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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Surreptitious segregation
Animated, Autumn 2001. If anyone still thinks that community dance is an outpost of mainstream theatre dance that should remain, subdued, in the Day Centre, Magpie Dance Company can put him or her right. Last June its group of ten learning disabled and three able-bodied dancers brought an evening of work in collaboration with Urban Dance Company to the Bloomsbury Theatre in London. High-profile publicity material, with images courtesy of Chris Nash, promised a serious, groundbreaking venture. But nothing prepared Catherine Hale for the riveting experience that followed. Here she explains
Magpie were as engaging to watch as the Rambert centenary bill I had seen that same week. How could I reconcile the comparison of such apparent opposites?

Magpie's aim is to 'challenge our perceptions of performance ... and create a new aesthetic' that would be judged on an equal scale of merit to mainstream dance. To appraise the 'other' openly and without prejudice makes many people uncomfortable. It means applauding, not out of sympathy, and not for 'trying hard' but as a genuine response to a theatrical experience - an experience that to most people is unknown. The unknown, in itself, is frightening. There is no established voice to dictate how one should respond or feel.

On the other hand, to dismiss the hallmark of technique in appraising dance threatens the foundations of much of the dance world. Why have dance schools? Why spend years on technical accomplishment if people without training or with disabilities that preclude them from achieving 'virtuosity' can do the job just as well? It is more comfortable for many to stay away from companies like Magpie.

I attested to a new aesthetic in Magpie's work. Defining it is more difficult. I can only say I found myself with a lump in my throat during the performance - something I would normally associate with watching, say; Sylvie Guillem, or a Wimbledon final. Apparently, this is not unusual and occasionally people shed tears. Such a response has absolutely nothing to do with feeling sorry for people who are, anyway, obviously having the time of their lives. It has to do with an uncanny and overwhelming stage presence that the dancers have that touches a raw nerve. One is watching performers with no ego-sense; no sense of the professional and social boundaries that separate them from the audience. They delight in the discovery of their bodies' own lyricism with a candour and integrity that is rarely found among professional dancers. At the same time the Magpie dancers are great exhibitionists. They love to be in the spotlight and convey that delirious feeling without shame or restraint. Many times I felt a visceral urge to get up and join in the show.

The Magpies' combination of coyness and boldness, their celebration of the audience's presence makes for a complex and fascinating theatrical experience. The evening also held an interesting choreographic diversity. Magpie's latest work, Magic Glass was devised in collaboration with Samantha Lane and Deme Hapeshis of Urban Dance. A fluid and dynamic piece that draws out the company's skills and enjoyment to the full, it shows a remarkable progression from the company's earlier work. Whilst the work results from collective inspiration, their sensitive direction and staging makes poetry out of different body shapes and postures and idiosyncratic movement traits.

But quite apart from my own enthusiastic endorsement, there are strong historical reasons for embracing 'community' dance within the mainstream tradition. Think back to the great 1960s experiment in naturalism, a tradition that still underpins the dance world today. The paring down of decorum, the emphasis on pedestrian movement, the celebration of the sheer physicality of movement and the democratisation of the kind of bodies and persons who were allowed to dance. Companies such as Magpie continue to push forward this radical, innovative agenda that a new generation of dancemakers may take for granted or forget. They are vital to a dance world that wants to continue exploring and questioning aesthetic assumptions.

Is assimilation the next step forward for Magpie? Avril Human, its founder and artistic director, believes that a world where learning-disabled dancers would be thoroughly integrated into mainstream dance companies is not a necessary or even desirable outcome. 'The company has such a strong culture, with such strong identities it is vital for that to be nurtured and valued.'

Magpie's premiere of Magic Glass at the Bloomsbury was realised in partnership with Greenwich Dance Agency. The project proposal was to allow people with learning disabilities to work with another established company, Urban Dance, towards performance in a London venue. It also included education outreach work in mainstream as well as special needs primary schools in Greenwich.

However, Magpie's achievement predates this project. It owes a great deal to the strong identity of the company through its slow and solid gestation period. Artistic director, Avril Hitman, laid its foundations 15 years ago with a recreational class in the dining room of the Astley Centre in Bromley. 'It didn't start out with the idea of performing', she recalls, 'just an opportunity for people to be creative through dance. We did low key performances for friends and family and it became apparent that there was a lot more potential there, if you gave people the time and space and feeling of support, and the confidence that they can do it.' Magpie's first professional residency was in 1992 and in 1994 it achieved independent financial status as a company.

