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Animated Edition - Winter 2008
Walking a tightrope
Take Art celebrates 20 years of the importance of partnership workingwith shifting local authority agendas in Somerset. Dance Director Chris Fogg explains how these partnerships have made Take Art more sustainable
2007 sees Take Art celebrate its 20th anniversary. In 1987 we were setup as a rural touring scheme - Take Art: Live - promoting live professional events - including dance - to villages and small towns across Somerset, where local people did not have easy access to more conventional theatres or arts centres. Shortly after this we became one of the founder members of the National Rural Touring Forum, which continues to provide performance opportunities for companies and artists who relish the challenge of taking their work to discerning audiences in small intimate spaces.

Over the subsequent years Take Art has continued to evolve, adding a range of services to its original mission. First came a commitment to long-term participation projects - Take Art: Create - in all art forms,which sees artists not only delivering high quality, clearly targeted programmes of workshops to a range of hard-to-reach communities, but which also offers artists a meaningful commission. The most visible of these came in 2000 as a Year of the Artist project, which saw Somer set artist Serena de la Hay create the dancing Willow Man along the side of the M5 near Bridgwater. This project, managed by Take Art, has now seen this iconic work become the corporate symbol for Sedgemoor District Council.

Then in 2003 Take Art was invited to house the county dance agency for Somerset - Take Art: Dance. The advantage of this move was that it placed dance into the heart of an already well established,stable organisation, with strong links with its local communities and is recognised by the local authorities as a key strategic organisation, helping the councils to deliver on their own agendas within their specific local area agreements, including the aspiration to create healthier, more vibrant communities.

Against this context we try to work with our local authority partners, therefore, to develop projects that serve their social priorities as well as our own artist icones. Typically this means that we are probably more likely to work with non-arts departments of these authorities, such as the Young People's Directorate, the Somerset Primary Care Trust, the recently established Partnership for Older People's Project (POPP) and the Early Years Partnership. Our position as an established part of the Somerset landscape means that we can more readily be welcomed by the County Sports Partnership, and that the County Council can reference us in their strategy for 2012 and the Cultural Olympiad. This remains,always, a delicate balance of course The arts are not a statutory obligation for local authorities to fund, and we are, like everyone else, subject to sudden shifts in priorities and to the vacillations of various changing elected bodies. It can be easy to be sidetracked into servicing the local authority's needs at the expense of pursuing a more arts-led vision for dance in Somerset. We try to walk this tightrope as carefully as we can, looking towards where we want to reach, rather than looking down at the drop. In putting together our current Three Year Strategy for Dance we have stressed the interconnectedness of all our work - from supporting our Somerset-based companies to our aspiration for long-term participation projects. In all of these we seethe local authorities as our partners, offering non-arts professionals training as an integral part of any project we develop, in order to make the work as sustainable as possible.

This approach has seen us develop projects such as Alive & Kicking- a two year dance and health project, working together with Sport England (the first dance project they funded in the UK), Somerset Activity & Sports Partnership (SASP), South and West Somerset District Councils, the County Council's Early Years Partnership, as well as two local clusters of more than 50 schools. 50% of this project takes places within formal education settings, working closely with teachers and support staff, while 50% takes place in less formal,out-of-school settings such as youth centres, Children's Centres,Family Refuges, Teenage Parent Support Groups, the Medical Home Tuition Service, care leavers etc. The central aspiration of this project is to place dance at the heart of a county-wide strategy to tackle some of the growing concerns raised in the Government's Wanless Report about the so-called lack of fitness and activity among our young people.Central to this aim has been a focus on work with Early Years children,together with their families, teachers and care workers, to enable good habits to be established early.

This has been underpinned by a recent performance tour devised by the Alive & Kicking team of dance artists to serve as advocacy for the potential of dance to inspire and enrich, as well as imparting an important healthy message.This performance Where Does A Raindrop Drip? has just completed a county-wide tour of Somerset and has been seen by more than a 1,000 three to five year olds and their families. This project, which still has six months to run, is being independently evaluated, and at the Interim Report stage, several notable finding shave emerged, which demonstrate the benefits of a strong local partnership working to clear guidelines with an emphasis on sustainable development.

Other dance and health projects that Take Art has developed in recent years include the current Time to Move project, which is a dance & older people's project working in partnership with Somerset PCT, the County Council's Community Directorate (formerly Social Services), Age Concern, Reminiscence Learning. The core elements of this project are all focused on sustainability, through training, mentoring and advocacy. Local practitioners are offered intensive training courses, followed up by one-to-one mentoring programmes in their own settings, with a view to broadening the pool of artists and practitioners working in this growing field. Consequently we were able to form a natural alliance with both Dance South West and the Foundation for Community Dance to host a Networking Event, focusing on older people's practice at The Brewhouse Theatre, Taunton in November 2007.

Active older people's  dance groups have also been established in communities across Sedgemoor and West Somerset, who create new works with artists, which they can then tour to a range of settings with a view to inspiring more people aged 50+ to become new dance participants, as part of the wider advocacy aspirations of the project. Members from three of these groups took part in the re-opening of the Royal Festival Hall with Lea Anderson earlier this year and are currently the subject of a film being made by the digital artist Richard Tomlinson.

One of the dance artists involved in Time to Move (as well as being a guest artist on Alive & Kicking) is Louise Barrett. Louise is the Artistic Director of Somerset-based company Pretty Good Girl Dance Theatre. (www.prettygoodgirl.com)Louise typifies our approach here at Take Art, which constantly seeks to synthesise the different strands of contemporary professional practice. As a pioneering rural touring scheme, Take Art has enabled Louise to develop a special niche in providing dance to rural audiences in non-theatre spaces across the UK, while as a Take Art Associate Artist, Louise is able to act as a mentor to emerging practitioners returning to Somerset and the south-west as new graduates.

Louise's current project with Pretty Good Girl is Dyin' 2 B Drunk,a powerful and very prescient performance/education package about the issue of binge drinking among young women. We have been able to support Louise as she has put this project together, while Louise has forged a range of new partnerships - with arts venues, with non-arts local authority departments, with the police - to ensure that there is a mutually supportive shared vision with a complementary shared set of aspirations. All of her dancers are Somerset or south-west based, and that too encourages local authorities to feel that they are in at the beginning of a nationally significant initiative that they have helped to make happen.

In this way we try to encourage the local authorities to walk this tightrope with us towards a sustainable future. With short-term project funding being the reality that we all have to contend with, sustainability is never easy. That is why we tryal ways to build into our projects training, mentoring and signposting towards other opportunities with other partners. It's never easy, and we may fall off, but the longer term rewards are definitely worth the effort.

contact chris@takeart.org / visit www.takeart.org

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Animated: Winter 2008