.

In planning the project Mita Banerjee and the team of artists chose seven themes around the subject of migration: dreaming of the city, arrivals in a new place, the languages and food which exist as a result of migration, the isolation of the newly arrived, welcomes and confrontations and celebrating diversity. Each group developed a six-minute piece around one of these.

Some months before engaging with the participants, Pan had been searching for an appropriate venue for this mass youth event. Mita Banerjee had already gone a long way towards finding the broad range of participants to reflect London's diverse population. Many had participated in previous summer schools or community groups and after schools clubs that we had run, but they had never worked together before. Others were actively sought through dance agencies and education authorities. A small-scale site-specific summer workshop in Pan's base at the City Lit had confirmed how positively young performers react to creating for an unusual space (the roof top, stair wells, balconies, etc.). We had considered the Roundhouse, where previous performances had taken place, and Bagley's Warehouse in King's Cross, a huge open club space which could have been adapted.

It was at that point that Chandan Mahal, the officer for community and education at The Museum of London, made the courageous offer to host the whole event in the museum.

The venue had so many obvious links to the work. It houses the history of London, and has recently invested considerably in tracking the existence of multi-ethnic communities. Moreover, it has a labyrinth of galleries, which could provide highly unusual performance spaces. Each space was relatively small but this led to one of the most productive elements of the final showing. If each performance space was allocated one of the above themes the audience could be split into five groups and visit one of five simultaneous performances, then circulate to the next space for the next performance until all had been seen. Consequently, each audience group, of about 50 people, would see the work in a different order.

Not only would this make the performance manageable and allow each performing group to show its work five times per night, but it would give the feeling of the whole building being brought to life in many places at once, enabling small audience groups to undergo a 'migratory' journey from space to space - led by two 'performing ushers', one an immigration officer, one a social worker. In fact, many of the audience remarked on experiencing the journey as if they were migrants, being asked for papers (their programmes), held up, herded into small spaces, finally emerging into the atrium to meet other audience groups in a celebratory performance with the young performers. Their arrival and coming together reflecting the positivity of immigration. This was reinforced by a rousing choral piece about being a Londoner, with body percussion and rap accompaniment.

As the work progressed Pan's artists were criss-crossing London to access all the participants, and coming back to base for weekly group meetings to share experiences, discuss problems, monitor progress and brainstorm emerging ideas for the forthcoming performance. They also rehearsed and created a performance piece, which became part of the final showing. From their reports, it became clear that the work was developing into fascinating zones. Each space had a piece of music composed by Sam Zaman of State of Bengal, but many of the groups wanted to add their own texts, researched or self created, and to influence the staging and video backdrops which were a feature of several spaces. This approach from dance and physicality into text, object work and videography was actively encouraged. It is an inevitability in intercultural work that when drawing from the format of some cultures the divisions between artforms is not as rigid as western categorisation (much classical Indian dance is performed to a sung narrative, as much West African dance is intimately linked to songs and song-cycles). Interculturalism naturally leads to interdisciplinary work and the young performers were discovering this rapidly.

Amongst the 500 young people who took part in the workshops and performances, were first generation immigrants. Many more were children and grandchildren of immigrants, whilst others looked back into their family history to determine when they had arrived in London. The work began to resonate with their own experience, refined into short, often piquant, performances, eye opening for them and their audiences.

It is not easy to turn a museum into a performance space for so many people, and huge amounts of organisation went into arranging changing rooms and refreshments, rigging sound and light in the one hour between museum closing and performance time, and into the logistics of leading up to 250 audience members around the corridors and gangways between galleries to a very precise timetable whilst cueing the gamelan, samba and jazz bands which accompanied the journey. Even with volunteers from TS2K, Rose Bruford School, the City Lit and University of East Anglia, Pan's staff had an enormous job.

But the work (and tension) were worth it. Over a four-night period in November and December of last year, hundreds of performers and audience members - friends, siblings, parents and colleagues, as well as the public - discovered a new space in the museum of London, where most had never previously visited. Equally, they discovered a new way of engaging with performance material from other cultural backgrounds, which precipitated a fresh look at the many issues around the migrations, and meetings which have made London the rich, ever-changing, culturally diverse city it is today.

Of course, there are problems in such a project. Participating groups suddenly pull out for staffing reasons, young performers get stuck without transport two hours before the show, equipment refuses to work at the crucial stage, and so on. These are the adrenaline moments and it is to the great credit of our excellent artists: Usifa Jalloh, Amanda Evans, John Petter, Rebecca Seymour, Rachel Harris, Sin Man Yue and Larissa Litchfield all working with Mita Banerjee and project manager Sabra Khan that these were taken in their stride.

We always carry out extensive evaluation of our work, with written, recorded and interview feedback sessions with participants, audiences, group leaders and artists. Across the board, the participants reported being excited by the challenge and remarked how they enjoyed ownership of their own created work much more than dance choreographed for them.

Millipede provided extraordinary possibilities for all concerned and has shown how interculturalism can claim its place in a diverse city to stimulate creative responses to a 'hot' issue in society. Many of the participating groups went on to perform their pieces within their own community, and most have expressed a desire to participate in similar collaborations with Pan in the future. Millipede was just a beginning!

This year another 'stamped' summer school starts to track the way forward for further intercultural, interdisciplinary and site-specific work.

John Martin, director, writer, teacher and artistic director, Pan-Centre for Intercultural Arts. Contact j.martin@panarts.net

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001