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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Your body is your country
Animated, Winter 1998. Identity is a composite of cultural influences, personal experiences and inner feelings. Karen Hall talks about her work as an artist-in-residence
'One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore`(1) Andre Gide

Driving past marshland, wild horses and thundering lorries, lesson plans on the back seat, I arrive at a school to begin a residency. Against a back-drop of identical houses, a spontaneous ballet' unfolds as children rush out on to the field, a flock of seagulls takes to the cold February air and circles the sky overhead. Once children drift back to class, seagulls swoop down to reclaim the playground. These first impressions stay with me as I meet the children and start the warm-up.

The concept for my residency, entitled Your Body is Your Country, evolved from revisiting my own dance history, a diverse heritage of traditional, classical and contemporary movement techniques, in an attempt to unearth from the depths of skeletal structure, muscular memory and intuitive sensing, keys to my personal movement identity. Understanding the origins and principles of my movement language formed part of a process of investigation into South Asian dance forms. Moniza Alvi, an Asian-born British poet, refers to her body as containing the essence of another continent' and being able to lift India off the map 'like a flap of skin'.(2) Such powerful images and the personal resonance that they held for me during this process of discovery and rediscovery inspired a creative project that spans working as a choreographer and performer and as an artist in schools.

Your Body is Your Country introduces young people to elements of dance from different cultures, interwoven with their own personal narratives and individual patterns of movement. Children become explorers of living landscapes and archaeologists digging for hidden treasure within themselves. The realisation that identity is not just skin deep, but rather a composite of cultural influences, personal experiences and inner feelings leading to an understanding of the notion that 'your body is your country'.

I approach the school hall as a studio, a place where anything can happen. The power of movement stirs even the most sceptical children as they sense their inner potential unlocking. Challenging perceptions of what the body can do and say, young people find and invent new ways of moving beyond stereotypical images of their own bodies and those of their peers. By gaining respect from teachers and peers, based on creative achievement rather than the intimidation tactics of the playground, children have an opportunity to recast themselves into new and positive roles that enable them to take pride and possession in their learning. Through physical expression of their individuality, children internalise their discovery of an artistic process and by recognising differences as the root of conflict, their dances touch on sensitive issues such as bullying, racism and stereotyping. Whenever possible, I favour a collaborative approach with teachers in their specialised fields. Cross-fertilisation between dance and other subject areas can effect a much deeper sense of understanding, ownership and identity. Joe finds it hard to concentrate yet, his painting depicts his dance in a stunningly vivid abstraction of interlocking shapes and forms.

Working as an artist in schools is about facilitating a two-way exchange of ideas and feedback. It means more than delivering an educational outreach package, subsidising independent activity, or paying something back to the community. For me, working as an artist in the community is an integral part of developing an artistic process that is in touch with social realities. Despite the notion that educational work is of less artistic value than work made for the professional stage, creating a quality product within community contexts challenges the artist on every level. Using clear and simple structuring devices that allow children space to make their own discoveries, is also a means of refining my own choreographic process. Children's natural curiosity quickly exposes a flawed concept, whilst their unselfconscious spontaneity can feedback new layers of meaning and understanding that extend into my own creative work, making me see new and different possibilities. Where there is genuine dialogue and understanding of concepts, the distinctions between professional and community dance seem less relevant.

At best a successful residency leaves a lasting impression within the school where young people become empowered to access their creative resources and act on their own initiatives. An artist's singular contribution is the ability to perform for and with children. Conveying a sense of passion for dance and drawing inspiration from children's distinctive ideas makes the residency a personal and unique learning experience for both pupils and artist. In a hall of high-energy activity, Lewis is completely absorbed in his body. Leaning forward intuitively into an arabesque ... his back arches, shoulder scoops and knees fold in a spiralling pathway to the floor. Watching him reminds me of one of the things I am constantly seeking in my own work - the loss of self in the moment when enquiry becomes discovery. By late afternoon we have all taken flight with the seagulls.

Karen Hall, independent performer and choreographer. Awarded the Diploma for Artists in Primary Schools from Anglia Polytechnic University in 1996. She is currently Animateur for Rochester and Medway.

References
1 Gide, A. in The Artists Way by J. Cameron, Pan Books, London, 1995.
2 Alvi, M. Oxford Poets: The Country At My Shoulder, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1993.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001