Feature: Children Will Listen

Friday 21 November 2008

*Whilst ticket sales for dance in the UK are on the increase, promoters seeking
to introduce children to the world of dance still struggle to find quality dance
productions aimed at a younger audience. Children Will Listen, a joint presentation
by Dance UK and Dance Umbrella, sought to explore the reasons why there is such
a dearth of worthwhile work – and what to do about it. Mary Kate Connolly reports…*

Panel:

Tiago Guedes, Portuguese choreographer, of Matrioska, his first show for children, which is part of Dance Umbrella this year.

Shona Powell, Director of Lakeside Arts Centre, Nottingham, a founding partner of the East
Midlands Children’s Theatre Consortium

Tony Reekie, Director of the Bank of Scotland Imaginate Festival of children’s theatre.

Will Tuckett, choreographer, Creative Associate of ROH2 and character artist with The Royal Ballet who has created a variety of successful
shows for children including Pinocchio, Wind in the Willows and most recently Faeries.

Chair:

Emma Gladstone ,
/>producer at Sadler’s Wells, former co-director of Crying Out Loud, producers of Oogly Boogly, a show for babies and their adult companions and whilst Associate Director
at The Place, producer of Offspring, a dance programme for young audiences.

Tiago Guedes 'Matrioska'

*So what motivates the small number of choreographers who do make work for children – and in particular the members of the Children Will Listen panel? * *Tony Reekie wants to save children today from the experience he had of a flowery
chiffon clad dance company who asked the audience to pray with them as a form
of post-show workshop; Will Tuckett loves telling stories and the freedom it affords
to create layered, explorative work; Tiago Guedes stumbled upon it by accident
and Shona Powell does it in an attempt to address the severe lack of good dance
work for children.*

Despite the diversity of the panel members backgrounds there were certain issues
on which they seemed in total agreement. Firstly, those involved in the programming
of dance were keen to stress both the clear demand for more children’s shows and
the tiny number of artists delivering high quality work within this market. Reekie
and Powell say that they find it increasingly hard to programme new work for their
respective theatre festivals, year after year. Both have had no choice but to
re-commission the same artists several times due to the sheer lack of performers
available.

The notion of ‘quality’ was of importance to everyone. Whilst the productions
discussed varied greatly, from story-based Faeries to conceptual *Matrioska*, the desire to create intelligent work with high production values, distinct
from the traditional moulds of theatre for children, was strongly apparent among
the panel. Emphasis was placed on creating art which reflects the modern world,
provides emotion with which children can engage, and produces a show which appeals
equally to the adult members of the audience who accompany their children to the
theatre.

Will Tuckett's 'Faeries' ROH2 July 2008 In a positive vein, the receptiveness of younger audiences was touched upon from
a creative point of view. Tuckett has found that without preconditioned notions
of what constitutes dance, his young audience accept elements such as text woven
into performance far more freely than an adult audience might. When Guedes created
Matrioska he feared that it was too dark and obscure for children to enjoy. To his surprise,
it was extremely well received – demonstrating childrens propensity to engage
with abstract concept and imagery, as well as stories and drama.

It seems utterly counter intuitive that there should be such a lack of dance
specifically made for children. When one considers how many children are brought
to shows such as *The Nutcracker*, clutching fondly their ballet toys and merchandise, it is baffling that this
trend has not translated outside the balletic medium, into a more contemporary
incarnation. Children who enjoy dance and parents who seek to introduce their
children to the world of theatre in a positive and age appropriate manner, all
seem to be crying out for more of this type of work. Why then, does it not exist?

Firstly and perhaps most troublingly, is the oft held notion among the dance
world that theatre created for children is second rate – ‘educational’, rather
than ‘artistic’. Tuckett spoke of the fear dancers who perform regularly in his
children’s shows have, that they will become ‘ghettoised’, and no longer taken
seriously if they do not return to making work for adults. These sentiments were
echoed by Veronica Lewis, Director of the London Contemporary Dance School who contributed to the discussion from the floor. She said that while training
programmes on creating work for children at institutions such as The Place signal
the beginnings of encouragement for performers to create for children, far more
is needed for this is to be successful.

Panel members also cited the press coverage of children’s productions as problematic,
describing the work as either invisible in the press, or referred to in a negative
fashion. Whilst this view is not all encompassing (for example the Daily Telegraph’s dance critic Mark Monahan recommended Faeries in glowing terms), it still seems a formidable obstacle for artists and promoters
alike, to generating the positive publicity needed to grow this small but vital
sector of performance.

'Oogly Boogly' Crying Out Loud productions Debates can sometimes prove impotent in finding solutions to the source of their
discussion, the crisis being merely bemoaned before time runs out and everybody
scatters. This was not the case with Children Will Listen. Discussion was opened to the floor at an early juncture which allowed for some
interesting insights. These included the possibility of placing dance for children
outside the realm of theatres, and the much untapped potential of contextualisation
tools, such as pre-show talks, to make dance productions more accessible for children.

Finally and crucially, the brass tacks issue of how to generate more work in
this field was broached and while no concrete solutions were settled upon, the
notion of quality once again seemed vital to the debate. If dance for children
is to thrive, it was generally agreed that an environment must be created which
can nurture excellence and provide inspiration. Supportive relevant training in
dance institutions and a willingness of dance programmers to commission work might
engender a strong body of work, which could earn, through good press reviews and
audience attendance, the respect and admiration of the wider dance community.

If financial and creative incentives were in place, perhaps more performers and
choreographers might be tempted to enter the transformative world of theatre for
children, and seek to create a Nutcracker for a modern age. Children will indeed listen…they are the adult audience of
the future. We all, it seems, have our part to play in providing something for
them to hear.

Links

Lakeside International Children’s Theatre & Dance Festival

Imaginate Festival

Oogly Boogly

londondance.com interview with Will Tuckett

www.danceuk.org

www.danceumbrella.co.uk

Action for Childrens Arts

*Mischief, Theatre Rites and Authur Pita’s show for children wins a TMA award,
27 Oct 08* read more

Read a review of Sadler’s Wells Family weekend here+

Feedback:

A crucial development which needs to be made in order to generate quality work
for children is a move on from the notion that it is cheaper than work for adults.
Whilst venues continue to offer fees at 50% and below those paid for “grown up”
performances, work for children will remain low status. Nikky, 3 Nov 08

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