Greenwich Dance and the Coronavirus
When Melanie Precious, Chief Executive Officer, Greenwich Dance was invited to submit an article for the Summer 2020 edition of Animated she imagined she would use the opportunity to tell readers about the great strides Greenwich Dance has been making over the last 18 months. And then COVID-19 happened...
When I was invited, at the beginning of March 2020, by People Dancing to submit an article for this issue of Animated magazine I imagined I would use the opportunity to tell readers about the great strides Greenwich Dance has been making over the last 18 months to build itself up from an organisation on the brink of closure to one which won, at the beginning of March, the Best of Royal Greenwich Business Awards for Tourism and Culture.
And perhaps I’ll start there.
On my very first day at Greenwich Dance I drew a picture. ‘This is the house I want to build.’ I said. Over the course of a few months we realised it wouldn’t be a house at all – more of a camper van. I wanted us to take our programmes across the borough and not be rooted in one building or space any longer. Greenwich Dance had, for so many years, become synonymous with the Borough Halls - but our house, I thought, needed some wheels. And whilst this wheeled house seemed ambitious at the time, 18 months later we had the walls up and the wheels on.
We built a free youth dance programme for young people aged 8 – 19 years, with seven classes at five different locations across Greenwich – the majority being in areas of high deprivation. We had devised a touring programme called Up My Street, inspired very much by the National Rural Touring Initiative, designed to take dance performance to five community centres across the borough in a bid to reduce isolation, support social cohesion and address cultural inequality. We were developing a burgeoning schools programme, had maintained our loyal group of Over 55’s, had re-started tea dancing (championing gender-neutral social dance) and we had begun evening adult classes again within which mini-dancing communities of lindy hoppers, African dancers and contemporary dancers were beginning to flourish. In addition we were working with an inspirational group of artists (who we referred to informally as our Artistic Family) to co-design ideas and opportunities for independent dance artists as well as our Greenwich community… and we were winning awards for it.
And then COVID-19 happened. Not just to us, of course, but to the world. And everything changed. Almost overnight.
In times of disaster the things that matter come bobbing to the surface like corks on water. As we discussed the cancellation of all of our programmes, we saw immediately that the most important things about those programmes were not the skills taught - but the community made - the social aspect of coming together at 8pm every Wednesday to dance together and be with friends. Our Up My Street SHOWTIME programme, designed to bring vulnerable people together in small gatherings to dance and share food and drink, now seemed… well… it was illegal.
But as we considered the actions we should take we also recognised that simply cancelling everything, saving the money and hunkering down would serve no one. After all, we have already been nimbly side-stepping obstacles for the last 18 months. We have tried so many new things – some that worked and some that didn’t – that doing it again was going to be just what we had to do. If we can remodel our business again, I thought, we can keep the wheels turning and if we can keep the wheels turning we can keep artists being paid and if we can keep artists being paid then we can keep audiences and participants dancing – in some way – perhaps alone, perhaps in their bedrooms. And with (famously) no building to worry about shutting we picked up our suitcases and went somewhere else. And like many others, we went online.
Since March we have been delivering dance classes via zoom to our Over 55’s group and adults, as well as producing a series of 26 pre-recorded tutorials for young people, a blog series #GDLifeinLockdown documenting the creative ways freelance artists are coping and we have completely reimagined Up My Street into a series of four magazine-style ‘TV episodes’ each containing a new dance-for-camera commission, interviews and invitations to participate. Each choreographer (Zoie Golding, Mathieu Geffré, Temujin Gill and Sarah Blanc) were tasked with involving a community cast and making their piece entirely within lockdown restrictions and film director Roswitha Chesher and producer Martin Collins came on board to edit.
So now that communities can no longer come to us we will send our performance right into their living rooms. Temujin Gill – so wonderful at pulling audiences up to their feet – can still do that from where they are sat on their sofas. Mathieu Geffré, who moved a 70-strong ‘non-dance’ audience at our wine tasting last year with his achingly beautiful love duet for two men, will still change hearts and minds with a piece he has created with his cast called A Ceremony. ZoieLogic Dance Theatre with their incredible film-like narrative and drama have found a way of involving their cast via WhatsApp by giving them choices and tasks to inform each stage of the filming of Detective Miller’s adventure as he tries to escape from a locked warehouse. Sarah Blanc paired up our youth company with our Over 55’s company and had them creating duets and poetry using the chat facility on Zoom. And BBC London News picked up the story and aired it across their digital platforms.
When we pivoted online back in March we thought we were doing so temporarily. We thought, come Autumn, we would be ‘back to normal’. Now it seems ever evident there will be no such thing. It’s a new normal we need. Everything we do, and our cultural friends are doing, is being rethought. In fact, everything our communities are doing - be that as simple as going to school or going shopping – is also being rethought. It’s exhilarating. It’s exhausting.
The ability to create work during lockdown has been truly thrilling, but it has been a nail-biting period in our organisational life. When the Chancellor announced his furloughing scheme we had to consider very seriously the idea of mothballing and coming back again when it was safe to emerge. But our strategy to create our way through the crisis has paid off – we have been able to secure funds to continue working digitally and we have learned huge lessons along the way. By shutting our doors and opening our (browser) windows we will still be in a position to employ artists, producers, filmmakers and marketers as we approach ‘the new normal’.
Together, we will dance our way through this.
This article, first published in the Summer 2020 edition of Animated magazine, is reproduced by permission of People Dancing. All Rights Reserved. See www.communitydance.org.uk/animated for more information.