Judith Smith, founder of Axis Dance Company and Marc Brew, Guest Artistic Director

Biting the Big Apple

Comparing the UK with other countries is always fascinating – this week, Unlimited’s Senior Producer Jo Verrent is in the Big Apple for AXIS Dance Company’s convening on Physically Integrated Dance 

For me, it’s strange to be in a room that focuses on physical impairment rather than on disability as defined by the social model. Although the model has its critics, it provides a useful framework for the majority of the UK’s initiatives around arts, access and inclusion.

The aim here in New York is to narrow down in order ‘to get s**t done’, as the convening’s instigator Judith Smith, Artistic Director of AXIS Dance, stated in her opening remarks. Judith is hosting alongside Marc Brew, AXIS Dance’s Guest Artistic Director. We – the 40 or so handpicked dancers, funders, administrators, teachers and critics attending the small gathering – have two and a half days to come up with a plan to move things forwards in relation to the way physically integrated dance, performed together by people with and without disabilities, is made, funded, seen, programmed and appreciated.

I was asked to give a keynote focusing on Unlimited and in particular our work with allies – festivals, venues and promoters who work alongside us to help achieve the cultural shift we are all working towards. It was great to have resources such as our recent Impact film on allies on hand to help explore and explain the work that we do.

Much of the conversation that followed was familiar territory: how do we push to improve quality and artistic excellence, whilst simultaneously challenging how that excellence might be defined? Do we market work focusing on the compelling artistry or the inclusive process – when and where do we mention disability?  Many companies want ‘mainstream’ involvement – what are the pluses and minuses of such exposure?  How can we make venues and promoters see the benefits in what we have to offer on our own terms? How do we reach wider audiences?

For me the answers kept coming back to the art itself – we do it best through creating work that is exciting, provocative, challenging and authentic; we build relationships with venues and promoters, but the core of these should be the art rather than anything else.

Day two saw us digging deeper into training – formal and informal – for both dancers and choreographers as well as arts administrators, looking at the intersection of schools, universities, and private- and public-funded social, recreational and vocational options. Barriers such as lack of information, access, support and personal contacts were cited and a lack of diversity within the sector acknowledged. Unsurprisingly Unlimited’s, recent funding for a programme of international collaborations was the topic of many of my conversations too.

The final morning focused on ‘action steps’ – what were people actually going to do to move things forwards? For me, it was a chance to reflect on diversity and intersectionality – much of what I had heard echoed the situation in the UK across most of our art sectors. The group of people I was in centred on training for arts administrators and through discussion with them my ‘action steps’ emerged as focusing on how to maximize the potential of our trainee opportunities and our upcoming international placement to support a wide range of people to move forward professionally and artistically over the next few years.

This convening has got me to start thinking hard about the formats for our own events. It’s followed by a series of regional meetings while I’m here – a dispersed model to ensure less travel and more local buy-in that recognizes and respects regional differences. Keeping the initial national meeting small meant everyone got to speak out and be heard – a real equaliser.

I’m staying in New York for a few more days – resting up, meeting with Betty Siegel, Director of the the Kennedy Centre’s accessibility programme, catching Jess Thom’s Biscuit Land USA debut at BRIC and also meeting up with Justin Sight, a blind magician based here. Back soon!