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Animated Edition - Winter 2006
Playing along with the audience
Niki McCretton is an award-winning, independent artist who creates productions, which contain dance, and has gained a reputation for producing solo works that are contemporary and experimental yet highly accessible. She is currently Dance South West's Associate Artist for Somerset, based at the Merlin Theatre and becomes Associate Artist at the Lighthouse Theatre in Poole in 2006. Niki's trademark is that she has strong consideration for who her audience are and the part that they play alongside the performer. Her research and development is often bedded in the community and her productions tour nationally and internationally.
Having an opportunity to write an article of this nature gives me the welcome opportunity, amidst such a busy schedule of touring, to set some time aside to reflect on the processes I use and the decisions I make in order to create work.

I think that one of the main strengths of my work, as a whole, is that I have been fortunate or possibly strategic enough to have created a wide portfolio of productions for different age groups and audiences.

My background was originally in physical theatre and I added dance to my repertoire much later. I have since been experimenting with ways of using dance within the context of my existing work. From this has come a focus on solo, movement-based theatre which, to me, has a refreshing immediacy in terms of reaching an audience.

My work always has a strong narrative, informed by my background in creating theatre pieces. The narrative offers a framework in which the dance can sit and one of the selling points is that the style enables new audiences to access dance. I sometimes use text and sometimes don't and I prefer to work with a specially commissioned score, whilst drawing on other performance skills such as comedy and occasionally puppetry. Despite often being solo on stage, each production is a collaboration of composer, designer etc according to the demands of each piece.

During the past three years I have begun to create work that is targeted at specific audiences. In 2002 and I was commissioned by the Prague Fringe Festival to create a non-verbal piece for very young children. Throw me A Bone was created to appeal to age three and above. Engaging with this age group was a new and different experience to performing to an adult audience. Not only can children be the harshest and most vocal of critics, but they also dictate the pace of the show, due to the mix of age ranges and levels of understanding on the day. Because of this I have had to develop stronger listening skills and to 'feel' and consider the audience much more strongly as a performer. I have learnt that it essential, when creating work for this age group, to also ensure that the show is genuinely engaging for older siblings and parents. With this in mind I created Muttnik the First Dog in Space aimed at 'children and childish adults' but with the particular addition of appealing to older boys (7-11 years). The story is of Laika, a stray dog that was sent into orbit in 1957, by the Soviet Space programme, to become the first space traveller.

In order to create a production for this age group I spent some time observing and analysing ways that children between age 3 and 11 years old play and create stories, which they then act out. I was able to recreate this in the rehearsal studio, on my own, to find ways of building storylines from characters and by playing with props as toys. In turn the narrative was constructed. From a child's perspective, Muttnik is an epic adventure of a dog that went from rags to riches to become the first astronaut, whereas as an adult we perhaps focus on the cruelty and politics of such an act. Now that the production is up and running, I find that this sense of play now extends into the audience and for the 50 minutes of the show it is as if audience and performer are playing together.

Alongside the national tour of Muttnik I have been collaborating with digital artist and composer, Kathy Hinde, via a commission from the Nuffield Theatre at Lancaster University to create a new work called Relative.

This new work was born from a fascination with the relationship between grandparent and grandchild and with an aim to create a piece of experimental, multi-media performance that would appeal to the older generations, who may not have attended this type of performance before. The piece was developed with ten 'grand pairings' of grandchild and grandparents from Morecambe. Kathy and I gathered their experiences via interviews, stories, photographs and trips to places that held memories for them.

This led to a large-scale site-specific performance on Morecambe's promenade in April 2005 in which all the 'grandpairings' performed, along with many other local people. The performance included a ballet of people who use mobility buggies, an event in a cafe and a film made inside the now dilapidated Victorian Winter Gardens, featuring elderly sequence dancers. This was projected onto Morecambe's other run down building, the famous art deco Midland Hotel. The performance captured the memories of all those involved and in doing so was inspiration for Kathy and myself to create Relative.

We have been careful, in this process to consider how the audience may receive this work. It is therefore presentational in its style and in a way, rather informal. Kathy is present on stage throughout, operating the technical aspects of film projections, sound and music, which are often of low tech means such as cine and slide projections. Kathy and I chat to each other, and directly to the audience about our experiences with our grandparents and of those we met in Morecambe. We refer to what is happening on the stage which enables the more abstract passages of dance and imagery to exist in an semi-explained way, allowing the audience to feel comfortable with what is unfolding at all times. The piece utilises a lot of humour and several of the Morecambe grannies appear as characters via film projections. Many a grandparent, plus grandchildren of all ages have so far enjoyed it.

My next exploration with creating work for a specific audience has grown out of my research for Muttnik, as the year 2007 will mark fifty years of space travel since Laika was sent into orbit. I am creating a new production to celebrate this anniversary about the remarkable achievements in the field of space travel.

From my initial research it has become clear to me that those who hold the strongest memories of this time period are those that remember the entire fifty years vividly. This seems to be those of 55 years and above and in particular, men. I am interested in creating a piece that will engage with men of this age and hopefully their grandchildren, who may not have heard of many of the early achievements that have affected the way we live, such as satellite technology and velcro! I am interviewing men of this age range in order to discover the moments that have stuck with them since they were children and from these, the show will be built. I want to trace this epic historic journey of technology that we have been on and this will ensure that the show is not created in a factual or esoteric manner.

The show will be movement based with myself as performer alongside an older male actor/dancer who will play the character of one of the remaining lunar astronauts, who are now all pensioners. It has a working title of Space 50 and I am working alongside Piers Bizony, author of a new book also titled Space 50, which celebrates the emotive moments of space travel rather than the scientific, containing some incredible photographic images never before published.

Space 50 will preview at the Lighthouse Theatre, Poole in July and then run throughout the Edinburgh Fringe Festival prior to touring in 2007. If you are over 55 and are interested in your memories forming part of the research, please do email me on nikimccretton@lineone.net I would be delighted to hear from you. Relative tours from Feb-June 2006 and Muttnik will be presented at British Dance Editions on 10th Feb and tours from Oct 2006 into 2007. Tour dates and information can be found on my website www.nikimccretton.com

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Animated: Winter 2006