When I finished last year’s review of the year with best wishes for 2020 little did I suspect quite what a year it would be… Apologies for a long posting! Do hover over names and titles to find embedded links to further information.
2020 began busily, making final corrections to my doctoral thesis and writing papers emerging from my research. I delivered “Developing craft in the ballet class” at the Parallax 14 Craft and Art Symposium at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance on 12th February. This friendly but thought provoking one day event brought together papers and performance presentations from artists and scholars in a variety of disciplines and genres in stimulating discussion.
No sooner that completed than I was preparing “We can know more that we can tell: transmitting knowledge in the ballet class” for presentation as part of the University of Malta’s three day Conference Performance Knowledges: Transmission, Composition, Praxis. Husband Pete and I left London for sunny Malta on Tuesday 10th March, my paper scheduled for the Friday. Held in the heart of picturesque Valetta in the dignified stone building of the old University the first day programme of this international gathering was truly exciting in its breadth and variety. But at the end we were summoned together in the main hall and it was announced that the rest of the conference was to be cancelled. The seriousness of the contagion of Covid19 taking hold frighteningly in Italy was beginning to be fully realised, and the Maltese government summarily imposed strict 14 day quarantine measures on foreigners arriving from several European countries. Over a final convivial drink with colleagues and new found friends we made the sad but necessary decision to get the first flight out the next morning, back to the UK, where the following week lockdown was announced – and life changed.
Like so many other self employed I lost all my work with lockdown; it was no longer possible to teach my regular classes, as the URC Hall had to close, and such communal activities were in any case not permitted. Soon other commitments further ahead were also cancelled as all realised that restrictions and social distancing measures would be in place indefinitely. It soon became apparent that the only way to maintain practice and perhaps a livelihood was to embrace possibilities online offered by platforms such as Instagram, YouTube and the newly emerging Zoom; a daunting prospect for a technical Luddite like myself. Here a huge thank you to Arts Council England for their speedy and sympathetic deployment of Emergency Funding ; their grant provided a cushion of time and funds for resources while I struggled to adapt to online working and develop new skills and ideas for taking Ballet in Small Spaces forward in the digital realm.
The dance world responded to the devastating curtailment of live activities with immediate enterprise. Companies made recordings of past performances digitally available to make up for the lack of live shows; but also, alongside numerous independent teachers, began offering live-streamed classes for dancers to participate in from their own homes. An extraordinary choice opened up, enabling professionals and amateurs to study with teachers from all over the world, sampling class practice at institutions such as English National Ballet, where Director Tamara Rojo taught a series of daily classes from her kitchen, and Paris Opera Ballet, whose grandes étoiles such as Dorothée Gilbert took turns to share barre work from their homes. I enjoyed dipping into the sympathetic and upbeat class of the Norwegian Ballet’s ballet master Jahn Magnus Johansen, and the wisdom of veteran Paris based teacher Wayne Byers. Some of the huge online offer was of questionable quality; so special thanks to colleague Ségolène Tarte and Sonia Tycko for their instructive sampling and judicious recommendations…
My initial experience of the live interaction of Zoom and streamed classes was negative; we are all now familiar with peering at thumbnail pictures of anxious faces or partially obscured bodies in cramped domestic spaces, stilted conversations, inexplicable loss of sound or picture, screeching sound distortions. For that reason my heart goes out to those who have decided that Zoom ballet classes are not for them, too stressful to follow teaching this distanced, or perhaps just one online interaction too many in a day where much work is now by computer. I began teaching online in late March by posting single enchaînements on Instagram, soon migrating to YouTube, with the idea of providing something fully visible, explained in detail, and viewable as many times as necessary, that people could learn in their own time and at their own pace. Our kitchen was cleared to become a space for dancing, and I owe a huge vote of thanks to Pete for filming me demonstrating these on my iPhone. The “Enchaînement of the day” series worked gradually through the barre and centre of a whole class and then some further groups of related enchaînements around particular themes. You can find all 51 on the Ballet in Small Spaces YouTube channel here.
By the end of April it became apparent that we were not going to be back in the URC Hall for the foreseeable future, and there was a real need to provide some complete live online classes tailored to what people could do in their own homes. I started to offer a series of Monday evening “Kitchen classes” via Zoom, welcoming back regular students; at the end of May adding a series of BiSS Thursday morning classes. An impressively large number gave the classes a try, and an encouraging number began attending regularly. Eternal thanks to all who generously provided illuminating and helpful feedback on their experience of my initial pilot!
