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Magpie Dance: Mentoring New Choreographers



by Annie Wells


June 30, 2005


Presented in partnership with Bromley High School GDST in February 2005, "A Celebration of Dance" marked a new and exciting departure for Magpie Dance. The production resulted from the first project the twelve-year-old Bromley-based, inclusive community dance company for adults and young people with and without learning disabilities has undertaken with a main-stream school. For the pupils of Bromley High, a school with a reputation for distinction in dance, the show represented the outcome of an unprecedented opportunity to work and perform with such an unusual and indeed pioneering company.


The joint presentation was made up of an impressive selection of new and previously performed work from the company and the school repertoires. Whilst the premiere of "Intermingling", a work the two had made to perform together and Magpie’s recently established youth group’s inaugural public performance stood out from the line-up.  Most noteworthy in terms of this focus were the project-facilitated performances from Magpie’s core company.


The first complete showing of a much anticipated duet by Peter Taylor, "Peter’s Hands", preceded welcome repeats of Karen Grandison’s "Winds of Change" and Linda McCarthy’s "Reflections". The three works so far to have developed out of the ground-breaking choreographic mentoring scheme the company has been running for its dancers since 2003 embody its exciting and exemplary professional development as a resource for people with special needs. Above and beyond the fact that these compositions had been produced and choreographed by dancers with significant learning disabilities, the rapturous applause was inspired equally by their standing as integral works of art.


As a registered charity with no regular funding, Magpie Dance subsists solely on the grants and donations it must constantly solicit from any available source. With only a few paid employees, its survival – in both practical and artistic terms – largely depends on the considerable amount of skilled and unskilled voluntary help it receives from its bank of supporters. Magpie is proud of a well-established tradition for involving a wide range of professional artists – dancers, choreographers, musicians, set, lighting and costume designers – in classes, workshops and performance collaborations.


The choreographic mentoring scheme originated from the particular success of one such association with professional choreographer and dancer David Nurse in 2002. Immediately taking to the former Union Dance member and Artistic Director of adhoc Dance Company, the dancers flourished during the pilot training project he led on collaborative group choreography. It was evidently then that Karen Grandison and Linda McCarthy first caught the choreographic bug and asked Artistic Director Avril Hitman if it would be possible for them to look at devising their own work. Hitman was keen to find a way to honour their request but knew, as for any fledgling choreographer, she would need to ensure the right conditions and support if they were to be successful in such an endeavour. Considering the excellent relationship of trust and mutual respect which the dancers and Nurse had been able to build in their short time together, they, along with Hitman, decided to ask him if he would return to mentor them in the proposed project.


Nurse agreed and with funding secured from Grants for the Arts a six month contract of close mentoring was drawn-up. As would be the case for any such step into the unknown, work in the project’s early stages was investigational and precedent setting. No one knew how it would go or what would come out of it. But as in each project undertaken, the company’s founding philosophy and long-standing mission which emphasises “ability not disability” and stresses that “participation in the arts is for all” was upheld stalwartly. Whatever it took, Grandison and McCarthy were to be respected as individuals, valued for their ideas and opinions and allowed full artistic control over their work.


Discussing his involvement in the scheme, Nurse expresses his mindfulness to the subtleties of his role as the artists’ mentor as a opposed to their director. He explains how it became his aim, by means of nurture and support rather than instruction and influence, to create a comfortable, non-judgemental and “crucially not dictatorial” (Magpie Dance publicity brochure) space in which they would feel the freedom and confidence to explore and try out their ideas. “It was important to me that I should not exclusively influence the choices made by Karen and Linda, and that their pieces were a result of their own artistic choices”. In the absence of pressure or expectation, (“He wasn’t bossy” says McCarthy), this is exactly what they did. Both personally and artistically speaking, each woman’s accomplishments went far beyond anything most had believed possible.


The reviews I wrote for when "Winds of Change" and "Reflections" premiered in November 2003 at Bromley’s Churchill Theatre, articulate my view that in the artistic terms of performance their work speaks entirely for itself.


Grandison’s "Winds of Change" inventively uses the metaphor of the wind to explore positive and negative aspects of life. Seven dancers caught the mood well, twirling to David Jenkin’s musical score as if blown through well designed patterns in time and space. Motif-like swirls were sensitively performed with varying degrees of energy and tension; a channelling of the wind’s force resulted in free flowing, generously arcing movement forward whilst resistance to it broke, stalled and drove that same movement back.


McCarthy’s "Reflections", as David Nurse commented, was a particularly well structured work of classically pure dance. It was also particularly well executed by Alison Lapham, Suzie Mitchell and McCarthy herself, who to the soulful strains of Hans Ferrao’s Jazz composition, moved gracefully through kaleidoscopic combinations of colourful movement. Elegant costumes designed by Elizabeth King echoed the soothing contours of this exceptionally pleasing piece.


By participating in the scheme the women made priceless personal gains in such areas as confidence, self-expression and self-belief. A discussion between Grandison and Nurse filmed at the culmination of the project delivers the full, poignant impact of the considerable pride they felt in what they knew were their considerable achievements.


