The UK development organisation and membership
body for community and participatory dance
Animated Edition - Summer 2005
Their worlds
Newcastle-based Amanda Drago charts her first foray into blending new technology and dance for children
This is the story of how an Emmy Award-winning composer (Kit Haigh), a Bafta-nominated digital artist (Bruno Martelli) and a PHD research fellow (Alex Woolner) and me find ourselves sitting in a nursery school in Middlesbrough, avoiding the MRSA virus by lathering our hands with this alcohol wipe stuff that's stationed at every bend and talking about RAM, mac over PC compatibility and the merits of both, patches, leads and cables, five-in-one surround sound against audio interface and video tracking.

That Middlesbrough is mostly known for a skyline dominated by a grid of chemical pipes, flame outlets and cooling towers from ICI Billingham & Wilton (inspiring the art direction for Ridley Scott's film Blade Runner, no doubt) says a lot about the town's cultural output. Harsh, you may think, but it's no news to anyone from the region to say that cultural providers living in the Tees Valley area, while not extinct, are a rare breed. Regularly-funded organisations and local arts development agencies in the region are being very creative, coming up with new initiatives to enable the kind of grassroots work that is essential for cultural growth to actually happen. Providing people with a cultural palette within which they can learn to choose shades is so important. After all, how do you have an opinion without an experience?

That's where I enter the story. In 2001 I was working as dancer for the Middlesbrough-based teesdanceinitiative (now Tees Valley Dance). The company was an initiative set up by David Massingham in his role as project manager at Dance City, the national dance agency for the northern region. tdi had this unbelievably awkward strap line which kind of stumbled out of your mouth. It rambled on about resources and partnerships while delivering dance projects to young people in Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and Darlington.

One such project was at the Cleveland Assessment Unit, then based at Middlesbrough General Hospital. The Unit is a nursery which provides assessment and early intervention for children with multiple and profound learning difficulties in Middlesbrough. As the only one of three dancers with any experience in working with under-fives and adults with learning and physical disabilities, I got nominated to be lead artist. It was during this short and unsuccessful scheme of work that I learned about the Unit's move to a new home at the James Cook University Hospital, Middlesbrough. Coinciding with this expansion and subsequent transfer of some key services, the NHS trust had set up The Healing Arts Programme. Its aim was to create a positive environment within the hospital for staff, patients and visitors by placing art work in the hospitals. Key departments had been identified by the powers above as to who was going to get commissioned artwork for their ward. One of the lucky recipients was to be the Unit.

Unit head Kate Morris invited me to lead on something, as I had already established a successful relationship with the children, parents and teachers. It's not often you get an open-book commission like this, and I was stumped with what to do. Most of the time dance is so transitory. One blink and it's gone. It felt like I should be leaving something behind for others to enjoy. But how do you make dance permanent for others to experience while also creating something for little people, some of whom are unaware of themselves?

The year before I had choreographed the Newcastle Mc Donald's Our Town Story. The concept was a loose attempt to involve the rest of the country in the governments 'new century' celebrations that centred on the Millennium Dome. The project encouraged towns and cites to involve their citizens in 'the creative arts' by giving them a tented stage for a day to present their story. Packing in a dress rehearsal and three performances left very little time to see anything else. However, with the 23 minutes I had left at the end of the day I dashed round desperate to find something to inspire me. What caught my imagination and stuck with me was an interactive display. The flow of people, and the dome assistants with their five-star badges and degrees in crowd management, allowed me only a fleeting glance. What I did remember was a round flat table with a starfish projected onto it. The creature was a little shy, staying in a curled ball. It only came out to play if you moved slowly towards it. Any quick aggressive movements and as quick as you could say 'Nemo' the little fellow retreated. Perfect! It flummoxed every ten year-old chav going. Because it was virtual it was also indestructible, so no buttons, levers or switches to ply off. Best of all, you had to be nice to it before it would play. I was fascinated by how quickly these young people changed their behaviour and natural movement response to get their reward. Could this be the starting point for the commission?

My brief at the Unit was to build a piece of artwork that would engage children under five with profound and multiple learning difficulties, and was accessible by members of the general public. Did I mention that it also had to draw on James Cook and his travels somewhere along the line? (As the Unit was moving to the James Cook University Hospital, all the commissions were required to have this same theme.) With all of that in the back of my head, it gradually became clear that what I wanted to create was some kind of sensory movement installation that, through visual and audible rewards, would encourage children to move in a specific way or change learned movement patterns.

