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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
That vision thing
Animated, Winter 1998. Chris Thomson ponders the importance of re-interpreting and re-articulating our 'institutional' visions - the navigation systems which redefine our arts practice in schools and perpetuate conditions in which creativity can flourish
I have been thinking about vision lately. It may be some kind of millennium bug, though I thought I had inoculated myself against all things millenarian. I don't feel I am very good at what George Bush famously called 'the vision thing' - I am by nature to sceptical and practical (and maybe too pessimistic) to be an effective visionary. But I also know that in any activity we need a common goal if we are to act in concert, and we need idealistic aims if we are to see our daily activities as meaningful in some longer-term way. One of the things I most admired about Peter Brinson - and most miss since his death - was his ability to galvanise an audience with a simple and persuasive vision. Peter was as aware as anyone of the realities of life and the needs of realpolitik in a society in which dance is marginalised, but he was genuinely idealistic and movingly eloquent.

Mission statements - the institutional version of vision - are not always so inspiring. By their nature they have to command broad agreement and be 'enabling' statements for the organisation. However, this can mean that they are so general as to be almost vacuous - at least if encountered out of context. Usually it is the process of formulating a mission statement which is most important for the group involved - it is here that common meanings are established, and that a simple form of words comes to stand for a deeply felt common purpose. But it is not a once and for all thing: articulating a vision in this way doesn't put an end to the need to talk about what we do and why we do it. Visions need to be re-articulated, re-interpreted, renewed. And through this reflection we re-establish our community with others: the things we have in common, the goals we are all striving for in different ways.

Looking to the future in this way doesn't mean ignoring the past, however. Our society is so wedded to innovation (or its shallower cousin novelty) that we can carelessly write off the past as old-fashioned or out of date. But our vision of the future is based on what we want to change about the present, and the present is the consequence of what has already happened. We need a sense of history, and a relationship with tradition, in order to envisage the future. So we all look two ways, forwards and backwards, reflecting on our prac-tice and adjusting our vision accordingly.

At least that's the theory. In practice, we have to be aware of so much that is going on in a fast-changing world that we may lose sight of the future, and be unable to communicate any clear vision to others. Since in education work I find that I must be visionary in order to motivate others to sign up to my project, or to fund it, or whatever, this occasional 'loss of vision' is a disability to be taken seriously.

Sometimes outside events lend a hand. A few weeks ago I received a letter from a participant in a youth dance project. Jamie had been a member of the group which worked with Saburo Teshigawara on a year-long project jointly run by us at The Place and by LIFT (the London International Festival of Theatre). As I opened the letter, a piece of folded paper fluttered out. It was a piece of sky-blue paper, quite blank. Jamie's letter was very moving - and funny. He talked about what he had learned from the project - about how it had changed his life. Jamie quoted Saburo:

"I can only dance now...
towards a time which has not yet arrived.
Dancing gives birth to time,
and in it is the reality of living."

And he ended: "To me there is little difference between the whiteness of pure spirituality and the colourful philosophy of KARAS (Saburo's company). In that you should see yourself with acceptance and then move forward with the realisation that you are free to embrace all opportunities which come your way. So, back to improvisation to face myself. Here I am, a blank piece of paper, ready to be folded or drawn upon

Jamie's letter reminded me - and sometimes of course it's a performance in a school or a moment in a youth dance rehearsal that does it - of why I do what I do. More than that, he said something profound about education and about the learning that can take place through dance. Jamie remarked on how 'ego-less' the project had been; how everyone - teachers, artists, dancers, managers, technicians - had managed to work together in partnership.

Now I should be saying that we were able to do this because we had a shared vision: that we were working 'towards a common goal', but in fact this was a project in which the 'process' was allowed to unfold, and the vision was not so much a clear picture of where we would end up, or of what the outcomes would be, as a vision of partnership, of the conditions in which creativity would flourish. We didn't actually know where we were going, except that the project would culminate in a performance.

The problem with 'process-based' work in education is that if its aims are not clear, the structure and management of the project can be unfocused, You need to be very clear about being vague! More helpfully, I mean that clarity about certain things can allow artists and teachers to let other things evolve, without a clear idea of the final objective. Our project with Teshigawara was based on a rigorous schedule and very careful planning of all the practical details.

On reflection, the project taught me that vision could be conceived of in a different way: as shared values and a partnership based on trust. We were able to let our vision of the project evolve gradually because we had:

  • A shared commitment to learning

  • Clarity about the role of each person in the team

  • Trust in each other and in Saburo's artistic leadership

  • A process that involved openness and constant reflection, as structural elements of the project.

I suppose you could call it a 'value-based' vision, where you don't know quite what your destination will look like when you get there, but as a group you have a navigation system that you can trust implicitly.

This is a sophisticated model and I think that we were lucky that the structure and timescale of this project allowed it. In the context of relatively short-term projects such as school-based residencies I would be cautious and say that it is dangerous ever to assume agreement or mutual understanding. One must be very clear about shared aims and formulate these as painstakingly as any mission statement. And the rest is vital too: be clear about roles, ensure that adequate and regular time is built in for whole-team reflection and planning, and know that you can trust one another.

To achieve this one must check for 'culture-clash' between the world of school and that of professional dance. Time has to be built in to the project planning stage for misconceptions, prejudices and fears to be identified and addressed. Shared training for artists and teachers can help, preferably with informal work-shop episodes in which artists and teachers have to work together on a shared task. But even simple exercises - like describing your working day, what you like and dislike about your work, the highs and lows of the past week - can help bridge the cultural gap and start to establish the trust on which successful projects are founded.

Key elements then in my vision of the wider dance/education picture are partnership and trust. These can only flourish where there is agreement (a shared vision) between artists and educators - I suppose about the kind of world we want to create. Articulating that vision needs time to talk together with teachers and that, in my experience, can be hard to find. Teachers are often overwhelmed by the demands of the National Curriculum and its attendant paperwork, and by the latest directive from the Department for Education and Employment. However, we have to have that dialogue, and I will have to continue trying to articulate my reasons for wanting the arts in the school curriculum and in continuing education at every level. I believe that engagement in the arts nourishes and develops our humanity; that the arts are a large part of what makes life worth living, and that dance in particular should be included in the education experience of young people both for its intrinsic value and for the ways in which it informs and enriches many other curriculum subjects. A utilitarian view of the curriculum impoverishes and de-humanises young people and their teachers. A school without active involvement in the arts is, in my view, less vibrant, less happy and less self-confident than one which has such involvement.

Earlier today a secondary school dance teacher mentioned to me how surprised a male physical education colleague had been to discover - having been dragooned by her into a workshop - that dance develops your spatial awareness and peripheral vision. "Why aren't we including this in team training?" She and I said in unison, "But we know this!" Just as we know that, quite apart from subject-specific knowledge, skills and understanding, dance develops team-working skills, enhances language and communication skills, works for the whole ability range, builds self-confidence

Enough. I have to go. I have a vision to sell.

Chris Thomson, Director, Education and Community Programmes, The Place. Contact +44 (0)20 7388 8956.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001