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Animated Edition - Summer 2006
The elements and 4,000 feet
The Big Dance initiative of London Mayor's Office, Arts Council England and the BBC the takes place across the country from 15 - 23 July 2005. Jo Blagg, Education and Outreach Manager for Stoke on Trent Theatres, describes an initiative that has already brought thousands of people together to dance
Each New Year sees The Regent Theatre's stage in Stoke on Trent teeming with dance of every possible description performed by a multitude of children and young people. This is the highlight of the local youth dance calendar which impacts beyond our city and county through Cheshire and Derbyshire, and embraces elements of the dance curriculum from primary to special schools, to Specialist Arts and Sports Colleges, to further and higher education. The show also features commercial dance schools and community groups. Seasoned readers may well be tightening their grip on the page, as eyebrow muscles pull together in anticipation of chaos, but this is not so.

The notion of an epic youth dance festival flexed it's heel in 2001. Through the work of the theatre's Education and Outreach Department's work we had pursued a contemporary dance focus with young people, in part through the programming of shows by Richard Alston, Tricia Brown, Mark Morris and Matthew Bourne's Adventures in Motion Pictures, as well as the more recently established and male orientated companies such as Gumboots, STOMP and Tap Dogs. North Staffordshire has always had a strong infrastructure of excellent commercial dance schools with extensive registers of children taking part in small scale shows and examinations, whilst mainstream education had established GCSE Dance in a small but growing number of schools. Our inaugural show, 02 Dance, included over 30 youth dance companies from every sector and to achieve this we literally ploughed through the Yellow Pages and invited in every commercial company, liaised with Staffordshire Performing Arts and the City Council to identify high schools providing dance, and explored cultural networks to link up with community dance groups.

Each group is offered two ten-minute performance windows for up to 25 dancers, with six months to prepare. In return the venue provided a 45 minute dress rehearsal with a lighting designer and full professional technical support, dressing rooms, show programme, posters and fliers, and administrative responsibility for all child protection dealings with the Local Authority. Significant attention had to be focused on audience development for this new show and working closely with colleagues from the theatre’s marketing department we developed a policy for reasonably priced tickets. The vast auditorium has 1,600 well positioned seats filling both stalls and circle. New, young performers need a stage with a positive atmosphere, generated by a hungry, healthy audience and significant efforts are directed towards achieving this goal.

02 Dance was a success beyond our imagination. The final product - with strong, creative lighting, fine sound systems and ticking away like clockwork - was a tremendous experience for performers, their families and friends and for everybody involved from the theatre. The overwhelming memory is one of inspiring choreography, colour and cohesion and an impressive spectrum of musical genres. Tremendous effort was evident throughout the work and moments of profound sensitivity were seen backstage: one young female dancer was found in the wings, covering her face with her hands, sobbing. Upon being asked what the matter was, she simply replied 'I can't believe I'm doing this'.

Richard Alston has personally opened our festival for a number of years, following a performance of work by his dance company. Every participant has access to a discounted ticket to encourage them to see world class artists. Through a partnership with the national dance agency for the West Midlands, DanceXchange and Hayley Rose, our DAiR To... dance artist (an outreach initiative of DanceXchange National Dance Agency, Birmingham), we have dedicated one evening to the extensive work Hayley has nurtured here since the DAiR pilot in 2003 and she has provided invaluable specialist support to our production team.

The event has grown in quality and capacity and we are five years' better versed in large-scale event skills. Our programming strategy - which can be best described as 'maternal' as we consider equations such as performance time multiplied by youngness of child and distance to travel from show to bed - has brought unexpected dividends. With a different show each evening, over nine nights, the eclectic mix of groups appearing generally features more mature and experience dance students from higher or further education which allows younger participants to extend their awareness of what their futures might embrace and where to go to do this. Manchester Metropolitan University certainly view their involvement as a two pronged exercise - to promote their degree courses and to provide their dance undergraduates with an opportunity to bring new contemporary pieces, which are artistically strong, to new audiences.

Post-event feedback and evaluation informs our plans for the next production and we recently moved into areas of visual sophistication, flying several large projection screens above the vast expanse of stage, enhanced by steel scaffolds stage right and left. The theme for 06 was The Elements, which generated powerful work describing, amongst other subjects, the devastation of the Tsunami, concern for our environment, creatures and habitats as well as more familiar interpretations such as Singin' in the Rain. Since 2005 groups have become more reflective of our community and include a company of non-disabled and disabled dancers, as well as a special school with Performing Arts Status. Regular appearances are made by a group loosely defined as 'youth' in terms of open minds and energy, although not by date of birth - Hayley Rose's Fit For Living Dance Company for over 55s!

The show is reviewed by our local paper The Sentinel and 06 Dance generated the bold headline, Dance Unites the City. As well as uniting the city, it also unites much much more. Within the venue, we become motivated and have a heightened sense of worth as the event signals strong interaction with the local, young community. It's important that we know that the young performers are having the best time they could possibly have and learning as much about professional life both on and backstage in an A1 touring venue. It is a potentially addictive experience, creeping into our mindsets 24/7 with a brief lull in February as we come down off the ceiling. The crew and education teams have a ritual which is religiously observed each June and is fondly referred to this year as The 06 Curry, when we regroup over lager and the country's favourite dish and with loosened tongues we replay, not without exaggeration, unique moments which trigger a dozen more memories ... on and on ... and all those feet!

Jo Blagg is Education & Outreach Manager and Manager for Stoke-on-Trent Theatres - The Regent Theatre & Victoria Hall. Contact 01782 211 207 or visit www.regenttheatre.co.uk or www.victoria-hall.info for more information.

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Animated: Summer 2006