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Animated Edition - Spring 2007
To Glasgow... With Love
Natasha Gilmore, Dance Artist in Residence at Dance House in Glasgow describes an initiative that brought together the dance and dances of refugees and asylum seekers with those of the established residents of Maryhill to produce To Glasgow....With Love
In June 2006 I became artist in residence for Dance House, the national dance agency based in Glasgow through the Partners Scheme (Scottish Arts Council, Lottery) - the purpose of which is: "to increase participation in the arts for people who have had few or no opportunities to take part in the arts. To be delivered through residencies where artists will work in collaboration with members of the local community."

A partnership was developed between Dance House and Maryhill Integration Network (MiN), a community-based organisation, who work to integrate refugee and asylum seekers with the host community and promote understanding between these communities. It was the desire of MiN to have more to offer their members than simply a cup of tea and a chat, they wanted to offer them activities which could offer a sense of purpose and the potentially healing process of personal expression through art forms. Remzije Sherifi who runs the network, herself a refugee from Kosovo, was acutely aware from personal experience how the expressive arts had helped her come to terms with leaving her war torn country to settle into a new life in Glasgow.

We set up a weekly dance session that started with an hour-long class followed by a creative/rehearsal session, open to any of the MiN adults wanting to attend, with the provision of a creche to make this possible. We later added a children's section in the dance so the ages range from two years to 62. The group is made up of 65% refugee and asylum seekers and 35% members of the 'host' community including three professional dancers. There are 23 adults and six children, five male and 24 female. Participants come from 12 different countries spanning North, East and West Africa, the Middle East, Central and Eastern Europe and South America. The music choices for the work reflected this cultural mix using contemporary African, Arabic, Scottish and South American tracks.

We premiered the piece after 14 sessions, but then continued to work on it for a further two months for the next two performances. The children's section was choreographed during half term so that we had longer morning sessions for them and a parent/toddler group. The MiN dance group still meet every week and they are currently creating their own piece for International Women's Day. The sessions now start with the first hour being dedicated to the children, then the adults. I have been invited to create a new piece for the group for Refugee Week at the end of June - this project will start in April. We have also been invited to perform To Glasgow...with love at a festival in the Highlands in June.

The eventual performance expresses their stories of what brought them to Glasgow and what they experienced when they got here; revealing their relationships to Glasgow and looking at ways they and their children are creating new cultural identities. The performance piece created was very personal to the group and each member contributed creatively.

In the first few sessions through a combination of creative tasks and set material we began to lay the foundations of the movement vocabulary for the piece. The more playful physical tasks broke down barriers and the group seemed to bond quickly. There were no major problems with language as there was always someone in the group who could translate for the others who shared a language. The dances that were set by me or created by them placed those who were still struggling with their English on an equal footing with those who had English as a first language.

I didn't set out to make a dance that incorporated a range of 'traditional' dance styles however, inevitably the way each member of the group approached a creative task would be influence by their cultural background - for example I encouraged the members to each devise a solo - their first entrance into the space. To devise these dances I lead the group in a creative exploration that experimented with different body parts leading them through space, becoming the 'active' or 'key' body part, they then chose the body part that they had found most inspiring to be the lead body part in their solo dance, from this 'abstract' instruction I could see different cultural influences coming into the dances that the group created, not only which body part they chose but how they move this body part.

As a group we all attempted to learn some 'highland dancing' to signify their arrival and adaptation to Scottish life. This highly energetic elevated dance style was as alien to many of the group who were much more rooted in their own dance style, this proved to be one of the challenges of the project! At the outset no one in the group knew highland dancing - not even the Scottish members - so it was a chance for us all to learn something new and achieve something together. The feeling that they had at last got to grips with this alien dance form provided a sense of satisfaction and relief for all.

I arranged for a storyteller to lead a workshop for us, to help us tell our stories verbally. These were recorded and used as part of the sound score for the performance helping the audience to gain an understanding of the experiences of refugees and other immigrants to Scotland. It was during this session that I realised there were two distinct groups within the members: some relished the opportunity to talk about their problems as asylum seekers to an attentive audience, whilst others in the group were asking me "When are we going to dance? We come here to forget that we are asylum seekers for a few hours." Both groups were fuelled by a desire to express themselves, whilst some were really keen to reveal the issues facing the refugee community, others were keen to simply reveal themselves as individuals, as dancers, outside their social status as asylum seekers. Somehow the desires of these two distinct groups had to be addressed within the final piece. Ultimately, the compulsion of both groups to express themselves through the dance fuelled the process.

One of the participants was really keen to act in the piece and so we devised a section in which she tells her story verbally of her first impressions of Glasgow while the other dancers respond to the story physically. She reveals how she was placed in an estate that was boarded up for demolition, and goes on the talk about problems she had with locals and how the people from the immigration service were unable to help her until she got her refugee status, she comments that "It was as if we were prisoners in freedom." There was a huge debate amongst the group about the suitability of the content of this story - many of the members felt that it could make them seem ungrateful to a country that had provided a safe home and give the wrong impression of their attitudes. Eventually a compromise was found; she told her story but concluded that since that initial experience she has gone on to have a great relationship with Glasgow and its people. The scene concludes with comments by other members of the group about things they love about Glasgow - "Talking to people on the bus, getting whole life story in four stops", "The museums and parks".

It has been a great experience to work with and befriend the members of the Maryhill Integration Network. However during the process key cast members disappeared having been detained following dawn raids, or were at emergency meetings with lawyers, or women who at the last minute were not permitted by their husbands to perform having been involved from the start with the creation. Just prior to the premier of the piece key cast members, including a seven-year-old girl from Azerbaijan who performs an important solo, were detained following a surprise dawn raid. Everyone was devastated; it's very unsettling for the entire group when members are detained, especially in this manner, as they all have to live in fear of these dawn raids everyday. Then, days before the performance she was thankfully released along with her mother and brother, but her father was held for a further two weeks. Despite all this stress within the family she performed brilliantly.

Our performances together have taken the form of a triple bill, with MiN performing To Glasgow...with love alongside my professional work, an autobiographical solo Madame Bazié and then closing with a finalé performed by the whole cast in which each member, dressed in their traditional dress, came forward in front of the group and 'free styled', as they danced in their own way, the task for the others is to try and copy them. The diversity of the group and their contrasting styles made this quite a challenge, but also great fun. The result was a chance for us to taste the dances of so many different cultures and movement qualities ranging from the Irish Jig to an Iranian belly dance, whist being infected by the youthful leaping energy of the kids and laughter as we all attempt a balance on one hand inspired by a Brazilian Capoeira dancer!

Costumes also affected the dances: a Venezuelan woman wore a full circular skirt that sways and ripples as she moves; and some of the costumes and dances were shared among the group so there was - an Eritrean dressed as a Kosovan, an Irish woman wearing the costume for and performing a belly dance, an Azerbaijani girl dressed in a tutu doing highland dancing. You could see that this joining together of such a diverse group had initiated a cultural exchange.

Natasha Gilmore is Dance Artist in Residence at Dance House the National Dance Agency based in Scotland - visit for more information.

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Animated: Spring 2007