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Anjali Dance Company

Developing an accredited dance training program

by Susan Norwood

July 2005

[Susan Norwood is Education Director of Anjali Dance Company -- ed.]

Anjali Dance Company is a professional touring company which creates and tours original, high quality work performed by professional dancers with learning difficulties.  A pioneering company, Anjali realises and celebrates through dance the potential of people with learning difficulties. Focus is on ability rather than disability. The company creates a unique style of dance performance, which is bold, truthful and unguarded.

The company was formed by Artistic Director Nicole Thomson in Banbury, North Oxfordshire in the mid 1990’s. The company continued to develop throughout the 1990’s, and has commissioned work with renowned choreographers.

In 2000, the company was commissioned to create a piece with Matthew Hawkins to be performed in The Ballroom at the Royal Festival Hall. The resulting work, "Prosperous Beach", earned a four star review in The Guardian. Alongside this piece, the company also hosted one of the national debates about learning disability.

Anjali’s second tour, Through New Eyes, included works by Claire Russ, Matthew Hawkins and the company dancers.  This tour received critical acclaim from national and international media for its artistic veracity and the skill of the dancers. The company also made a return visit to London’s South Bank, performing in the Purcell Room as part of the venue’s mainstream programme for 2001.

The company’s most recent production, "WYSIWYG", fused exhilarating dance with cutting edge technology and film. The production toured nationally with great success and was chosen to be the finale performance at the Festival of the European Year of the Disabled in Lisbon, Portugal in December 2003.

The company is currently working with renowned choreographers Tom Roden and Pete Shenton of New Art Club, and Charlotte Vincent of Vincent Dance Theatre on pieces for a new tour.   In these pieces, the company dancers are exploring the relationship between text, movement and humour. Dynamic and high-energy movement will be mixed with the subtlety of the intimate gesture.

The achievements of Anjali’s dancers are winning them acceptance as professional artists in their own right, and are helping to bridge the gap between mainstream and disability dance.

Anjali’s performances are challenging perceptions of the intellectual and artistic potential of people with learning difficulties. High quality training, the opportunity to work with renowned choreographers and the chance to explore new directions in technology and art have been the framework for Anjali’s success.

In 2002 Anjali took their lead on high-quality training and secured a tender with the Learning and Skills Council and the European Social Fund to develop and design accredited training for people with learning difficulties.

As a part of this new training programme, Anjali offers intensive training for dancers and choreographers who want to learn or extend their knowledge in working with people with learning difficulties and dance. These courses are designed to give real practical insight into Anjali’s approach to using dance, film and video in creating high quality, inclusive arts practice.

The accreditation for the programme was developed through the open college network and designed by Susan Norwood. The programme’s philosophy is to mirror the artistic vision of Anjali Dance company whilst placing the training firmly in the broadest context. It also includes opportunities that are open to contemporary dance practice.

The programme looks closely at the model of professional training which has been established for the company dancers. It takes from this, the elements of dance technique, collaboration with choreographers, filmmakers and physical theatre. The accreditation then takes its course structure from mainstream, contemporary dance training, dividing the students’ time between developing technique, such as contemporary, jazz and ballet, with the development of the individual’s intellectual and creative understanding of performance.

The programme has been designed on the “building blocks” of dance and performance: composition, dynamics, qualities of movement, technique, the language and concepts of dance, choreography, performance, observation and professionalism.

Alongside performance skills, an important component of the training and its ideology has been to encourage and develop aspiration and professionalism. This is both encouraged and reflected in the high quality of the teaching and venue. Teachers are drawn from professional dance and choreographic backgrounds where, for the most part, they are actively engaged in the production of dance. This ensures that learning is not in isolation or distinct from the vibrant context of current dance practice. Venues for training have included Wycombe Swan Theatre and Milton Keynes Theatre.

