We’re Itching To Talk About… is a series of blog posts in which we feature some of the brilliant work our theatre-making friends are creating within the region and further afield.

Image: The Birmingham Dance Network Team. From left to right: Genevieve Say (Artistic Director), Patsy Browne-Hope (Executive Manager), and Becca Thomas (Creative Producer / Artist Engagement).

Birmingham Dance Network is the go-to support network for independent dance artists, choreographers and teachers who live and work in and around the UK’s second city. Founded in October 2013, BDN aims to create opportunities to connect, network and discover other artists, choreographers and teachers and provides regular opportunities to do so through weekly professional classes, new work platforms, and panel discussions.

We caught up with Genevieve, Patsy and Becca to find out what inspired them to set up the network and their hopes for the independent dance community’s future.

For more information about BDN, visit: www.birminghamdancenetwork.co.uk

Gareth: As independent dance artists, what drove you all to come together to form Birmingham Dance Network?

Becca: Birmingham Dance Network came from very humble beginnings. Patsy had started to deliver a professional level contemporary dance class at a small studio, Misfitted Hub, in central Birmingham. Gradually the dancers attending these classes began to discuss their needs and hopes for professional development, and the first Birmingham Dance Network meeting was held in a treatment room upstairs at the studio. We thought we might have a couple of social events, run some more classes. I can’t quite believe how much has happened since then. I think the number of dance artists in the city met a critical mass and we just had to do something.

Gareth: What support have you received to get BDN to where it is now? And what future support might you be looking for to build on the success of the network?

Genevieve: We’ve received support in a variety of forms since we started. Whether it be family members making cakes for our raffles, or private companies taking a punt and giving us sponsorship money for our projects. Financially we’ve relied a lot on Arts Council England up until now, but we also make sure our activities make an income, and we’ve done pretty well raising funds from our community. The support we really value though is that from the dancers and those involved in dance in the city. Sometimes it’s someone telling us we’re doing a great job, while others have gone out and advocated for us and given up precious time to help make an event happen. That sort of support is so important because it vindicates what we’re doing and makes us feel we’re going in the right direction.

The number of dance artists in the city met a critical mass and we just had to do something.

Gareth: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing independent dance practitioners at the moment — both in the Midlands, and in general? How would you like to see the dance sector develop over the next ten years?

Patsy: Resources! Money can be a taboo topic of conversation in our industry but I don’t think it should be. The Equity Freelance Dancers Network are doing some really wonderful things to help support and a give a voice to independent artists but it would be wonderful if topics such as large theatres grossly underpaying dance artists weren’t even conversations that needed to be had. I would also like to see a more open attitude to allowing independent artists to use studios to explore their craft. I appreciate that this isn’t always quite as easy as it sounds and there are already some brilliant schemes out there supporting independent artists, but I still feel there are some organisations that haven’t quite got their head around what it means to support the independent artist.

Gareth: The Little Earthquake team spend a lot of time actively seeking ways to reduce any barriers which discourage potential audience members from experiencing our work and wider culture. What steps do you think the dance sector could take in order to reach as wide an audience as possible — and especially those who feel that dance somehow is a secret language which they don’t know how to decipher?

Genevieve: I think we’ve been encouraged for some time now to focus on ‘art for art’s sake’ in contemporary dance, which means choreographers create things that are inspired by process/concept/shape and form of the body. I think this has a place, but it doesn’t have to be the only approach in contemporary dance. Traditionally it’s been an experimental form, but I think that if makers consider what it is that moves an audience, what makes them think, what gets them excited, even (dare I say it?) what entertains an audience, then the form can access a wider, more varied audience. For me, the dance world can become too self-referential and too reliant on its audience being other artists who feel part of the club. I’m always interested in companies and artists that manage to look past the dance world and make work that fits with people who don’t see themselves as performers or artists.

Becca: I think that we should remember that for work to be accessible it doesn’t mean it has less artistic quality, and that ‘entertainment’ is not a four letter word! Also that work can be engaging but tragic, or heartbreaking, or tender, or joyful, or funny. Personally, I’m interested in work that connects us through our shared physical experience. On a more practical level, I think more dance should take place outside of traditional theatre settings. Obviously this is something I learned while with Ludus Dance, but it’s brilliant to take shows to places where people already gather. You don’t have to persuade them to go to a new place which can be daunting or just too much effort. I’m also a big fan of shows that have in depth education/outreach activity as part of the tour.

