Through last year Unlimited’s Sarah Howard had the pleasure of supporting Helen Hall, one of the programme’s commissioned emerging artists, and following her fascinating development. Here, Sarah speaks to Helen to gain a little insight into her dance journey, past, present and future…
SH: Tell us a little bit about your back history and relationship to dance.
HH: My early memories of dancing are of making up routines to Madonna songs in my bedroom! I joined local youth dance groups and then later, as a teenager I started attending dance classes in a verity of styles at the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast. This is where I was first introduced to contemporary dance and I fell in love with it and have pursued it ever since. I took as many classes as possible, got involved in community dance projects and attended any professional dance opportunities that I could. Although my life and studies took a different path from dance when I left school, I always kept it up and continued to get involved in opportunities when they came up. So it wasn’t until 2013, as a mature student, that I got the opportunity to study dance. I completed a HND Dance course with distinction, at the Belfast Metropolitan College. The head tutor of this course, Sandy Cuthbert, was also one of my first contemporary dance tutors when I started attending classes back in 1997, and has been a great inspiration to my involvement in dance. Another important aspect of my dance background has been my involvement in inclusive dance practice. In 2008 I got involved with Luminous Soul (Open Arts), a new initiative in Northern Ireland, for creating professional dance opportunities for people with disabilities. Through this project I had the opportunity to attend dance intensives with companies and practitioners such as Candoco, Blue Eyed Soul, Marc Brew, Caroline Bowditch and Claire Cunningham, amongst others. I was able to build on these relationships in my own personal work. I attended teacher training with Candoco, spent time shadowing Marc Brew and was also mentored by Claire Cunningham during the early stages of the choreographic research of work that was later developed into ‘Inside the Speaker’.
SH: How did you hear about Unlimited and what make you consider applying?
HH: I had always heard about Unlimited, but thought it was for artist much further on in their career than me. I had just complied some choreographic research and development work with the help of an Artist Career Enhancement Scheme award, given to me by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. Belfast based dance company, Maiden Voyage, directed by Nicola Curry, had mentored me through this project. I was in their offices chatting about ‘what to do next’ with the research. A fellow artist, Linda Fearon, had mentioned that Unlimited was open for applications. So Nicola and I looked through it that day in her office and it was Nicola who really encouraged me to apply. It seemed like the perfect time and opportunity to develop the work I had started. I hadn’t anticipated being successful but thankfully I was! In fact, Maiden Voyage continued to support me through my Unlimited work as well.
SH: Helen, give us a little insight into how ‘Inside the Speaker’ was conceived and developed over your Unlimited year?
HH: Initially inspired by my limited visual viewing experience when watching dance in a theatre – either getting an overall, but blurred impression from the front row, or going to the back row and using binoculars to get more detail but a narrower field of view. I was interested in exploring how I could challenge what an audience can ‘see’ and cannot ‘see’ during a performance. I began to explore how light could be used in this investigation with lighting designer Simon Bird. However, like most projects, more questions opened up along the way!
I had interviewed both sighted and sight impaired dance audience members to find out what they watch, or are drawn to while ‘viewing’ dance. I realised many of the answers from the sighted audience members were the very things I missed – facial expressions, muscles moving etc. So I asked myself, ‘what am I connected to? What am I drawn too’. The answers began to inform the choreography – bringing the audience up very close; moving very close to them so they can literally feel me as I move past, wearing certain colours, using a variety of sounds etc. So I became not only interested in challenging what the audience can and cannot see, but how they actually experience seeing it. I wanted to invite the audience into my way of experiencing dance. Words and text also became an important aspect of the work, using text to reveal information about myself, letting an audience ‘see’ certain aspects of my life.
Gaining the Unlimited funding allowed me to further develop these ideas, continue developing collaborations and start new ones. I worked with sound artist Robin Price to build a sound scape and am also currently working with composer Martin Devek to further develop some aspects of the audio. I also began work with dramaturg Hanna Slattne. As well has helping to sculpt the work, with Hanna I began explorations into making the work accessible for others with sight loss. I was aware that many of my choreographic decisions were approaching ideas of accessibility in creative ways, but I wanted to push this creative approach further into explorations of audio description and how it is used. The funding allowed me to consult with other visually impaired and blind persons as well as consult with an audio describer, Kate Ingram. With regular consultation with Kate, myself and Hanna developed a narrative, that acts as audio description, that is heard in the theatre by everyone. There are two voices heard as part of this narrative and they help guide and challenge the audience through the show. One of those voices is mine – ‘The Speaker’.
‘Inside the Speaker’ has become a work that invites the audience on a journey of the senses and to experience dance differently. It momentarily asks the audience to step into my world to explore what we see and what we sense. On the journey, I hope the audience will feel challenged in how they experience and perceive the world around them.
With the Unlimited funding I was also able to bring the work to production for showcasing during the Bounce festival in Belfast. There were two performances of the work at the Festival and both were sold out!
SH: What do you think are the key things you learnt from this experience?
HH: I have previously been part of creative teams responsible for producing and showcasing work, with my main responsibility being to oversee the dance and movement aspects of these. However, this was the first time I had the opportunity to be responsible for bringing my own work to full-scale production. The experiences I gained from doing this, and skills I learned along the way, have been invaluable and have equipped me with knowledge that I can carry with me into future work.
SH: So what’s happening now with ‘Inside the Speaker’?
HH: The work has received much positive feedback and since its success at the Bounce festival I have been invited to show the work again at the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival in Belfast. This will take place in May 2018. An extract of the work was also shown in November in the Brian Friel Theatre, Belfast, as part of the Being Human Festival.
SH: What’s on the agenda next for Helen Hall?
HH: I am seeking out more showcasing opportunities for ‘Inside the Speaker’, and then when I have more head space, I will begin work on the next Helen Hall Arts project… I teach regularly in Belfast and am involved with numerous organisations that have many exciting projects happening at the minute. For arts organisation, Open Arts, I choreograph for and direct the dance group Luminous Soul. We are about to showcase a night of dance that will be accompanied by the Open Arts Community Choir and also original music from local musician Donal Scullion. After that, I will begin working with the group, on exploring ideas for the next big Open Arts multi-disciplinary production, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which will be produced in 2019. I also work for carnival arts organisation, Beat Carnival, and am about to start working with youth groups on an identity themed dance project which will lead to a performance as part of the St Patricks day celebrations here in Belfast.
SH: As a successful Unlimited artist, can you throw out any pointers or advice to any other disabled artists wishing to apply?
HH: If I could give any advice to new potential applicants is would be to just do it!! Even if the application turns out not to be successful, which I know is disheartening, the process of applying helps clarify your own ideas and what you want to do, as well as gets your name and ideas out there. Most artists I have spoken to say part of doing what they do is the continual application process. Some applications are successful and some aren’t, and it happens to everyone. It can be tough, but if you believe in your idea and have confidence in your work, it will get there in the end. Keep going and keep believing!
Helen Hall is just one of many successful Unlimited artists, joining the UK’s cultural scene. Unlimited offers funding for emerging artist across all artistic fields and will be providing more commissioning opportunities later this year, so keep in touch by please signing up to the Unlimited e-newsletter at www.weareunlimited.org.uk.