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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
The realisation of who I am
Animated, Autumn 1998. Vivien Freakley, coordinator and devisor of the pioneering Black Choreographic Initiative talks about the support and development of choreographers at the cutting edge of black British dance - seeking out new identities and forms - locating themselves as artists in the tensions between tradition and innovation, passion and reflection, expressiveness and formal rigour. They celebrate the plurality of black British dance today (1)
Launched in September 1996, The Black Choreographic Initiative (BCI) is a three year project brought about by the pro-active collaboration of three regional arts boards: East Midlands, West Midlands and Yorkshire and Humberside Arts supported by the Gulbenkian Foundation and three National Dance Agencies: DanceXchange, the Yorkshire Dance Centre and Dance 4. Their intention - to create an opportunity for the professional development of eight black British choreographers working in their regions.

The Initiative takes an artist-centred approach, focusing on meeting the individual and collective needs of the participating artists. The process began with a Development Needs Analysis weekend, during which the artists were encouraged to reflect on where they were in terms of artistic and career development - and where they wanted to be. They undertook a self assessment of their skills and expertise and identified goals, out of which were drawn development priorities and a personal development plan. It was these development priorities that determined the structuring of the programme.

There are two strands to the BCI - the first, a shared series of Hothouses or other practical workshops led mainly, but not exclusively, by artists from the Diaspora drawn from New York, Jamaica, Senegal, the Ivory Coast and North Africa (see Box 1); and the second, individual development activities tailored to meet the specific needs of the artists. Thus, a wide range of training and development methods have been employed in the Initiative - including mentoring, observation of others, skill-sharing, seminar-discussion, formal presentations, shadowing, supported solving of choreographic and artistic problems and hothousing.

The artists professional development is taking place within the very specific context of black dance. Participating choreographers have been selected on a regional basis because they are believed to have an important contribution to make to the development of black dance within their locality. No assumptions have been made about what constitutes black dance. The selected choreographers represent very different styles and work with different technical languages including Caribbean, African people's, African contemporary, jazz-influenced street dance and western contemporary dance. Some feel burdened by the responsibility of the label, others are proud to carry it like a banner, a few rejected it totally, some defined it as African people's dance, some did not. At first we asked each other a number of pertinent questions:

  • What is black British dance?

  • How can it be characterised?

  • Should it be characterised?

  • Should there be codification of a technique/s?

  • Does this assist preservation, communication and training?

  • Could it also be a strait jacket?

  • Are there many techniques?

  • Could there be one synthesised technique?

  • Is black dance marginalized because it does not have a codified technique?

  • Can we be clear about the way African dance expresses itself?

  • To what extent is creativity dependent upon stylistic innovation?

  • Should we challenge the values attached to labels as marketing symbols?

And then:

  • Is there a contemporary form of African dance? What does 'contemporary' mean anyway?

  • How does the political context affect dance?

  • What is the relationship between dance and culture?

  • Re-creation or creation?

  • Is innovation a white preserve?

  • Is there such a thing as innovation?

  • Can the 'essence' of a culture be lost or suppressed?

  • Preservation of cultural traditions and identity or innovation?

  • When we attempt to label our dance is this justification or explanation?

  • If you can resolve this issue can you arrive at self-affirmation?

Each artist needed to find personal answers to these questions - as part of the ongoing search for individual artistic identity. Collectively we needed to move from a pragmatic working definition, ie. that black dance is what black dancers do. We reached a consensus on six key issues which enabled us to move forward:

1: Where traditional dances are part of a sense of cultural identity they must be preserved - the essence of them must be preserved - but cultural identity might be tribal and divisive
2: There is an 'African heritage industry' in Africa and in European countries which sees traditional African dances as promoting tourism - this has grown out of a tradition of 'packaging' African people's dance for Europeans - for example, state visits
3: There is a 'white' approach which says you must preserve your heritage and which does not recognise the ability of African people to preserve and change and grow
4: There can be an unwillingness to accept that black people can be as diverse, as innovative and as challenging as white people
5: If you are reconstructing you are not choreographing
6: If your work is honest and truthful the essentials of identity and community are in the dance you make

Therefore, through the BCI, the participating choreographers are each embarking on an individual journey, working towards artistic honesty and clear artistic identity. Each one is seeking to recognise the cultures and communities that have shaped them as individual artists. Some have been to India, Ethiopia and Austria; others have utilised the expertise of respected artists to provide feedback on their working processes; most have spent time in the studio exploring new ways of working.

