The UK development organisation and membership
body for community and participatory dance
Animated Edition - Summer 2004
Off kilter
Lucy Mason and Morag Deyes describe their expanding journey into the cultural mosaic that is dance in Scotland
Come in come in its nice tae see ye,
hows yersel' you're lookin' grand!
(Opening chorus, the White Heather Club)

In April 2004 Dance Base produced its first large-scale production, cheekily called Off Kilter, which toured in Scotland as a celebration of the power, strength and humour of the people of Scotland through gallus dance, music and film. The show was a unique event which reflected a sense of pride and delight in the beauty, energy and wit of Scottish culture seen from a new perspective. As Dance Base has flourished over the years, so has our understanding and respect for the flair and grit of artists in Scotland.

The idea for the show originated from an approach from the Scottish Arts Council asking what we might be able to do with some funds intended to showcase Scottish traditional arts. Given our interest in mixing up dance forms, new and old, Scottish and international - and our knowledge of choreographers and dancers working in Scotland, and a longstanding desire to see more live music on stage with dancers, it wasn't difficult to come up with a positive response to this exciting opportunity.

Following a period of research, talking to traditional musicians, looking at archive footage of early dance on TV and sounding out choreographers, Off Kilter went into rehearsal in March 2004 with a line up of seven choreographers (including commission of new work by Priya Sreekumar, Janet Smith, Raymond Kaye and Steinvor Palsson), eleven dancers, John Rae's composing talent and a band of six musicians, a video artist and use of the music of Martyn Bennett and Sheena Wellington. Under the inspired artistic direction of Morag Deyes, the resulting show was a stylish strut through Scottish dance spanning traditional Highland, ballet, step, hip hop and contemporary taking in Bharatnatyam fused with traditional Scottish music along the way.

Creating Off Kilter was a truly inspiring journey for all the artists involved. It was a gathering of many individuals who communicated their sense of place fearlessly, individually and with grace and integrity. They came together for a show that celebrated some of the dance styles that make Scotland so unique.

Many creative partnerships have been borne from this mixing of styles and experience. For many, working on Off Kilter offered them their first opportunity to appreciate more directly the working process of a different dance style - an insight into the approach of a non-dance trained breaker, the discipline and dedication of South Asian dancers, the skill and athleticism of Highland dance, and the technical demands of ballet. Much mutual respect was generated and interest evolved in developing future collaborations between artists working in such different forms as hip hop and contemporary, and Step and Bharatnatyam. It is exciting to anticipate how these new relationships may shape the future of Scottish dance programming. It is certainly important to know that Off Kilter has acted as a creative catalyst for so many artists.

The new commissions brought people together from disparate dance worlds. For example, Janet Smith created a new piece (the first for many years) for Jillian Thomson, a dancer more familiar with jazz, hip-hop and funk dance than contemporary. Janet had seen Jillian's work with hip-hop crew Freshmess and was attracted by her energy, style and charisma on stage. The result was a stimulating and liberating experience for both artists, and for the audiences who witnessed a very powerful and moving piece of dance theatre with a strong emotional force.

Priya Sreekumar discovered that Bharatanatyam worked with Scottish traditional music almost by accident and has been fascinated with the rhythm and energy that this music offers to her traditional dance ever since. Off Kilter provided her with an opportunity to explore this unexpected combination in more detail, working with a live band to accompany the movement. The result was a triumph of the imagination - proving that dance can be a partner to the most unlikely musical bedfellows. Frank McConnell likewise discovered that the traditional eightsome reel could be incorporated into a traditional breakdance routine - adding to the audience's enjoyment of both without compromising either.

Taken as a whole, the live and recorded music for Off Kilter was a remarkable illustration of how composers, singers and players respect the rules... often to bend them into new forms.

The show was performed in Edinburgh, Inverness and Stirling attracting large and enthusiastic audiences and an exemplary press response. It was inspiring to see the show connect so positively with so many people and to know that everything created and performed was derived and developed from Scotland's rich, flexible and generous culture. The audiences attending the shows were very diverse and certainly not your regular contemporary dance audience. We appeared to knock down any boundaries to attendance, attracting those, young and old, with an interest in traditional dance, ballet and contemporary dance - as well as the traditional music fans. People were attracted by the notion of being witness to a celebration of dance and music, and were there to have a good time and enjoy their cultural heritage in all its forms. Playing to 1000 people for a one off performance at Edinburgh's Festival Theatre was a thrilling experience and once which, sadly, few dance companies manage to achieve these days. We obviously did something right - the trick is to know it and to try to emulate it in future such projects.

The show itself was made possible thanks to the belief, support and sense of adventure from the Scottish Arts Council's Dance and Music Departments.

At a recent Cultural Diversity conference in Scotland: one of the inspiring speakers (Professor Tom Devine) observed that 'our land is a mosaic of cultures'. Off Kilter is a tantalising glimpse of that vibrant picture.

Lucy Mason is chief executive and Morag Deyes, artistic director of Dance Base. See www.dancebase.co.uk for more information.

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Animated: Summer 2004