Each accredited session therefore begins with a technique class that then prepares the learner both physically and intellectually for the creative aspect of the session. For example, a technique class covering levels or weight of movement may be a clear way of introducing performing emotion. The sessions are taught by two teachers, a practice that allows for one teacher  always to be on hand for explaining, showing or encouraging where confidence or communication skills may be holding a participant back.

The Open College Network grades its accreditation through levels which then grow in their complexity of knowledge, competency and understanding of the subject.

Entry Level, Level One and Level Two have been written and implemented. Entry Level and Level One are run together to allow for each individual’s different learning curves and development. Each level builds on the previous level, so that the technique and performance concepts established at the start of the training can be built upon, whilst growing more complex and challenging to the learner. Learners are able to repeat the Entry Level and Level One course as many times as it requires for them to gain the skills and knowledge required to start the next level. This also allows for repetition and gives time for a deeper understanding of dance and its vocabulary, enabling the learner to engage with mainstream dance.

As Anjali dancer Mark Barbour explains, “ The thing I like about the accreditation is the different ideas explored through dance and the opportunity to begin to make our own choreography. I am studying dance technique with different instructors. I can see that I am improving in my technique and my choreography by trying new things. I am working towards trying more choreography. At first I didn’t know about the meaning of the accreditation but, once it was explained, I realised I would get a certificate to show my skills. It is important for the whole of the company as it shows us all what we have achieved”

Level Three has recently been written and accredited. It is a module in developing the choreographic skills of the dancer. Two dance companies were selected to examine their different approaches to creating dance work. They were selected for their contrasts to each other, therefore offering varied and relevant choreographic methods to the Anjali dancers in the development of their own choreography. Siobhan Davies Dance Company and Motion House Dance Theatre were chosen to research their methods of creating dance. These companies offer the scope and realm to the learner to question their use of site, music, score, image, text, narrative, composition and set. Selecting these different approaches to making dance for performance is to ensure that the learner has real choices that are specific to their own individual style of working.

For example, one learner may be inclined to begin with an image to inspire their choreography, whilst another learner may prefer to begin with narrative and props to establish their choreographic route. By studying different approaches, the learner’s natural inclination to making work will be challenged and broadened to incorporate elements that will enrich their understanding and engagement within current dance practice. For the Anjali dancers, studying Level Three will encourage the development of their role in extending and supporting the artistic vision of the company and their input into their performance work.

To complement the accredited dance programme, and to incorporate Anjali’s interest in film, an Introduction to Video course has been designed with independent filmmaker Anna Lucas. The initial idea was to develop the learner’s understanding and observation of their choreography whilst exploring film. The learner will have a real opportunity to handle and use the camera while the concepts are explained as the learner is actively engaged in the filming and choreography of the work. At the end of the course, the learner views and discusses their work within the wider context of examples of the work of dance companies that use film such as Anjali and Charlotte Vincent Dance Theatre.

Though Anjali is not an integrated company, it encourages integration and equality of training and opportunity within mainstream dance. Anjali mirrors contemporary dance practice, which then equips the dancer with the necessary confidence, skills and vocabulary to achieve integration. Within the accredited programme, master classes, visiting choreographers and integrated professional development training opportunities are actively sought and incorporated into each learner’s experience. Charlotte Vincent, Rambert Dance Company and Lee Fisher from Birmingham Royal Ballet have all been invited to teach on the programme.

As learners become more confident they are encouraged to attend mainstream master classes, thus ensuring that learning is not an insular activity, and that the learners' knowledge and experience are continually expanded. Recently Anjali dancers have attended Deborah Saxon master classes from Siobhan Davies Dance Company and Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

By mirroring contemporary dance practice, by engaging professional dancers and dance companies and by placing the training in professional settings, Anjali’s accredited training aims to integrate the dancer with learning difficulties more fully into society and continually to open opportunities which focus on the ability and not the disability of the dancer. The aim is that participants should have access to the quality of training provision available to any non-disabled dance student.


Edited by Staff.


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