These two classes for intermediate to advanced dancers gave me the confidence to offer through July a 5 class series for adult beginners. I had worried that beginners would find learning by Zoom particularly challenging; without the support of others around whom one could watch and copy in moments of doubt, and the mutual encouragement and shared fun that had become so much a part of these classes before Covid19 struck. It was heart-warming to see how people embraced the opportunity to resume their learning of ballet in this new way. Under normal circumstances we would have spent a whole term on a particular class; this short series seemed to end just as we were getting going. Emboldened by my YouTube experience I rashly promised to film the whole class so that people could continue to practise and develop the work we had begun. Another steep learning curve through August as I worked out with much cursing how to film myself on iMovie and edit my clips together with captions interspersed. The result three videos, comprising a warm-up, barre work and centre practice with demonstration and explanation, which are accessible via a private Vimeo link; contact me if you are interested in purchasing this.
I was but one of many exploring dance on film under lockdown. A feature of this period was the outpouring of creative homemade and small-scale dance movies reflecting the difficult career changing circumstances of dancers both poignantly and humorously; both students and professionals skilfully and imaginatively exploring the possible. Not only filming within the confines of the home, but also out in deserted streets, beaches, parks and gardens, taking the chance to leap and bound in casual clothes and sneakers, revealing dancing personalities in fresh and liberating ways in relation to the natural world. Regular permitted walks brought aesthetic delight in observing the process of seasonal transformation; I spent a happy summer afternoon improvising in the atmospheric gardens at Rousham, and another in nearby woods with Banbury based dance practitioner Paula Bailey in embodied response to the tangle of fallen branches, accompanied by the rustle of leaves and birdsong…
Meanwhile out of all these learning experiences a choreographic project was taking shape, building on a longstanding interest in the concept of technical studies, borrowed from musical composition, that I had previously explored in Inside Out in 2011; theoretical ideas emerging from my research now seeping into my practice. It felt as though, for many ballet dancers, training at home in a confined space emphasised maintaining physical fitness and mechanical abilities; but provided little opportunity to explore and refine the expressive dimensions of their technical skills. My idea to produce miniature dances tailored to performance in smaller spaces that would embed technical concepts, study and challenge into an artistic form, to give dancers something beyond mere exercises when theatrical performance opportunities are non-existent; and to enable non-professionals to develop their own sense of dancing as a communicative expressive statement.
Part of this has involved an extensive search for suitable music, initially sticking with piano music as an extension from class. Devising the enchaînements for YouTube had alerted me to the minefield of copyright in the digital domain, throwing up not simply the practical questions of music rights and permissions, but also profound philosophical questions of ownership of both music and the dance. An absorbing black hole where there are as yet more questions than answers… I have valued throughout this year email dialogue and discussion on musical matters with the immensely knowledgeable and experienced ballet accompanist Jonathan Still, and commend all those interested in the use of music in the ballet class to his enlightening blog, highly recommended!
To bring structure to a project developing a very different outcome in an unfamiliar medium I have participated in two of the inspiring mentored programmes run by Caroline Salem of Clarence Mews. This year dancing in that tranquil studio has been almost entirely impossible, but Caroline set up online programmes in which artists might continue to come together to share their emerging work in a safe and supportive environment, and give and receive feedback; also valuably try out new techniques for sharing and producing work online. From July to August I took part in an intense Virtual Month of Making via Zoom with 5 other artists, comprising weekly sharings and regular one-to-one sessions with Caroline; and have just completed a further 10 week programme with 4 others. It has been a joy to share the solitary and often doubt ridden process of creation with artists from as far afield as Finland and Tokyo as well as closer to home, and who are also working with media beyond dance; aerial work, comedy, spoken word, writing (both prose and poetry), flower arranging, installation work, film, sharing these in stimulating cross fertilization… And to marvel at the richness of ideas budding despite enormous restriction, artists putting forth hopeful green shoots in a year which has often seemed barren and devastated.
Another positive aspect of this difficult year has been closer involvement with Oxford Dance Forum (ODF) . Following last autumn’s conclusion of the successful 3 year ACE funded Evolution programme, a new phase beckoned, time to re-evaluate and initiate new projects. At the AGM in January a small steering team was confirmed, with Jenny Parrott continuing her valuable work as Administrator, Jane Connelly as Treasurer, Ségolène Tarte as Secretary and myself as Chair. We looked initially to continue valuable practical programmes for Oxford based dance artists such as monthly Creative Labs, and Scratch Nights at the Old Fire Station. With lockdown these were inevitably indefinitely suspended; but our activity was not! We have met regularly, using this down time to revise ODF membership arrangements and constitution; we also instigated regular Thursday afternoon informal Check in and Chat sessions. As well as providing a way for local dancers to keep in touch these have helped ODF to link up with similar organisations across the South East region and beyond. Jenny’s heroic efforts have ensured that a monthly newsletter packed with information about opportunities and assistance has gone out to members and wider associates; providing cheering evidence of solidarity and ingenuity within the beleaguered but unbowed independent dance sector.
