Plastic Fever – Community Dance, UK

by | 26 Jun, 2001 | Press
Maxine Doyle
Animated Edition Sumer 2001

‘Never mind the plastic – this was the real thing! Punching the air, shouting and metaphorically grabbing the audience by the neck until their eyes popped out in a piece about clubbin’, pullin’ and gettin’ down. (1) The iconic status of clubbing in popular culture can be resistant to artistic engagement. Taking contemporary dance theatre and all its obscurities to a 10pm-2am beer-swilling club on Eastbourne Pier is a risk for any company and almost certainly a challenge to its new audience. Maxine Doyle, her company First Person, along with young people from Generation Arts Project and Park Sixth Form College spent six gruelling days in Atlantis actively confronting this. Here she explains how a vibrant partnership with South East Touring Agency and Eastbourne Borough Council broke barriers and gave the work a resonance beyond its theatrical origins.

In Atlantis? Well no, not quite! I had felt dissatisfied with the opening clubbing section of our new work Plastic Chill which fused aspects of club culture with Mike Leigh’s 70s play Abigail’s Party. To try to create the illusion of a hot, sweaty and crowded club is difficult with just four bodies. I needed to give the work context, to go beyond conventional theatrical spaces. I imagined the dancers darting in and out of a crowded, living space and shifting between moments of improvised vernacular movement language and choreographed phrases. In fact, I had already started daydreaming about performing the work in a real club environment to a new audience when Colin Marsh (manager, independance) thrust the Year of the Artist guidelines under my nose. One of the main criteria being ‘the extent to which the residency takes the work of artists to new people, new places or new contexts: ‘Fantastic!’ I thought, ‘I’ll make a high-energy, site-specific work on a group of young people, which will act as a prologue to the narrative of Plastic Chill.’

At that time we were developing a tour of Plastic Chill in the region in partnership with Southern England Touring Agency (SETA). In preparation for the application, I met with Sue McCormick – director and Sara Sampson (then dance officer for Eastbourne Borough Council) to discuss the possible core groups and venues. Familiar with the style and subject matter of my work, Sara suggested Generation Arts Project (GAP) – a community arts project which works with socially excluded young people between the ages of 16-25 – as a core group and Atlantis Nightclub with whom she had been developing a good relationship, as the host venue. Preliminary meetings happened in January for a February deadline with final notification around May.

I confess I found the complexity of the roles required exhausting as each one demanded that I wore a different ‘hat’ – including artist, educationalist and business manager. Sue was emphatic that the artist and the work should remain the central focus so I felt I could be honest about my artistic needs. However, that aspect of the process became a bit of a game bouncing between relevant organizations in an attempt to promote a particular area of the project. In my first meeting with Sara and the manager of Atlantis I arrived equipped with a portfolio of the company’s work and presented a convincing argument as to why the club should support Fever. I felt like a PR executive rather than a choreographer! We were asking for four days of rehearsal spare in the club and then a performance of the community piece alongside Plastic Chill at 9pm on the Saturday night. Atlantis was generous in giving us a guest list of 50 and absorbing the costs of the early opening. (The club would normally open at 10pm.)

One of the most complicated facets of the project was to balance the communication between parties. Mark Brown (project development manager) from SETA was great in liasing between various parties but inevitably, misunderstandings occurred. A week before we were due to begin our core group from GAP had shrunk to only six participants. Frankly, I would have rather worked with 60 young people than six for this kind of event! I subsequently received a panic phone call from Eastbourne Borough Council asking me where I thought this number of participants could be found. I had in fact highlighted this to make a point that more young people were needed to meet the aims of the residency and inspire an energy conducive to creativity.

The partnership with Atlantis was functional rather than inspirational. The staff was helpful during the residency but I do not think they had any kind of brief about the project or indeed the Year. I did chat to a couple of bar staff about what we were trying to do but in the main people stayed out of our way or occasionally sneaked a peak from behind a fibre optic.

The challenges of making site-specific work in a nightclub were many! Initially, I remember thinking: ‘Great – making legitimate work in a nightclub, wicked!’ In previous performances, I have tried to create a ‘clubby’ atmosphere to allow people to feel a bit more relaxed and included in the event. I do not think that audiences – in particular dance audiences think they are allowed to have a good time in a theatrical environment. I am really grateful to companies like De La Guarda at the Roundhouse and more recently The Donkey Show at the Hanover Grand for placing contemporary theatrical practice into a context, which resonates with popular experience. Fever therefore seemed to be the epitome of my ideal – a performance event that integrated professional and community practice in a socially inclusive context. And you could buy a beer at the same time – lovely!

