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Throughout the pandemic we heard the mantra 'build back better'. A new dance initiative aims to do just that - placing collectivity, autonomy and equity at its heart, as Reece McMahon explains.

Chisenhale Dance Space August Residencies 2022, Ghost and John. People sat together on a blow-up mattress in a dance studio. They are looking from a book the person in the middle is reading from.
Chisenhale Dance Space August Residencies 2022 with art duo Ghost and John

Jane Lam

Last year, I joined Chisenhale Dance Space (CDS) in Bow, East London. It was founded over 40 years ago by members of the X6 collective, pioneers of a counter-cultural movement rejecting the gendered and hierarchical structures of mainstream ballet and contemporary dance. Truly the radicals of their time, CDS has played a significant role in the independent dance sector as an artist-led space since. 

Previously, I worked at New Diorama Theatre (NDT), the London studio venue providing a home for some of the country’s best independent theatre groups. There, I was a key team member in the creation of NDT Broadgate - the rehearsal and artist development complex for independent artists that was free to use. 

NDT Broadgate was life-changing for everyone – from the small staff and freelance team who made it happen to the many artists who passed through its doors. It was a transformative experience and if there’s one thing I took away it’s that anything is possible when artists are given space to lead and innovate. 

Is dance overdue a revolution?

Dance has always been my first love and, throughout my career, I’ve moved between theatre and dance organisations gaining insight into different models of working. Dance doesn’t get the resources or attention it deserves.

Returning to work in dance, I reflected on my understanding of arts sectors and their structural differences. Where is the support for fringe dance that theatre has? Why doesn’t dance make it into the programmes of larger institutions? When there are so few opportunities, who decides what that pipeline looks like? Is dance overdue a big revolution? 

The post-pandemic landscape has been increasingly tough for small organisations, even more than at the height of the pandemic. Access to diminishing funding is more competitive and difficult than ever so that even the slightest variance in finances can have catastrophic consequences. 

For independent artists, it’s even tougher. Being an artist is just as precarious a life choice as it was in the 80s – even more so for those who have been historically marginalised. 

Radical reimagination of our legacy

Driven by a collective hunger of our community of artists, staff and trustees, Chisendale Dance Space has responded to challenges by including more artists in our organisational model and adding more ‘anything is possible’ energy into the dance sector.  

This week, we are issuing an open invitation to 200 dance artists to join the CDS Artist Community – offering them an opportunity to develop their practice, invest in peer-to-peer learning and form the collective artistic leadership of the organisation. 

CDS’s new community will embrace our legacy. We are not abandoning our core values nor the best parts of our historic membership scheme, but we are radically reimagining them to support artists today. 

Our new community will be made up of artists who want to develop anti-ableist, anti-racist, ethical and progressive practices, and redistribute power to artists who may previously have been excluded.

Chisenhale Dance Space Open Weekend 2017, Ray of Pink Suits.
Photo: Vanek Photography.

Scaffolding supporting artists

There are two ways to take part - as an Activator or Collaborator - recognising the dance ecology is made up of artists at different points in their careers. Different from traditional gatekeeper models of artist development, CDS artists will have autonomy to make things happen that wouldn’t be possible elsewhere. 

We hope the CDS Artist Community will be a creative home for artists, somewhere they can take risks, low-stakes, for the first time. This is the beginning of a chapter exploring different types of leadership and governance, advocating for a fairer and more equitable dance, performance and cultural sector. 

We’re committed to being scaffolding that supports artists when there is nowhere else to go, or little money coming in. We will offer benefits including discounted and free access to studio and co-working space, advice, wellbeing support, space to share practice and more.  

As a new leader who has had to learn quickly, I’ve taken the time to speak to many people. One of the most surprising things I’ve observed is the resistance to change rooted in the phrase “that’s how it’s always worked”. Now more than ever it’s time to do things differently. Cumulative systemic problems require innovative adaptable solutions and new people to lead us to them.

Delicate but determined

I hope the CDS Artist Community, with all its yet-to-be-discovered possibilities and imperfections, might be the start of a solution. A new movement to challenge the status quo, centering the power of community as a force to reshape the delicate, yet determined, freelance dance ecology. 

I don’t know how long small, grassroots, unfunded organisations like CDS can survive, but I do know that we’re committed to backing artists and putting them in the driving seat. We wholeheartedly believe in the impact this new model of artist leadership can have on the wider arts and societal ecology. 

It’s a vision I’m deeply invested in. Surely anything is possible. The ideas of 200 artists, working collectively, might just have the potential to shape the future of independent dance.

Reece McMahon is Chief Executive of Chisenhale Dance Space.
@ChisenhaleDance | @reecemcmahon

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Headshot of Reece McMahon