Of all the organisations I visited, Chisenhale alone felt like it might be the ‘secret way forward’.

‘Spirit of the underground’ John O’Mahony - The Guardian, 30 January 2011

Old sepia photo of the front of Chisenhale Dance Space taken from an original 1980 CDS programme pamphlet

History of Chisenhale Dance Space

Chisenhale Dance Space is an artist Member-led organisation and our programme is made by, with, and in response to our Members. 

Since its inception almost 40 years ago, Chisenhale Dance Space has sought to promote dance and movement through performances, rehearsal space, workshops and classes, for people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds. CDS’s founders aimed to challenge existing hierarchies in dance and society at large by adopting new approaches to organising and management rooted in their collectivist political beliefs. Across all of their work, they aimed to integrate a critical perspective on racism and sexism.

Today, the CDS community seeks to continue this legacy by providing a home for artists working on the margins of form and process, as well those who are marginalised in our industry and wider society.

For almost 40 years we have been East London’s home for experimentation in dance and performance. 

Black and white photo of two men hammering the dance studio floor

Our building on Chisenhale Road

CDS has been located in our current home on Chisenhale Road for over 40 years. Prior to this, CDS’s founders were based in a  previously disused warehouse in Butlers Wharf known as the X6 Dance Space. 

After facing eviction, they found a new location in an old veneer factory, the former Chisenhale Works. Chisenhale Works had been derelict for eight years. The founders recall a filthy, empty shell, with little to suggest the space’s future purpose. 

The founding artists and dancers of Chisenhale Art Place undertook an enormous amount of work to make the space useable – removing rubbish and graffiti, building dividing walls and fitting the electrics and plumbing. They even surgically removed the magnificent old maple floor from Butlers Wharf  and grafted it onto the new location, where it still remains as the floor in the Performance Studio.

Black and white photo of a group of people dancing

The X6 Collective

Chisenhale Dance Space was founded by a group of artists which included the X6 Collective, who had recently been evicted from their original home in Butlers Wharf. The X6 Collective was founded in 1976 by Emilyn Claid, Maedée Duprès, Fergus Early, Jacky Lansley and Mary Prestidge. They were pioneers of a counter-cultural movement in dance which rejected the highly gendered and hierarchical structures of mainstream ballet and contemporary dance institutions in the UK. 

From 1976 to 1980, the collective developed new perspectives on dance aesthetics, organising and teaching shaped by feminist and queer theoretical frameworks emerging at the time. 

They were critical of the highly gendered and hierarchical structures of mainstream ballet and contemporary dance companies in the UK, and the group adopted a non-hierarchical structure and new approaches to organising and management which reflected their collectivist political beliefs. 

In the original X6 Dance Space at Butlers Wharf, they delivered a radical programme of performances, classes and workshops for both dancers and non-dancers. It was in this spirit that they founded Chisenhale Dance Space in 1980.

a sepia image of four smiling people gathered in a warehouse space, preparing for a protest. They are playing a keyboard and holding a banner with chants on it

Listening to Chisenhale Dance Space

‘Listening to Chisenhale Dance Space’ is an oral history project by Rachael Davies. The project invites those involved with Chisenhale Dance Space during the 1980s to share their experiences and describe what Chisenhale was to them.

This project is part of a wider PhD research project by Rachael which explores the formation and early history of Chisenhale Dance Space during the 1980s. Central to this research is the question of what Chisenhale Dance Space was. As well as working with Chisenhale’s collection of archival material this oral history project contributes to an understanding of what Chisenhale was from those who engaged with it during the 1980s.

‘Listening to Chisenhale Dance Space’ includes conversations with Chisenhale’s founders, members, staff, artists, audiences and Tower Hamlets council workers. The project is open and on-going. Learn more.

It was all about living and working together. We wanted to forge a fundamentally new approach, to fuse dance with politics and performance art.

Fergus Early (CDS Founder and X6 Collective Member)