Half of the company are original members from 15 years ago. This is a testament to the importance of forging relationships of mutual trust and respect, something Avril has always believed in. 'They have been able, over time, to build up the most amazing skills and group dynamics, working with different choreographers in various styles and types of music.' Linda McCarthy is a case in point. As one of the original members, she was very shy at first, 'unwilling to hold hands with anybody she would only look at the floor.' Linda is now the consummate choreographer of The Three A's for Magpie's three able-bodied dancers. Her progress in confidence and ability is immeasurable.

The other factor in Magpie's success is its commitment to exploring and pushing forward its working methods. Collaborating with other professional and semi-professional dance companies has taught Avril and the company that 'you need to start from a place that people can understand and relate to. The work has to be movement oriented and the impetus has to come from within the body, from movements that people are doing spontaneously. The more abstract or intellectual the starting point, the more difficult it is for the dancers to engage.' The best choreographic material originates from a pre-cognitive, kinaesthetic experience. According to Avril this makes the work surprisingly easy for the dancers to commit to memory.

Deme and Samantha from Urban Dance were inspired by their street theatre work to find choreographic ideas that were vividly and easily embodied by the Magpie dancers. Urban Dance has performed in street theatre festivals across the country over the past two years, incorporating gesture, mime and aerial work into its contemporary dance practice. They have gained a deep insight into a perennially vibrant artform that thrives on the spontaneity and accessibility of its movement language. From it they derived tasks like juggling with imaginary balls and balancing on one another, that tapped into the dancers' kinetic creativity and imagination. But, says Samantha: 'We never mentioned the word "circus" because that makes people imitate a stereotype rather than using their own movement creativity' And any reference to circus-based work was pared down in the final choreography to emphasise the pure physicality of the movement.

Other exercises, like the 'assault courses', were designed to draw out the company's skills of co-operation and mutual help. The dancers had to find different ways of moving over and under one another and spinning together. This produced stronger partner work with the disabled dancers partnering one another as well as the able-bodied dancers.

Samantha learned from Magpie that the group you're working with is just as important as the work you do. You can't go in with a set of ideas that is not related to the group itself', she continues. 'I had been to Magpie's community class before and knew their characters and the way they moved. If I were ever commissioned for a project like this again I would definitely go and get involved in what the group is doing and how they work first ...

'You have to look at the group you're with and work to bring out their strengths rather than things that emphasise their disability,' comments Deme. 'The company were excellent to work with because they're so giving and so open.' With this empowerment, the dancers gained enormously in confidence and in new skills. Samantha noticed a presence emerge during the project: 'A sense that "this is who we are!... 'Travelling, using space and especially jumping were major developments', adds Deme. 'We were amazed when we discovered that people could really leave the floor.' Jumping is often problematic for people with learning disabilities. This may be due to a lack of muscle tone and co-ordination, but often people have simply never been encouraged to try.

When workshops are building towards a performance, rather than being an end in themselves, Avril told me, there is a fine balance between fun and spontaneity and consolidation of existing work. 'You have to keep the work alive, keep a momentum going, not do the same thing over and, over again. You want to get it right but you have to keep grabbing people's attention, otherwise they've had enough and they switch off. It's a case of finding a working method that suits everyone and not trying to fit square pegs into round holes.'

'Rehearsing was hard work but it was OK', says Hugh, one of Magpie's dancers. On the other hand, he says: 'Performing makes me feel great.' One of the rewards of building towards a high-profile performance has been to enhance the dancers' understanding of the process. 'They know now that in order to do a performance you have rehearse to get things right. The company's commitment is 200 per cent and their desire to go on and perform again is very strong', remarks Avril.

David also expressed the euphoria most of the company felt about being onstage: 'I liked the lights shining down on me. I liked being on my own on the stage ... I liked my special shoes... I liked my mum and sister and nan watching.' Linda adds: 'I liked the clapping and cheering and I'd like to do the whole show from the beginning in the same place.'

One thing I learned from Magpie that there is no clear division, as some scholars maintain, between dance as participatory activity for all, and dance as a theatrical performance or 'high art'. The desire to perform in front of an audience has gelled the company together right from its humble beginnings. It has been the basis on which people participated in the first place. Nobody should be allowed to take that desire away. No one should have the right to decide which dance is worthy, of an audience and which dance should remain behind closed doors. Labelling dance as 'in the community' can be a surreptitious form of segregation.

Catherine Hale, independent dance writer. Email

Avril Hitman can be reached at

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001