The UK development organisation and membership
body for community and participatory dance
Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Mission possible
Animated, Autumn 2001. Working with technology in my professional performance work has been a slow, careful process,' explains choreographer Darren Johnston to Kari O'Nions, essexdance's director. Here, Kari considers her organisation's own parallel 'no short cuts' journey alongside artistic partners like Darren, which has led to the integration of work with technology into the agency's dance development initiatives. The research and development processes adopted, ranging from internal action research to external consultancy, have taken time. But this time, she believes, is starting to prove itself well invested

'There's a definite trend for working with technology right now: a kind of "it's real cool to do so" vibe. This, if I am honest, bothers me a lot,' admits Darren Johnston, artistic director of Red Dragon. 'New technology is of massive importance to the future of our artform. But what it won't do is enhance the potential of a work unless the same creativity is applied.

The integration of say, a projection needs as much consideration and development as does the structuring of a movement phrase - no short cuts.

'For the past two years', Darren continues, 'I have been concentrating on the fundamental basics of light, sound and movement. It is only during the last year that I have started bringing in new aspects and I now feel ready to integrate film and animation into the equation without distorting the flow of the work. MuIti sensory performance environments free from gimmicky effects or unnecessary garnish.'

'No short cuts': that is crucial. At 26, Darren has won four national and international choreographic awards, and has recently been made associate artist at The Place. He is just one of many skilled choreographers and artists that essexdance has enjoyed working with in our exploration into the unknown territories of dance and new technologies during our research and development phase. And Darren's 'no short cuts' approach is one that we wholeheartedly endorse, respect and hopefully have shared in the development of our current mission and strategic direction.

Reflecting back on my own appointment to essexdance a couple of years ago, it was happily (but perhaps somewhat unknowingly) that I gave a presentation at my interview, considering the organisations possible future: one that might potentially prioritise the exploration of dance and technologies in professional, educational and community contexts. On accepting the post, I felt determined to at least explore the feasibility of these ideas further. However, there is potentially a huge step (even a yawning chasm?) between an idea and a reality for the organisation. As we started to chew ideas over at board and staff meetings, (many) questions and issues and (some) answers, both artistic and organisational, began to emerge.

Would we be compromising dance as an artform? Or replacing live dance? How could we best support artists if they wanted or needed our support? How could we develop the use of technology in dance in educational and community contexts? How could all this work artistically with the organisation 's existing range of activity? Could we manage it all or would lack of resources be an issue for a very small charity and did we need to be technical experts ourselves? Would this all tie in with our funders' priorities and what were the implications for our mission and strategic direction? The questions rolled on. If nothing else, we realised, we needed to take our time and work at our own pace. In Darren's words, there would be 'no short cuts'.

Having at least decided this much, a 'three stranded' approach seemed the most appropriate. These three strands, which would happen concurrently and inform one another, included:
1. external consultancy research;
2. internal consultation and 'go and see' time;
3. internal 'action' research through the development of a range of internal 'pilot projects', the consultancy work being enabled via a successful small-scale application to East England Arts.

On advertising for a consultant, we were genuinely encouraged (and a little relieved) by the number of applications we received (at least there was definitely going to be some help on offer!) Highly experienced television producer and multimedia professional Terry Braun from Braunarts, accepted the challenge. With his experience (ranging from senior advisor on Information and Communication Technology to the Arts Council of England through to serving on the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Interactive Awards and Department of Culture Media and Sport Creative Industries panels) to support our developments, we were chuffed. Alongside Terry, essexdance met with partners, funders, equipment suppliers and, most importantly, artists to assess possibilities for a future larger-scale programme of work. Terry had an overview and national perspective, as well as a passion for the field, which was priceless.

Meanwhile, we were learning by going to see work, and by carefully developing this aforementioned range of pilot projects. We started small, and decided initially to focus on educational and community initiatives, enabling us to 'test the water' gently. Having managed more than a few youth dance sharings, the potential of bringing together all these groups on the screen (as well as on the more usual and always eventful coach trips) was ... well ... just too tempting!