Now I am quite confident with technology, but at that time I certainly didn't know anything about programming and interactive software myself. Nor did I know of any artists doing this kind of thing who were also interested in working with dancers or choreographers. Fortunately I knew someone who did.

Jennifer McLachlan, dance officer at Arts Council London responsible for dance and video/digital media, was, in a previous life, a dancer at teesdanceinitiative. I knew she'd be happy to point me in the right direction. After picking her brain she put me in the path of Bruno Martelli, one half of the multi-media outfit Igloo. Although he had no experience of working directly with children, his background was in graphic design, he'd been collaborating with choreographer Ruth Gibson (Igloo's other half) for a number of years andwas quite happy to sit on a very little chair during the interview. It was the latter that clinched it for him. As we were going to be working blind on a client-led commission, we needed to make sure that what we'd concoct was going to be suitable and used and enjoyed by the Unit. The obvious first step in the creation process was to build in workshop and development time with the Unit's children, nurses and teachers and health professionals from the hospital.

Initially I delivered movement sessions exploring key themes with the children using light and colour as initial stimuli. After observing their responses, Bruno began to develop individual patches within Isadora, a software programme designed to allow interactive, real-time manipulation of digital media including pre-recorded video, live video and sound. Technophobes, take heed: patches is the terminology we used to refer to the various Isadora modules, each of which performs a specific function - sound, live video, pre-reocrded video and so on. The patches are linked via an easy-to-use interface and this, primarily, is the installation.

Initially, too, there wasn't going to be any music. During the process, however, it became clear that the installation needed to have sounds and that these could be manipulated. Having worked with Kit on a number of other projects, I know first-hand that he's very good at hitting the right musical spot. The installation has different worlds to explore, with a variety of patches within each world. The sounds Kit created brought it to life, and lent each of its worlds their own distinct feel.

In truth, most of the ideas we tried at first were too sophisticated. Because some of the patches did too much, the children would be over-stimulated and switch off. At other times we weren't being clear about what we wanted the patches to do. These were invaluably swift lessons in getting to the point. To any choreographers reading this, I'd recommend that you go through this process as it really helps you to be specific and edit fast. These children are not as generous as most contemporary dance audiences. They hold no prisoners, and will certainly let you know when they are bored or when there is way too much going on.

Through the workshop period it was clear that children with specific disabilities were enjoying and interested in specific triggers. But the key to the whole project was Jenny Kitchen. As the classroom teacher, she was able to bridge the gap between the children and the artists. Her ability to translate a small gesture as a sign of approval or displeasure was key. Jenny was also the teacher responsible for IT and thus wasn't afraid of it. She quickly understood how the technology worked and the possibilities it opened up for her children. She could see when a patch wasn't quite working and pinpoint where changes needed to be made. After some tweaking by Bruno and trying things out in our sessions, we eventually got there. The installation's title, by the way, became The World Their World.

So what happened next? During the life of the project I left tdi and joined Dance City, the national dance agency for the northern region, as dance development co-ordinator. Its director, Janet Archer, allowed me to take the project with me to the job and supported me during its creation. Its potential was only revealed after the launch. Interest in it has been huge. Teachers regard the installation as a creative learning tool to be used as a resource to help deliver the national curriculum. Parents enjoy it as a place to playfully interact with their kids. The opthalmic team use it as means to test the range in vision of patients in the ward.

The desk at Dance City, as I discovered, didn't suit me. I left the organisation, but not the building. Janet has given me office space for my new company, Falling Cat. Responding to demand, Bruno, Kit and I are in the process of creating Closer!, a sensory movement installation for children with and without disabilities. We're working with media artist Alex Woolner, who is currently researching his PHD in creating interactive spaces for children with autistic spectrum disorders at Coventry University.

Closer! is being made in partnership with the Cleveland Assessment Unit, utilising the expertise of Jenny Kitchen and with support from the head, Kate Morris, and all the staff and health professionals at the Unit and Hospital. It will have its first outing during York City Council's Dance Week. It's been developed with financial support from UnLtd, Creative Partnerships' Creative Action Research Awards (CARA), Dance City, Creative Partnerships Durham Sunderland and York Early Years Partnerships, with a particular leg-up from Michelle Silby, dance consultant at York City Council. The creative team, in residence in York throughout June 2005, will deliver a series of Closer!-related workshops for York Early Years Partnerships. We've also received a commission to install Closer! at Columbia Grange Special School for children with autistic spectrum disorders.

Amanda Drago and Falling Cat can be reached at amandadrago@blueyonder.co.uk or 0191 261 2772.

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Animated: Summer 2005