A photograph of a hall in which there are many people. In the background, some people are sat on a bench against the wall. In the foreground, a shirtless man holding a microphone and wearing tracksuit trousers appears to be singing or rapping. There is a large black speaker on the ground in front of him.
Freestylers. Image credit: Richie Moment

Partnerships can be continuous…

Over two years ago, we started a conversation with Siobhan Davies Dance who had heard about our Allies scheme and wanted to find out more. Recently, they announced that Freestylers had been awarded a co-commission through their CONTINUOUS Partnership and Unlimited. Jo Verrent, senior producer, tells us how it came about and what we are learning through working together. 

Developing partnerships – genuine partnerships – takes time. When I started talking with Lauren A Wright, Programme Director at Siobhan Davies Dance – I don’t think either of us knew how long the process would take. For us, we knew we wanted to commission more dance work. It had been under-represented as an artform in the grants we give out through our open programme, so we knew there was more we needed to do.

Finding the right fit

We needed to find an opportunity that worked for both of us, where we could both learn and benefit, and which was a genuine and not an overprescribed opportunity. Capacity wise both Unlimited and Siobhan Davies Dance are continually stretched, so something that sat within an existing frame felt more comfortable.

We settled on co-commissioning a work through the CONTINUOUS partnership. CONTINUOUS is a four-year partnership between Siobhan Davies Dance (London) and BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art (Gateshead), alongside five galleries and two dance organisations UK-wide, which seeks to ‘advance the creation, presentation and development of audiences for experimental independent contemporary dance within visual arts contexts.’ It not only provides a ready-made network for the work to tour – in our case through linking in Bluecoat in Liverpool and Tramway in Glasgow – but also a framework, which is both supportive and questioning.

That visual arts connection was very important for us. Whilst we commission more visual artists than any other art form, we often struggle getting work into gallery settings, so this opportunity seemed right, bringing us closer into contact with those galleries and others.

CONTINUOUS were keen to run the call out process as open and accessibly as possible, and we were keen to push our usual commissioning practice to see where we could learn. As we transition into an independent organisation we have the chance to re-imagine our commissioning processes from 2021 and are actively looking for new options and improvements.

The process

We decided on a two-stage selection process involving all the commissioning partners (BALTIC, Bluecoat, SDD, Tramway, Unlimited) and a range of independent disabled artists –  Aby Watson, Chanje Kunda, Laura Lulika and Priya Mistry. This felt vital – to bring other artists into the process.

After an open call for Expressions of Interest, 23 applications were submitted. 7 had previously applied to Unlimited and of those 3 had previously gained awards. For us this replicates results we have had with other strategic commission opportunities; working through partners we can reach a wider range of people, stretching out further than those who we can reach alone.

The quality of applicants for this commission opportunity was exceptional and it was a time consuming process to reduce down to four shortlisted proposals. These four were asked to develop more detailed proposals and budgets, with support from the CONTINUOUS Producer. This mirrors our open commission process, except in this instance the shortlisted projects were paid to undertake that work. This isn’t something that we do within our open commission process at the moment and it was interesting to see how welcome even a small amount of investment was at this time, recognising and rewarding the time it takes.

All four were then interviewed. Again, a time consuming process but one that reaped many benefits. We all likened the process to extended networking. We now know 3 other projects we really want to champion and those artists have direct connections with a range of people they’d never previously met.

The artists are… Freestylers!

So, who did we award? The selected commissioned collective is Freestylers who will create a new dance work to perform at BALTIC, Bluecoat and Tramway in 2021/22.

Freestylers are an ever-expanding team of artists. They describe themselves as person-centred and disability-led. Their core members are: Adam Smith, Abdul Sabir, DJ Hassan, Francis Majekodunmi, Sherrie King, Paul Davidson, Shola Cole Wilson, Roland Carline, Vicky Hawkins, Ben Myers, Rachel Gildea.

“Our work is about listening and learning from each other. The foundation of Freestylers is made of a team of people who have longstanding creative relationships built on care, support and trust. As our team is made up of artists with and without disability, we are often interrogating the idea of support and care because we believe it goes both ways.

Freestylers is a journey and we want people to join us, because we believe that everyone benefits from an inclusive arts scene, it is the missing piece of the puzzle.

We call ourselves ‘Freestylers’ because we love improvisation of all forms. There is an energy that comes with this inclusive technique that is about discovery, being present in the moment, taking risks and learning new things about ourselves. We are passionate about taking risks in our work. We understand we can only take risks together in an environment where everyone feels safe. Where there is a strong emphasis on care and establishing trust.”

The selection panel really felt that Freestylers spoke to the gallery space in an inclusive and intersectional way. The audiences in these spaces bring a different view to the work and this is one we are all keen to explore – often the work of learning disabled artists is placed purely in an educational or community context where this places it where it belongs, in a central professional frame, yet one which can be both relaxed and intimate.

As Lauren Wright, Programme Director Siobhan Davies Dance and Sally Rose, CONTINUOUS Network Producer say,  “The CONTINUOUS x Unlimited commission has been a real pleasure to initiate. We were very focused on making this opportunity available this year, at a time when many commissions were understandably uncertain. The process has been one that we’ve tried to imbue with care and learning from the start, partly in response to feedback from artists in the CONTINUOUS programme and also in aligning with the ongoing dialogue, openness and learning that we anticipate being central to the commission as it develops.

Our conversations with Jo and Unlimited have been invaluable, and it was important that we shared an intention to make the commissioning process supportive and accessible for artists, recognising the labour and potential exclusions open call processes can perpetuate. We are super excited to work with Freestylers, with their radical approach to collaboration across difference and their infectious energy, supporting their vision and collective spirit throughout 2021.”

And the learning won’t stop here. All the partners involved want to keep learning through the commission process – finding out what we can about how best to support a developing work, and also taking back learning to our programmes and organisations. It’s about rebalancing the scales. We have to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers, and to do that, we have to open up to new ways of working.

And on that note, over to the Freestylers for the last word: “Freestylers provide a space where people can be seen and become a part of a wider cultural conversation about race, class, identity, and gender which is shaping the future. We believe that everyone in our group is powerful, so we are passionate about finding ways to break down conventional power structures and share ownership of our work.”

If you are interested in joining our allies scheme, please complete this short online form.