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Moving, in and out of lockdown
Date posted: 27 June 2020
Arts participation specialist Peter Laycock offers some thoughts around our new ability to deliver digitally and asks us to imagine what we could achieve in the future without the restrictions of lockdown
Peter Laycock

The choreography of our lives has changed in ways most of us could never have imagined. Those dancing alone for these past three months would be forgiven for craving a collaborator. Although even the most successful partnerships can become strained within the confines of an endless duet. Members of larger troupes may well be dreaming of quiet, uninterrupted solos. The full company numbers have been shelved for now and intergenerational pieces, for many of us, are just a memory.

Arguably some people are thriving in this moment, but it’s undeniable that our day-to-day dances have lost vibrancy and variety; our actions are mostly pedestrian, the spaces we move in have shrunk, the dynamics of life are limited, and our relationships are more likely through screens than through contact work. Even the first entrances and final exits of life are quieter, intimate performances.

But in this unexpected, unwanted durational piece, new spaces and new practices have emerged and the hierarchy of the company has shifted. Forever the poor relation to ‘The Artistic Programme’, learning, participation and engagement have taken centre stage. The creativity at the heart of our pedagogy has, as it always does, enabled us to find new ways to connect with our participants and students.

Learning requires a much more active type of participation, whether in the physical or virtual space, than experiencing a performance. It is empowering; taking part gives us the opportunity to challenge ourselves and to learn new skills and ideas. It gives us agency and a sense of achievement which builds our confidence. Learning with others, especially at this time when we’re forced to be apart, offers us the connectivity our lives are suddenly lacking.

Many staged performance works are bound to fixed versions of themselves – it’s their liveness that gives them their heartbeat, and this can rarely be felt or heard through a screen. Teaching has always been an improvisation though. We follow a score, but we deviate from it in real-time. We adapt and respond to our audience. We have to, or they would abandon us. So that’s just what we’ve done. The quick-change, low-budget artistes of the sector have, once again, pulled it off. From classes and workshops to talks and webinars, both live and pre-recorded - we’ve finally embraced, albeit through necessity, the digital revolution.

We refer to dance as an ephemeral artform but there’s a spectrum to this which we rarely discuss. ‘The Artistic Programme’ is captured and archived in a way that ‘learning and participation’ isn’t. When learning projects are recorded it’s never with the same frequency and depth as performance work. It’s often footage of a choreographic great leading a masterclass, or an awkwardly staged rehearsal… a short promo clip or merely a scant case study. Incorporating stronger digital strands into our teaching practice has created new possibilities for documentation, and with them new opportunities for reflection, acquisition of skills and the development of our practice.

Since lockdown began there’s been talk about and planning for the ‘new normal’ but much of it seems to be hoping we return to what was before. Too many of these conversations long for the old; viewing all we have done in lockdown as a last minute understudy for the big named star.

We could, instead, see this period as R&D for the programmes we want to create in the future. We should be under no illusion (or fear) that digital delivery will or could replace our face-to-face work indefinitely. But we would be foolish to discard this relative newcomer once the former principal returns.

The once solid barriers of studio sessions (time, geography, finances, access, confidence levels) have become more fluid through online working. It’s a different type of presentation and practice that is required for screen delivery and this opens the space, more equitably, to new voices, and new teaching and movement styles. We should strive to retain this flexibility as we think about the future.

These new approaches may extend our reach to many new participants, but society’s digital divide continues to ensure others are cut off. Parallel delivery models of on/offline learning offer an exciting opportunity to engage with more people than we ever thought possible.

There’s lots to celebrate from how we’ve adapted – but imagine what we could achieve with these ways of working without the restrictions of lockdown. It would be unforgivable to simply repeat the routines of our past as the dances of our future. What aspects of delivering differently will we hold on to? What new skills, insights and learning could, and should we carry forward? How can we ensure the ‘new normal’ benefits from all we’ve explored, rather than discards it? 

Peter Laycock is an arts participation specialist with over twenty years’ experience in cultural education and engagement. He enjoys creating opportunities with and for people of all ages and backgrounds to connect with art, culture and their own creativity.