Our Little Big Dance programme launched in 2019 to create high quality new dance experiences for under five-year-old children; and to address the lack of development opportunities for artists who want to create dance experiences with and for this age group.
Four dance artists were selected to take part in the first of two cycles, embarking on a period of collaborative research and development; exploring, gathering and testing ideas with children and their families before presenting them to a commissioning circle at a sharing day in February 2020.
Two of the four, George Fellows and Takeshi Matsumoto, were then selected to go on to production and eventually a two-month national tour.
Alongside the creation and touring of this new work, one of the ambitions of the programme is to use robust evaluation techniques to create a blueprint for other dance artists to learn from.
Below, the Evaluator for the Little Big Dance programme, Dr Angela Pickard from Canterbury Christchurch University, asks Little Big Dance Artist George Fellows to reflect on his experience so far.
Angela: Tell me about the Little Big Dance project so far.
George: Little Big Dance is pioneering in the sense that it seeks to offer dance performance for young children of a very high quality. Much of the work available prioritises fun, activity and entertainment over other elements of arts engagement to the point of being quite patronising to children. I think that dance can be more powerful, and has more potential to speak to children and to connect with them and their lives in a much more profound way. South East Dance also supports this thinking and gives children opportunities to participate in dance that they may not normally have. It is good to be part of this.
Angela: What’s special about working with young children?
George: It’s wonderful to work in early years. I have experience of working in the education and care sectors but to be given time, space and opportunity as a dance artist to work on this project is amazing. Young children are usually open minded to ideas as they are not restricted or bound by society’s views or stereotypes. Young children are usually kind to each other too and will accept everyone. I’m a male artist and am very aware that often males are associated with high energy, loudness, being ‘big’ and fun. I am not like that anyway, but I’m also aware that young children do not always warm to this approach. It has been great being part of an early years setting and, in the studio, trying out different ideas. I have got to know what interests the young children bring with them and how they respond emotionally to notions of care and nurture in the choreography.
Angela: What has been the process of developing the choreography work?
George: Lots of in-depth observation and investigation with the children and the dancers involved in the work. Putting the children at the centre of the process and seeing how they respond to ideas, including music and sound, and also asking for their responses through movement, gestures and pictures. But also recognising that not all children respond in the same way and just because they are not up front and confident doesn’t mean that they have nothing to offer the process. I do not want children to feel under pressure to join in. I believe that everything that they do in the session should be an active, empowered choice. This has not always gone down as well with some of the adults in school settings, though, as it seems there is an expectation that all children will be busy at all times.
I wanted to make a piece of work for young children and their families that has care, nurture and emotions at its heart. I wanted it to be purposely calm, quiet and thoughtful rather than always high energy and fun. I’m hugely influenced by attachment theory (which focuses on the relationships and bonds between people) and what I'm trying to get across in the work is the secure attachment between the two dancers. It demonstrates the care in secure relationships but also the support that’s there to become independent from each other too. The work shows how a person experiences a range of emotions: excitement to explore and curiosity about the unknown. But sometimes there’s also fear, sadness and anger as part of that exploration, then there is security in a supportive relationship.
What has been challenging to me as an artist is how I communicate and portray these ideas in the best way to engage children with deep emotions - and not just the happy ones. Also, whenever I'm doing anything with young children I'm always thinking about the adults that are going to be there as well. This is not just a piece for children, it is also for adults. It is important to me that the piece speaks to everyone and helps all understand the power of secure relationships. There has been lots of exploration, observing, thinking and refining.
Angela: How does it feel to have been selected as a Little Big Dance artist to go on to produce - and eventually tour - your work?
George: It is validation in a way. Validation by giving a platform to quieter emotions such as fear or sadness that are often not shown or talked about in society, but are part of childhood experience. This piece will hopefully push the boundaries of ‘expected’ children’s theatre. My plan for the future is to develop a large set as part of the work and to ‘educate’ parents and carers more about attachment theory and secure relationships. This will also involve some work around mental health. Of course, with Covid-19, the tour is postponed at the moment, but I am enjoying the time to reflect on the process experienced so far in Little Big Dance and I feel proud of what has been achieved so far. There is much to be said for having space to think before the next phase. I am grateful for the support from South East Dance.
Angela: Is there anything else that you have experienced so far as part of the Little Big Dance project that has supported you as an artist to develop more specialist skills and experience?
George: The space and time to engage deeply in a process has been important and enriching for me as an artist. The artist development day was also hugely valuable. All of the artists appreciated meeting and working with each other. We could share our positives, but also our challenges, in a safe space and support each other. Opportunities to share and gain feedback were also great and to try out different ideas with each other was really helpful. It would have been nice to have the opportunity to see all the other artists’ pieces at the sharing day so I hope to see them soon. I’m looking forward to developing my work further and enhancing the creative, artistic process that has been made possible by South East Dance. Watch this space….
Little Big Dance is a pioneering national initiative creating new dance work for under fives and their families, led by South East Dance in partnership with DanceEast, Take Art and Yorkshire Dance and funded by Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Arts Council England.