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The unique dance landscape in Northern Ireland

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Francesca Tortora | 11:59 UK time, Friday, 27 January 2012

In 1996 Sandie Fisher co-founded Assault Events, a performing arts company in Northern Ireland and one of the winners of our Dance Fellowship scheme last year. Over the past 15 years the company has helped to shape the dance scene in Northern Ireland but as Sandie explains, there is still a lot left to do.

"Assault Events applied for a Fellowship grant because we felt that there were limited opportunities in Northern Ireland for emerging professionals to gain experience and work in contemporary dance practice. There are a number of reasons for this which all add up to a very unique dance landscape for Northern Ireland, a landscape which presents many challenges for the dedicated dance professional. To give you a snapshot…

 

Sandra with Claire Mullan, BBC Performing Arts Fund Dance Fellow 2011

Sandie with Dance Fellow Claire Mullan
Photographer: Jeremy Freedman

Irish dancing and ballet are the most common forms of dance in Northern Ireland with street dance and musical theatre making up some of the more popular and easily accessible forms of dance practice. Contemporary creative dance is less common and more difficult to access and experience. We have one dedicated dance resource organisation for the whole of Northern Ireland and there are no national dance agencies. There is no dedicated dance space or venue as yet with professionals relying on dance studios in local arts centres or church halls. Dance in schools is very limited with only a handful of specialist status schools offering GCSE dance and even fewer offering A Level dance, and there is only one dedicated undergraduate dance programme in Northern Ireland. There is no formal network of dance promoters in Northern Ireland and very few full time, dedicated community dance artist posts. We have one major arts festival a year that can accommodate large-scale dance work from mainland UK and Europe. Northern Ireland based companies will typically tour annually or biennially performing work to a circuit of approx 6  - 8 venues across Northern Ireland.

So, what kind of things are happening to help make a change?

The companies and the support agency all have their own unique strategies, but what I can talk about with confidence is what Assault Events do.

As a company we emphasise work for social environments and alternative venues but this has become even more important since we have been based in Northern Ireland. We are developing work that collaborates with other art forms to enable accessibility and we have begun to address making professional work for younger audiences to help build audiences for the future and enable exposure to contemporary dance from a younger age.

In particular, this year we have developed an apprenticeship programme called the Graduate Acceleration Programme (GAP) which is funded by ACNI and delivered in partnership with the University of Ulster. GAP sees Assault working in partnership with 3 other dance companies to enable apprenticeship opportunities for young dance graduates based in Northern Ireland to work within a Northern Irish professional dance company from anything between 3 months to a year. In addition we work closely with the University to enable opportunities for dancers in training.

Other wider strategic initiatives currently emerging from other companies working in Northern Ireland are related to communication and raising awareness. For example, initiatives that bring together venue programmers and companies to enable a more strategic approach to programming work and initiatives that look at more co-ordinated marketing ventures to help build a more visible profile of the dance that exists in Northern Ireland.

The university dance course has also committed to working closely with professional practitioners and companies across Northern Ireland to help foster an understanding of the dance workplace in a Northern Irish context. This has helped students to become more connected with the professional community and enabled the professional community to begin to work with, and make links with, the new generation of dancers emerging into the profession.

So, what else could make a difference? Here are some of my thoughts:

•    More dance in schools – exposure to creative dance from a younger age is needed and more consistent opportunities across the school years.
•    Nurturing young artists – for example greater funded opportunities (like GAP) for recent graduates to work in dance in Northern Ireland or to receive further training so that once they have graduated they don’t have to leave to further their career.
•    A touring network or co-ordinated programmer/artist network.
•    Greater performance opportunities with tiered levels e.g. performance platforms for emerging choreographers, performance opportunities for Northern Irish based established companies, and opportunities for Artists and International companies to perform in Northern Ireland.
•    Greater strategic links between Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland to enhance touring opportunities for companies.
•    More dedicated community dance officer posts.
•    Support for a dance focused venue that can offer training, performance opportunities, strategic dance development work and support for artists similar to the type of services a National Dance Agency can offer.


Dance artists working here are very committed and dedicated to making a difference. I think it is fair to say that there is a common recognition that widening participation and enabling greater access to professional and community dance practice is key to changing the landscape and that we need to work together to enable this. To sum up, I think that the dance community in Northern Ireland is moving forward with a positive outlook and complete commitment and dedication to flying the flag for dance but with a very envious gaze at the resources, facilities and support for dance in mainland UK."

Through our Dance Fellowship scheme Sandie was able to give Claire Mullan - an emerging dancer - the chance to be involved in a series of projects at Assault Events, allowing her to gain experience in a wide variety of contexts in which a dancer may work.

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