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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Sssh! The Bunker Project
Animated, Summer 2001. This was not a lean project, but a tough onslaught of artistic practice in a pocket of rural Essex that ultimately seduced the local community. Naive enthusiasm and a passion for the potential of the Secret Nuclear Bunker site in Kelvedon Hatch threw essexdance headlong into a project that expanded and exceeded its original aims and expectations. Fleur Derbyshire uncovers some of the bunker's darker secrets...

I remember the first visit to the Secret Nuclear Bunker (Sssh!) when Kari O'Nions and I ventured into the idyllic Essex countryside, to the heart of rural tranquillity. Surely this was not the environment for a nuclear bunker that would have seen action in the event of a nuclear explosion during the Cold War. The sharp contrasting landscapes contributed to the intrigue factor, and as we walked along a narrow footpath amid bluebell woods, we stumbled upon the bunker in its stark, monumental glory, thinly disguised as a family bungalow in 1950s vogue.

The facade conceals a labyrinth of rooms 100 feet underground, built into the hillside and encased in ten feet thick reinforced concrete. Each area of the site is rich in exhibits and has a unique atmosphere, ranging from the isolation of the entrance tunnel, to the threatening overtones of the boiler room - to the bizarre and kitsch typing pool, complete with leg-less dummies, 'having a bad hair day!' (1)

It was the uniqueness of the location that proved the catalyst for the, invention of what was to become a multi-strata project. From the seed of a site-specific dance and new technology commission, the project grew to encompass additional community activities. A cross generation Easter Course funded by Lloyds TSB, and a series of taster sessions with disadvantaged groups firmly rooted Sssh! in the locality, of the borough of Brentwood. This anchoring of arts activity to 'place' was fully supported by Sue Lawther the newly appointed arts development officer for Brentwood, who was a key player in terms of partnership funds, advice, local networks, geographical knowledge and above all backbone support.

Site-specific work poses risks for a producing organisation in terms of audience development. Therefore it was important to seek artists with proven track records in this type of work, who would not shy away from the tremendous challenge the site presented, nor the tight production schedule (three weeks), interspersed with intensive community work. It was a coup to commission and support the talents of Nic Sandiland, multi-media artist, (whose roots coincidentally are Essex based) and Susanne Thomas, director of Seven Sisters Group.

The Year of the Artist commission encouraged synergy between the artists creating a performance trail through the bunker, 'coloured' by their own personal responses to the site, using dance and technology to enhance the physical experience.

The same processes undertaken by the artists would be replicated in part at the community Easter Course, to enable participants to gain an understanding of the nature of site-specific work. This balancing of professional and community activity is key to essexdance's philosophy which aims to create, as director Kari O'Nions explains, 'a holistic and integrated approach - to draw clear connecting lines between professional dance development, education and community' (2)

Easter Course participants of all ages visited the site with the artists collecting sounds, taking notes and making artistic choices that they would bring back to the studio to develop into dance/multi-media performance pieces.

Emily Sutton (aged 15) recalls her experience of the site visit: 'I really didn't know how far underground we were ... it was cold, and having been in my space for a while I began to notice the deathly silence, apart from the occasional slamming of a heavy door. I chose an area next to the cooling tower; there is a bridge overhead and machinery either side. I tap dance in the space and the sounds of the taps echo strangely amongst the machinery. The different textures of flooring produce varied sounds. This section was filmed and taken back to the studio to feature in our performance piece.' (3)

The integration of age ranges was challenging for the artists, in terms of devising the content of the sessions for a group with varied abilities and the pace at which it needed to be delivered. However the rewards outshone any difficulties and it was a poignant moment to observe the joy that 11-year-old Mark was experiencing when partnered with Margaret (60 years his senior) in a leading and following exercise. This 'golden moment' was particularly significant, for Mark has Asperger Syndrome (special needs in social situations), and clearly, participation on the course had increased his confidence and developed his interaction skills.

