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Animated Edition - Spring 2003
Trusting and investing in our artists
Sue Way, dance officer at the Arts Council Englands South West office, tells us the story so far and reveals the connections in the region that make this possible
Fifteen years ago, whilst I was working for the then Exeter and Devon Arts Centre (now The Phoenix Arts Centre) I initiated a huge dance programme of activity which included working with Val Bourne and Fiona Dick on a Dance Umbrella season here in Exeter. As part of my vision to bring quality dance to schools and communities, I created and directed 'JUMPLEADS' Dance Company... we had funding for one year from the Manpower Services Commission but investing in artists so early in their careers was unheard of at the time here in the South West.

We were all young, new and unknown dance artists to the region, Oona Beeson had come from the Royal Ballet, I had an MA in choreography having been a student on the Laban Centre's first choreography course with Dorothy Madden and Bonnie Bird. Ruth Way trained at The Place, had been a dancer with Dublin Contemporary Dance Company and was hot from a year of dance studies in New York. Helen McPhee and Heather Dixie were young, talented dancers with wonderful versatility and openness to new ways of working that made them exciting to work with. The work we made in our one incredible year of being a company was young... magical in parts, prolific and sometimes laboured and dull... we were just starting out and due to lack of investment in us as artists at that stage of our careers, we have all struggled to retain our integrity as artists, here in the South West.

Like so many others, none of us are working full time as dance artists, we have gained employment by taking dance related jobs, mostly teaching, because we want to be able to live 'normal' lives with our families, be able to pay our mortgages and bills, and stay in the South West. All of us have had to compromise the artist in ourselves to some extent, but because we are artists we have found resourceful ways to stay contributing to dance development in the region.

Eighteen months ago I joined the Performing Arts team at South West Arts, amidst the huge and radical re-structure of the Arts Council. What became evident to me as I travelled the region, meeting and speaking to our six dance agency directors, dance artists, companies, festival directors, promoters and local authority arts officers is just how abundant and rich the dance activity is in much of the region, and how much commitment there is to the creative development of professional artists.

All of the region's County dance agencies run dance leaders training courses and set up opportunities for artists to work together and share work as well as commissioning new work. Here are just some of these resources and activities in the region during last year.

Goat Island Summer School and Symposium led by the Chicago based collaborative performance group has taken place over the last three years in Bristol to encourage participants in developing a deeper interest and understanding of the richness of collaborative cross artform work with a view to exploring new ways of working.

Shattering Fact, a new partnership between Dance Services and South West Screen is an initiative aimed at developing collaboration between dance and filmmakers in the South West. Under the scheme's umbrella are research and development awards, two short film commissions, master classes given by acclaimed dance filmmakers and screenings of world-class dance films.

Through the Dance Services' Process and Practise scheme, five research and development awards were awarded to Angus Balbernie, Charlotte Hacker, Catherine Lee, Jane Mason and Angela Praed. Taking emphasis away from performance and towards process, each artist has devised his or her own programme of research and development.

Catherine Lee received a Year of the Artist travel bursary to work in New York with Trisha Brown Company and Wil Swanson (ex-Brown dancer). Catherine has been a main mover in the 'IF' Group, a forum and networking service for independent dancers in the South West.

Dorset Dance Forum offer regular master classes for dancers and last year ran 53 classes and training opportunities for dance teachers and artists.

Bristol Area Dance Agency run a regular Dancers Forum, where dancers show work in an intimate, supportive setting and currently manage a professional development programme entitled 'Body Knowledge' which supports artists through subsidised rehearsal space, a residency programme new commissions and weekly professional class.

Dance Agency Cornwall and Gloucestershire Dance make it their business to commission new work and choreographers to look out for are: Pietro Cardillo, Victoria Fox and David Greeves of Hybrid who have been inspired to work with local dancers to make new work.

Annet Richards Binns, Co-ordinator of the EDOBO programme of African Caribbean Dance for Gloucestershire Dance was awarded an ACE fellowship to study at the Edna Manley College of Visual and performing Arts in Jamaica. She has returned to Gloucester renewed and ready for a new era of creativity.

In Devon, Andi Higginson has set up an accredited training course for people with disabilities and continues to create new work with his integrated dance company iDC. Also in Plymouth, Attik Dance Company inspire would be and professional dancers alike with a full programme of classes and residencies, and have just started a training course for people who want to teach dance in the community.

The Independent Dancers Forum, known as the 'IF' group also run regular sharing of new work and training sessions for artists throughout the region and use an email group to share and support each other. This group have been an invaluable oasis of creative inspiration for many of the regions artists.

South West Arts is a partner in 'Creative People' - the national network of ten consortia dedicated to providing information, advice and guidance to support the professional development of people working in the arts. We have made it our business to find out from artists themselves what they need to stay in touch with their creativity and continue to develop their artistic vision.

Our Education Department set up a retreat at Dartington in October 2001, to ask artists how we can best support them to keep their creativity alive. Here are some of their comments:

'Having time to work with someone more experienced and share the creative process is really helpful'

'I learn by doing, by practising my choreography, trying things out playing and having the freedom to explore and experiment and fail without the pressure of 'having to produce' a finished product that is marketable. I'd like this part of the creative process validated and supported'

'Being with others with similar aspirations is nourishing and inspiring'

'I need time and space without the pressures of ordinary life, a sort of retreat time where I can contact myself and the artist in me'

'I'd like more opportunities to exchange skills with other artists'

'Being an artist is scary, I often feel vulnerable, exposed and the last thing I need is heavy handed comparative judgements and criticism; support and respect from fellow artists is really helpful.'

I am hopeful that the new Arts Council will reflect how deeply officers understand and value the creative process. I am looking forward to a time of greater risk-taking, having the courage to try and fail and keep learning and above all a time of trust and investment in artists and their creative processes. At the national task meeting for setting the priorities for dance, dance officers from all regions of the Arts Council of England agreed the need to enrich and extend dance practice in England by supporting artists through continuing professional development, research and development and experimentation.

Here in the South West we acknowledge the value of the reflective practitioner and allocate money to individual artists to develop their creative journey, through our new national Grants for the Arts scheme. We invite and solicit artists to create their own training and professional development projects and aim to support artists with the talent and determination to achieve their potential in the arts.

A thriving dance culture already exists in the South West, we have much to celebrate and build on. The spirit of sharing, networking, partnerships and professional development opportunities we have developed is strong and one we intend to continue to support.

Sue Way, dance officer, Arts Council England in the South West. Written in consultation with the county dance agency directors and regional dance artists. Email sue.way@artscouncil.org.uk

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Animated: Spring 2003