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Animated Edition - Autumn 2004
More than just a brick in the wall
21 years on, Jenny Potkins looks back over the evolution of Chisenhale Dance Space and the development of thriving dance communities and of community dance
"Chisenhale's cool! People willingly offer their expertise and benevolence. A place where people appreciate my sincere efforts to develop creatively, professionally and personally."
Shorelle Cole, ReachOUT! artist 2003 and new member

This year Chisenhale Dance Space is wishing itself a 'happy 21st birthday' and curating a gala that will celebrate the thousands of artists that have passed through our doors over the years. It seems not only timely to rummage in the archives, but also to ruminate on how the essence of this organisation has survived. How has it continued to attract the support and participation of a fluid, but often very loyal, group of artists?

The roots of Chisenhale Dance Space lie in the X6 Dance Collective (Emilyn Claid, Maedée Duprès, Fergus Early, Jacky Lansley and Mary Prestidge). X6 Dance Space, which they established in 1976 in Butlers Wharf in South London, became THE place for experimental dance. Although they began it for themselves, the collective's radical reputation soon grew and began to attract dancers from other establishments. Until that time there had been very few small-scale companies and X6 served the emerging activity of individuals working, either together in small units, or on their own. The collective gave a context for exploration and artists were drawn in by its radical approach to dance and political awareness. There was a sense of being in a safe environment, of having space to experiment and sometimes to fail. The collective also started New Dance magazine in 1977, which gave a voice to the new dancers of the day in the first dance publication with a radical perspective.

"There is this continual strain of living on the margins of everything, ... trying to do too many diverse things to keep this under-funded activity going. In a sense we were some of the people who were, out of thin air, creating a dance scene in this country."
Fergus Early, in New Dance Magazine, 1980

However, in 1980, the property developers moved in and X6 were forced to move out. They relocated to London's East End and established an artist-led space in an old veneer factory in Bow called Chisenhale Works. With the move came not only an expansion of the numbers in the collective, but also an expanded vision. It remained a democratic organisation where people 'mucked in'.

"They laid the sprung maple dance floor, weather-proofed the windows and roof, painted and pointed all the walls and completed the electrical fittings"
GLA Quarterly, 1987

Always aware of social issues and wanting dance to be relevant to real lives, the new collective now not only embraced the dance community, but also the nation's emerging community dance scene. Soon after Chisenhale Dance Space was officially born in 1983, two of the collective, Mary Prestidge and 'cris cheek', were appointed as Community Dance Workers for the London Borough of Tower Hamlets using Chisenhale as their base.

"We're interested in a crossover of skills and experiences. The arts can learn from the street and vice versa. Otherwise the street burns itself out and art becomes ghettoised."
'cris cheek', 1986, source undocumented

"Anyone can dance. And if you don't conform to the standard aesthetic idea, that doesn't mean your dance is not valid. Movement is as important as dancing."
Sharon Brennan, Administrator, in East London News, 1988

And so Chisenhale also began to draw into this artists' community a diversity of local people, establishing creative dance classes for 2-8 year olds, youth activities, classes for adults and often employing local dance artists as tutors. From the outset the programme was culturally diverse, with classes in Lindy Hop, Egyptian and African dance, and encouraging participation from both the local Somali and Bengali communities. It commissioned performances by Shobana Jeyasingh and Adzido, as well as by Capoeira, Irish and Chinese dance artists and workshops with the East London African Arts Organisation.

What is impressive, looking back, is the speed with which Chisenhale realised an enormous breadth of programme, on low financial resources, but with a huge energy and commitment from the people involved. Soon after its establishment, Chisenhale Dance Space became recognised as a major resource for the independent dance community: as the centre for the investigation of new dance forms and improvisation, including Contact Improvisation and release techniques. It was also recognised as a venue for experimental performance work; contemporary dance artists performing that year included The Cholmondeleys, Yolande Snaith, Rosemary Butcher, Kirstie Simson and Steve Paxton.

"It is one of Chisenhale's policies to encourage and develop work which integrates and uses more than one medium in performance. One of the reasons being to challenge stereotyping and an expectation of what dance is supposed to be and how it is seen."
'cris cheek' and Mary Prestidge, in a report to London Borough Tower Hamlets, 1986

By this time the collective had 22 members with many more volunteers, and about 400 people were passing through the doors of Chisenhale each week.