Atlantis Nightclub was potentially a phenomenal venue to host such an event. Situated at the end of Eastbourne Pier – a bit of an anomaly where nature meets club culture! ‘Does the sea crescendo to the tunes of a bangin’ DJ set?’ I found myself wondering. Inside was even better- 70s kitsch meets 70s porn with leopard covered walls and sofas and two iron-caged podiums either side of the DJ booth. There was also a lighting rig to die for! I could hardly contain my excitement as I began scribbling down a host of images, which could bring to life the physicality of the space. However, my choreographic ideas were suitably quelled when dancer Jamieson (Jamie) Dryburgh and I actually started working and were forced to consider aspects of health and safety. I recall setting an improvisation, which involved climbing and hanging off the podiums. Initially this worked well as it got the young people excited about the environment and produced some interesting material. However, Jamie and I decided to cut this after the first few attempts because of the potential risk of performers impaling themselves. Another major consideration when working in the club was the condition of the floor with splinters of glass and the odd cigarette butt flying about. We danced in trainers, avoided contact with the floor and combined some contact-based partner work with a task, which involved rebounding off the surrounding walls and pillars. It was good to develop the basic partnering skills we had explored in the early part of the week by prescribing a choreographic focus.

A couple of weeks before the residency began; Jamie and I went to see DV8’s last show Can we afford this? We both felt inspired by aspects of the piece to do with difference and felt committed to really try to work with the individual qualities of our group. However, I do not think either of us was prepared for the challenge of working with such a diverse group of young people in relation to dance experience, social issues and personality types. The dance students demanded more physical challenges whilst the GAP participants needed the confidence to express themselves through dance and respond to choreographic ideas. During early production meetings, I had requested an appropriate dance space – warm with a good floor – for the first two days in order to do introductory work and bring the group together. Jamie and I were thrown when on day one we were taken to a huge function suite with a carpeted floor – (which we rolled back) – and rows of chairs. I was slightly bemused that this ‘ballroom’ was considered appropriate. It was a distracting space with a dreadful acoustic and a nasty floor. When Alan – one of the GAP participants suggested going to the pub at lunchtime, I was quite tempted – fortunately professionalism and Jamie steered us in the direction of the cafe.

Jamie and I continually adapted our teaching strategies to accommodate the artistic and social demands of the young people. Jamie’s genius idea of jogging around the pier left the group energized, excited and ready to work and me humbled and breathless.

Yan, I have to confess, was one of my favourites. Having never danced before he was a gorgeous mover with tremendous physicality and sensitivity – responding particularly well to partner-work tasks. He was also quite idiosyncratic in his behaviour wanting to clarify movement down to the finest detail and constantly asking questions. Initially, I was interested in his innate theatricality and thought about ways to develop this in the work. However, I quickly realized that there was not sufficient time to explore these ideas with any integrity and that to highlight any of Yan’s habits in a theatrical context would be totally inappropriate.

Some of the young people had their own agenda for wanting to create a performance piece in a nightclub, which essentially was to do with looking cool in front of their peers and thrashing about on a podium. In one workshop, Jamie taught a section of material from Plastic Chill and I had some of the group manipulate it by improvising with the cages as a point of contact. This physical limitation gave the group a focus and reduced the desire to dance as if on a hip TV show. Andrew was an avid club dancer (despite only being 16) and was resistant to make connections between some of the movement work we were doing and conventional club dancing. Despite having a prolific energy and great facility for movement, he was really demanding in terms of attention and direction. However, I produced a frantic duet phrase where Alan ‘danced like a nutter’ in his own style as Wendy stood still, simply resting her hand on his shoulder, restricting some of his dancing. We then talked about this as signifying someone holding you back and trying to contain your energy. By drawing on his own experience, Alan was able to make sense of my choreographic ideas, combine his personal responses to the clubbing context and stay looking cool to his peers. Clubbing as an activity has all iconic status within youth culture, which often limits the potential for an artistic engagement with it as a subject, and the nightclub as an environment for performance.

The final day was chaotic. We had two hours with the DJ to set lighting and sound and to negotiate his ever ringing mobile. However, he worked brilliantly with Helen Cain (company lighting designer) and was disappointed at not having been involved from an earlier stage. Originally, I had stressed a desire to collaborate with the club DJ and use light as a stimulus for the work. However, with a reduction in budget of 50 per cent the vision for the project had to be reduced. Rather ironic when the Year guidelines stated: ‘This is an access project for dreamers, innovators and engineers of imagination as well as those committed to social value, education and community development.’ I guess I felt cheated of the opportunity to fully realize an idea, which had the potential to encompass artistic innovation and community development.

However, taking contemporary dance theatre and all its obscurities to a10pm-2am beer-swilling club on Eastbourne Pier was a risk for the company and a challenge to its new audience. The young people gave a polished, confident and entertaining performance of Fever to a small audience of friends, family, bar staff and a few discerning clubbers. The performance of Plastic Chill ran over into the ten o’clock time when the normal punters arrived for their Saturday night out. The theatrical subtleties of the work were lost in the space and at times the dancers looked exposed and vulnerable. To help solve this, I speeded up the sound cues, which accelerated the pace of the performance and drowned out the odd holler of: ‘Get your kit off?’ Both pieces were brilliantly received by those who had witnessed the whole event. Overall, the project consolidated my commitment to the value of dance within a structured outreach programme and its potential to develop confidence and self worth within young people. However, Plastic Chill’s final image of super hero losing it in a mist of flour was a bit too much to take in for those Saturday night clubbers who just wanted their dance floor back!

Maxine Doyle, artistic director.

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