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Rural Touring Dance Initiative: Contemporary dance heads to the UK’s furthest corners

Since 2015, the RTDI’s mission has been to bring pioneering dance companies to village halls and community venues from north-east Scotland to the tip of Cornwall. Choreographers and organisers tell Rachel Elderkin about the challenges and rewards of touring to far-flung places

Six years ago, contemporary dance made up just 2% of the rural touring sector. Here was a gap waiting to be filled, but the question was: could a genre often considered niche and inaccessible really work in a village hall?

In 2015, the National Rural Touring Forum joined with contemporary dance centre the Place, rural touring scheme Take Art and theatre company China Plate to launch the Rural Touring Dance Initiative. The move followed Arts Council England’s rural evidence and data review, which showed that only 2% of dance companies receiving national portfolio organisation funding toured to rural areas.

With the RTDI in its second three-year funding cycle from ACE and with 160 performances to date, it seems contemporary dance and rural touring might prove a successful partnership.

It’s not a new idea for contemporary dance to visit small venues or outlying areas – numerous works are created for outdoor performance, specific locations and non-theatre spaces – yet rural touring itself is not widely considered when making new work. As Claire Smith, project manager for the RTDI, points out, that lack of prominence not only prevents many people from seeing contemporary dance but from discovering they might like it. “Tickets are expensive. You might need childcare and have to travel an hour to get there – if you’re not a real enthusiast why would you go and see something? But if it’s at your village hall, then you’re far more likely to try it.”

This experience was shared by David Lane who, since 2012, has been a ‘volunteer promoter’ for Live and Local – a network of more than 280 village halls and other community-run organisations that bring performances to village halls, churches and schools, and one of the 30 member schemes under the NRTF umbrella. Through these schemes, volunteer promoters at rural venues across the UK help set up, run and promote visiting shows to their local community. “Where we live is quite isolated,” says Lane, promoter for Crich Glebe Field Centre in Derbyshire. “There’s no public transport after 7pm, it’s 13 to 15 miles from a main theatre – finding stuff to see isn’t easy.”

However, bringing dance to a rural venue is not entirely straightforward. Most venues have no raised stage, so the performance space is level with the audience, making sight lines an issue. Many have limited changing facilities and no waiting area for the audience – things a company needs to consider from the outset of a creative process. The RTDI takes companies whose work will suit rural touring and then supports them in creating or adapting that work for rural venues.

“In November, we take the companies away for a ‘rural touring boot camp’,” says Smith. “Many of the companies we’re dealing with are urban-based, so for three days they get immersed in rural touring. They go to see a show in a village hall, visit different venues, talk with a technician and volunteer promoter, and get their marketing pulled apart.”

‘With rural touring there’s no artifice – you’re in direct conversation with the audience’ Choreographer Joan Clevillé

Joan Clevillé, now artistic director of Scottish Dance Theatre, has toured two of his works with the RTDI. While he had experience of rural touring as a dancer, the RTDI was an opportunity to revisit that environment as a dance-maker. “With rural touring, the wholeness of the experience drew me in,” Clevillé says. “It’s not just about you and putting up a show. It’s the warmth, the proximity – there’s no artifice. You’re in direct conversation with the audience and that really suits my practice.”

On its last tour, Clevillé’s company performed in a public library, between the bookshelves. Rural touring can present a wealth of environments so the RTDI aims to show companies that it’s about being adaptable and finding creative ways to stage work. “We have been developing little strategies,” says Clevillé. “Tables at the back to create levels and help with sight lines, or spacing the performers in a certain way. We need to own the room somehow, be familiar with it. So we do class, warm up, spend time in the space and figure out how to work with it.”


Rural Touring Dance Initiative in statistics

• By June 2019, the Rural Touring Dance Initiative will have staged 200 shows in village halls and rural venues across the UK over a three-year period, all including north-east Scotland, Wales and the tip of Cornwall.
• More than 10,000 people in rural communities will have seen shows by contemporary dance companies including
Luca Silvestrini’s Protein, Lost Dog and Phoenix Dance Theatre.
• 40% of those attending had not attended a dance show in the preceding year.
• 84% of audiences said they wanted to see more dance as a result of seeing dance locally in their village hall.
• 97% of audiences rated shows as good or very good.
• The RTDI is a collaboration between the Place, the National Rural Touring Forum, Take Art and China Plate.
• As well as supporting companies in adapting existing works to be suitable for rural venues, the RTDI has also commissioned original works including Bgroups’ Point of Echoes which toured last year – two further commissions of original work will be announced this month.