Gareth: Throughout your careers, you’ve all made a vast range of work with all sorts of different people. Describe some of the people or companies who have had the biggest impact on each of you and on the work you make.

Patsy: In general I have found most dancers that I’ve worked with inspiring. They strive for something they love every single day for little or no return. They have an incredible work ethic and a stern resilience that keeps them going even when things get tough. However in terms of a creative process I think the strongest influence for me would have to be Protein Dance – I began working with them whilst I was still in my third year of training. For me it’s their ability to create work that is intelligent, funny and human – they have an ability to connect with audiences in an honest way that I think is difficult to come by and I have a great appreciation for this. I found the work ethic of Luca Silvestrini and Akram Khan to be both intense and admirable. They have an ability to keep on pushing to find the ‘right’ movement answers and they expect their dancers to work just as hard as they work themselves. I learnt so much throughout their processes about how to keep challenging myself as an artist and to keep exploring my own physicality.

Becca: I think a key choreographic influence for me is Yael Flexer. When she choreographed ‘What If?’ for Ludus Dance, if we weren’t in a section she would encourage us to stand next to her while she worked rather than sit on the sides of the studio. This way I began to see the choreography develop in front of my eyes. It was a total treat. The way she plays with space and pattern is like turning a kaleidoscope. Watching her build it from the outside was a valuable learning experience for me. Also while at Ludus Dance I worked with an amazing team of fellow performers, each of whom inspired me as artists, dancers and teachers. And overseeing it all was Gil Graystone, our Head of Touring. She leads by example, with a truly person-centred approach to every single aspect of her work. She valued each member of her team and this ethos showed me that there is more to being a dancer than being able to do steps.

Gareth: A question for Genevieve: in your biography, you mention the importance of artist-led organisations that feed grassroots arts activities in the city. Can you talk a little more about the need for this kind of activity? Why is it important for artists to lead from the front in this way?

Genevieve: When I was training as a dancer I lived in Liverpool for 3 years. During this time I experienced a city that had lagged behind in publicly funded city regeneration (compared to other northern cities like Manchester and Leeds), social housing generation, and cultural spending. In response, artistic communities took it upon themselves to create their own creative space for their community and the wider public. Property was cheap, spaces were available and landlords allowed artists to create interesting and diverse environments, maybe to keep their buildings occupied, maybe even because they realised that artists bring with them communities and kudos, and that cool factor that eventually raises rents. Because of this grass roots activity, by the time I arrived in the city in the early 2000’s there was a genuine artistic presence woven into the fabric of the city that made it exciting, made it feel risky and made things feel possible. Small art galleries had integrity because of their commitment to the need of spaces for the public to see and experience art. Collaboration was easy because artists, small gallery owners, cafes, music studios and other creative spaces said yes to things that sounded interesting, fun or just possible. In Liverpool there was a culture of ‘doing’. People didn’t wait for funding, or for organisations to make things happen. They just got up and did it because that was the only way things would happen. I believe Liverpool was a better, more interesting cultural offer because of it. Since then there has been huge investment in the city both in terms of city centre regeneration and in the arts (mostly from Liverpool as Capital of Culture in 2008), which has simultaneously supported the arts community and strangled it. I hope Liverpool will always have an artistic heart because of its get-up-and-go attitude. I think Birmingham, and every other city and town and village can have the same exciting arts and culture if resident artists work together to make things happen for each other and the city as a whole.

Birmingham can have exciting arts and culture if resident artists work together to make things happen for each other and the city as a whole.

Gareth: A question for Patsy: during your work with Protein Dance Company, you spent some time at the Evelina Children’s Hospital, working alongside physiotherapists to support the rehabilitation of children after surgery. Can you talk a little more about this experience? How important do you think it is for artists (of any discipline) to find ways of using their skills and knowledge beyond the confines of more traditional performance?

Patsy: This was easily my most humbling work experience to date. It was an idea proposed by Carolyn Naish and led by Luca Silvestrini (Protein’s Artistic Director). Our primary job as dance artists in this setting was to use creative ways to get children moving and mobile after surgery. We would work alongside physiotherapists and incorporate props, music and dance to encourage movement from the children. But really it went beyond this. I wasn’t emotionally prepared to hear the stories or to meet the families of these children. The commitment and unconditional love of the parents, loved ones and siblings is what really blew me away along with their determination and unwavering hope for their child.

