Dance for young people: Children & their Grown-Ups Showcase

Online (hosted by Pavilion Dance South West)
September 29-October 2, 2021

A look back at an industry showcase of works aimed at younger audiences

“Before the pandemic we struggled to find work for a family programme. Dance shows for children and families seemed to have become a Cinderella artform,” wrote Pavilion Dance South West CEO and Artistic Director Zannah Chisholm in her introduction to the Children & their Grown-Ups Showcase that the Bournemouth-based organisation recently hosted. It is certainly true that such work seems to be hidden from producers as well as audiences, but as the event showed, it is there, and it is very varied in nature.

The four-day industry focussed (although also available to the public) online event was an attempt to start to remedy that, Bournemouth-based PDSW joining forces with DanceEast, People Dancing, South East Dance, TandemWorks, The Place, The Work Room (Glasgow) and Yorkshire Dance to stimulate interest in dance shows for children and families, and to learn about, find and develop new work.

The programme included the presentation of over 20 live and livestreamed works that are available for touring from 2022, with the emphasis being on using dance to experience different feelings or stories. Most also came with opportunities for artists and choreographers to talk about their approach and their work. Alongside that there were networking events, bookable 1-to-1s with artists and promoters, and a panel discussion that explored more deeply the considerations of making work with and for children under five.

Artemis Stamouli in Underwater by Xenia Aidonopoulou and Georgia Tegou
Still from film

The range of work showcased was striking. Quite a few used colour and humour edging towards slapstick as a way of appealing to youngsters. As dramaturg Xenia Aidonopoulou and choreographer Georgia Tegou pointed out, when making work for young children, it is important to understand their perception of the world, that they are stimulated by different sensory experiences and have different modes of attention to adults. That doesn’t mean dance made with children in mind cannot be ‘serious’ and tackle serious issues however. In my experience, children are pretty smart, rather perceptive, and often understand more than we give them credit for.

Like many of the works shown, Aidonopoulou and Tegou’s Underwater challenges the boundaries between dance and theatre, combining movement with other visual arts. Watching on neatly edited film, it is sometimes difficult to get a real grasp of how a piece might be live but I found their piece, with its bubbles, balloons representing water droplets and giant stuffed octopus, gently appealing.

Choogh Choogh by Anusha Subramanyam
Still from film

Underwater is clearly aimed at a quite young audience. At the other end of the scale, one or two of the works made for older children would clearly appeal to adults too. The clips shown of 21Common’s IN THE INTERESTS OF SAFETY, CAN PATRONS PLEASE SUPERVISE THEIR CHILDREN AT ALL TIMES certainly left me wanting to see it live. Inspired by the reluctance of many of today’s parents to let children take risks (they would be aghast at some of the things I got up to when young; and was allowed to get up to) and by a health and safety notice in a theatre, it looks a riot.

It features an ensemble of children at first dressed in striking red boiler suits, and later in black leotards. Supervised (sort of!) by three adult men, they hurl themselves off a platform onto a pile of mattresses, they mime drinking and smoking, they flirt, they are glued to their mobile phones. It looked great fun, included some super choreographed dance, and was wonderfully performed.

Takeshi Matsumoto’s Club Origami
Photo Summer Dean

Several choreographers made the point that very young children especially like to be interactive and to touch what they are seeing. Among the works building on that, treating the youngsters as ‘active spectators’, was Club Origami by Takeshi Matsumoto, a dance show that invites its audience to explore whole new ways of thinking, playing and moving using pieces of paper, creatively turning them into any number of objects. Along the same lines, I’ve always found newspapers (especially broadsheets) to be brilliant creative dance props. Matsumoto developed his material by going into nursery schools in Eastern England, this involving the children in the creation of the work, their ideas thus being heard and seen, along with his own, in the final piece. For a more detailed look at Club Origami, click here.

Those children are also learning as they play, of course. Improplay Performance by Katy Hewison similarly brings 4-6-year-olds into the performance, as together with their adults they use dance, improvisation and play to make a new piece every time.

LAVAELO in Is This A Dance? at Grasmere School
Still from film

Other artists have also allowed children to shape or inform their work, sort of making children the dramaturg. Eva Recacha and Lola Maury of LAVAELO make them think too (as they would many older folk). In their work in progress, Is This A Dance, questions are tossed at the youngsters in a way that invites curiosity and makes them wonder, although never in what might be called a teacherly way where the adult knows the answer, but as a way into discussion. Can you dance with just your elbow? Can you dance without music? Can you dance without moving? Inviting answers to such questions can only help to widen young people’s understanding of what dance can be.

There was so much more. Back to involving the youngsters in the performance, Choogh Choogh! by Anusha Subramanyam is a delightful train journey through India, where the audience get to meet a variety of characters and experience some of the sights, sounds and smells of the country.

Anna Alvarez (Moon) and Dominic Coffey (Bull) in The Bull and the Moon
by Carlos Pons Guerra for DeNada Dance Theatre
(at the Birmingham International Dance Festival)
Photo Peter Lopeman

Of the streamings I caught, linear narrative was at its best in DeNada Dance Theatre’s The Bull and the Moon, in which we meet Lolo, a little Spanish bull who doesn’t like bullfights or hauling heavy carts of hay, and who dreams instead of becoming Lola, a famous flamenco dancing cow. I recently also saw this live at the Birmingham International Dance Festival and it really is a lovely, heart-warming story, clearly told and with super characterisation, that mixes contemporary dance and flamenco along with a light-touch nod to LGBTQ+ inclusivity. In Birmingham, I also loved the way performers Anna Alavrez and Dominic Coffey made a point of chatting to the children in the audience afterwards.

Dance can play an important role in children’s education. It’s also great fun, something that should never be forgotten. As a way of collaborating to showcase work from across the UK, Children & their Grown-Ups is very to be much welcomed, although I’m sure everyone hopes any future event can be held in person, which would make networking so much more effective. Having made the work visible, and hopefully getting it programmed, the longer-term challenge, of course, is how to ensure there is a meaningful and long-lasting dance impact felt by those youngsters and their grown-ups.