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Animated Edition - Summer 2003
No right or wrong
Being open to new ideas and ways of working, making space for the conventional and the unconventional: Jane Greenfield talks about changing the face of work for children
A year ago I began to get worried. Our education and community work, which we had only properly initiated a few years before, was growing rapidly before my eyes. Like many dance organizations, the demand for our work to embrace and deliver social inclusion, health, education and life long learning agendas was endless and, in our case, beginning to spiral out of control.

Don't get me wrong, the work was very good and our team of regular and freelance dance development workers were doing a great job and were incredibly committed but also in danger in running themselves into the ground. Where was our outreach work going? Where did it fit in to Dance 4's artistic vision? Was it becoming more driven by social agendas and street dance popularity and less by art ? And, because of the sheer demand on the team, was it becoming too responsive and formulaic? Putting it simply, I felt our team were so busy setting things up and delivering that there was no time for thinking about and questioning their practice.

This situation led to a major review of all our education and community work. We stripped it back to the bone to look for what was its heart. We asked ourselves difficult questions: Why do we do this? Is it relevant? What does this mean to me? How are we connecting with the people we are teaching? And what do we as individuals bring to the group we are working with? This was tough because in many ways we were asking the team to put what they knew and felt familiar with, to one side and instead scrutinize their practice. We were in effect asking people to un-learn and re-learn, think differently and to accept change.

In many ways the review is on-going but our education and community work is changing. We are more selective about the projects we get involved in and there is real effort from the team in thinking about how their work sits within the context of Dance 4's broader artistic interests: experimentation, collaboration, and working outside mainstream aesthetics. There are some great projects on the go, we are encouraging collaboration between our international visiting companies and the education and community team including projects with Australian based Igneous dance and multi-media company and Czech/Italian company Deja Donne. In the summer actor/dancer Rob Tannion (ex-DV8) will be working with us on a film project for young people.

A particular area of work we have prioritized for development is work with the very young. A lot of this work we are delivering directly through Sure Start and Early Years programmes but some of it involves researching other people's work from which we might learn and gain inspiration. As part of last year's staff training, Dance 4 team members took part in LIFT's Landscape Of Childhood programme. Far from presenting clichéd and patronizing work which so often dominates children's performance, this was a programme of intelligent and challenging seminars, workshops and performances which set out to remind us that a child's capacity to understand, interpret and enjoy the darker side of the theatre, is all too often underestimated or simply suppressed.

Dance 4's Early Years work and in particular a Sure Start/Home Start project we undertook including staff training with Jan Halloran, threw up some interesting issues for me. It was an action research project led by our education and community team which involved practical workshops for "at risk" under 4's and their parents. What I liked about the training aspect of this project was the emphasis on the importance of approach and philosophy - time to think and question, not just do. This project encouraged our development workers to let go a bit more in their teaching, to not concern themselves too much with structure and to make room for chaos as well as order. Boisterousness and spontaneity in the workshops were the order of the day as was calm and quietness. This was best summed up by one of the parents who said they liked the workshop because "there was no right or wrong".

This Sure Start project was led by dance and child specialists. Another children's project I am following with interest however, is exactly the opposite. Oogly Boogly is a voice and movement improvisation performance for babies (12 - 18 months). The creative team for the project is theatre artist Guy Dartnell, who has never worked with children or babies, Artistic Director of Battersea Arts Centre Tom Morris and producer Emma Gladstone. Like Sure Start, Oogly Boogly is a celebration of play and innocent being but it sets out to work with as little pre-determined structure or themes as possible. The other difference is that unlike a lot of play projects that involve toys and props to stimulate creative work, Oogly Boogly chooses to use none of these and sets the performance in as neutral a space as possible - so as to focus on the relationship between the baby and the performer, how they interact and observe one another and ultimately how they move together. The baby is encouraged to have the high status in the relationship; they call the shots, they decide on the structure and the performers follow willingly - no right or wrong.

Talking to Guy, this is just as much a learning process for him as it is the baby and perhaps this is amplified by the fact that he has no prior training in working with children. He has no expectation, his curiosity and innocence of mind is matched by theirs - they are equal performers.

A similar project to this is 9 x 9 by Christine De Smedt, a colleague of Alain Platel and Les Ballet C. de la B. De Smedt has created a participatory performance project for 81 people (9x9). A comment on movement of the masses and in contrast, the movement of an individual, this piece can be performed by different groupings of people - adults, children, male or female. But perhaps the most unusual version is when its performed by 81 babies/toddlers plus their parents. Presented on stage in front of an audience, the babies are costumed in all white and are swirled, lifted, dangled and hugged. Sometimes they are left alone while parents watch carefully from the side. 81 mini performances of crawling, walking, tottering, crying and in some instances, unabashed sleeping. Again, chaos and order are combined, as are risk and safety but in all of it there is play.

Whether it's Dance 4's own work or other people's, the important thing for me is to be open to new ideas and ways of working and to make room for both the conventional and un-conventional. Just because one persons approach to work is different to ours, doesn't make it any less valuable. The fact is, we don't know everything and there is always more to learn.

Of course we have a responsibility to ensure good practice, health and safety and child protection legislation and so on, but these shouldn't become things that bind us or prevent us from taking risks within our own projects. If anything I would like to see more non-specialist dance artists working with children and young people because they bring with them a different perspective. Their lack of expertise might actually be a bonus.

Jane Greenfield is the director of Dance 4, the national dance agency based in Nottingham.

For information on Dance 4 Education and Community work contact louise@dance4.co.uk
For information on Oogly Boogly contact emma@cryingoutloud.org
For information on 9x9 contact info@fransbrood.com

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Animated: Summer 2003