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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
New definitions
Animated, Summer 1998. As the boundaries between professional and community dance practice become increasingly blurred, the necessity to define and shape the role of performance remains at the fore. Lauren Scholey assesses the need to quantify and qualify our work to audiences and funders alike
Presentations of projects and residencies in performance settings are often considered to be the most immediate and effective means of achieving recognition. However, this accentuates the need to clearly articulate the role of performance in this context and to take steps to ensure that the audience can make 'informed' judgements on the artistic quality of the work.

The non professional status of the community dance participant has led in the past to a devaluing of performance work, and in situations where differing bodies and diverse skills are used in contrast to mainstream performance, it is unfair and unrealistic to make direct comparisons between the two. Chris Thomson argued in 1996(1) that community dance performance needed to be watched through a completely different set of aesthetic spectacles, and to a certain extent, I believe this to be true today. Community dance practice has always been concerned with accessibility, empowerment, diversity, personal development and social experience - providing people of any age, size, shape, or ability with the opportunity of 'doing and seeing' dance. Performance has historically been regarded as an extension of this process reflecting the learning curves and personal growth of the participants, and giving them an opportunity to share their achievements. The majority of community dance performance and certainly the work which is taking place at grass roots level often on no or low budgets, reflects these principles. Whilst this is not to say that this work is of a lesser artistic standard, nor that it does not meet health and safety requirements, in these instances the role of performance is very different to that of the 'mainstream'.

Choreographers such as Fergus Early with his project On the Road to Baghdad, is a perfect illustration of how a range of community groups will gain access to the redeveloped, state-of-the-art, Sadler's Wells Theatre, and highlights the change in attitude towards bringing together professional and community dancers in performance. However, it is crucial that we remain clear about the role of performance in the 'community' context which I would suggest is to:

  • Function as an extension of the process which is the community dance experience

  • Make dance and develop knowledge of dance vocabulary

  • Provide participants with an artistic experience

  • Provide participants with an opportunity to celebrate and demonstrate their achievements

  • Provide an opportunity to raise the profile of community dance to funding bodies and community stakeholders

  • Provide participants with a form of exercise in a safe environment.

These definitions reflect the views of current practitioners in the field, who were interviewed as part of research carried out for a broader written study, in Spring 1998.(2) Representing a wide spectrum of artists, teachers and workers, they were unanimous in their belief that providing participants with access to an artistic experience, ie. performance, was of particular importance. They also felt it served to raise the profile of community dance practice. Without a visible element to the work, there is no way to continue building the links and relationships with community partners and ultimately stakeholders and funding bodies.

However, it is vital that these performances are placed in appropriate contexts by practitioners in order that the role and value of them are recognised by all who attend. "It all comes back to context. If the context is right it can never devalue the work," as one practitioner stated.(3) Although this does not mean that work does not have to be of the highest possible standard: "The word community should never be used as an apology."(4) So, how can we shape performances of this nature into contexts where the audience is clear about who and what they are seeing, and can make informed judgements on the artistic quality of the work?

The most effective way to ensure that the audience is aware of exactly what it is seeing is by targeting specific individuals or groups. This is easily achieved in a school or community centre setting where attendance can be by invitation only, and will ensure that friends, family, peers, stakeholders, and important partners and or funders are 'informed'. Such audiences will be sympathetic to the process, appreciating the performance for its own set of aesthetic values. However, some community dance performances are inevitably put into a full theatrical setting, which by nature creates certain expectations for the audience, as they are more likely to associate a theatre with professional performance. This issue will become increasingly pertinent as more projects are developed which are designed to marry community dancers with mainstream professional performance.

One way of ensuring that audiences are aware of the 'community dance experience' is by using promotional videos, CD-Roms, film or photographs in the foyer of the theatre, or community venue, which document the project or residency from its early stages, through to the final rehearsals or performance. This might also include interviews with the participants in order to highlight their personal experiences. With the rapid increase in use of technology, and the development of the Internet, World Wide Web sites, and Virtual Reality studio spaces, the medium of dance technology is set to take off in the context of community dance. Used as an aid to facilitate audience awareness, this relatively new concept could have exciting and dramatic results particularly as we as a nation are submerged in a culture of multi-media technology and imagery.

Information in programme notes can also be extremely useful, and the terminology used here should reflect the process and emphasise the values and aims of community dance. In the same way, introductory, pre and post performance talks can be engaging and informative. Ideally, these should be informal, to break down the barriers which exist at more conventional professional performances between the dancers and the audience. The role of performance needs to be defined and shaped in order that misconceptions about the quality of work produced by non-professional participants do not arise. Community dance performance can be every bit as innovative, challenging, exciting and enjoyable to watch as that of established professional work, but in sometimes quite different ways. As practition-ers, therefore, we must ensure that the profile of our work continues to grow by presenting clearly defined performance, whereby audiences can be aware of not only the journey of discovery made by the participants, but appreciate the quality of the end result.

Lauren Scholey, Recent Graduate, University of Surrey. Currently at the Royal Opera House.

1 Thompson, Chris, Thinking Aloud. The Foundation for Community Dance, 1996.
2, 3 and 4 Scholey, L., The Role of Community Performance, University of Surrey, 1998.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001