Sometimes, the RTDI can give companies financial support to go back into rehearsals but, ideally, it wants rural touring to be in mind from the beginning. With this purpose they have commissioned Clevillé and choreographer Jo Fong, to each make a new production specifically for rural venues.

During the creation of his new work Antigone, Interrupted, Clevillé and his company will spend a week in situ at Roadwater village hall in Somerset. To Clevillé, it’s the ideal opportunity to connect with their audience and test ideas. “You’re not just landing in that community with your show, you’re making it there with them; inviting them into rehearsals, asking for feedback – that’s a really precious relationship to build and really healthy for a process. That chance to have wider conversations and hear from different voices prevents you getting caught in your own world.”

In rural touring it’s not just the practicalities of staging a show that make a difference but the community interaction with that performance. It’s something that Lane, as a volunteer promoter, knows well. From 9am on a show day, Lane and his team will be at the hall setting up. They do everything from building stages, arranging seating and setting lighting, to serving tea and cake and running a bar. Plus, as Lane says, “it’s a village hall, so we have to have a raffle”.

The evening is as much an event in the community as putting on a show. “We present a show about once a month, so that one evening means a lot more to people. It’s a social gathering; people come to a place where they know each other, or get to know each other,” Lane says.

As he also points out, people in rural communities can often be on their own. “I love that just a few hours can offer such a change for people. We’ve created something that they feel safe to come to. It’s an evening where they don’t feel isolated.”

Part of that experience is the activities that take place around a show and, more so than other genres due to the shorter running times, dance presents multiple opportunities for community involvement.

On most occasions there’s a post-show discussion or pre-show activities. When touring its show The Head Wrap Diaries, Uchenna Dance taught audience members how to tie a head wrap. “Watching that performance, we had a 99-year-old lady with a head wrap on, and that was a first for her,” recalls Lane.

Lane’s venue has programmed six dance shows to date, but some touring schemes and promoters are less enthusiastic. Even Lane, now dance ambassador for Live and Local, considered dance to be “all white tutus and codpieces” until he saw a show by Matthew Bourne. However, in a survey conducted for RTDI’s Arts Council evaluation following its second year, which received responses from 2,040 audience members, 84% of respondents said the performance made them want to see more dance and, for 71%, the main reason for their increased interest was because it had shown them a different side to dance. “I enjoy changing people’s perceptions – adding another string to their cultural bow,” says Lane. “Dance works brilliantly for that.”

Smith notes that the RTDI also played it safe when it first started programming: “We wanted to make sure people had a great experience was a great one, that they didn’t feel alienated.” Now, in its fourth year, and receiving increased attention, RTDI can start taking risks. “We were able to programme about 65 shows this year, and I could have programmed probably 50% more,” says Smith. “I thought we’d still be twisting people’s arms but that doesn’t seem the case.”

Clevillé and Lane have experienced people asking when the next performance is. “It’s so intimate – the performers are about a metre away. Initially that can be scary and feel quite uncomfortable, but then it becomes as if you’re part of it,” says Lane. In one performance, Leviathan by James Wilton, Lane recalls being so close to the performers that the audience could feel the air rush past as they moved.

That visceral experience, combined with the opportunity for audience and performers to connect with each other over a cup of tea and cake outside of the show, sets rural touring apart from most main venues.

Rural Touring Dance Initiative profile

Project director: Ralph Lister
Performances: 70 per year
Employees: One project manager, Claire Smith, plus commissioned assistance with different aspects of work
Spaces/venues (2019): 70
Participating companies (2019): Lost Dog; Phoenix Dance Theatre; James Wilton; Shane Shambhu; Corali; Lila dance; Uchenna
Audience (2018): 4,500
Turnover: £250,000
Funding levels: Average of £100,000 per year; in 2017, the RTDI was awarded £416,855 by Arts Council England to continue its work for three years
Key contact: Claire Smith, project manager: claire@nrtf.org.uk [1]

Rural touring dance scheme extends after landing £500k Arts Council boost [2]

For more details see the Rural Touring Dance Initiative website [3]