Backstage at Little Big Dance: Perseverance and Partnership in a Pandemic

Like so many arts and cultural projects up and down the country, our Little Big Dance programme has faced several setbacks since COVID-19 hit. Here Lou Coleman, our Little Big Dance National Coordinator, describes what we’re learning about partnership and perseverance as we respond to the challenges of the pandemic. 

Little Big Dance sharing day participant pre-pandemic. Image: Summer Dean.

“At the heart of this project is experimentation, learning and listening so it’s been vital to maintain this ethos.”

Little Big Dance is a national, multi-layered and multi-partnered early years dance project. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, we’ve been working with all of the partners – from artists, nurseries and venues - to overcome the many obstacles lockdown and social distancing presents.

In March 2020, our two Little Big Dance Commissioned Touring Artists, Takeshi Matsumoto and George Fellows were deeply engrossed in making their new work when activities had to stop. 

Whilst all artistic activity and nursery visits had to be postponed due to regional tier restrictions and national lockdowns, the Little Big Dance partnership organisations - Yorkshire Dance, Dance East, and Take Art and the team here at South East Dance - have continued to support all of the artists, dancers, designers, dramaturg, and early years dance specialists in as many ways as possible. 

One of the core ambitions for the Little Big Dance programme is to develop new partnerships with venues and commissioning organisations and, via the national tour of the work itself, to present more high-quality dance work for very young children on the stage. So, we’ve been working hard to stay in touch with venues and touring partners to ensure that we support George and Takeshi to create work that will suitable for touring should social distancing continue in years to come.

Experimentation, listening, learning

At the heart of this project is experimentation, learning and listening so it’s been vital to maintain this ethos. We’ve been meeting regularly with Takeshi, George and the wider team of artists and specialists to keep conversations about the development of the work going.

We’ve provided artist advisories, offered free and low-cost training sessions, signposted to organisations who could offer financial support (where needed) and supported the artistic team to apply for funds to help them continue other threads of their artistic practice while Little Big Dance is on hold. We’ve looked at our own budget too to see how best we can support them all as the ecology of the arts sector continues to changes. 

Because we are committed to being led by the artists throughout this programme, we’ve listened closely to Takeshi and George’s needs and wants as regards rescheduling and postponing in ways that respond to each of their personal and artistic situations. And because both artists are also working with another two artists to create their work, they too have been involved in decision making. Considering the needs of and maintaining the health and wellbeing of everyone in the team has been paramount throughout and so all of our meetings and support sessions have been geared towards this. This has been vital to relationships and progress. 

Partnerships and navigating difficulties together

One of the strengths of Little Big Dance is that it is shaped by the experiences & expertise of the partnership organisations, and what’s learned along the way.  

Together, over the last 10 months, we’ve created an open and honest platform via Zoom where we meet regularly to discuss, reschedule activities, check in with venues and early years settings and to navigate what’s possible for the national project as the regional tiers have been announced. 

We’ve learned that partnership working takes longer: there are more voices to listen to, to consider, and to work with. The collaborative nature of this partnership is strong – having the space to respond to regional requirements and coming together to support work at the national level.

Collaborative partnership working takes longer too. We need time to allow the richness of our conversations to unfold: time to think, to speak to the artists, the early years settings, then come back together. This has meant that decisions have been more informed and more responsive to the needs of the artists, the early years settings and the project as a whole. 

We’re fortunate that our Little Big Dance funding partners, Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Arts Council England, have both been so supportive and understanding of the changing activities and timelines. We’ve received emergency funding from Paul Hamlyn Foundation to allow us to extend the overall three-year project by six months, which means we don’t have to curtail the project early. 

Sometimes having more time and space to allow for greater transparency between the artists and partnerships means that each part of the project is more fully informed and better shaped. Only time will tell and we look forward to the artists being able to move their ideas onto the next stage of development, once restrictions allow.