Interview with Lee Fisher, Birmingham Royal Ballet and Freefall
by Ana Abad-Carles
June 2005 -- Lyric Hammersmith, London
Lee Fisher started his career as a student at the Royal Ballet School, before joining the then Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet in 1988. He then moved with the company to Birmingham and became a soloist with the Birmingham Royal Ballet. While dancing with the company, he completed an MA in Dance in Education and the Community at the University of Birmingham. After his recent retirement from dancing, Fisher became the Acting Education Manager within BRB Education Department. He is also Artistic Director of Freefall, a company of dancers with learning difficulties.
I talked with him at the Lyric Hammersmith in London, where he was appearing in "Stars are Out", the show that celebrated Amici’s 25th Anniversary. Since then, Lee has been awarded the Dance fellowship on the Clore Leadership Programme for 2005/6.
You have had a long association with Birmingham Royal Ballet, what has this company given you as an artist that has kept you working so closely with it as a dancer and now in its Education Department
I feel very lucky because I’ve worked with two great directors: Sir Peter Wright and David Bintley, very different artistic directors in their approaches. Peter was focused heavily on the classics, brought in outside choreographers and revived historically important and really interesting works like "The Burrow" or "Fall River Legend"; pieces with very strong dramatic narratives that I found very stimulating and loved being a part of.
When David took over, he obviously brought a lot of his own works and a similarly varied but equally interesting repertoire It was wonderful to be involved in his creative processes from their beginning. I got a lot from dancing roles in David's ballets and relished the freedom he allowed to really put my personal interpretation on the character or narrative that was required. So, I guess what has kept me with the company is some kind of continuing artistic/creative stimulation. In the later part of my career, I got really inspired by the education and outreach work of BRB and I have the Education Department to thank for supporting my interest and skills development in this area.
You were part of a groundbreaking initiative that started in 1997 when a group of dancers from the Birmingham Royal Ballet joined the University of Birmingham in order to complete degree programmes in Dance in Education. What made you decide to join the initiative?
Initially I was very keen in getting a degree that might support what I would do next. It seemed like a really good opportunity to study for a degree that was tailor made for us alongside the work of the company. The lectures, seminars and tutorials were all built around our performing, rehearsing and touring schedules, and it seemed just crazy not to take up this opportunity.
You were still dancing when you joined the project. Did the academic work that you were doing inform in any way your approach to performing and dance?
I think it definitely informed and enhanced and perhaps prolonged my work on stage. When you have a better understanding of something, it’s got to make you appreciate what you are doing even more. The academic side of what I was doing, at least a lot of it, had to do with education and community practice, and that knowledge gave me the opportunity to go out and work with and alongside the community. This work helped to show me the importance and value of the wider processes of the arts in the lives of others. I also had opportunities to learn how to research and I used those opportunities to get deeper into the ballets and roles I was performing at the time.
How important has the outcome of the project been for your transition from being a dancer to becoming involved in the company’s education department?
It has had everything to do with it. It has been the catalyst for everything that followed. I didn’t know what dance education was before, really… Through the degree I looked into Dance in education and the community, dance and disability, contemporary issues in the arts and I also explored an interest in psychological skills training for dancers. … so it opened that first door for me, it gave me a grounding and also an understanding of the kind of rigour you need to take that work on. Fortunately for me, at around the same time there was a switch in thinking by the Education Department at BRB. It adopted the approach whereby, whenever possible, the artists, dancers and musicians from the company should go out into the community and deliver the outreach work themselves, as opposed to this being traditionally led by freelance dance artists and musicians. So, the two things in tandem led me to become more involved with the education department. It was a great catalyst, without that degree, I can’t see how the transition would have happened.
There seems to be critical voices within the arts community regarding educational work being undertaken by artistic organisations. Some people say that art is not education, while others claim that educational work is nothing but an easy way of accessing funding. What have you got to say about such views?
I think that the arts in education just offer fantastic learning opportunities for the young people and artists involved. There is so much and so many ways in which children can learn in and through the arts and the activities can be led to cater for a wide range of learning styles. The learning is two way, because the artist leading can learn so much and gain new skills, many of which may be transferable, from their involvement, and improve their own practice and performance.
You are also artistic director of Freefall, a company that is made up of dancers with severe learning difficulties. The company was created after a close collaboration between Birmingham Royal Ballet and Fox Hollies School. At what stage did you start getting involved with the work being developed in the school?
I first went and worked there about eight years ago now. I just found myself in an environment where I felt really very comfortable, very appreciated and in a place where I just wanted to come back to, time and again. I have a very vivid memory of a particular moment when I was watching a young man improvise and watching him dance just sent chills down my spine… it was so beautiful and inspiring.
The idea to have a company that provides these dancers with a platform on which to develop their careers came about in 2002. What led to this decision?
