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.
Here, the Evaluator for the Little Big Dance programme, Dr Angela Pickard from Canterbury Christchurch University, asks Little Big Dance Artist Takeshi Matsumoto to reflect on his experience so far.
Angela: What have you enjoyed about Little Big Dance so far?
Takeshi: It has been a privilege to be involved in this unique project. It has been the most amazing opportunity to work with the children as part of a research and development period. I feel very lucky. To have time and space to test ideas is wonderful.
Angela: What is special about working with very young children?
Takeshi: Children at this age are full of imagination and spontaneity, and will explore and play with ideas. They are not restricted by social norms or conventions. They are open to ideas and all have different ways of doing things. This has been inspiring to me.
Angela: What kinds of dance activities did you do with the children?
Takeshi: There has been lots of movement and play. Drawing on my experience of growing up in Japan, my piece is an exploration of origami. So I was asking the children to help me understand more about the possibilities of paper as art. I worked with them using different senses. The paper makes noises so we were playing with ideas around scrunching, tearing and ripping, for example. I made some large and small objects from paper that the children explored and they also made objects. These were explored using the whole body as well as with fingers, feet and so on.
We also worked with imagination and possibility as well as the idea of surprise. I would try an idea and the children would respond, but also the children would suggest an idea to develop through their exploration, movement, creativity and play. I explored origami and the concept of ‘animism’ with the children, as the belief that objects, places and spaces, natural phenomena, environment, humans and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence.
We also used live music and the musician would respond to the children’s ideas or the children would lead and develop the musician’s choices. The synergy between the movement and the music and sound is important as it is spontaneous and creative.
Angela: How did the opportunities to work with the young children help in the creation of the choreography work?
Takeshi: To have time and space to explore, play, research and develop the work has been so important. Some things that I tried did not work, they did not capture the children’s imagination as I, as an adult, assumed they might. So, I had to make changes led by the children at the heart of the work. What young children can bring to the creation of work is often undervalued and overlooked. We need to be open as adults and artists to listening to children and seeing what they do through their movement and responses.
Angela: What did you learn about young children as creatives and as an audience?
Takeshi: Even though I am a qualified dance movement psychotherapist and have worked with children before in the UK and Japan, I realised that each child is an individual and brings with them their own experiences and interests about the world. The children were interested, curious and engaged, wanted to touch and play, and often became very excited and noisy when they were playing and exploring - and there was a lot of laughter and chatter. I was challenged as an artist to observe really closely and to listen. I wanted also to find ways not to stop the excitement, but also help the children to find calmness and to focus, sometimes for a longer period of time on the choreography.
The experience with the children shaped the choreography, its structure and content. An example is that I wanted to bring the children back together after a time where they were exploring, moving and playing. I could not get all their attention so I rolled out a large piece of paper in a circle to create an area to bring the children altogether to sit. The children saw one child come and sit and the rest followed. This became part of the piece. The piece is immersive, sensory and participatory, there are big moments and smaller ones to try and balance the excitement and calm. There is also time given to the children in the work to explore and each time I will learn new things and take new ideas from the children. The experience has taught me much more about how young children respond to ideas and I do believe I am a stronger artist. It has made me more creative and opened new doors for my practice.
Angela: Tell me more about the sharing day as an opportunity to share your work with the commissioning circle?
Takeshi: This was a great opportunity to really test the work and put it out there for critique, not just by the commissioning group but, more importantly I would say, by children and their families that I had not met before. I did not know how the children would react and respond. Would they be frightened? Would they cry? Would they not want to stay, watch and engage? Would they be curious? Actually, the children were imaginative and responsive. I saw their eyes and faces, their emotions and their focus. They wanted to take part. The feedback from the commissioning circle was useful too and it is great to have been selected to take the work forward to production and to tour. Of course, then Covid-19 began…
Angela: What impact has Covid-19 had on the project?
Takeshi: Well, of course the tour has been postponed but I did get a bit of time in the studio before lockdown first began to refine the choreography further based on the responses from the sharing day. South East Dance have been very supportive. Actually, having the space and time to think about the work is very useful. This has been a creative time as I have reflected on the experiences with the children so far, the structure, content and sound around the piece. I have been thinking more about how I will build my Club Origami world and invite the children to make the most of the creative possibilities in dance and in the fashion aspects, where I make clothing from paper.
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?
Takeshi: The artist development day as part of the project was invaluable. This was very well organised and structured. I felt a connection with the other artists in the project. We had creative opportunities, sharings and ‘critical friend’ feedback. We discussed ideas and thought deeply about important aspects encouraging young children to participate, such as the notion of invitation. It has also been helpful to work with specialist early years practitioners and a dramaturg and I am grateful for their advice.
Having the time to work with a group of young children for a period of time to develop ideas, the artist development day, the creative process in making the choreography and the selection day have all been very positive and have impacted on me and developed me as an artist.
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