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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Sustainable dance
Animated, Autumn 2001. 'A living theatre of plants and people' (1) Antony Waller talks about the Dancemakers initiative at the Eden Project, Cornwall's eighth wonder of the world
So, there I was, rapidly losing weight in the humid tropic biome at the Eden Project, layers of clothing wrapped round my waist, feeling a little like a botanical version of a cricket umpire and having just discovered why that little butterfly plant I have been cultivating for years in the porch always looks so sick and tired of life. I get attacked by a barmy woman (Catherine Lee) in fingerless gloves with a bad hat and a tape measure who seems intent on measuring every leaf in the place. And if you have ever been in a biome at Eden, you will know that is quite a challenge. It all made sense later. AttikDance produced drunken cooks with machetes, surly waiters with attitude and beautiful diners with relationship issues. And lashings of fruit, veg and slightly hard bread thrown around at every available opportunity.

I feel I must explain. This is what may happen if you introduce a dance company to a very large and visionary message-driven visitor attraction. AttikDance's project, Stuff That took its themes from consumerism, waste, greed, avarice, jealousy and food fights. And I am happy to report that thousands of unsuspecting visitors had a jolly good time.

The root of this project lies in a conversation between Dance Agency Cornwall (DAC) and a handful of Cornwall dance artists in 1997 in a shed (also known as St Austell Arts Centre). The dance artists were asked to make a list of in-coming professionals with whom they wanted to work. Gill Clarke was top of the list and this led us to a three-week residency led by Gill with ten dancers in Tate Gallery St Ives, part of St Ives International's As Dark As Light project to celebrate the Solar Eclipse. This very - successful-and-perfectly-formed project eventually led us to the inevitable question - what next? At which point we showed Gill the view of 'the pit', the major building site which Eden Project was at that point.

In August 2000 we undertook a Research and Development (R&D) dance project in and around the visitor centre at Eden and found out lots of useful things about visitors. They get bad tempered when it rains. They do not do arty, but you can sneak arty in under the wire. Some aspects of performance had the capacity to mesmerise the viewer, almost in spite of themselves whilst other instances had the potential to rouse the viewer to startling fury. And one could never quite predict which sort of work would elicit which reaction. It was always a matter of context and relationship between site and intent, seasoned with the instincts of the performer. Subtle stuff.

The R&D process made it possible for us to create a fine-tuned set of guidelines to accompany invitations to dance artists to tender for the next project at Eden. Entitled Dancemakers, and backed by a Regional Arts Lottery Programme grant, dance artists across the South West region were invited to tender for a £6,000 and a £2,000 award. This was a delicate moment, because we had a responsibility to the artists to ensure that they were aware of the many and various parameters of the project, whilst at the same time not wishing to be over prescriptive about the art. Our main issue was to stimulate the creation of some great dance that would both inspire the company in the making and the audience in the performing, and carry an audible message for the host (ie. Eden) in the process.

We (of course) have a sub agenda here. One of the key issues for dance artists in the South West region is how to sustain yourself from dance when living in such isolated conditions compared to a city. Part of the answer lies in those organisations and sites that are specific to the region. For example, you cannot throw a brick round here without hitting a garden visitor attraction (and if you do they complain about the risk to glasshouses). So there is something to be said for designing dance performance for public gardens, most of whom run summer performance programmes. It is no accident that DAC's most pro-active partners are the National Trust, English Heritage and Eden Project. Dance in gardens, however comes with its own problems. The weather. Trampling the plants. Dance floors. Power. Seating. Lighting - oops, shall we bother? Or shall we simply turn the problem on its head and devise a type of dance performance event that works more easily in such surroundings?

AtticDance managed this at the Eden Project. Not without their fair share of problems of course, but we would not enjoy such an immense sense of achievement if it were all too easy, would we? Overall, it is a big learning curve, but there is a sustainable future in it (thank you, Eden), but exploiting that potential calls for a particular animal - the dancer entrepreneur. Much was heard of this new animal during the Catalytic Conversions seminars last year at the Royal Opera House.

Anyway, we are off to do a dance treasure hunt in the villages of North Cornwall as the next part of Dancemakers. We will keep you posted. If we do not get lost, that is. (Note to self: buy a map)

Antony Waller, director, Dance Agency Cornwall. Contact +44 (0)1872 222622. Email antony.waller@danceagencycornwall.com

Reference
1. Eden Project 2000

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001