Grandison: My piece is "The Winds of Change".
Nurse: Who made the piece up?
Grandison: Me, by myself
Nurse: How did you work it out?
Grandison: Practised it on the floor.
Nurse: Practised it, practised it straight off?
Grandison: Yes. That’s my bit […] and the underarm bit is my idea, not Hugh’s idea, my idea.

Funded in its second phase by Mencap City Foundation, "Peter’s Hands" is the latest work to come out of the mentoring scheme. It has been much awaited since it previewed as a work-in-progress in July 2004. In exquisite partnership, its creator, Peter Taylor, and non-learning disabled dancer Suzy Mitchell did not disappoint when they gave it a first mighty showing at A Celebration of Dance.


Since he joined Magpie three years ago, forty-seven-year-old Taylor has seen his life transformed. Once timid and dependant, a limited verbal capacity left him struggling to express himself. So the bold, decided man that emerged when he discovered his flair for dancing was barely recognisable to those who had known him before. His ambition has grown with his confidence in himself as a strong, solid and creative dancer. He was keen to take all the chances the choreographic mentoring scheme gave him first to further then consolidate the improvisational experiments he had been doing with the giving and bearing of weight in a full-length dance-work.


A measure of the finished product’s magic is captured in John Duffy’s poem "Light on our hands". Inspired after being led by Taylor in an improvisation circle, his tribute was read prior to the performance. But as is always the case when dealing with the transient medium of movement, words account poorly for what was the mesmerizing reality of the dance in its occurring moment. Taylor and Mitchell were nymph-like in their grace and the woody hues of Elizabeth King’s costumes. Whether moving together or apart to an expressly composed live accompaniment by Dave Jenkins, a rare chemistry flowed between them. As they cohesively curved in and out of each other’s time and space, they masterfully executed a succession of lifts and balances which would have stretched and tested the most accomplished of dancers to their limits.


A great part of the scheme’s second phase success, as with the first, has been due to the contribution of its facilitators. Nurse who stepped up his involvement with Magpie in 2003 by becoming director of its youth group, acted again in the all-important capacity of mentor. Modest and reserved, he proves his worth to the company through results rather than words. He describes himself simply as “the outside eye”. But somewhere within that his dance expertise combines with a rare sensitivity to the individual needs of learning disabled people to miraculous effect.


Non-learning disabled dancer Suzy Mitchell like has been dancing with Magpie as a volunteer then project-employed freelancer for three years. (In fact she joined at the same time as Taylor). In addition to all the particular skills she has gained facilitating classes and workshops, and performing with her learning-disabled colleagues; her first experience of working with a learning-disabled choreographer came with her part in McCarthy’s "Reflections". Taylor chose her not only for her powerful physical abilities, but also the good and trusting working relationship they have been able to build in their time spent dancing together.


As tough a talker as she is a mover, Mitchell deftly bats off any suggestion she might be doing anything out-of-the-ordinary or creditable with her considerable talents both as a dancer and facilitator of this kind of work. As I have witnessed, she’s as effective as Nurse with the respectful but no nonsense approach she takes to her work. It only thinly disguises the great amount of patience and affection she possesses for colleagues like Taylor.


In a recent interview I asked Avril Hitman about the future of a scheme that has already proved so fruitful and worthwhile. She spoke of her optimism with the unerring drive and enthusiasm that has been fundamental to the company’s survival since as a young dancer she set it in motion as a weekly dance class for learning-disabled adults in a community centre dining room back in 1985. She stressed, nevertheless, as with all projects undertaken, further phases remain ever dependent on sufficient funding.


For now the hopes of all involved are being fuelled by the two days they have set aside the end of July for a series of workshops in which they will begin to develop a third stage to the scheme. Grandison and McCarthy, again at their own request, will come together under Nurse to research more of their choreographic ideas. Unlike before, they will not be performing themselves, but instead will work with four non-learning-disabled dancers. Three - Nurse, Mitchell and Alison Lapham – will come from the company. Advertised for thus in the national dance press, the company are currently auditioning for another male dancer “with a background in contemporary/creative dance” and “willing[ness] to experiment”.


As Hitman explains, the experiment’s first parameter has been set in order to allow the two women to look at the material they will be creating as a team from a newly detached perspective. Frankly acknowledging that its second, the positive decision to use non-disabled dancers, might be greeted in some quarters as contentious, she is keen to underline the company’s reasons for setting it. One reason is purely practical: by working with dancers who, unlike their learning-disabled colleagues, are not in any way physically limited, the women will be playing within a radically expanded sphere of potential movement. I’d argue that the second reason is subtly political as it encompasses a purposeful will to shift the usual relational dynamic of power, control and consent that exists between the learning-disabled and the non-learning-disabled.


From all the evidence it sounds like this may be the most forceful lap Magpie Dance has run yet with the perception changing baton held solidly since its original inception some twenty years ago. I for one will keenly await the results which these two days promise to produce. Any dance work created will, without doubt, deserve maximum public exposure. In that way, not only can the contract of sharing ultimately necessary to the creation of art be properly fulfilled, but also the debate on the issues it will certainly raise in the dance world and beyond can be continued.



Edited by Staff.


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