So what was the essence of Chisenhale in those early days? Artist-led, experimental, interdisciplinary, culturally diverse, embracing its local community, unique and innovative. It was an organisation where the experienced supported and welcomed new graduates and those who simply wanted to dance and create. It became a base from which artists could develop their own initiatives; in 1984 Fergus Early started Green Candle Dance Company here, which 20 years on remains a pioneering force for dance in education and community contexts.

Through the late eighties and nineties Chisenhale underwent a series of evolutions reflecting the establishment of the independent dance sector. In 1990 the collective was replaced with an artists' committee with responsibility for artistic programming and policy. Our 'membership' was also born. In 1993 the next step was the creation of the post of artistic director and the organisation continued to diversify the range of artists brought under Chisenhale's wing through supporting Butoh, site specific work, cross art-form collaborations and community platforms.

Residencies were introduced which nurtured emerging artists such as Javier de Frutos and Fin Walker, while the organisation continued to develop youth and community projects which ensured a diverse group of users.

Now, 'unique' and 'innovative' are words that are overused and abused in our buzz-word culture, but they have correctly been used in the context of Chisenhale Dance Space over its long history. However, unique and innovative are also hard to sustain over so many years, and in 1997, some thought that Chisenhale had lost its way and was no longer artist-led, cutting edge. Funding cuts were announced that threatened the very heart of the organisation.

The result was not so much an evolution as a revolution. Artist members, and others who felt passionate about what Chisenhale stood for, lobbied funders and worked together to propose a new model for the structure and programming of the organisation. This model devolved power back to the membership, and gave them control of the artistic direction of the space through democracy. Each year they would elect 3 members as Artist Associates (formerly Steering Group) and a Selection Panel who would curate two seasons of research projects per year. From 1998 this has been the core of our work, the Artists Programme, as it is known, is created by artists for artists.

The funders were impressed and much of the financial support was restored, however, at that time Chisenhale could not afford to sustain its community and education programme to the same degree. The children's classes continued, but for a time project work in schools and the collaborations with LEAP (London Education Arts Partnership) ended, and the youth group Stamina-T also folded.

The Artists Programme, however, did supply a steady stream of proposals by artists who wanted to develop their practice in community contexts, several of which were curated over the years. Chisenhale, with this demand in mind, and wanting to improve relations with its local community, sought funding to employ a community and education officer and establish a new programme.

Launched in 2002, ReachOUT! is an extension of the Artists' Programme that recognises the desire by artists to nurture their creativity through working in community contexts, and does not see it as separate from their 'professional' work. It is again drawing more local people into the space, for example through the Dance Synergy youth group, and taking Chisenhale's process-orientated philosophy outwards.

So what is the essence of Chisenhale today? Artist led, experimental, interdisciplinary, culturally diverse and embracing its local community. Unique and innovative?

Unique - yes, (well I can't think of another UK dance organisation quite like Chisenhale). Innovative - this was, is, and hopefully always will be our greatest asset. While as an organisation we cannot reinvent ourselves every couple of years, whatever particular evolution it has been in, Chisenhale has always held to the philosophy that artists are innovators, that they have the right to self-definition, that they should have a space where they can challenge their own practice.

"At Chisenhale, I met some of the most inspiring teachers, mentors and friends, I never felt out of place or inferior to anyone. That a place like this exists in the dance world is fantastic, and life-giving, and necessary. I feel that Chisenhale has always been a part of my life as a dance artist, as an artist, and as someone who works in the arts."
Rajni Shah, project artist 1999 & 2003 and currently on the Selection Panel

Chisenhale still provides a safe environment, a nurturing space where artists can experiment and sometimes fail, but always learn and move on. This is why artists who use Chisenhale often feel a sense of community here, some join our membership and many more come back for more support through the programmes or to take advantage of the cheap studio space. Others bring their expertise to the Selection Panel. Some become Artist Associates, drivers of the artistic vision who support project artists with their experience.

Jenny Potkins is Community and Education Officer and can be contacted on 020 8981 6617. The next deadline for the ReachOUT! Artists in the Community Programme is 1 December 2004. For more information about ReachOUT! and other opportunities at Chisenhale visit www.chisenhaledancespace.co.uk

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Animated: Autumn 2004