Beginning with youth dance summer schools exploring dance and technology at three venues throughout Essex, we worked with Random, Imlata and V-TOL. For example, in partnership with Epping Forest Arts and Random, young people explored animation as a stimulus for choreography. The next week, Jayachandran (Jay) Palazhy worked with a digital video artist to enable Chelmsford -based young people to explore 2D and 3D performance in one project.

'The use of camera and video offered an alternative "organising" principle for the young people, both in the development of their choreographic choices and in their appreciation at various stages of the project, as well as in the final choreographed piece,' reflects Jay. 'The participants could clearly see their performance and choreographic input in relation to the whole.' This is not rocket science but these are not simple ideas either ... and a good deal of perseverance and patience was needed from the participants initially. However, as the week went on, they began to see the potential, the outcomes were beyond our expectations. And we were learning as fast as the participants.

Jay, is clear on the benefits of technology for communities and dance. 'I hope that the potential of new technology will be available to, and accessed by, increasing numbers of people, so that marginalized groups or communities will not be excluded,' he says. 'It is great to see that people are connecting with one another via technology and [that] geographical distance is becoming decreasingly important. My hope is that new technology will eventually veer towards a more democratic way of functioning and will empower individuals of all persuasion and backgrounds. Dance and new technology has the potential to allow people of all ages to participate in dance.'

Nic Sandiland, a multimedia artist, who recently collaborated with Susanne Thomas on an unusual essexdance commission at Brentwood Nuclear Bunker (animated summer 2001) would echo his sentiments: Nic enjoys working with technology in education and community settings because it is an 'empowering medium'. 'Technology can act as a microscope re-presenting the often over-looked to the general public,' he says succinctly.

Often busy 'doing', the dance community could benefit from more thinking and evidence on the links between professional and community dance practice and importantly how artists' work in one field affects and informs the other (when and if, of course, these fields are viewed separately). essexdance, like many agencies, is committed to a 'holistic' approach to dance development. We want to deliver a range of strategic dance events and interventions, which occur in and sometimes integrate professional, educational and community contexts. It is important to us therefore to think about how we can best facilitate artists working in all these fields but also to understand how their work in educational and/or community settings connects with their professional work. Most importantly, we should understand whether and how one context affects, develops and changes another. It is perhaps useful to have more documented evidence: crucially in the form of words from the artists themselves.

This is the subject of a bigger debate than there is scope for here. But to start the ball rolling, this is Darren (who coincidentally gained experience in essexdance's youth dance company) on how our next pilot project Dance Exposure subsequently affected his professional practice: 'This project was a unique opportunity to try out creative ideas on a broader canvas. It basically set me a real challenge: how do I make a piece of work with 30 dancers look good? The project taught me a good deal about structuring and as a result I now have the confidence to work with larger groups of dancers /performers in my professional work.'

Dance Exposure (delivered in partnership with Conundrum and Castle Point District Council) enabled Darren to collaborate with multimedia artist Jane Hodge and 30 young people from the district. 'I think some choreographers frown upon youth and community work as going against their artistic beliefs. This project taught me to think differently and gave me a chance to experiment without the fear of a massively over-critical audience. I took the ideas that proved effective and now try to apply them to my professional work. And I also found the kids to have a real and exciting creative energy. We can only learn from them - that is if we ever make the mistake of growing up!'

As practical knowledge continued to be gained, things were also starting to happen with the consultancy strand. The green light was importantly received from funders. Chelmsford Borough Council was keen to support the developments and indeed our research became the catalyst for the development of the Council's own arts and technology strategy, which specifically supports essexdance's dance.tech plans. Essex County Council's draft strategy for dance for the forthcoming three years also now includes the development of a programme of dance and technology. East England Arts continued to encourage and support the proposed direction, and named technology as one of its four main priorities. Partners, both arts and non-arts, in and beyond Essex, were showing interest and Terry's knowledge and expertise was bringing a new slant and shape to emerging ideas. We were developing a CD-Rom (instead of the originally planned written consultancy report), which would document some of our findings and work as a visual, internal advocacy tool. Organisationally, we were rewriting our mission and strategic direction and recruiting professionals particularly experienced in the field to essexdance's board of directors. It seemed we were all beginning to point in the same direction. It was beginning to look like mission potentially possible...

