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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Vincent on Vincent
Animated, Spring 1997. Charlotte Vincent talks about her work
When I go to the theatre, I want to see dance work which is physically exciting, intelligently conceived, and which has a direct, emotional impact on me as a viewer. I am tired of watching the young dancer's limbs shaking with fear, desperate to please me with the mastery of her technique, dead from the neck up. I am bored with watching testosterone levels explode in clichéd displays of male bravura. I am sick of watching women, usually directed by men, flashing their crotches and subtly flirting with the audience or worse still playing little girl lost, or victim, with no hint of irony or understanding of the signals their bodies are emitting. I watch intimate, sweaty partner work between two people and I know that the intimacy, though physically impressive, is emotionally fake, devoid of feeling. There is no real relationship going on here. There is no real contact. There is no suspension of disbelief.

What are these performers' motives for performing in the first place? Have they got anything to say or are they just looking for our approval? I work within the 'dance theatre' field because I believe physicality is the most direct and universal form of expression. I have participated in the most amazing, 'moving' physical breakthroughs in workshops led by CandoCo. I have witnessed incredibly subtle teaching by practitioners such as Gregory Nash. I have seen physical theatre work which has implanted images in my head for days DV8's Never Again and Strange Fish, Nigel Charnock's Hell Bent, Wendy Houston's Haunted, Pina Bausch's Carnations, Sue Maclennan's Spontaneous Combustion, Volcano Theatre's V, work by the Snarling Beasties and the Douglas Wright Dance Company. These works have made me think and feel. Most dance leaves me cold.

Perhaps what unites these practitioners is their determination to create a personal, intelligent methodology which challenges orthodox perceptions of what dance can be. What also unites them is a commitment to theatrical authenticity, intention, precision, motivation and honesty. Many of them have a socio political agenda an assurance that they have something of relevance to say, and an ownership of whatever that is.

In Volume One of Routledge's Performance Research Journal, John Ashford, Artistic Director of The Place Theatre, wrote the following: "Dance is the poetry of theatre, quickly sketched on a world canvas and then gone. It's urgent and important... Too much dance in Britain is led by the body. The new British choreographers will have to start dancing with the head."

I formed Vincent Dance Theatre in 1994. The company aims to produce work which challenges traditional values in dance and in gender politics, and insists on finding meaning in movement. I seek to address issues of contemporary relevance and encourage collaborators to find a distinctive and personal voice with which to speak.

Vincent Dance Theatre often works closely from text both written by established authors, and by performers involved in the devising process. The work is text informed, but not necessarily text inclusive. As artistic director, I require intellectual and physical clarity from those working to create new material. I am meticulous in challenging received ideas of what dance should and can be and insist on weeding out 'unnecessary' movement. Vincent Dance Theatre's work has been described as "fiercely provocative, savage choreography, fast, agile and compulsive" (The Yorkshire Post, 1995).

My insistence on meaning probably stems from a preoccupation with writing - I graduated with a degree in English Literature and Drama from Sheffield University in 1989. My interest has always been in understanding the conflict between words and actions, and in the socio political consequences of human behaviour. I am a feminist and literary influences range from R.D. Laing to Andrea Dworkin, Samuel Beckett to Camille Paglia.

When I graduated, I co founded a community theatre company in Sheffield. We made and toured a piece called Something to do with Power and Dancing, performing and work-shopping our production to women's groups and community centre's. The work centred around violence towards women, a theme that remains central to my work today. We talked to victims of male abuse and rape. It was one thing reading Sylvia Plath and Alice Walker as texts at university, quite another to meet and share ideas with real people living with mental and physical abuse, or talking to women suvivors who had 'broken the cycle' after years of torture. We shocked people with the emotional intensity and political will of the work.

A second project involved researching HIV and AIDS in collaboration with the local AIDS Unit of the Health Authority. We built up relationships with people living with the virus and with workers in the field, and created a piece dealing with the issues raised called On Stripping Bark From Myself. We toured this work to the most unlikely venues around Yorkshire, performing our production and holding discussions and workshops in community centres, village halls, unemployment and drug rehabilitation centres. We exposed ourselves to ridicule, appreciation, judgement and to the honest responses of people who don't get to see much theatre. These two projects were fundamental to my development as an artist they revealed very clearly the basic rules about what 'works' theatrically in a sometimes hostile environment.

