As she prepares to step down from the company she founded over 30 years ago, Avril Hitman reflects on her career at the forefront of inclusive dance.
I learnt ballet from a very young age and, like many young girls, I dreamed of being a ballerina. As I grew up I discovered that I had a passion and desire to dance, and decided to train to be a dance teacher.
During my student days at the London College of Dance and Drama in the 1970s, I saw many different dance performances at Covent Garden, sitting high up in the gods (all I could afford as a student). I was privileged to see Fonteyn and Nureyev perform together.
I saw how dance can transform lives and take the audience out of their everyday lives. I also watched many contemporary dance performances and noticed how different dance styles can complement each other.
I have found it a challenge to think of people who have inspired my inclusive work. When I started working with a group of adults with learning disabilities over 30 years ago, there were extremely limited opportunities for individuals with disabilities to engage in the creative arts. Wolfgang was one of the few individuals who I could call on for inspiration.
After teaching ballet, modern and tap to young people and adults for ten years after graduating, I decided I wanted more of a challenge from my work. I got in touch with Shape in the early 1980s to find out more about working with people with learning disabilities.
I had no experience of learning disabilities, but Wolfgang was a pioneer in the field at the time. He encouraged me to start my own work, which I did with a group of adults with learning disabilities in Bromley – this would become the foundations of Magpie Dance.
Wolfgang was extremely generous with his time, support and encouragement. I learnt a huge amount from him in those early days and will be forever grateful that I was able to watch and learn from a highly skilled practitioner with such a generous heart.
Clore Leadership Programme
I was fortunate to get a place on the Clore Leadership Programme in 2007 when it had just started offering short courses for cultural leaders. It was a very intense period of learning, but it enabled me to step back from my work and see how Magpie needed to develop if it was to be sustainable and grow.
After completing the course, I changed a number of things that enabled me to have a more strategic view of my role and to grow the organisation. Magpie began, over 30 years ago, as a single 45-minute weekly session with no funding; we now deliver over 350 sessions annually and work across the UK under our participation, performance and training programmes.
I remember very clearly listening to an inspiring talk at Northern Stage by the then Artistic Director who said that she ‘surrounds herself with experts as she is not an expert in all fields’. This has stayed with me throughout my career. Clore enabled me to think more about the importance of professional development over the course of my career. Being in a leadership role can be isolating, but I have been able to develop a fantastically loyal team at Magpie, all experts in their respective fields.
Avril Hitman is Founder, Artistic and Executive Director of Magpie Dance.