Partnerships were developing, informed by our research and development. To provide just one example: that with Chelmsford Borough Council Special Events Team/Arts Development. A large-scale community carnival dance project, which was bravely presented at a Chelmsford pop festival last year in conjunction with Chelmsford Borough Council Special Events Team, developed into an innovative and even braver new circus project at this summer's festival.

essexdance has acted as a 'consultative partner' for Special Events on CircusVision, a project which has two interlinked strands: a professional new circus/ technology commission and an associated education project. Artistic director, Matt Costain, worked with young professional circus performers, previously from the Dome, to develop the commission, which was performed in a 'big, blue tent' at this year's festival. Associated circus and video skills workshops led by some of the performers and additional leaders, involving over 300 members of the local community, resulted in a culminating video screened in the tent prior to the professional performance.

Matt goes on to explain: 'Through the use of video, we are able to record and reflect on the work we create ... In the workshop situation, this means we don't lose any of the material we generate and are able to collate material in a way that complements the themes of the workshops. We can use this material to give viewers a flavour of the creative experience. We can also feed this video back into the devising groups as a second stimulus in the devising process:

Considering the professional performance itself, Matt continues: 'In a show situation, the video projection offers its a chance to present images in support of or in counterpoint to, the images we are creating live. It also gives us the ability to change the viewpoint of the audience. Through a live link, we are able to direct the audience to focus on a particular detail of a much larger picture, or indeed show them the work through the eyes of a character within the piece. The mix of images results in a layered experience for the audience ... the observer feels they are more vitally present in the work, the video layers inviting them deeper into the whole.'

So, projects were getting bigger and braver (as were the project titles). Getting Digi With It is a four part professional training course designed in conjunction with Random, Susan Kozel, Ruth Gibson and Terry Braun. Initiated by a debate and discussion day in June, this will be followed this autumn by an exploration of dance and technology in education and two choreographic labs. Interest is brewing amongst professional artists and choreographers: all the courses have waiting lists, with people coming to Essex from as far afield as Edinburgh.

We have had some fantastic moments so far. We nearly fell off our chairs at the incredibly sophisticated questions asked by eight year olds at performances of Random's recent Essex performances of its children's piece, Digit01. And have laughed until we cried at the mature dancers' recent Dances with Melons filmed in Tescos during a dance/film summer school with Jasmin Vardimon and Guy Bar Amotz! Of course, there have been, and will be, difficulties and challenges to overcome. But our future plans are starting to take an enticingly encouraging shape and thus we have decided to take the good with the challenges rather than promoting a dance culture that stagnates through lack of experimentation and playing safe.

Looking ahead, autumn brings the dance/technology installation, Trajets, to essexdance's home base, Chancellor Hall. 'Trajets is about movement: moving screens, video of moving bodies and yourself moving through those screens', clarifies Susan Kozel. 'The installation uses cameras and computers so that it can be responsive, so that the screens and videos move in response to you.' This will be supported with an associated professional training course as well as an education course, which will be developed in partnership with Susan and shinkansen.

So, we are staying to explore this particular intersection for a while. I like intersections: they always have, at least the scope for, innovation. The research and development has taken time, and, although sometimes we questioned it along the way, it has been time well spent. Bizarrely, we have learned most keenly that there is not an arrival point on the journey: that we need to keep learning, researching, experimenting and reviewing and acting again.

We have also clearly understood that it is our priority to do everything possible to enable artists exploring this field to take risks 'safely'. In exploring the intersection and integrating dance practice with technologies, one and one may not always make two (and things may not always work out). But if we can help to make that potentially extraordinary, empowering integration more than the sum of its parts, more often than not, then I think we can say it is worth making our mission possible.

Kari 0' Nions, Director, essexdance. Contact +44 (0)1245 346036. Email info@essexdance.co.uk

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001