The UK development organisation and membership
body for community and participatory dance
Animated Edition - Winter 2007
Moving goals
Donald Hutera describes the continuous change running through the story of Swindon Dance
Swindon Dance calls itself 'a place where ordinary people can achieve extraordinary things through dance.' Striking an artful balance between inclusivity and aspiration, this organisational catch-phrase is as much a matter of philosophical leanings as it is a neat bit of self-promotion. As one of the first of England's national dance agencies, Swindon Dance (henceforth known as SD) is on even more solid ground when the individuals who run it claim to be 'passionately committed to presenting dance as it is today, in all its diversity.'

The agency is located in a red brick building with a clock tower at the top of Regent Street, one of Swindon's main pedestrianised shopping thoroughfares. This handsome and sturdy edifice is the old Town Hall, constructed in 1891. SD itself is just over a quarter-century old. From its origins in community arts it has evolved into an entity rooted in Swindon and the surrounding region, while at the same time developing an increasingly significant role in dance at a national level.

The director, Marie McCluskey, was one of the very first students of The Place in her native London. A life-long champion of dance, she has been with SD since its inception. Functioning as both a teacher and the borough's first full-time dance officer, she eventually secured the organisation its status as a National Dance Agency in 1991. Additionally she was instrumental in helping to establish Britain's first foundation course in dance, and one with an open access policy.

'Marie is very connected to politics and people,' explains SD's dance services manager Sue Davies, 'and she has an amazing ability to weather change in a positive way. But it's dance and dancers that drive her. She's always thinking about a flow of artists, and not just about those in or around Swindon.' By way of example Davies mentions how McCluskey 'found a way to place stunning artists like Siobhan Davies, Russell Maliphant and Wayne McGregor in what is a left-wing, working-class New Labour town.'

Like McCluskey, Davies is no slouch when it comes to rolling up her sleeves and digging into the rich but sometimes hazardous soil of UK dance, especially within a Labour tradition. But, she cautions, 'We're not social workers or community leaders. We're about dance. Our depth of knowledge and understanding is what makes you want to work with us.' Originally from Wales but now based in Cheltenham, Davies graduated from Laban before a BA in dance existed there. With dance management and higher education as a twin focus, she says, 'I had to get good at explaining and articulating its place in the intellectual canon.' She was for a spell Bonnie Bird's assistant at Laban, a post that instilled in her 'strong values in terms of how you deal with artists and get the best from them. One of the things that Bonnie worked hard at was how we, the people wielding the power in an institution, could talk to individuals about their work in a way that wasn't manipulative or closed down their options.'

For her part, McCluskey is fond of veteran critic Bill Harpe's alternative definition of the APD of artists' professional development as 'affection, protection and direction.' To that end, alongside its extensive youth and community work, SD has followed parallel and often overlapping paths of building audiences for dance while nurturing artists via concentrated Research and Development periods, mentoring schemes and training workshops with the likes of Gill Clarke, June Gamble and Yael Flexer.

Neon Productions is a cross media-based contemporary dance run by SD associate artist Adrienne Hart, a Swindon native who was nearly ten years ago a member of the agency's youth dance group. She refers to SD as 'a real lifeline for me as an artist. It never dictates as an agency, which I feel is a key to its success. They listen to artists, then present us with opportunities. This approach has enabled me to create realistic building blocks that make my goals truly achievable.'

Artists always need space, time and financial and technical resources. There is, Davies says an extra ingredient. 'Marie calls it love. I call it really good attention. You notice what they're doing and see where they are. It's about getting good at not forcing people to be what we need them to be, and instead helping them make the best work they can. Putting it in the market place is another issue.'

Davies is familiar with the chicken-and-egg syndrome from which many budding artists suffer. 'They all think it's about money,' she says with a sage smile, 'but cash blurs the dialogue. It's actually about them working their material so that it begins to speak, and being sure that they've got something to say. What are their plans for actually developing their work?' Not, she clarifies, the next choreography but, rather, 'their entire practice as artists. When did they last do class or go see someone else's work? They've got to do things to keep themselves fit. They need to get deep experience back inside the body, or else they could stop believing in themselves.

'Dance is collective art,' she continues. 'It needs people and places to rub against it. In London, or any big conurbation, you have a critical mass of people who say they are dance artists. There you can find somewhere every day of the week to be a dancer. But if you're the only dance artist in Malmsbury or rural Devon, being on your own can be an issue.'

Given their joint savvy and sensitivity, McCluskey and Davies make a potent team. Together they have ushered SD into a new era of growth and promise, a coming-of-age that seems likely to bring to fruition many of the goals towards which the agency has been steadily striving.