The underpinning of the project within the local community helped to revitalise old, whilst establishing new, local networks. For example, sourcing equipment was aided by tip-off information from local arts organisations, slide projectors found from the local photographic club. Andy Wilson, Brentwood Borough Council's IT officer, was supportive in building the Sssh! website and commented simply that The Bunker Project had pulled people from across Council departments to work together. Contact was made with local arts groups, the ramblers association and a flamboyant Essex walking group that can really shake a leg as evidenced in a 'dance and camera' workshop (and who subsequently took part in the Easter Course). Sssh! had become a curious talking point locally and started to have an impact on the street - partly instigated through word of mouth, taster workshops, postcard publicity and local and national press coverage.

The production weeks on site raised various problem-solving exercises - for instance the realisation that when underground in a nuclear bunker there is no mobile phone signal! With communication limited, keeping updated with sourcing equipment required utmost concentration for, what was a VHS player and a video projector one day, was a slide projector the next! Taxis delivered and removed Nic, Susanne and the dancers on a daily basis and my colleagues and I made endless journeys between essexdance in Chelmsford along the ever more familiar route to the bunker in Kelvedon Hatch, our cars filled with equipment (begged and borrowed). A final health and safety inspection happened with the head of Building Surveying Services and the head of Environmental Health and Public Protection Services just two days prior to opening night - the public entertainment licence was then awarded and it was time to celebrate!

Three weeks underground in a nuclear bunker and the atmosphere tends to almost get the better of you. The oppressive nature of the site, the lack of natural light, the museum's installations of constant ringing telephones, the announcements of RED ALERT over the tannoy all help to force the underlying reality and enormity of the true intentions for this place to the fore.

Susanne Thomas recalls: 'The site was tough emotionally, we had to keep our spirits lifted ... I kept thinking about what it would be like in here after an explosion - the emotional pressure facing those on the inside knowing that your loved ones are unprotected outside. The bunker was as much about keeping people out, the public, as it was about keeping selected people 'safe' inside. The vibes were very strong, the stillness of the concrete structure ... it would be dehumanising to survive down here. These feelings of being half-dead became a motivation for the dance installations. I also related movement in nature, making a link with the on outside world, a cry for natural light.' (4)

In contrast, Nic Sandiland recounts his experiences 'My work is minimal and the space was physically demanding. There isn't a direct logic to my work, it is intuitive ... From my initial site visit the idea of bluebells spurred me to go to the British Library to do some research. Hence finding the poem extract that linked the colour of bluebells to that of a nuclear reaction. This was a wonderful source of imagery for the project and became a thematic link in the work.' (5)

Sssh! The Bunker Project took place on two evenings during the Easter break and provided a thought provoking experience. For those of you that could not make it here is a soupcon... Have you read your Survival Codes?' (6) demands an usher! The queue of slightly apprehensive spectators fumble to open the manila envelope and remove the blue survival instructions 'JOURNEY IN SILENCE... DO NOT BACKTRACK and the final warning, PROTECT & SURVIVE, IF IN DOUBT GET UNDER THE TABLE!'

Two by two ... the visitors embark on their journey through the dimly lit entrance tunnel. Their echoing footsteps unexpectedly trigger a light that diminishes immediately another step is taken. One spectator commented afterwards, 'the simple responsive technology created a connection between the observer and the space ... a very exciting way to begin the journey ...' (7)

Following the white arrows, the audience make their way to the Boiler Room. There is a chill in the air and the space is flooded throughout with blue light; the sounds of birds echo eerily in this deserted, deathly place. A poignant extract of text is projected on one wall describing the incredible beauty of a nuclear reaction comparable to the dazzling colour of bluebells. This imagery provoked the following observation from one member of the audience: 'This was a response that aesthetically, politically and intellectually engaged with the site - bluebells now have a new meaning! (8)

On the top floor in the Government Services Room, lifeless dummies and a single human female in control or out of control, inhabit a typing pool. Her bird-like movements waver between being humourous and pitiful as she scavenges, building a nest under the table to shield her ... PROTECT AND SURVIVE!

