This following article is reproduced with kind permission of www.disabilityarts.online – originally commissioned as part of a guest editorship with choreographer, dancer and writer Alexandrina Hemsley in July 2019
Alexandrina Hemsley chatted to choreographer and close friend Rosie Heafford about her company Second Hand Dance, the merits of children’s work, her upcoming project Touch and more inclusive practices within dance.
Second Hand Dance has been making dance works in a range of spaces including libraries and outdoors, and in theatres since 2013. In recent years, their work has been made for young children.
“I feel like the work that’s made for young children is the best! When I watch work for that age-group it feels the most beautiful and often the freest. It is without the pressures that you find in work made exclusively for adult audiences. It’s imaginative and helps us explore the world in some part. I’m also really interested in why the children’s work that I like is made for children and not just for everyone.”
Having initially imagined herself solely making theatre work, Rosie has invested in different places for performance including libraries and outdoor spaces; reaching a diverse range of audiences. Rosie describes getting hooked into the communities and aesthetics of children’s work:
“It felt like home. It felt like the work that I wanted to make and the people that I wanted to surround myself with. The values corresponded with the work I wanted to make as it is often accessible. Not always to everyone, but there’s a thought given to who you’re presenting the work to, rather than making the work in isolation.
Children also give great feedback! I love it if there’s a narrator in the audience and they tell you what’s happening on stage the entire way through. It gives immediate, spontaneous and embodied feedback rather than being so much in our adult heads.
Our performances are also for the adults that accompany children – carers, guardians parents etc., particularly if they’ve had a rough morning and at that moment, they’re not best friends with the child. At least they can share a moment of joy or see a child in a different situation and see the different skills that come out. Maybe a child made contact with someone who’s a stranger to them but normally they’re quite resistant to that. There’s a bit of a magic in those situations.”
Rosie balances advocating for working conditions for a small-mid scale, independent touring company versus what organisations may prioritise or attribute value to:
“There’s an ongoing conversation around how children’s dance and theatre is programmed. It’s often programmed at the weekend, on top of other shows, with only a two hour get-in and we’ve fought that quite a lot. Our show Grass needs a four hour get-in – Getting Dressed needed a full day and that was really hard. Venues tried to squash that time which squashes the ambition and artistic desire of a piece. In my experience, it’s often viewed that children’s work should make a venue money, as opposed to the Thursday night dance piece that’s on later. That’s difficult because the Thursday night dance piece may only have 20 audience members whereas our children’s dance show will often reach capacity. But the evening dance show will get a 1-2 day get in.
These constraints mean that working with 4 dancers is an extraordinary reach! Wouldn’t it be amazing for children to watch 16 dancers perform? To watch these bodies communicate in the same non-verbal way they communicate? Wouldn’t it be amazing to have bigger, more immersive sets?
The difference in value seems ridiculous and speaks to a culture of not valuing children. There’s a systemic non-valuing of children and it’s seeing them as something becoming rather than someone right now. For example, we don’t allow 16-year olds to vote and curtail their capacity to have a view. A 3-year-old has a view. A 3-year-old can see and experience the world and have feelings about it. Once this perspective shifts then the systems for creating work for children can change.”
Rosie’s current project Touch is an improvised, interactive show where 2-4 performers gently encourage dancing, play and touch with an audience of 0-3 year-olds. It is in development with a series of performances and residencies including at SEN schools and Great Ormond Street Hospital.
“Touch started, as it often does, when I watch other shows. Often, that’s when my creative brain is allowed to release and forget about logistics for a while! I had a hunger to get rid of any set or props and go back to the body; specifically exploring what a body can do for a young audience. I was also troubled by ‘no touch’ policies in some schools and struck by the cultural legacy of fear over touch.
I feel that touch is so incredibly important in my world but I also know that it is a difficult area. The work is about touch, but it’s much more about communication and relationship building.”
Rosie hopes to reaffirm the importance of touch in our society and is working with her dancers on cultivating a reciprocal sensitivity towards touch in a post #metoo era. She invites us into the performative space to learn about how we relate socially and is working to foreground the non-verbal:
“There’s a responsiveness that the dancers are developing which feels integral to the creative process. A sensitivity to know what people feel comfortable with, or comfortable enough to refuse, and a sensitivity to read when that refusal is unspoken. So that people aren’t in a space where they feel uncomfortable and they’re receiving touch that they don’t want.
It’s been really interesting to see the range of responses so far. You get children and adults who want to watch and don’t want to come into contact and that’s as valid as the child who wants to run up and hug you and be thrown around the space.
Touch isn’t always appropriate but if we continue to base certain policies around fearing touch within childcare settings, instead of sensitively reading each other then that’s taking us away from our biological need. There’s research into the touch neurons and how that sense of slow, nurturing touch develops for humans before a sense of dangerous touch, i.e. pain. And that implies that humans need nurturing touch, we need to be in a relationship with other humans more than we need to know a cooking hob is hot to the touch.”
Rosie has been pivotal to my own understandings of invisible disabilities and my ability to articulate my needs to dance organisations. Even though we’ve both developed confidence in doing so, we still face barriers as independent artists.
“Lots of people that I encounter as programmers or organisations have forgotten that they’re programming the body. They’re concerned with the body but somehow they’re not in their own body. We put these pressures on ourselves to work ridiculous hours, sitting at a screen when everyone knows that’s not fun – that’s not being in the embodied experience a venue is programming and telling audiences to come and watch. There’s this disconnect from the artform. Increasingly, I feel like certain access requirements in a workplace are needs of everyone, it’s just if I don’t have them, the impact is pain or fatigue whereas other people can push through. No one needs a meeting longer than an hour and a half!
If we could just get back to the body. In particular, I’m thinking about festivals. My experience recently has been that festivals are completely inaccessible events. At the moment I feel like at festivals I want a big bright badge which says, ‘please offer me a seat’! I don’t really like that as a labelling tool but there are so few opportunities in the power dynamics that are inherent within the industry to just say, ‘Can we sit down to have this conversation?’. Sitting down means commitment rather than just standing and having a quick conversation and then follow up by email.
“When can we get to a point where it is the role of a festival to consider access needs as a possibility for anyone? Or is it the responsibility of an artist to know what they need and come with their own funding and support mechanisms? Is it for me to book taxis or the festival’s because they want people to come and be a part of it? In which case, they need to look at accessible models of participation. Whose onus is that work to be done and whose labour?”
Touch is commissioned by The Place, Pavilion Dance South West and supported by The Egg and Gulbenkian, University of Kent and using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council London.