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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Shadow space
Animated, Summer 2001. Exploring the sculptural qualities of the moving figure by Assis Carreiro, Director, DanceEast

East Anglia conjures in the imagination a pastoral haven of endless landscape and vast skies and the sea. Being a part of such vistas makes one acutely aware of the ever-changing elements - not seasonal but daily shades of movement, sites, sounds and smells - from bright yellow fields of rape seed to stakes of rolled hay and grazing sheep and pigs.

When it comes to developing dance in the East of England, nature is prevalent and very much a part of one's residency, whether permanent or temporary.

When it comes to being in residence in the East of England, it is about escaping to one of the country's most beautiful and isolated regions. For artists, it is an escape from the stress of London transport, polluted air, wasted travel time, and the many demands of city life. In East Anglia, there are hidden sanctuaries whose environments naturally offer uninterrupted concentrated time to work.

DanceEast, the National Dance Agency for the East of England, is capitalising on the rural nature of many parts of the region and offering artists time out in various countryside settings.

The Year of the Artist scheme proved an ideal opportunity to begin testing the waters on what it really means to be on a 'rural' residency in Suffolk with lighting designer Michael Hulls.

Every year is a year of the artist for DanceEast as dance artists come and go through our doors creating new work, researching, teaching and experimenting. The Year of the Artist grant allowed us to go one step further.

Throwing caution to the wind, I invited Michael to fulfil a long-standing ambition to create a site-specific installation. His brief was rather loose - I trusted Michael after years of work with him on projects with Russell Maliphant and Jonathan Burrows. I felt comfortable with his aesthetic disposition and reputation for meticulous detail, simplicity and a tendency to dream up projects with expanding budgets (only the latter required controlling)

Michael's starting point was his play with the concept of shadows, one he developed in Russell Maliphant's solo Shift and which he wished to explore in an installation setting beyond the conventional proscenium stage experience. Michael's lighting is very much influenced by movement, so there was never really any discussion as to whether there would be any dance in the installation - live or otherwise - as Michael's lighting, dances.

What Michael wished to create were several sequences of movement material that generated the right kind of moving shadow. A shadow that when seen in isolation from the dancer's own movements, would allow the viewer to understand three-dimensional movement through watching a two-dimensional shadow.

The aim was to create a dance project without a live dancer in sight. A bit radical for Suffolk? Well, perhaps, but the Year of the Artist initiative was about a residency in the truest sense of the word and about exploring new terrain - an ideal premise for experimenting and trying out new ways of working.

A Year of the Artist project was not just about the final, very public, result. In this case, process and product were equal partners and were integral to the development of Michael's commission. The 'rural' residency was key to Michael's exploration

It was very rewarding for us to provide Michael with time, that precious commodity. Time to play, experiment fiddle and explore new territory. We sought to provide an environment for Michael in which he could challenge his own working methodologies, processes and, most importantly, we enabled him to lead on a project a rarity in the life of a busy lighting designer working to the needs of choreographers and directors.

Part of the commission provided for a period of research and development. We packed Michael and dancer Anna Williams off to Wingfield for two weeks. Wingfield is an old college turned arts centre on the Norfolk/Suffolk border. Directed by Ian Chance, the grounds include a number of gallery spaces and accommodation for artists. There is a local pub and not much else save sheep, pigs and endless fields - the perfect retreat.

For Michael and Anna, Wingfield proved a blissful and rather foreign environment in which to make work. As Michael recalls, 'for a dedicated townie like myself, the strongest impact of the rural scene can be made by the simplest and most elemental of phenomena: long fields of bare earth stretching into a misty distance; the autumnal colours of the trees and foliage; the pungent smell of pigs borne on the wind; the big open skies and the golds, pinks and violets of the sunsets.'

I made regular visits up to this idyll (as did friends and family and other collaborators) and Michael and Anna spent hours experimenting with shadows, developing new choreography to be video-taped live and in shadow, and playing with light. The goal during this research period was to develop Michael's concept for the installation, which would only come alive months later. In tandem, Michael and Anna created choreographic material of Anna's dancing shadow. Richard Bleasdale would later film various sequences of the 'shadow dancing' over a weekend at Greenwich Dance Agency.

Where to place Michael's installation was another challenge. DanceEast could not do it alone, financially or otherwise. Michael knew the kind of space he required; but where in East Anglia were we to find this perfect white space? There were many rural escapades with Michael. We visited 16th century barns, assembly rooms, corn exchanges, galleries, and churches. There were adventures along windy country roads as we explored all possibilities -including landing in a ditch on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere! All part of Michael's induction into country life. Eventually, we found two sites. The Bury Art Gallery in Bury St. Edmunds provided the best location. The gallery had a free slot between exhibitions and the staff was game to come on board. A legacy of Michael's work has been the permanent raising of the gallery's chandeliers, which not only allowed him to realise his ambitions, but also will facilitate the gallery's future presentations. We also found a partner in Dance 4's NOTTDance Festival with the installation going on to tour to the Bonnington Gallery in Nottingham. Thus, a number of new partnerships were forged. Michael also spent time with students from West Suffolk College and was assisted by Eleanor Spencer, a student at Norwich School of Art in the setting up of the installation.

From the initial 'retreat' in November and the filming in February, the installation then lived in Michael's mind until he could take over the space in the Bury Gallery on 17th April for an opening on the 19th. Not much time to fine-tune a very high tec., delicate, complex yet ultimately very simple installation. Was it Anna moving on the screens? Was it her shadow? By the end, there were many shadows of Anna dancing on the screens and walls of the gallery playing with our perceptions and giving the shadows their own life.

The results featured many shadows of Anna Williams projected via the most advanced DVD equipment, flat chrome edged video screens and 2D media - paintings in motion. Concurrently, the public had an opportunity to explore their own multitude of shadows on the gallery walls to a softly buzzing soundscape by Andy Cowton, which wrapped viewers up in the space in a low-key way.

Call it what you will, Michael's installation was a celebration of the artist - at work, at play, on display. It was not your run-of-the-mill dance commission nor setting for a dance performance. Audiences who did come to interact with the installation found themselves in a calm and enveloping environment. It was a very unusual dance experience both for the audience and for Michael.

Such opportunities are rare for artists. Time is precious and investments have often-intangible returns. Whilst we celebrate years of artists' year in and year out, the occasions when we can take such leap of faith and offer artists like Michael Hulls opportunities to retreat and explore beyond their day-to-day working life and allow them to realize new visions of dance collaboration are precious commodities.

Assis Carreiro, director, DanceEast, the National Dance Agency for Suffolk and the East of England. Contact +44 (0)1473 639230/234. Email info@danceeast.co.uk

Reference
1. Hulls, Michael

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001