The UK development organisation and membership
body for community and participatory dance
Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Punctuating space
Animated, Summer 2000. Spiral earth sculptures containing coiled dry stone walls, camomile circles; giant wicker balls to rock, chase, push and hurl; tunnels etched from hedgerows; pathways carved into the undergrowth; aspen trees - their translucent leaves creating an interplay of movement, light and sound amidst a series of moveable kinetic sculptures are just some of the extraordinary features transforming the grounds of Sunfield - a residential care centre for young people between the ages of six to 19 with severe and complex learning needs (including challenging behaviour and autism). Here Peppy Hills explains how her collaboration with a landscape architect investigating how people move into and through space, is enabling young people to access the grounds normally denied to them

Sunfield nestles in the Clent hills amidst an idyllic 58 acre estate yet the centre staff and students rarely use the grounds finding them inaccessible and inhospitable. A situation which had to be resolved. The question was, how?

The solution was to create a long-term arts residency which would utilise the redundant landscape using manmade architectural structures to entice the young people to explore them. The precise combination of art forms was the brainchild of consultant Lesley Greene who identified the need for one of the artists to work in dance primarily because so many of these young people tend to respond better to movement and physical signs than to verbal communication.(1)

And so, landscape architect artist Mike Fletcher and I found ourselves working alongside students, staff and the local community to devise structures and spaces, which would inspire and develop creative activity in the school grounds ... Sunmoves land based arts project was born!

When you first enter Sunfield the sense of movement is immediately evident - the diversity and layers - so distinctive and often highly charged. Agitated and repetitive action contrasts moments of alert stillness; rest and relaxed contact with care and/or teaching staff is juxtaposed with outbursts of explosive movement.

Time and space are clearly divided to create familiar and secure structures for students, particularly those who are autistic. The management of a day and its timetable is modelled on the TEACHC approach (2) whereby the classroom is divided into clear areas with a work station for each student which is screened off by free standing boards to create a distraction free zone. Students have individual timetables which are displayed as visual plans with picture cue cards helping them make the transition from one activity to the next throughout the day. And so you can imagine how liberating it has been to work with these young people in dance where the boundaries are relatively 'free' and where students can initiate and lead the way. Understandably, some staff were doubtful at first as to whether the students would find this comfortable. But their fears were allayed as the project progressed and they could experience firsthand the role that dance could play - realising that it is such a natural and intuitive way if communicating for these students.

From those early research days in 1998, when students and staff started moving together, exploring ways of reaching, curling, twisting and travelling through space, we began encouraging them to contribute, to add ideas - to explore making their own movements - experiencing improvisation in its most organic form. More complex travelling combinations followed and specific choreographic processes introduced which enabled the students to make decisions and to take the lead. Every session was documented by means of written notes, verbal feedback from staff and student's reactions through their non-verbal feedback and photographs.

Mike Fletcher joined the project in September 1999. His brief, to interpret the documentation and translate it into design proposals for the grounds. As artists we were keen not to force crossover points between our artforms, but literally see what transpired and subsequently respond. For Mike landscape design "is a sculpture which people are a part of, they bring the vertical element, the excitement, they punctuate space and bring it to life"(3). He felt it imperative that he immerse himself not only in the environment but in the people of Sunfield. He observed and participated physically in the dance sessions, reflecting on how staff and students move in and through space. This was to emerge as the pivotal point of the project - the direct link between dance and landscape design - "the best way of connecting"(4) the two forms.

Much of what he saw in the sessions influenced his design process and the outcome: "Observing a dance piece created by Sunfield 's further education students based on movement pathways, illustrated how moving from one point to another could be creative and fun. More importantly, it reminded me that students could choreograph the direction; change level, speed and movement within that journey (via mapping routes and using movement symbols). If students could make decisions about manipulating a person's journey through space within a dance piece, then they could easily do this as part of a landscape design project. And so, students will be set the task of choreographing and designing a series of movement pathways across a new courtyard area which will provide choices of how to move across this space."(5)

But for many students the prospect of moving through these environments remains daunting and challenging, so it is crucial that particular stimuli are integrated into the design, most especially; rhythm, momentum and repetition. For example, as a student moves from one place to another, he or she may touch the boundaries of the room or corridor - the wall, picture frame, door handle, etc. Through dance we will be able to explore the potential for creating a series of touch focal points in an outside space, playing with changes of level. Although at this stage we have little idea as to whether he or she will find this exciting, frightening or irrelevant.

A sense of movement is something that Mike has integrated within his designs in a more general sense, such as the creation of snaking hedges along the main driveway replacing the existing rigid parallel rows. We are also developing a Calm Space Earth Sculpture which is designed to harness the natural stimuli of movement, light and sound. It uses as its basic shape a serpent spiral (constructed as a dry stone wall). Changes of level heighten the momentum of the spiral. And aspen trees create an outer boundary and sense of enclosure. Light will dapple through the translucent leaves and rustle in a particularly soporific way and the addition of a camomile circle will further contribute to the sense of calm.

As we sat in this half built earth sculpture, I asked Mike what the main impact of working with a dancer had been. He replied: "It has changed the way I think about space. Previously a design process was more of an intellectual one. I would have drawn a line on a paper plan, which was pleasing to the eye. Now I will walk or run a Iine or curve to see what it feels like." (6) He slaps his gut - his centre - as he is running the curve of the earth sculpture spiral whilst talking to me. "If it doesn' feel right I will alter it and then walk it again, and keep altering and running until it does.''(7) He also talked about building in opportunities for spaces to be explored through movement and dance such as shelves of contrasting levels. Surfaces too will take greater precedence "When choosing a surface for a sculpture I would now consider how it would feel to jump, roll or step from one surface to another."(8)

For me, as a dancer, this collaboration is fuelling my conviction that dance is a universal core running through and connecting each of us. Dance has been a natural and pivotal player in this project because, not only is it an intuitive and fundamental expression of who we are, but to be able to feed that information in, as a central part of a design process, is an exciting way of creating spaces which have people at the very heart of them.

This autumn I am hoping to be able to focus on how we can use and explore these spaces physically, and draw choreographic inspiration from them. Mike and I then hope to further our relationship with the local community by creating some site-specific dance pieces to celebrate these new spaces and the people within them.

Our residency ends in December of this year by which time the new structures and environments in the grounds will be complete. Students will be able to sample for themselves areas of great calm; a series of vast wicker domes and tunnels, sit on the sculptural seating in the courtyard; discover the driveway with its pockets of activity and kinetic sculptures which can be moved by the students to other places together with a new pathway tracing the stream marked with a series of wooden sculptures and textural surfaces which will entice them through and give them confidence to reach the end. In short, these extraordinary structures will create opportunities for everyone in the school to share a common sense of being in, moving through and exploring space. In many ways we are merely accessing a world of movement which these young people use naturally everyday?

Peppy Hills, community dance artist, contact

1 Greene, Lesley, Special People, A Special Place, 1997
2 The Education of Autistic and communication handicapped children, an American system pioneered by Eric Schopler, the University of North Carolina, USA
3, 4, 5,6,7 & 8 Fletcher, Mike, Sunfield 2000

The content of this site is proprietary to the Foundation for Community Dance and any access to this site or the use of any content made by any person is expressly subject to these terms:

Unauthorised copying of any material (including artwork) on this site and the reproduction, storage, transmission or the distribution of any content, either in whole or in part and in any medium or format, without the prior written consent of the Foundation for Community Dance and, where appropriate, the author or artist, is not permitted.

Please read our website terms & conditions by clicking here

Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001