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Animated Edition - Spring 2003
Professional development @ DanceCity
DanceCity's director Janet Archer looks at over ten years of professional development opportunities in the North East of England, with the emphasis on 'quality people time'

As I sit down to write this, I realise that it is not often these days that I give myself the chance to stop and take stock of everything that DanceCity has managed to achieve in terms of developing people. And yet without that people development, or human resources development as it would be called in the private sector, most of everything else we aspire to achieve would be redundant. Our new £6m building would be empty when it opens in 2004/5, residency projects would be unsupported, theatres would give up promoting dance because no-one would go to see it and the community here in the North would be fragmented and disenfranchised. But thankfully when I start to count up the efforts we have made, there is a substantial list to report.

When I first came to the North of England in 1991, I was slightly shocked by how lonely the dance community felt. There had been some very good work in the region, by committed artists like Angela Kennedy, Trish Winter, Virginia Kennedy and Tim Rubidge, as well as the internationally known Miranda Tufnell, but I think the crisis that had hit English Dance Theatre, the resident company in the building, had left people feeling bruised and a little bit left on the shelf. The community was a small one and as such felt quite isolated.

My instincts told me that we needed more people proving that it is possible to make a living as a dance artist in the North. Training seemed to be very very vital. There had been a constant brain/body drain down to London. Potential northern-based artists were disappearing down to schools in the South with never a look backwards to their roots imagining that they would not in a million years be able to make a career for themselves in their home environment. The first thing I did was ignite the HND Dance Course, written with Newcastle College prior to my arrival. I wanted to encourage not only Northern based talent to stay here, but also to woo young people from other regions to come to Newcastle to share and invest in what we all aspire to do here.

The HND course has now seen over 200 young dancers, teachers and choreographers graduate. Of course not all have stayed in the region, but many have and are now running successful projects in a wide range of settings.

The HND has been very successful in training dancers and dance workers in the region. What it has not managed to do is produce choreographers, except in a few isolated cases like Helen Smith. So this year we launched a new degree in Dance and Choreography with the University of Northumbria in order to try to redress that balance. The course is currently recruiting its second intake of students and is proving to be very popular with the partnership between a National Dance Agency and a University being cited as one of the attractions. These students are able to work within an increasingly confident cultural sector, thanks to Newcastle Gateshead's drive to become European City of Culture for 2008.

So what do we do for post-graduate professional artists and dance managers?

One of the biggest draws for a creative artist, of any space outside of a metropolis is the chance to get away from the day to day stresses and strains of busy city life, to a slightly calmer, more spacious environment. The other major benefit of course is simply being away from home and having to manage the day to day of your personal life alongside being an artist. Many artists have said to me that it was fantastic to get away for a week or a couple of weeks, and that doing so enabled them to tease out knots from their work which had been puzzling them for months. Over the years we have hosted a wide variety of artists in residence. But the provision of space, a fee and a decent hotel is only part of what I believe is what artists need. Relationships with people who you can trust mean a great deal and the more in depth work that has been carried out with some individuals has proved to me that time, as much as money, is an invaluable resource.

Of course it is not possible for one individual (and in our case it is usually me) to provide a parity of service to everyone at this kind of depth. But I have developed some long-term relationships with artists whose work I believe in and who I like working with to great reward.

The most obvious example of this is the relationship developed with Liv Lorent, who first came to the region to carry out a six month residency to make a piece for a large group of people aged 8 to 80 for a project called Passage to Passion. It was Liv's first visit to the North East, fresh from a year's residency at the Place Theatre and she had no idea of what to expect. It was also her first venture into making a large-scale community piece. But she was willing and excited about the project and had come up with a visionary concept which included challenging the region's chamber orchestra to play a collage of short pieces which she would choose herself to accompany her choreography, so we hired her.

During those six months Liv took us through a roller coaster ride of ambition, hard work and at times frustration and despair. Her focus was to make the best work she possibly could and she demanded absolute commitment from the 80 or so dancers who were working with her. During the process of making the work, Liv was hungry for feedback. She was also alone in a new city, so we spent many an evening sharing a bottle of wine and talking, not just about her current challenge, but also her aspirations for the future. She had very specific ideas in relation to the kinds of dancers she wanted to work with but no idea where she could find them and no money to hold auditions, even if anybody would come to them, because at that stage she was relatively unknown. I worked with her to identify dancers who she could contact, and funding so she could support them in coming here.

Over the next few years Liv made a number of new works, which received varying levels of criticism. I always said to her that it would take her ten years to get to the point where she had fine-tuned her creative processes and kept coaxing her not to give up, but to keep asking herself questions and keep pushing towards what she believes in passionately. I pledged to continue to support her through her long-term development and I also introduced her to the dance community in our region, as well as other potential mentors who could form a support network around her.

In 2001 following five years of working together, Liv won a Jerwood Award for choreography. I think this was the first time that an artist outside of London had won this prestigious award. Five years of hard work had paid off. Her work is not easy, and it's not always popular with everyone. She sometimes chooses not to work with trained bodies, and she challenges our pre-conceptions of what is aesthetically beautiful without shame. But she has a compassion for humanity and a rare ability to comment on who we are in relation to the people around us that for me is very compelling, and her audiences always respect and enjoy her work for that reason.

