Weighing Hardship Against Impact:
Out of five studios in which we ran 20-hour workshops during a cold and snowy week in Northern France, only two were heated. This seems to be an accepted condition by our local host organization, but for us and the participants with whom we worked, it meant vulnerability to illness, students being so cold that they didn't want to shed their overcoats and shoes, and the resulting diminishment in attendance and engagement. On the other hand, pushing through the chill and keeping an eye on the ultimate goal of the project, our teaching artists showed their determination and mettle, the participants likewise overcame the cold conditions and everyone pulled together and scored big time as a result.
One of our biggest challenges is Hip-Hop. Meaning that we don't 'do' hip-hop but having dancers of color and being from New York, young participants automatically assume that we're there to teach them the latest moves. Instead, we ask them to be creative and to take the reins of their own visions. We refuse to demonstrate because young people will easily fall into imitating us. If we can get over this hump, we've made it. But unfortunately, in Maubeuge, the majority of dancers in the community with whom we had expected to interact, rejected our workshops without even dipping their toes into the process. Despite this, we managed to run 5 separate workshops and it was generally felt that our program was wildly successful, with standing-room-only at the final performance and extensive coverage in print, radio and television media. If we could come back to Maubeuge, we would be able to address the problems of the first program through our new renown in the area and having demystified the process of Dancing to Connect.
Things Are not What They Seem (sometimes):
The theater that the U.S. Embassy booked for us appeared to be a fabulous venue, with a large stage, very modern architecture and a vibrant website. However, on close inspection as we approached the start date of the program, the Embassy found that the theater had none of its own lighting equipment or a cyclorama. A huge bill was drawn up to cover the cost of renting a full set-up of equipment and two crew to hang, focus and support our technical director in running the show. Fortunately, the local Municipal officials agreed to share costs with the Embassy; otherwise, we would have had serious problems. But the question remains: what if they hadn't? The Embassy would have gone way over budget and a sour feeling would have clung to our program. How to avoid this type of problem in the future? If one could do a site visit way in advance of a program, that would be the best solution. This is almost never possible for us, given the tight budgets of our programs. The next best approach is to ask every possible question, even the ones that seem obvious, well in advance and to demand an equipment inventory before settling on a theater.
We learned that in France, hierarchies persist in the arts that we wouldn't have expected. Community arts programs and arts education are seen as separate and disconnected from The Arts (in capitals.) This segregation impacted us in that, in at least one of the venues we used, the administrators had a distinctly patronizing attitude towards our program. Perhaps we've changed perceptions even if slightly.
Battery Dance Company conducted five Dancing to Connect workshops in and around the Northern French city of Maubeuge in Feb/March, 2013. The program, Battery Dance Company’s debut in France, was a close collaboration with the U.S. Embassy Paris and took one year to plan. The locale was specifically chosen to target immigrant and disenfranchised communities; and a local host institution, Secteur 7, was identified as the ideal partner.
Secteur 7 has a good track record in engaging local youth, utilizing hip hop and other urban art forms as magnets for a broad mix of participants, celebrating their talent and creating esprit de corps. There is high unemployment in the region and career prospects for young people are grim. There is tension between the different ethnic groups – between people of different color, religion and social mores. The Embassy hoped to utilize Battery Dance Company’s prowess in the dance education and conflict resolution areas to make a significant contribution to the community. From the response of the participants themselves, the Secteur 7 leadership and the local and municipal government officials, it would appear that the project exceeded all expectations.
Originally a national theater, Le Manège, had been chosen for the final performance. However, another alternative had to be sought two months before the program, purportedly because of scheduling issues. However, while in Maubeuge, we heard mutterings about the schism between the world of high art (which is funded nationally and via EU) and local art. We wondered whether Manège had looked down upon the Dancing to Connect project because of its populist aspect. The Embassy staff scrambled and was able to locate a beautiful new theater in Louvroil, adjacent to Maubeuge, which welcomed our program. The poison pill came when it was discovered that this theater, Espace Culturel Casadesus, had no lighting equipment of its own. An outside contractor was engaged and after haggling with prices and cutting anything that wasn’t absolutely essential, the Embassy was able to share the unexpected costs with the Préfecture du Nord-Pas-de-Calais.
The stage at Casadesus was beautiful and the lobby was bright and inviting; but the theater architect hadn’t counted on a large number of performers, and had created only 3 dressing rooms that could each accommodate 2 or 3 people maximum and therefore worked for the Battery Dance Company members exclusively. Since the DtC workshops involved over 60 participants, a solution had to be found for them. Originally, it was thought that a heated tent could be erected outside the backstage of the theater; but this would have proved costly and was considered dangerous given the inclement weather (it was snowing and windy). Another solution was found by curtaining off the two sides of the lobby and draping inside the theater to create areas where the participants could wait for their entrances, providing a hidden entrance into the backstage area from each side of the lobby. Similarly, the issue of the projector and cyclorama were challenges that were overcome through experimentation and teamwork on the part of BDC’s tech director, the theater’s tech director (who moved the projector, allowing for a wider image) and the local contractors who provided a good white cyc on which to project the video effects that form a critical part of the BDC portion of the program. It took days to work out this solution but all was well in the end.
On the night of the show, it was thrilling to see the house completely full with visitors from as far away as Paris and Brussels and from each of the surrounding towns. There was a mix of children, seniors and everything in between. The U.S. Embassy’s Minister Counselor for Public Affairs Philip Breeden welcomed the audience as did a representative of the French Government and Jonathan Hollander, whose address in French was vetted by Sophie Nadeau, the Embassy’s point person for the entire project. A Secteur 7 representative served as emcee.
The entire performance was documented by the Embassy and posted on Youtube. Click here to view full performance. A lengthy radio interview with Jonathan Hollander and Secteur 7’s Clementine Coulon was aired the week after the program, amplifying its impact. The Voix du Nord newspaper gave ample coverage to the event and France Television broadcast a 2 minute clip in the lead up to the performance. The Mayor’s Office of Maubeuge hosted a luncheon for Hollander, Breeden, Nadeau and Secteur 7 and made everyone feel very appreciated. Parisian artist Catherine van den Steen attended the workshops and performance and has posted a gallery of photos illustrating the social and physical milieu of Maubeuge and the workings of the Dancing to Connect process.