SD was for over two decades a part of Swindon Borough Council. To be under the council's auspices wasn't necessarily a play-by-the-rules straitjacket. Rather, says Davies, 'it created a balance that allowed a huge amount of really experimental work to be seen in a local authority context.' McCluskey's sometimes risk-taking programming has embraced everything from English National Ballet to Shobana Jeyasingh and The Cholmondeleys and The Featherstonehaughs at the Wyvern, a 680-seat theatre virtually on the agency's doorstep, as well as a range of contemporary dance artists from the local, national and international scene, many of them platformed in mixed bills at SD's own Town Hall Studios.

2002, however, was a shaky year for the arts in Swindon, entailing a complete reversal of politics from Labour to a Tory-led council. 'We were asked some scarily sound questions,' McCluskey recalls. 'Why, they wondered, should the arts be funded? It was very tiresome, and yet quite interesting, to reply to that. You don't take it personally. Local government just gets very complicated, while at a national level there's such a huge lack of understanding of what arts organisations really need.'

Having survived this potential setback, SD bounded into a brighter future. With her tireless insider's knowledge of local bureaucracy, McCluskey succeeded in 'getting all pieces and players in same place at same time.' As a consequence, in July 2005 the agency became an independent trust. 'It gives us a lot more freedom,' says Davies.

SD has also become central to Swindon's long-term - and long overdue - regeneration scheme and the creation of a revamped cultural quarter. Additional space at the agency's headquarters will enable it to increase its creative menu and better meet the needs of visiting companies and artists in residence like film-maker Peter Anderson, who will preside over an intimate new screening room. Sustained security will come with the imminent signing of a ten-year lease.

The Wyvern, meanwhile, is due to receive a £1.2 million refurbishment. This is good news, especially in light of SD's ongoing partnership with the theatre (and the Swan in High Wycombe, both of which are operated by Hetherington Seelig Theatres) and with the University of Bath. Between them the three organisations have forged a unique co-commissioning partnership that has already given a boost to such artists as Henri Oguike and Fin Walker and her partner, composer Ben Park.

'A commercial venue, a university and an NDA as the linchpin - I don't think there's a model like it anywhere else in the country,' says Wyvern managing director Mike Ockwell. 'It was Marie's advocacy and brokering that got us all around the same table. She's a true catalyst.' John Struthers, director of the university's Insititute of Contemporary Interdisciplinary Arts (ICIA), is similarly sanguine about the synergy involved in this triangular relationship. 'We talk in arts about any partnerships all the time, a lot of it to fit in with a government agenda. Ours is based on complementary skills, trust and an understanding of what each side wants. Together we're moving forward the ideas of what commissioning and residencies are about.'

The partnership was behind Walker Dance Park Music's most recent piece, the stunningly good 5 2 10. 'Beyond that,' Walker says, 'Marie, John and Mike have agreed to support us over a period of time, developing the company and helping us to get the work out there in the South West region. Everybody's clear that there's mutual gain from a shared experience. For them to commit to us emotionally and financially like that is a gift.'

Oguike's links with SD stretch back to before the millennium, since when the agency and its partners have been instrumental in ushering his eponymous company into the middle-scale via touring season premieres and commissions. 'This kind of support is the lifeblood of any aspiring choreographer,' he says. 'Without it, it would be even more difficult for people like me to progress. It's not just the money but the positive boost that makes you feel there's something to work towards, a stronger connection that drives you forward.'

Next in line for SD's loving attention is Bawren Tavaziva, whose company is managed by Maria Ryan. 'Marie and I had discussions about the changing face of Swindon Dance,' says Ryan, 'its new phase with Trust status and its desire to have a more in-depth, creative relationship with dance companies than had previously been possible. This has resulted in exciting ideas to plan a substantial amount of education work into both organisations' programmes that would enhance our presence in the region, and simultaneously assist in developing audiences for us to eventually perform at middle scale venues.

'From Tavaziva Dance's point of view, the relationship is an invaluable opportunity to understand how we can learn from managers, promoters and audiences so that we can explore the impact and necessity of our work. In a climate where fads and trends come and go so quickly, it's reassuring when someone says, "We believe in you, and here's how we're going to show it." You take that opportunity and run with it!'

'We're lucky in that we have very generous partners, McCluskey says, her modesty underlain by both dedication and determination. 'Dance is evolving at quite a pace,' she adds, casting her eye on the bigger picture. 'It used to be that there was so little choice, and the work was very mainstream and pointy-toed. All that's changed. What we now call contemporary is no longer one aesthetic, and the audience for it is very varied. Hardcore dance aficionados from all sectors and classes are drawn to a broad range of diverse work. A small percentage of the audience might be risk-takers, but most are not. What works in London or certain cities like Brighton or Nottingham doesn't necessarily work elsewhere, including Swindon. Building a profile for an artist and a context for their work, so that the audience will better understand and appreciate it, might take a bit longer.' McCluskey, you sense, is ready and able to devote whatever time it takes.

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Animated: Winter 2007