Our choreographer and Artistic Director, Shobana Jeyasingh, is well known in the contemporary dance sector. She is renowned for producing distinguished works and often addressing uncomfortable or unusual themes. Shobana’s works have been prominently featured in the dance GCSE and A-level curriculums in the last decades, which I believe is a testament to her high-quality artistic delivery and realisation.
Her choreographic process includes creative movement generation with the dancers which in turn takes inspiration from a wide range of sources including current affairs, visual artworks, elements of research or specific themes. For example, while working on the Spanish Flu pandemic for her work Contagion in 2018, she enlisted the help of virologists Professor John Oxford and Professor Wendy Barclay as well as medical historians to ensure her research was rigorous and stemmed from the latest findings in the fields.
Her rigorous and engaging practice runs through our company. In our Creative Learning programme, we enjoy using Shobana’s research-based approach to deliver ambitious and quality projects. Our dancers and our participants’ feedback has always highlighted the enjoyment of ‘learning something new’, ‘giving added layers to the work’, ‘dancing in a new way’ which derive from using this approach. This is how I’ve evidenced that our work is not only unique to our company, but also ambitious.
However, as a small organisation without its own studio or venue and a small but dedicated core team, we rely on our partners to deliver our work. Our partnership work has grown exponentially in the last few years, and it has become our main focus; we do our best to work with partners who are experts in their own fields and share our creative vision. We rely on their expertise and they rely on ours. This has helped us anchor our ambitious vision in trusting that our joint visions and practices make our participants active stakeholders in their projects while also getting access to new creative processes. I believe our partnership work is currently, one of our biggest strengths.
Below are a few thoughts about how we deliver this work, and where our current thinking sits. It is by no means a failproof recipe, but it is helping us build foundations for the work we anticipate doing in the coming years.
- We talk about and often (re) discuss what quality looks like for our company; we appreciate this will look very different to another company.
- How can we connect the body and the mind? How can we dance and create movement from thinking about an idea, researching it, and expressing it with our body? These questions have been at the centre of Shobana’s vision for over 30 years and are anchored in our creative process. They also ensure our sessions are very democratic, in the sense that anyone can do them, from new dancers to amateurs to professionals. We believe this makes our work challenging and enjoyable and ensures high quality.
- We take our time in building partnerships and making sure we share common goals with our partners and enjoy each other’s practice. This means we have to be flexible in how we deliver our own goals and marry them to our participants’ needs and interests. This also means we allow ourselves to say no when project ideas do not align.
- We try to be as clear as possible in articulating the type of work we do, what our dance sessions look like, why we do this work and who we do it with. This allows space for our partners to question our work and challenge us to think of new ways to deliver our programme.
We believe our qualitative criteria make our practice ambitious.
- Ambition requires first and foremost access to great dancers with a variety of skills to deliver this work; it has taken us years to build up our pool of freelance dancers working with us. We work with company dancers who have performed some of Shobana’s works on stage, as well as dance teachers who have specialised in working with specific audiences, or have a unique practice. To create a common ground with our dancers delivering all this work, we offer regular (paid) training sessions and evaluation as well as meetings with partners before projects and sessions. We also offer and pay our dancers to go on other trainings delivered by other organisations.
- We have an individual approach to each project, taking into account our partners and participants’ unique characteristics. This is very time consuming and we need to balance this with offering a sustainable programme too. It’s complex and difficult work, but nonetheless, work we have never shied away from.
These are the elements I’ve identified since thinking about quality and ambition in our work.
1 – Flexibility
- As a small organisation, we can be very flexible. We set parameters for our work, but we are happy to ‘translate’ or modulate them if needed. For example, while the whole of the UK was in lockdown last winter, we brought our Contagion solo to secondary school and college students and teachers directly online, relieving them of the pressure of being cooped up at home and being unable to dance together. Instead of using our traditional promotional channels, we used targeted social media groups (which we are part of) and email/chat to contact teachers directly. This was an incredible success, engaging over 35 schools and colleges all over the UK AND providing CPD to teachers online who otherwise would have not been able to attend a workshop with us.
2 - Asking ourselves what failure looks like
- Recently, I have been inspired by the Failspace project and measuring what failure looked like for us. I have embedded this frame of thought into our project outlines, where we state what our goals are and also what we see as a failure. Unsurprisingly, our programme failure can look different to what might be seen as unsuccessful in other organisations or with funders or national policy.
3 – Being active in local, sector-specific and national networks
- Allows us to hear about new ideas, meet other creatives and potential new partners.
- This for example, has led us to hear about and apply for more local project funding, not solely dedicated to the arts, for which we’ve been successful.
4- It is expensive
- Most of our Creative Learning programme budget goes on fees to pay our freelancers, which we’re happy to do. We also spend a healthy budget on ‘extras’ such as meeting rates, training, professional development. This can be difficult to explain to funders who might want more ‘visible’ results but is essential in maintaining a healthy dance sector.
5- There is still a long way to go!
- We still need to review and embed our evaluation methods better to evidence our work more clearly and efficiently. This is work that is often not seen as a priority and can be time consuming but is nonetheless important to do. It also requires an impartial and objective view on the work we deliver (which is not always glorifying).
- Admin, admin, admin. This work can only be delivered with good admin support and following good practice or process. Simply keeping in touch with people, preparing/attending meetings, circulating notes and action points is time consuming, although it is invaluable.
- Forgoing the rush: we lead an active programme, and like to do things/say yes to opportunities. But we (I) need to be better at measuring what our journey will look like and making sure our ambitions do match up!