ODF’s huge gratitude also goes to two local venues, themselves struggling with the financial devastation wrought by lockdown closure, but still reaching out to support freelance artists facing suspension of activity and loss of livelihood. September brought a fruitful collaboration with Oxford Playhouse to provide a week of free Covid safe rehearsal space for local artists in the Burton Taylor Studio; and in November and December Arts at the Old Fire Station (OFS) began a generous programme of affordable access to its studio, which ODF is further subsidising for its members under the name “Breathing Space”; a real bargain and a chance for local dancers to get on with developing work in anticipation of the eventual resumption of performance opportunities… continuing into 2021, watch this space!
Also continuing bravely to programme events despite setbacks was Dance Scholarship Oxford (DANSOX) based at St Hilda’s College. It was not possible to bring people together at the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building, but indefatigable director Professor Sue Jones programmed a Virtual Summer School featuring enlightening lectures on major American choreographer Paul Taylor by Alastair Macaulay and beautiful Taylor dancer Parisa Kobdeh, alongside new dance scholarship, including a lecture by myself: “The Ballet Class: A Critical Reading”. All the lectures are now available on the JduP YouTube Channel, along with previous DANSOX lectures by distinguished scholars and practitioners, you can find this treasure trove here.
Sadly this year brought great losses within my dance family. At the beginning of February John Travis, genial former Director of the British Ballet Organization whom I had first come to know in the late 1980s, died after a long battle with cancer; you can read an account of his rich career as a performer, teacher, educator, director, librarian, archivist, and mentor here. And then the teacher who had taught me and others so much over recent years, both as dancers and as people, the wonderful Roger Tully, passed peacefully away on 26th February. My last social gathering before lockdown was his funeral; a beautiful sunny spring day with blue sky and nodding daffodils paying perfect tribute. Here is the heartfelt obituary written by fellow Tully alumni Jennifer Jackson and Nicholas Minns for The Dancing Times. You can also read some reflections on Roger’s teaching in my essai “Outside the mainstream: ballet teaching at the margins” recently published in Theatre, Dance and Performance Journal here. Roger’s Wednesday classes for the “Tully Collective” continue in London and now online, providing an opportunity to keep his refined and thoughtful teachings alive through their on-going practice, with classes taught on a rota by Naomi Sorkin, Jennifer Jackson, Patrick Wood, Aniko Nagy and myself.
Closer to home at the beginning of lockdown my Oxford ballet friend and fellow student, Caroline Wheatcroft (nee Pavely) died shockingly too soon of a brain tumour. Her untimely death prompted nostalgic reminiscences about our happy times learning ballet together, first with Beryl Jackson at the Tetlow Hulme Ballet Studio off New Inn Hall Street, and then with June Christian, before we both went to the Royal Ballet School; you can read more about this lovely sunny person and our early experiences here.
Finally on 17th November much loved teacher and exemplary dancer Karen Sellick, stalwart of the Oxford dance community, passed away, again from cancer; another cruel reminder that Covid19 is not the only killer. She is greatly missed by pupils and colleagues for her unfailing interest and support, and her joyous dancing in classes well into her eighties, providing inspiration to us all. Oxford Dance Writers will be publishing a tribute to her.
Throughout this year I have struggled to keep my anger at bay. I am horrified by the shameless ideological dismantling and removal of democratic representation and rights, the mendacity and corruption of government, the trashing of opportunities for generations to come, and the political incompetence which has allowed Covid19 to rage. I have watched with despair as the arts world suffers the perfect storm that is its downgrading and disappearance through impoverished educational policy and the short-sighted commodification of higher education, combined with the economic havoc wrought by Covid19 closures and now the loss of freedom of movement through Brexit. Yet I have also regularly been reminded of the miraculous transformative effect of engaging with the arts, which have been there through this most difficult of years bringing joy, solace, and enlightenment, genuinely enriching the lives of those who embrace them. A New Year’s resolution then to do my utmost to continue, promote and support the artistic activity and community this battered and misguided country sorely needs.
Wishing you all the best for 2021,