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Life in Lockdown: John Darvell

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#GDLifeinLockdown 2.0

Life in Lockdown is a blog series initiated by Greenwich Dance which features community and professional arists close to the organisation sharing how they are staying creative during these isolating times.

John Darvell - Director, Choreographer, Educationalist and Community Dance Practitioner

It's Monday. A fresh week and I'm full of the get-go! It's time for me to put on my jack-of-all-trades hat and flex those newly developed skills thanks to Covid-19, as I go full video production house mastery today.

Yes, I'm no stranger to the use of technology. It's been at the core of my creative practice with NOCTURN for the last decade, in particular, how it's impacting on us as a society. But this situation, and the intensity of it, is a very different beast.

Over the weekend at Katie Green's 'Imagination Museum Consortium' event on Zoom I was asked to share an object that summed up my experience of the health crisis, so, say hello to Wilson (and yes, spot the film reference).

On Monday's and throughout the week I get to spend a lot of time with him in my makeshift and hastily pulled together dance studio aka the garage. This little video rig has become the lifeline of my work. It's been the portal for which I've been able to connect and co-create work with my community participants and schools, while my professional work is on hold.

It's a love-hate relationship. And, at times, Wilson has even driven me to tears, shining a light on my insecurities around my abilities as a dancer, a teacher and an artist. In the beginning, it felt so odd throwing all my creative energy to a silent unforgiving Wilson. Then over time, my attitude changed. Wilson, like a great active listening coach, made me reflect on the most important aspects of my teaching. What has blossomed is my skill to create experiences that can be transferred to an audience who live, not in my physical space, but outside in the world of the internet.

I think Wilson is going to be my best buddy for many years to come

6:00 am and sleepy-eyed. I grab Wilson, the freshly recharged batteries and not forgetting that last-minute late-night scribbled note. Yes, an early start again in the garage, as first thing are the golden hours when I can film uninterrupted before traffic in our village makes it a more comical stop/start process.

Today’s whopping production list, which is fast becoming the norm, consists of:
• creative tutorials for KS1/2 on mini beasts plus the 1968 space landing;
• a proof of concept video for a potential community festival project;
• dressing up in a frock for my tongue-in-cheek video tutorial, keeping our over 55s happily dancing;
• new exercises for our adult Dance-at-Home programme; and
• back into the back office with my formal ‘expert’ hat on, in a Zoom video interview about how Covid-19 is affecting me as an artist.

But, there is an important missing piece!

The pandemic slammed the door shut on my ability to create work that was not teaching focused. I’ve felt trapped in a state of limbo exacerbated by my perception from social media that other artists were all being brilliantly proactive and artistic. I’ve just not wanted to be or even felt the slightest bit creative. Thankfully, two interventions have given me a helpful nudge to break that stalemate.

The first was making a small contribution to Luca Silvestrini’s Protein ‘The Sun Inside’ project. It was like a spring clean of my soul. A moment to play, for someone else, with no pressure for it to be anything other than my reaction to sunlight, all done in the safety of our courtyard.

Then via Facebook an accidental reconnection with Tomos Young a dancer based in Norway. From a simple ‘How you coping?’ type message we’ve since spent many a long video chat during the crisis supporting each other through this nightmare.

Today was another regular video check-in with Tomos. Surprisingly from those often raw personal chats, plus a dollop of friendly goading, something creative is forming. Tonight, as nightfall descends on the garage, with some assistance from my non-dancing husband, I’m stepping out of my comfort zone (going naked) so I can experiment with light and push my iPhone abilities to the max.

It’s early stages but it’s very exciting to be working on something for myself again.

The metaphorical thick storm clouds are determined to stay with me today. So, let’s start with some provocations. Does the current funding system work? Is it fair? And, is now an ideal time to rethink our whole damned approach to funding artists?

Why do I ask? Well, another belly punch from yet more ‘sorry not successful, overwhelming response, and sadly can’t give you feedback’ type email from applying to emergency funding. Again, I feel so frustrated after days of fruitless thinking and writing.

Ok, over my 11 years of practice I’ve had my share of positive funding outcomes, thank you. But, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this, during this pandemic I get a real sense of being forgotten and unprotected: Government assistance for small businesses, not applicable; Arts Council England grant and others, applications overwhelmed them; Emergency support funds finding myself ineligible due to a technicality; the list goes on. Even asking my local MP for suggestions came with a belated response with ideas which were costly and unrealistic. So, it really makes me question our whole approach.

Surely there must be a more supportive and nurturing system that doesn’t constantly penalise the unlucky ones. How can we get out of this historical trap of competitiveness? As artists I think we get forced into the status quo so why don’t we collectively rebel? Let’s make something different that works for us! Can’t we?

Sorry, I dislike striking a negative tone, but, if I’m to be truly authentic, there are days my mental wellbeing takes a real battering, like today. I’ve secretly struggled with anxiety for over 12 years now. I hide it well. After all, as an older man, it’s been ingrained in me that it’s a thing not to be talked about. But I need to express it these days especially now as my resilience battery is on ZERO! And I’m not sure what or if any help is coming. I need to be an artist but it’s looking so likely that life sadly has a different idea.

Only one thing to do! Down tools! Switch off the computer/social media world. Reconnect with the outdoors and take the dogs for a very long walk. Walking is my sanctuary. Do all the things I can do to care for myself and my mental health.

Scrap today. Tomorrow will be different!

Part Two Here