'I remember feeling a sense of desolation in this room; there were so many phones and tele-printers operating and a frenetic woman attempting to hold everything together.' (9)

Perhaps 'enjoy' was as not appropriate to describe the spectators' experience of this performance event. The people who came were a cross-section of the public motivated by any number of elements, whether it was the dance, the multi-media the site or the context of the bunker itself. Certainly Sssh! had the power to provoke strong emotional responses and this is what is exciting about commissioning risk-taking new work.

Speaking to Nic Sandiland and Susanne Thomas post production they both felt that they had achieved their aspirations. That is, to create a coherent amalgamation between the installations and the dance, to seamlessly integrate community performers in the work, and to create something multi-layered that is enjoyable, engaging and thought provoking, and ultimately a direct response to the uniqueness of the site.

It was felt that due to such a tight production schedule, collaboration was not achieved in the true sense of the word. However, Nic commented that they had found a way of working that was equally supportive and not artistically in conflict, therefore each artist was able to respect and learn from the other's processes. Susanne added: 'Time was always an issue, and we had short exchanges rather than lengthy discussions with little time for tryouts. Nic is far more intuitive whereas I prefer to question and analyse every idea before making a decision. Nevertheless, the end result worked really well and I suppose my sense of collaboration is about reaching an agreement, which we always did!' (10)

Sssh! was unequivocally a learning curve in the fast lane that has made me feel confident about managing this type of work in the future. Practical considerations of site-specific work have to be assessed early in the planning stages; in particular, issues of insurance and the pursuit of a public entertainment licence can take time - seven months in this particular case!

From an artistic perspective, the role was a creative one, a delicate choreography of inter-personal relationships between the project manager, the site owner, the artists, partners, community and the audience. The job entailed the wearing of many hats, from fundraiser to the practical organisation, from skill of a chief negotiator (at times), down to a friendly face that would attempt to raise morale when the vibes of the bunker had bitten deep! Having an open ear to the experience of the artists in running such an event also contributed to the operational success. Despite a budget that was stretched to full capacity, a courtesy coach from Brentwood Station to the bunker was arranged thereby encouraging the public to attend. Credit card facilities, processed through the goodwill of the site owner, Mr Parrish, made booking tickets quick and simple. It was a major feat to attract local and London based fee-paying audiences to such a desolate location and the fact that we succeeded is credit to the collective efforts of all involved.

The real success factor was the strategic nature of the whole project - that it fulfilled so many of the aims of essexdance and our partners. Would essexdance contemplate another site-specific commission? Most certainly! but in the words of Susanne Thomas: 'Next time make it a beach!' (11)

Project manager's site-specific checklist

Risk assessment
A health and safety risk assessment must be undertaken by the commissioning organisation before the pursuit of the licence

Public entertainment licence from the local council is essential

For artists, volunteers and employees of the organisation
Personal use of car to and from site
Equipment on site and in transit

How accessible is the site in terms of transport?
Disabled access?
Access to rehearsal time on site during public and non-public hours?
Do you charge a ticket fee or make it free access?
Is the nature of the artistic work 'accessible' to both arts and non-arts audiences - who are you targeting?

Working conditions
Basic amenities, - including WCs, refreshments, temperature, condition of floors for dance

Check out power supplies and electrical sockets
Local stores for equipment
Equipment list and potential source
Transporting equipment (van hire)

Project manager
Runner on site

Event management
Mapping a route
Timing the performance
Organising the audience on a timed entry drip system
Sight Lines
Qualified first aid person on site
Box Office facility

Artistic challenges
Each sight is unique
Time for research and development
Remember the 'dress run' is the first night of the performance!

Find an identity for the project
Get message right for target audience
Credit card facility

Keep a firm rein
Contract advance payments with balance on completion
Cash flow for materials

Fleur Derbyshire, Independent Dance Artist, Choreographer and freelance writer/project manager

(previously project manager, essexdance. Email

1. Potter, Mark, Easter Course participant aged I I
2. 0'Nions Kari, director, essexdance
3. Sutton, Emily Easter Course participant aged I5
4. 10. & 11. Thomas, Susanne, choreographer
5. Sandiland Nic, multi -media artist
6. An usher
7. A spectator
8. an audience member
9. McLean-Fox, John, audience member

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001