In terms of the work itself we had to consistently check in with the hospital team about who we were working with and remain sensitive to the environment and emotional states of families and patients. Daily planning whilst remaining malleable with our ideas was also essential. We had to ensure our ideas were beneficial to the patient but also find a way to inspire them – children have the best imaginations and it was about finding what struck a chord with them and running with it.

For example, one of the long term patients adored wrestling so the male company members choreographed a wrestling match for him to watch and participate in which was just brilliant! And there are many more stories like this that I could share. We would take instruments to children that were unable to leave their rooms or beds and create dances with our hands or they would become choreographers and instruct us on what dance moves we should do. They would get a real kick out of making us look as daft as possible! Families of patients would also join in for large group sessions in the atrium which were open to anyone who fancied joining us for an hour of music and dance. I remember fondly that there would always be a lot of laughter and happiness after these sessions.

Ultimately, everything we did aimed to be vibrant, personable and fun. I believe this approach made it the success that it was.

The real skill of an artist is their ability to connect; to connect with their emotion, their audience, their story, their body, their mind, their surroundings. This is a great transferable skill and is something that I believe could and should be utilised whenever possible. Artists are capable of achieving wonderful things with their ability to connect, listen and respond.

Gareth: A question for Becca: you work a lot with both community groups and professional dancers. Are there any ways in which your work with one group has influenced your work with the other group, and vice versa?

Becca: The simple answer is… yes! Maintaining a career as a professional dancer requires rigour, passion, and an ability to embrace challenges. Therefore in any setting, I value finding out how far an idea, an image or a movement can be taken. I often try to work out if everyone in the room is exploring the edges of, or even challenging, their comfort zones, physically or otherwise.

However, working in a range of settings helps me to remember that we all have good days and bad days; we all have things we enjoy and things that we don’t. Therefore I try to take a holistic approach any time I am in the studio as a facilitator, teacher, choreographer or director. I am interested in the ways in which our life experience informs our movement and performance practice but it’s also really important to me that everyone in the room is valued and supported. We give a lot of ourselves when we dance and I try to be respectful of that.

Furthermore, I am interested in the group, as well as the individual experience. I love that through dance we make non-verbal connections with others and in any setting I look to make authentic connections, with other dancers, participants or an audience.

Gareth: During our year of organisational development, we’re trying to expose ourselves to as many new influences as possible. This includes collaborating with a dance company for the first time (Spiltmilk Dance) to discover what happens when our narrative, text-based practice meets Spiltmilk’s dance practice. Do you have any advice for us as we dip our toes into the world of dance for the first time?

Genevieve: Ditch the leg warmers, they’re so last century. I don’t know, dance is brilliant, mysterious, wonderful and frustrating. It’s a world of contradictions and delights. With good performance you can make people feel and experience dance in a way no other art form can, but one bad show can put people off for life! Collaboration is a wonderful thing though, and the same rules of all creative processes apply: listening, responding, and being present.

Dance is brilliant, mysterious, wonderful and frustrating.

Becca: Does this mean you will suddenly be moving a lot more? If so, drink enough water, get enough sleep, eat well and take care of your body and mind!

Patsy: Enjoy the exploration, have fun and make sure you keep us updated on how it goes!

Gareth: Many of our blog subscribers are performance students who plan to go on and make their own work professionally. If you had to give one piece of advice to them, what would it be?

Genevieve: Keep getting in the studio, practice your craft and don’t give up if you really believe in what you’re doing. Some people will love it, some will not, but if you have something worthwhile people will see the potential. Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t be afraid to succeed. Always listen and absorb. Look around you and be inspired!

Becca: In 2013 I was mentored by Rachel Krische as part of the Dance UK Teachers Mentoring Scheme. She helped me to understand that everything that I’m interested in is part of my practice. For me, amongst other things this includes acting, singing, poetry, activism, teaching, choreography, sign language, travel, and a broad range of dance techniques and practices. Therefore I would advise students to keep open minded. You can only do one thing at a time of course, but I think often we are told we have to specialise or focus, and I don’t think that is always true. I think a rich life experience informs artistic practice.

And don’t worry if you have a bit of a gap with no dance work where you have to do other jobs. It doesn’t mean you’ll never work as an artist! What I’m saying is, it’s not a straight path and there is no map so be prepared to make your own rules!

Patsy: I think Gen and Becca have pretty much summed it up but I’d like to say quite simply: be nice, remain positive and work hard! The industry can be stressful and tough but don’t take that into the studio with you. Keep your mind and heart open and enjoy the ride – we are extremely fortunate to be able to wake up every day and do something we love. Just don’t forget that.