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Artists Open Doors: Japan/UK    
5. Community Arts Practice Panel:

Ken Bartlett
Norikazu Sato
Natsuko Tezuka
Rosemary Lee
Chisato Minamimura

Rosemary Lee is a ResCen Research Associate Artist. She has been choreographing, performing and directing for twenty years. Her creative output is diverse: large scale site-specific work with mixed age community casts of up to 250, solos for herself and other performers, films for broadcast TV, and most recently, interactive installations such as Remote Dancing premiered at the South Bank Centre.

The first question posed to the panel was, 'How do we promote meaningful engagements for agencies, artists and participants?'

[Rosemary Lee's presentation was accompanied by photographs from her work since 1987 which can be seen in Lee's pages of the ResCen website, ed.]

I will start with some background to my own work as a choreographer. Over the last twenty years, I have chosen to work in diverse, challenging settings, be that a familiar theatre, the largest red brick building in Europe or a waterfowl sanctuary; working with casts ranging from a single performer to a cast of two hundred and thirty seven. I have made live works, dance films for broadcast and more recently interactive video installations. There have been many reasons for developing my work in this way, but above all it enables me to reach new audiences and to explore quite different relationships with them in each context. It also allows me the privilege of working with a wide range of performers of all ages and of varied experience. In general, every diversion into a new context and media is because I want to find a better way of forging a connection with an audience.

My motivation and respect for working with a wide range of performers in these projects has been threefold. Firstly, I believe fundamentally in the positive power of groups of people coming together for a common creative purpose and the extraordinary effect that this has on both an individual and on a group. Secondly, I love to watch people dancing whether trained or untrained; their movement speaks to me and inspires me more deeply than their words can. Thirdly, I want my works to reflect and communicate our common humanity, and sometimes I can do that more successfully by having a cast that is of all ages and of varied experience.

Looking up the definition of the word 'community' I was reminded of its root being the same as that of the words 'communication' and 'common'. This reminder made me realise that it was in this family of words that I could find a way of linking various strands of my work with my reasons for being an artist. For me the work is all about finding common ground and forging new ways of communicating, however delicate, subtle and non verbal.

I was asked to talk today about what is a meaningful engagement for me as an artist and for the participants? My work in all settings is about seeking to find common ground where we can meet, without the differences that divide us predetermining the relationships we make. This meeting place may be between the individual participants themselves, between me (the choreographer) and them. Equally important for me as a maker, is the meeting place between the work created and the individual audience member. The whole process from start to finish is about finding and making connections. In all the work I make, my aim is to connect with others however subtly and share with them something of what is precious to me, something that speaks non-verbally of our human condition. At my most idealistic I venture to say there is universality to this connection that dance alone can illuminate.

The philosopher RG Collingwood wrote somewhere of dance as the 'mother of language', being preverbal, and our first means of expression. It is through our bodies that we encounter and experience the world and through our bodies that we communicate our responses to it. Our senses connect us to each other and to the world, they guide us through our lives discovering as we go. We empathise easily with the loss of a sense or a limb, or the struggle to breathe, perhaps more easily than we can empathise with an emotional or belief struggle. We have this in common; we all have bodies and senses, fundamentally individual and shaped by our different life paths but also fundamentally the same. What binds us is our ability to sense, to be aware, to be alive.

There are times when we need to get beneath words, beneath the labels, that can only ever be one step removed from the experience sensed, to a more profound, unspoken method of expressing ourselves and communicating experience. I want to connect however subtly, without comment, silently. It is a meaningful experience for me if I have found these connections I have spoken of and if I feel participants and audience have been moved in some way.

What I try to do in all my work with participants, whether the dancers are highly trained or not, is to find ways of enabling the dancers to inhabit the piece that I envisage without losing their identity and without them being disempowered in any way. I am always treading a line between responding to the participant and responding to my artistic imperatives. I find I have to be highly attentive to both concerns as, if the balance goes awry, then the piece will not be successful for me. In my work, the dancer’s movement comes from their response to images and tasks that I have given them, highly specific images and tasks that I judge will bring, in the dancers' responses, the very particular embodied quality or energy I envision or may have glimpsed as potential. As a choreographer, I am trying to become intensely familiar with the dancers and their dynamic together so that the work created comes from them, is indeed theirs as well as mine. That is not to say I am only reactive to the present. It might be more accurate to say that I want to be reactive in order to be more successfully proactive.

What I am aiming for in a workshop is to bring the dancers home in their bodies. I want them to feel completely at ease, centered, free of anticipation or judgment. It is then that they can discover new qualities and feel an affirmation of their potential to go further. Everyone needs to be included, respected and treated exactly the same way, thus aiming to free people from the comparisons or assumptions of their status that only get in the way of dancing, being so irrelevant. They need to feel they belong and that they all share this common ground together. I have to find the right way to make people feel comfortable in themselves, with me, with the group, in the space and in the moment.

The panel today was also asked to consider how each of us assesses the level of engagement and the positive outcomes for participants in our work. I have tried to suggest to you, in a nutshell, what is meaningful for me and what I think is meaningful for the participants and audience. To evaluate whether I have achieved this is much more difficult. I am very self critical so I always question whether I have managed to achieve 'engagement' and 'positive outcomes'. I do therefore go through my own critical evaluation but feel less happy about involving participants in evaluation. Articulating experience is difficult and inadequate, and I find it problematic and intrusive to ask participants to verbalise a non-verbal experience. However I do use comments' books for audiences to invite unmediated feedback, and the venues I work for also undertake evaluation questionnaires. I also try to talk to people and I often receive letters which give me an idea of what has been affective for them.

On today's panel, we are also considering whether it is enough to extend participation in dance, or if there should be a social goal beyond this. For me, there is no question that community art in any medium has many many benefits, obvious and numerous. I try to keep my main aim artistic so I remain primarily a maker, not slipping into social worker/therapist areas. There is also no question too that personally I am also driven by my political beliefs.

In any situation, whether it be teaching, performing, watching or creating a piece, I aim to respond to the present, to be here and now. This is actually exactly what I want of the dancers too, so teacher, audience, maker and dancer ideally need to be in a similar state. This state of being present is one of openness and receptivity in both body and mind, open to the forest of possibilities and hyper attentive and sensitive to the present. It is an acute awareness coupled with real ease that promotes a state where one can inhabit the present moment. This receptive place for me is one of infinite openness. Watching participants in workshops when they fully inhabit the dance (or, rather, is it the dance fully inhabiting them?) affirms for me what it is to be alive. We return to that state of connectedness again.

I want to foster a life-long curiosity in each person I work with, to help them be proud of their imagination, own their dancing, broaden their horizons and thus sharpen their perception and awareness of themselves and of the world around them. If dancing helps us to find our feet on the earth then it can also help us to be more aware of the world we inhabit. Dancers who have worked with a respectful, inclusive, creative, approach tend to be the most tolerant, open and non-judgemental people I know. They often question and explore givens that others take for granted – they think laterally. They know through dancing what it means to be truly co-operative and collaborative, knowing about listening, leading, following, allowing and making decisions, they know what it means to share. So if we can foster this outlook in all those we work with, couldn’t we in our small, local, unspoken way change the world? A silent global aim starting from the individual, from the inside out.

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