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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Silent revolution
Animated, Autumn 2000. 'How many people know they are dancing their last dance? Irene did. I stood in the wings with her prior to our entrance for the final piece of Growing Older (Dis)Gracefully's performance of The Bizarre Girls and said to her 'this is it' and she said, 'I know'. We meant different things. Irene's performance showed her lyricism as a dancer at its best. She was just beautiful. A beauty that had increased, not diminished with age or the shadow of impending death. She had also choreographed her last piece The Class for this performance and it struck me as to how powerful our work is. To create and dance until the end is to truly live until you die...' (1) Here Judy Smith provides a glimpse of the remarkable work of Irene Dilkes who died following a relatively short period of illness on June 1 of this year

Few of you will be aware of the significant role that Irene Dukes played in initiating pioneering links between professional artists and those within education, or, as Peter Brinson said, collaboration between the education and dance professions."(2) Something the dance industry now takes for granted but in the late 1970s and early 80s this radical approach was viewed as revolutionary It was to form the bedrock of community dance informing the development of what has become traditional community practice.

Irene's training and experience as a professional dance artist gave her an ideal position from which to undertake this role although there was nothing in her early background that could have prepared her for an adult life committed to dance. In 1960 she undertook a three-year course for specialist teachers of physical education at IM Marsh College in Liverpool (now John Moores University). It was here that she met Dorothy Madden who instilled within her a passion for dance. The training at that time was 'person-centred'; providing both knowledge and understanding of pupils in educational contexts, and the relevant skills in teaching people of all ages. These were to become the hallmarks of her future career.

Her determination to pursue a career in contemporary dance was paramount, but she knew that she needed to find the best training to become a professional dance artist. After a brief teaching career in physical education in England, she travelled to the United States of America (without a bursary) to study at the Martha Graham School in New York, where she stayed for three years. She was to later receive a scholarship from Robin Howard to assist with the costs of tuition.

Thus began her long association with the world of dance theatre. In 1966, whilst still in the States she danced in Charles Weidman's revival of a group of satirical dances previously choreographed by himself and Ruth St Denis. Later in 1968 she was soloist and guest teacher for the inaugural season of Toronto Dance Theatre. But in 1969 Irene returned to England as a founder-member of London Contemporary Dance Theatre performing in such works as Stages, Cell, Ghost Dances and Three Epitaphs. She also taught company class which enabled her to gain considerable expertise in translating the Graham technique in such a way that enabled both artists and young people in schools to develop their skill and understanding of it. This was to later have a marked impact on the dance experience of young people in school.

In 1974 Irene returned to Liverpool, where the forward thinking head of Dance at IM Marsh College, Lorn Primrose, recognised the potential impact on her students' professional dance training, of adding a dance artist to her staff. She invited her to take some classes, and in 1975 Irene was appointed as a full-time dance lecturer where she remained until her retirement in 1993. Lorn Primrose's foresight soon became a reality - IM Marsh found itself at the centre of a debate that has since been seen as a pivotal point in the development of dance education, ie. the relationship between young people's experience of dance in school and the then new contemporary dance that was sparking the enthusiasm of the many teachers who saw London Contemporary Dance Theatre on stage. Irene's expertise and training, both as a professional artist and teacher, placed her in an ideal position from which to help bridge what was, in the late 1970s an enormous gap between these two groups of people.

In 1976 she was centrally involved in coordinating one of the pioneering residencies of London Contemporary Dance Theatre (LCDT) at IM Marsh. She was instrumental in designing a programme whereby members of the company (ie. Robert North, Christopher Bannerman, Patrick Harding-Irmer, Kate Harrison, Celia Hulton, Tom Jobe, Sally Estep and Anca Frankenhaeuser) worked with students daily on repertoire such as Robert Cohen's Hunter of Angels rehearsing and choreographing them as if they were part of the company. Concurrently and crucially LCDT members introduced children in local schools to Graham work, a format which today is only too familiar but which was then unheard of.