The individual journeys have been diverse. Patrick Acogny has for example chosen to continue exploring the interaction between South Asian and African forms. He has undertaken research in India and studio exploration in Britain and India with Ranjabathi Sircar which has led to the making of a solo work One and a duet with Sircar: "I had for a long time an interest in South Asian dance. The BCI gave me an opportunity to go to India to learn a little more about the forms. I found that 'Shiva', the Hindu lord of the dance and also of creation and destruction had a special resonance within me - through his physical aspects and his mythology - he seemed so African to my eyes. I am not pretending to be an Indian dancer but I wanted to give a different angle to that god in my dance."

In contrast, Gail Parmel invited Koffi Koko to observe her working with her company in order to gain feedback on her choreographic approach. She is exploring the integration of African and Caribbean influences within western contemporary choreographic structures, finding a synergy which represents her own black British cultural experience.

Community dance practice and building a profile as a community choreographer and teacher were Villmore James' priorities during the Research and Development year and during that period he travelled to Ethiopia to work with street kids in Addis Ababa on a project led by Royston Maldoon. He is currently a freelance community dance worker with the Northern School of Contemporary Dance (NSCD) and feels now that he needs to concentrate on forging more solid partnerships with key providers of work and to establish a sustainable portfolio of projects supported by a coherent business plan and fundraising strategy (which will be overseen by Advisor, Gwen van Spijk).

Sharon Donaldson is also at NSCD, as a full-time Lecturer in Dance. During her research year she has worked on a duet with Stephen Derrick and subsequently with Warren Adams, focusing during the Janice Garrett Hothouse on making this duet more personal, more truthful, "choreographing from the emotion not the technique." She is using the BCI to develop a performance project at NSCD using professional dancers based in the area. Van Spijk will help her to structure and manage the project which she hopes to tour during the Summer of 99.

Donaldson's sentiments perhaps encapsulate the main ethos of the BCI. It has supported - is supporting eight dance artists through periods of artistic and career transition. It puts the artists at the centre of the process and creates a place of safety in which they can take risks and grow. It offers ongoing support over a one, two or three year period, so there is time to buildrelationships and learn to trust. It will finish in August 1999 but the lessons learned from it will be used in other situations for the benefit of more artists. The positive experience that Donaldson describes could then become more widely available: "To create works I've actually tried to find them from the inside so that they are very expressive, very personal. The Initiative has helped me to strengthen my work as an artist, as a choreographer but also other aspects of being an artist like presenting my work, the administrative side, the communication side, the whole scope of being an artist and what it takes to present something that I really believe in. The BCI has really done that for me... it's without judgement, without criticism, without anything that I feel would actually set me back."(2)

Vivien Freakley, M.Phil., Freelance Arts Education and Training Consultant working largely in the area of professional development for artists and arts organisations.

1 Freakley, Vivien, BCI Showcase - Crossing Borders, DanceXchange, Birmingham, 1998.
2 Donaldson, Chantal (Sharon), BCI Video - Work in Progress, Dance 4, Nottingham, 1998.

Box 1 The Shared Programme

A comprehensive series of practical workshops led by artists respected by the BCI participants. Each event has a specific agreed purpose and has been opened to include other choreographers and dancers:

February - Choreographic Craft Week,
Dance 4. Led by Germaine Acogny and Emilyn Claid, it focused on approaches to generating and structuring movement
May - A two-day Workshop, DanceXchange. Led by David Rousseve
October - Hothouse, DanceXchange. Led by L'Antoinette Stines, it integrated Caribbean and western contemporary dance language and choreographic processes
May - Hothouse,
Dance 4. Led by Janice Garrett at the Bonington Gallery itsupported individual choreographic development in which each choreographer came with a specific choreographic problem to work on
August - Workshops (in partnership with the International Workshop Festival and Yorkshire Dance). Led by Germaine Acogny and Abdelaziz Sarrokh, they focused on different approaches to making dance

Box 2 The Black Choreographic Initiative Artists

Patrick Acogny
Artistic Director, Kokuma Dance Theatre
Chantal (Sharon) Donaldson
Lecturer in dance, NSCD
Donald Edwards
Dancer and choreographer, RJC
Leonard Jackson
Community dance choreographer, Derby Dance Development Agency
Villmore James
Freelance community dance worker, NSCD
Kwesi (Carl) Johnson
Artistic Director, Kompani Malakhi
Pam Johnson
Freelance dancer and choreographer, formerly Phoenix Dance Company
Gail Parmell
Artistic Director, African Cultural Exchange

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001