Obviously supporting creative artists is not justifiable without some kind of equal support being in place for managers. Artists can only succeed if they have people who believe in them who are prepared to fight for them, make funding applications for them, organise opportunities for them to present their work and make sure that they look after themselves and pay themselves properly. DanceCity has set up a number of schemes for dance managers, through placements and training schemes for people like Nuritza Daghlian, who eventually became Ricochet's manager and Alina Hutchinson who now works regionally as a freelance arts manager.

A successful recent venture has been the establishment of Project Art led by Christine Grimwood, who last year left DanceCity's employment to become the first independent dance manager in the Northern region. Christine was for many years my personal assistant and as such learned a great deal about working with artists. She moved on to project management within DanceCity and it soon became clear that she was capable of developing more than she was able to within the parameters of DanceCity's staffing structure. So I encouraged her to think about a freelance career. Initially and understandably, she was terrified of letting go of a secure job and starting up on her own. So we offered her an office, with access to a phone, fax and email for free and an open invitation to DanceCity staff whenever she needed support. She has rapidly developed a portfolio of clients including Liv who all love her to bits, and is seriously thinking of taking on an assistant in order to ensure that she can deal with the demand for her services. We also support Tin Productions in a similar way.

Another manager support scheme is currently running through the Arts Council's Black Arts Manager Fellowship Scheme. Steve Wright is currently working on a project to bring international black dancers to Newcastle next summer through this scheme.

It would be neglectful of me to write about DanceCity's professional development roles without mentioning two more major initiatives.

The first is DanceConnect, which is a professional development programme for dance SMEs (small, medium sized enterprises) that has been funded by the European Regional Development Fund and Northern Arts and sponsored by Nexus.

DanceConnect provides dancers, choreographers, teachers and dance managers/administrators from the North East with support in the form of classes, workshops, mentoring opportunities, artistic and business advice and guidance of all kinds. Artists pay �20 a year to join and after that everything is free. We have just started phase two of DanceConnect, which is deliberately targeted at dance businesses, which are in their first three years of development in a drive to encourage more people to base themselves here. That is not to say more experienced dance artists and companies are excluded, but they do not receive the same level of subsidy.

DanceConnect has delivered some terrific development opportunities over the two years that it has been in existence such as Making Statements that provided five dance artists with the opportunity to work with a range of choreographers for up to two weeks at a time as a prelude to making their own work under the guidance of a mentor. DanceConnect also platforms work through Connections and offers support through mentoring to artists showing their work. A detailed personal development plan is written in conjunction with the artist, which identifies individual training needs which we try to fulfil in the way, which suits best. We work in partnership with other training providers such as Northern Cultural Skills Partnership, which delivers professional development opportunities to people working throughout the creative industries to deliver short programmes as part of DanceConnect.

The other initiative, which I am particularly proud of, is our new Staff Placement Scheme, which we are fortunate to be able to fund as part of our capital programme. It stemmed from the issue with which I began this article, that of isolation. I wanted to give people who work here a wider perspective on the world than just the bit of it that they work in and I wanted to also get them to experience the way that other organisations do things and not just projects which take place under my artistic vision and leadership. So we have created a scheme that gives every member of staff including the receptionist the chance to travel to an organisation or organisations of their choice anywhere in the world to see how they work. It has gone down - not surprisingly - very well and people are making plans to visit a range of organisations relating to their work including TanzHaus in Dusseldorf, the Joyce Theatre in New York, Dance Factory in Johannesberg as well as the other National Dance Agencies in the UK. A structured approach will be taken to the sharing of information and learning gleaned to try to ensure that all staff benefit from everyone's placements and not just the person who experienced it first hand. My aim is to open up the organisations' culture to reach out from Newcastle to the rest of the world in a dynamic and connected way.

I know that there are some people out there who wonder whether all of this activity in a place like Newcastle is justifiable. Should not the money be spent and the energy expended where the dancers are at the moment as opposed to trying to coax people here to take advantage of some very unique opportunities?

My argument is quite simple. I believe that everyone deserves to see and participate in dance of the highest quality no matter where he or she comes from and where he or she lives. Sadly, the historical prevalence of southern-based training bases in this country (even Leeds is south to us...) means that dancers still migrate from this region, and in the past rarely returned - except for projects or touring now and then. The only way we can ensure that the general population accesses dance regularly is to change that trend and the only way we will do that is to make conditions here better than other places that artists might decide to live.

To conclude I will touch on the issue of cost. Of course some of the things, which I have outlined, are very difficult to cost, people's time for example which I still think is one of the most important things we can give each other.

Other more easily re-layable figures are £50,000 for a year of DanceConnect, £20,000 for the Staff Placement Scheme and roughly £5000 to provide someone with an office base at DanceCity. Not cheap, but then all good things are worth paying (or fundraising for). You can be sure that investing in people will reap that initial outlay tenfold if you are patient enough to let people grow.

DanceCity can be contacted on info@dancecity.co.uk or visit their website at www.dancecity.co.uk

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Animated: Spring 2003