After a long series of interventions and exchanges with the school it was apparent that there were some very gifted dancers within the school that wanted and deserved the opportunity for more regular and sustained opportunities. Anne Gallacher (Education Director of BRB) and I went to a Community Dance conference at about that time. We got very inspired looking at the work of Anjali and IDC (Integrated Dance Company). It seemed like this would be an exciting project and a natural progression to the existing relationship between BRB and Fox Hollies School. The staff at the school, who are absolutely key and must take equal credit for Freefall, warmly embraced the idea,
The company had its launch performance at the Patrick Centre on 27 January 2004. A review in the Dancing Times remarked on how the company aims to marry “the best of community dance […] with the best that ballet has to offer”. What is, in your opinion, that unique contribution that ballet has to offer to dancers with learning difficulties?
The idea that Freefall would train in ballet technique came about through a desire to make my approach to leading as authentic as possible. It allowed ballet and my experience in the art form to be my secure base to work from and it has shown me, that with a little creativity and sensitive application ballet can be truly accessible.
I think that ballet offers these young dancers exactly the same as any other dance students. It’s about striving for perfection, precision, control, co-ordination and strength. I also think the reason why it works very well with Freefall is because of the repetition and familiarity… and it’s a language, isn’t it, it’s a movement vocabulary. Ballet, basically, is very simple; it has that framework if you like, and I don’t think we compromise that at the company, we do it as it is; we do a ballet class. Additionally the second half of each class is structured to enable the dancers to create and explore the techniques they have learnt therefore marrying the best of disciplined practice and expressiveness.
Since that first performance, Freefall has continued performing for different audiences. How would you describe the effect this professional work has had on the dancers within the company?
Well, big increases in self-esteem, performance and technical skills because of the regularity that Freefall allows. But there are other learning opportunities through Freefall for all of us involved. We recently did an Outreach Project for which we got some funding from Birmingham City Council, an Arts Education Award. This gave us the opportunity to train ourselves and develop the leadership skills of the dancers. We took Freefall into five very different Birmingham schools where the dancers delivered their own workshops. We worked with primary schools, special primary schools, a school that specialises in autistic spectrum disorders and with mainstream teenagers as well. The dancers delivered the majority of the workshops themselves and gave short demonstrations… it was fantastic!
How were these workshops received within the mainstream schools?
Very well… as with everything else, with this kind of work you’ve got to do the groundwork. We started with my colleagues from Fox Hollies leading disability awareness training within the schools. Then, we brought all the schools that were participating together and we did a performance for them. After that, we got them to do some practical work with us as a large group. All that before the Freefall dancers went in to lead workshops in the schools. Therefore when they did finally reach the schools, they were ready for them and were able to connect with the dancers skills and talents without any stereotypical prejudices or oos and ahhs. The outcomes were incredible, the dancers were a huge hit and have been invited back for more.
And what effect has this experience had on you?
The outreach project was wonderful to be a part of and really affirmed what we had been working hard on but generally and overall, Freefall has provided me with lots for my next career. It’s improved my skills in facilitating groups, in communicating and it’s enhanced my appreciation of what I do (have done!) as a dancer. It's also given me the opportunity to work regularly with a group of people that I adore and have so much fun with. … and been tremendous learning for me, from the dancers , the staff and the people I work in partnership with.
Do you think more needs to be done in order to increase awareness of this reality of dance within the dance world? And if so, how can this be achieved?
Opportunities are increasing but there is more that needs to be done and work like this does need to reach a wider audience. I just think that people maybe are missing out on something which is very special, that is definitely worth watching, that can be beautiful, interesting, moving or funny… what any good art can be. Now, how is this done? Well, it’s just a matter of keep ploughing away, raise the profile, get more and more artists and mainstream companies involved… it’s about making good quality work at the end of the day… And sharing that work within the right contexts. So, it’s just about creating and increasing those opportunities and raising the profile. From a professional point of view, companies through enlightened self-interest, should improve the practice of their dancers and choreographers by encouraging reflective community practice.
Where do you see Freefall going in the future?
We need to increase our amount of performances and it would be great to make a dance film and work with choreographers from different dance styles.
What we have achieved on two hours a week is pretty amazing, I think. We’ve just started the first stage of a two-part accreditation programme through the Open College Network. Currently the dancers are all on track and should graduate in October. The programme is based on ballet technique, ballet appreciation and choreography skills. I also want to develop more the leadership within Freefall and the outreach work of the company. I want them to do more of the teaching, because that was so wonderful for everybody and made such a big impact on the groups that the dancers worked with! In terms of long term, one day Freefall needs to be a semi-professional company, at least!
Thank you very much Lee. May your wishes for your company come true in a not too distant future.
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