Using the power of dance theatre to move and inspire
by Annie Wells
June - July 2004 -- U.K. Tour.
In June 2004 Brighton based Theatre Dance Company High Spin embarked upon a tour that they hope will eventually take them and their double-bill of new works – "Who Dunnit?" and "Sleepwalker" – made in collaboration with independent contemporary dance choreographers Maxine Doyle and Miriam King to up to ten venues around the UK. Following a winning start at Crawley’s Hawth Theatre on June 16th, they went on to captivate audiences with a second performance on July 1st, at the Phoenix Arts Centre in Leicester. Between the 9th and 10th of July they are hoping to enchant their home crowd when they perform twice at Brighton’s Corn Exchange. After that their next confirmed date will be September 21st when they appear in London at the Hackney Empire.
Unusual about High Spin is that it is one of the UK’s only professional dance companies to consist predominantly of dancers with learning disabilities - six in a company of nine are learning disabled. The company first emerged in 1993 and is a project within the portfolio of Carousel, a Brighton based charitable organisation with the primary objective of introducing learning disabled people to the Arts. Having instigated a connection through its extensive range of outreach and workshop programmes, Carousel encourages continued involvement by sponsoring and celebrating the achievement of initiates as they progress in their chosen artistic field.
High Spin has to be one of Carousel’s greatest successes. Founded upon and very much guided by the principles of the charity’s mission which in brief aims to “inspire people with learning disabilities to explore, develop, create and above all enjoy the arts” (www.carousel.org.uk), it is working proof of what people with learning disabilities given the correct opportunities and support can accomplish and contribute to both art and society. High Spin celebrates difference, integrating performers with and without learning disabilities, thereby challenging traditional values in dance.
Evidently Carousel’s backing has been invaluable over the years. But High Spin would have known none of its success or indeed have become the important creative force it is today were it not for several other essential factors. These include the determined and inspired leadership of Ingrid Ashberry who joined the company as artistic director in 1995 and, no less importantly, the creativity, hard work and dedication of its nine members (a number of whom have been with the company since the beginning).
High Spin spent its early years establishing itself as a company and developing creative methodologies that would correspond appropriately and effectively with its specific artistic philosophies and goals. It began publicly sharing the uniquely crafted and styled dance consequently being produced in 1996. Seconding the statement of artistic policy set out on High Spin’s official website (as above), Ashberry stresses how ensuring that the company is “performer-led” has always been an overriding priority. There is no in-house choreographer as such and the dancers are encouraged to draw on their own experiences, explore their own ideas and evolve their own movement.
Personality, stage presence and individual movement quality motivate the work, creating an unconventional and powerful performance language. (www.highspin.org.uk)
At the beginning of a new project a selection of independent choreographers are invited to workshop with the company so that the dancers can explore the extent to which another artist’s ideas and working methods can stimulate their own creative processes and expand their experience of dance. When a workshop has taken place the dancers and choreographer decide mutually whether they would like to extend the working relationship and collaborate on a dance-work for performance.
Since 1999 High Spin has come together with some of the British dance world’s most innovative dance-makers to produce a long list of memorable works. These include Liz Aggiss and Billy Cowie of Divas, Laurie Booth, Ben Craft and Rose English. As would be expected, the outcome of collaborations with such a diverse range of choreographers has been quite different each time. But because High Spin always sticks to its ideals, all productions have served to further the same “distinctive brand of dance theatre, encompassing character, humour, manipulation of signature props, projected images and film” responsible for the company’s success and popularity with its audiences.
Here as High Spin’s latest creative project culminates in a tour, two more respected dance-makers can be added to the impressive résumé.
Maxine Doyle the artistic director of First Person Dance Theatre joined six of the company’s dancers (Julie Burcham, Rainna Crudge, Becki Hodgson, David Mileman, Ben Pierre and Dan Shelton) to devise Who Dunnit? In the course of her work Doyle aims amongst other things “to engage new audiences through ground-breaking and entertaining dance-led work that uses a theatrical framework to tell its story, inspiring emotion and encouraging debate” (www.londondance.com). So leading High Spin into their first real experiment with narrative dance, she asked the dancers to take the idea of iconic film detectives such as Inspector Clueso and Sherlock Holmes as their inspiration.
Over a period of twenty-five days, together they came up with this exaggerated and mad-cap “dance mystery”. The story revolves around the disappearance of Princess Rainna’s huge ruby and is told through a mixture of expressive mime and energetic movement. While a well-chosen medley of music (aptly including the Pink Panther theme) adds pace “to a plot that twists and turns” (High Spin Press Release), the dancers use their singular personalities, clever costumes and an inventive array of props to maximum comic effect.
The company’s three remaining dancers (Irene Mensah, Maria Pengelly and Andy Saunders) spent the same amount of time collaborating with internationally renowned, Brighton-based choreographer, dancer, dance-film maker and live artist Miriam King. King describes how well the dancers responded to her “internal way of working [which is] not so much about form but more about finding feelings, memories or emotions, very much using imagination, visualising different places and situations”.
To take them to the right place emotionally she used the stimuli of empty birdcages and birdsong in a music-track by French artist Colleen. She encouraged them to imagine themselves amongst colourful butterflies, being blown by the wind or sliding on a frozen pond. “It was very much about sensation”, said King. Also she asked them to think about “nocturnal perceptions”, dreams and nightmares, the different levels of consciousness that are experienced when day-dreaming or asleep.
Then for the kind of physicality she wanted them to achieve:
"I’d work purely on my way of moving which is quite slow; a lot of it is quite slow. It’s about being very present about being very connected to the space, feeling very earthed, feeling very open. So we worked with a lot of exercises, just like walking. Some of my training has been in Butoh Dance. I’m not a Butoh dancer but I have done workshops and my work is very influenced by that.
"The result was the non-figurative and conceptual "Sleepwalker". Set in direct contrast to "Who Dunnit?" this work of eight separate yet interlinking sections demonstrates how open and adaptable the dancers are to different dance styles. The influence of Butoh – said in descriptions given by Harmen Sikkenga to connect the conscious with the unconscious and find movement in the interaction between the inner and outer world and Emily Burke (www.butoh.net) to turn the ugly to the beautiful, the beautiful to the ugly - is very much to be felt in the shifting amalgamations of movement, sound, light, prop, costume and special effect that explore the light and dark shades of human presence, dreams and imaginings.
"'Sleepwalker' will draw you into a dream-world inhabited by the ethereal, the nightmarish and the fantastical. A dance of curiosity and changing scenes will shift your senses as images evolve before you. Be delighted and intrigued by nocturnal perambulations and the enigma of the lost bird." (High Spin Press Release)
When not busy creating and performing, High Spin also find the time to run their own educational outreach programme. A comprehensive series of workshops, residences, pre- and post-show discussions linked closely to their current work is carried out in collaboration with the venues where they will perform, dance agencies, schools and disability organisations within the touring area. A major aim of these various activities is to maximise participants’ enjoyment, understanding and sense of connection to the work when they come to view it in performance. Often working with groups that hope to become dance groups themselves they demonstrate ways in which creative work can be developed and perhaps most importantly, as Ashberry stresses, they “act as positive role models to aspiring dancers with learning disabilities.”
I was lucky enough to catch High Spin when they performed at the Brighton Corn Exchange. I found that their work does boast a refreshingly unique style and that, contrary to what perhaps might be a general expectation, it is of an exceptionally high standard. The dancers indeed display the talent and personal qualities to act as positive role models not only to other dancers with learning disabilities but to anyone with aspirations and difficulties to overcome. As this is a category in which I think just about everybody could be included, this is really not-to-be-missed dance.
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