Whilst, for all involved, this was an exciting challenge it flagged up another area of debate - ie. matching expectations of company members and teachers as to what constituted a good dance experience. They differed dramatically. But for the students who were involved in the residency this was to provide a blueprint for their future professional practice as dance artists, animateurs, choreographers and teachers.

The respect that both parties gave Irene was instrumental in fostering further collaborative events. One of the major developments from those early residencies was a series of three pilot projects for the Dance Artists in Education Scheme in 1980. Irene was selected as the dance artist-in-residence for the Manchester project, which involved working in two schools.

Her determination to access professional dance artists into schools continued. And whilst still lecturing at IM Marsh Irene founded Spiral Dance Company (1976), a Liverpool based group of six dancers (some of whom had been a part of the LCDT residency) supported by Merseyside Arts Association. In the Company's early years she acted as both artistic director and choreographer but went on to commission works by Jane Dudley, Robert North, Tamara McLorg and Janet Smith. Her own choreographic works included: Widow's Walk (1978), A Far Cry (1979), The Letter(1980) and also Force Fields (1980) created to an especially composed score by Geoffrey Poole. Today this would be seen as commonplace - lecturers are expected to continue to practise in the professional fields about which they teach - but in the late 1970s this was yet another significant way in which Irene was laying the foundations for future dance practice.

During her time at IM Marsh Irene was the inspiration for many students who admired her not only for her artistry as a professional dancer, but also for the way in which she nurtured their individual talent, and her commitment in assisting them to achieve their personal best be it as a performer, choreographer or teacher.

Because of her radical approach, many young teachers of physical education developed a life long enthusiasm for dance and, in addition, a commitment to sharing this with the young people with whom they came in contact. Irene was able both to introduce them to aspects of dance theatre and the training of professional dance artists, and help them adapt this knowledge so that their students' dance experience was relevant to the emerging trends. In particular she enabled them to understand how a technique such as Graham could be adapted to release the creative potential of the young people's dancemaking.

She also had a major impact on the work of those on the dance-drama course - enabling these students to become accomplished performers of the Graham technique - inspiring them to choreograph and significantly, for the period before 1980, introducing them to site-specific work, creating pieces for performance in the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King (for the Queen's Silver Jubilee visit), and memorably their appearance in the shop window of Lewis's department store. Exactly the kind of approach inherent in today's community practice. The importance was placed on ways of translating and utilising dance skills for a wide range of settings and the basis of training for community dance groups.

This breadth of vision extended into the community and in 1974 she launched the first Graham technique classes to be available outside London. She was renowned for her teaching and her classes continued almost without break, until her death in June of this year (ie. for 26 years). The classes, throughout this time, had a strong Graham base but she developed the work so that it was accessible for a wide age range of students from 15 to over 70. Irene undoubtedly possessed a very special ability to be able to present an appropriate challenge for every member of her class. For those who could only claim to be young at heart she provided an opportunity to re-establish contact with their self, as well as to attain a feeling of achievement. And it is tribute to her teaching that some people attended her classes, on a regular basis, for over 20 years.

From the time of her arrival in Liverpool in 1974 Irene was committed to using her expertise to enhance the dance and life experiences of all those with whom she came in contact. Only five weeks before her death she was performing with Growing Older (Dis)Gracefully, a group of dancers whose minimum age is 40, and whose dance experience ranges from those just starting out to professionals with a lifelong involvement in the dance industry. She was also teaching her regular weekly technique class. The contribution she has made to the development of good dance practice in the industry - particularly in schools and the community - cannot be underestimated and is the direct result of the way in which she so generously shared her own dance and education experiences. She is undoubtedly one of Britain's unsung heroes. An accolade she would of course contest.

Judy Smith, former head of dance, Liverpool John Moores.

1. Bird, Judy, New Zealand, 2000
2. Brinson, P., The Nature of the Collaboration in Dance in Education. The Arts Council of Great Britain and The Department of Education and Science, 1982

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001