I went on to work as a community drama worker in Blyth, Northumberland. I made theatre work with long term unemployed people, ex-miners, people with mental illness, drug users, ex-offenders, sex offenders, the elderly and people with physical disabilities. This raised many personal and political issues to do with empowerment, social injustice and abuse. The work with these groups exposed me to members of the community with whom I had previously had little contact, and had a profound effect on my own creative and political agenda. At around this time I started working in prisons and young offender institutions in the North East. I set up an independent community arts project with a sculptor in Newcastle, which set out to explore issues of confinement, working within the criminal justice system. I also began training in contact improvisation and trapeze.

After extensive research, workshopping and communication with lifers, we devised and toured a physical theatre production Taking Liberties to prisons around the country, dealing with the issues of incarceration. We held discussions and workshops at every venue, which threw up difficult issues regarding the psychology of power, sex offence, crime, violence, mental illness and male anger control.

The direct stimulation of others in an extreme environment is an extreme experience for the initiator. Work inside is a good litmus test of an artist's creative ideas if they are pretentious or flawed they will be exposed as such. Working inside builds your confidence as an artist, extends your own political education, and provides new challenges. Humour of inmates is often extraordinary and participants are often very caring in an arts context. This kind of work, when done carefully and sensitively, creates a strong feeling of success and achievement for both participants and leaders of the work.

I have since worked in over 30 prisons and young offender institutions, running work shops in physical theatre and contact improvisation. I have come to recognise the subtle benefits of release work and non sexual physical contact between inmates, and I no longer impose my own thematic agenda on the work.

The intimacy and confidence gained by inmates working physically together in an environment designed to forbid individual expression and harness physical energy of the prisoners is quite incredible. Inherent in this work is the exploration and challenging of self in relation to others. There is an issue of therapy here artists working in this context are not therapists, but their work may have therapeutic effects be calming, challenging, different, relaxing, creative, etc. Contact based work fundamentally addresses issues of gender, sexuality, power, balance and communication as well as addressing the inmates' often stereotypical perception of what dance can be. The distinction between therapy and arts learnt by my work in prisons has been fundamental in forming my work as choreographer. Collaborators working with Vincent Dance Theatre must be willing to risk investing personal stories we trust each other to dig deep and challenge ourselves daily in rehearsal, but we are clear that we are not involved in a process of therapy. Everyone must maintain responsibility for themselves with support from other company members a model of practice similar to work in a community context.

In the community, there is no safety net of polite, white middle class dance audience etiquette to be observed. You justify your presence by producing genuine arresting work which has universal relevance to people's lives, which attempts to raise important questions, and which has emotional impact on its audience. If you patronise, dictate to or over intellectualise in this context, you literally lose your audiences. Rather than thinking of community dance theatre as the poor relation to small scale touring in Britain, I see my experience in this field as having laid down distinct ground rules for my work as an artist. Work must be accessible to he successful. Accessible means truthful, relevant, direct and politically aware.

My experiences in the community context have fuelled my desire to exploit dance as a socio political medium, to find a distinct personal voice with which to speak. I hope that this voice is of interest to other people. I hope audiences find my work challenging This way, instead of simply passing value judgements on the performance, the audience becomes all expert collaborator in an open ended practice, rather than a consumer of a finished product.

The connection between an audience's sense of responsibility and collaboration whilst watching a performance to understand (or at least feel) the personal investment of the dancer's performance is the link, for me, between my community practice and my work as a dance theatre artist. I don't think that I would have found this link without such extreme, demanding and colourful experiences in the community context.

Working with individuals and groups in prisons, community centres, women's groups, adult training centres and unemployment centres has made me question my motives, my skills, my own life experiences and the reasons why I want to make work. My work is often bleak, reflecting the darker, more damaging side of human behaviour, but within this darkness contains the optimism of realism.

I find it astonishing that practitioners do not challenge themselves to exploit dance as a medium for dealing with important issues, instead of working with received and often frivolous ideas of what they think dance should be. Why aren't dancers using their heads to ask themselves what exactly they think they are doing on stage, or in the studio? We have a collective responsibility for human action. What better medium to explore this action than through the most active of art forms, dance.

Charlotte Vincent, Artistic Director, Vincent Dance Theatre and Lecturer at Bretton Hall.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001