FEATURE: Flying High – When Community Participation Works | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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It’s right that everyone regardless of ability gets to pursue their passion. Everyone should be able to sing, dance, paint, act, play an instrument, whatever their thing is, and those who give up their time to form community choirs, orchestras and other arts groups need to be applauded.

I have no problem with community participation in the arts. I dance, I play my violin. What I have failed to understand is why professional artists would choose to work with amateurs like myself. What could they possibly get out of it? ‘Funding approval’ replies my inner cynic, ‘There’s nothing that boosts a funding application like community engagement.’

I signed up to participate in Flying High nevertheless: a performance by community dancers at The Land of Oak and Iron made possible by Eliot Smith Dance. I approached this opportunity with a blend of cowardice and cynicism. My burning questions were ‘Who do you think you are?’ (coward) and ‘Why on earth would anyone want to watch this?’ (cynic).

But you know what? I felt like a dancer. We were treated as dancers, Eliot addressed us as ‘dancers’. We warmed up, we listened, we watched – and then we danced. The rehearsal was a magical time of losing myself in another world of movement and music and community. We achieved something remarkable together. Other participants felt it too. Teresa Kirby explains, “It’s such a privilege to be given free access to professional dance training with one of the region’s leading dance companies.” The sense of respect and gratitude for Eliot Smith and his dancers pervaded the rehearsal as community dancer Kevin Dickinson expresses, “Eliot was able to explain his vision and the movements exceptionally well. He also took account of everyone’s needs and experience.”

My burning questions were ‘Who do you think you are?’ (coward) and ‘Why on earth would anyone want to watch this?’ (cynic).

What I found fascinating was that we were as much an inspiration to Eliot Smith, Yamit Salazar and Gemma Paganelli from Eliot Smith Dance as they were to us! Yamit loves working with community dancers because he gets the opportunity to see how they experiment with movement and how they think. He loves the freedom of their dancing. For Gemma, the joy is to see people enjoy their bodies and engaging through them. ESD Artistic Director Eliot Smith has always possessed a desire to share his work with the local and wider community, “All community dancers inspire me because they all take that step into the unknown. Because the majority of participants have no formal dance training, they have more freedom to feel the movement rather than think about what it looks like but how does the movement feel. That freedom inspires my work.”

Flying High is a work inspired by the region’s Red Kites. Community dancer Lesley Lofthouse describes that inspiration in this way, “When you are young, you may not have a clear idea of where you want life to take you. Post-60, you are like the red kite, up high, viewing life for the amazing journey it is, welcoming new perspectives and challenges.”

These magnificent birds also form the inspiration for Eliot Smith’s new work On Red Kites to be performed at Sage Gateshead on 26 November 2019. The preview of this work performed by Eliot Smith and Gemma Paganelli after Flying High was breath-taking, “the perfect teaser” as one audience member observed.

I can’t tell you how our community performance looked to the audience (although audience member Amanda Hamilton commented that the performance was over too soon, and she could have watched a lot more!). I can only tell you how it felt for me. Performing in the open air beneath a clear blue sky in this beautiful space at the Land of Oak and Iron felt like an immense privilege. I wanted to do well, not for the audience or Eliot or the other dancers, but for myself. This was a special opportunity and I was going to make the most of it.

So the cynic in me has wandered off for now. The joy of dance has chased it away. It’s a joy that unites dancers of all abilities, professional or otherwise.

Eliot Smith Dance perform On Red Kites at Sage Gateshead on Tuesday 26th November. For more information on Eliot Smith Dance’s community outreach programme visit the website here

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