Making Shifts At Chis – Jo Cork

After I graduated from my training in Liverpool, I stayed in the city for a couple of years. I had a ready-developed support network there in studios I was familiar with, my former lecturers and local professional dancers I’d come across in my four years in the city. Then, as I embarked on integrating myself more into the professionals’, rather than students’ networks, it was fairly easy to meet people and to build some kind of acquaintance or relationship with them; I’d go to classes, workshops, improvisation evenings and jams; performances at the Bluecoat, Capstone or Unity. I’d make an effort to be present. And it really took very little time until I was seeing the same faces over and over, learning more about other artists and what they did. And finding my own place within the community! – Who I could learn from, or work with; what I could offer them in return.  Generally, the artistic and dance community seemed welcoming, open, non-judgmental and most importantly, actively supportive. That’s not to imply the dance scene in Liverpool is idyllic; it had all the usual funding and political issues as exist anywhere else, but in such a relatively small artistic community, there seemed to be a common understanding, and, actually – etiquette – of mutual support among artists, for each others’ work and artistic development, and by extension; for the wider development and advancement of the local scene.

Last Summer, a little over a year into my move to London, I finally felt a bit more settled- I’d found options for work and classes; I was meeting new people; I was dancing (though admittedly, sometimes not as much as I wanted to) and could pay my rent. I was surviving. Which initially at least, was the primary aim!

But as I compared my lifestyle in Liverpool to the one I’d forged in London, I felt horribly aggrieved that this gorgeous and nurturing support network I’d quite frankly, blithely taken for granted in Liverpool, was no longer present. I questioned why I hadn’t made a piece on professional dancers since I’d been here; why I had completely put my research and development on working with live musicians on some back-burner so far behind me I could hardly see it now; why I hadn’t been putting any of my project management skills into practice; why I used to consider both ‘work I do for others’ and ‘my work’ with equal dedication and importance, but now seemed entirely consumed by who I could dance for, and had a dwindling sense of my own artistic identity.

With a little familiarity, having rehearsed there a few times and having heard former lecturers and fellow dancers mention the place and their ‘artistic community’ (bingo!), on a spontaneous pondering, I began to think about Chisenhale Dance Space. Chis appeared like an opportunity to re-gain this community I’d felt lacking in, and to re-gain all those lost or waylaid facets of my artistic practice that had dissipated in the intimidating vastness of the London dance scene. An internship was being advertised and I immediately wanted to do it.

In this, my final blog series, I’ll be reflecting on my time at Chis; what my experiences here and the people I’ve met have done for me. – How they’ve caused a shift in my personal perspectives and priorities; caused me to re-evaluate my modus operandi as an active artist – and given me the shove I needed to take action…

I joined Chis at an exciting time: the run up to The Big 30! – Years of history to indulge in. The whole event, and run up to it, was a chance to re-connect with that founding ethos of empowerment to the artist; the unapologetic, “this is what I do”, or “this is what I’m interested in” and “this is how I want to do it”- However simple or complex the idea…

I remember sitting in the Now and Then event, where members of the X6 collective recounted their memories of the space, and listening to Emilyn Claid: “It was the first time I felt like I could make a piece of work from me, it didn’t have to be about anything else”. It felt completely liberating and inspiring to me to hear these people talk about simply getting on with it and making what they wanted to happen, happen, in spite of any disapproving or opposing opinions. Perhaps that seems obvious; of course if you want to do something, you just need to actually do it! -But let’s not underestimate the vulnerability and intimidation that can come of an attitude like that- it’s a courageous stance to take, and one I admired in the people in front of me.

During this period, it was also necessary to delve into the deep chasm of the Archive Room. Amongst the dust, old posters, cassettes and VHS tapes, I was finding records of work from the likes of Michael Clarke and Laurie Booth. I was also finding work from less widely known people whom I knew and respected; whose classes or workshops I’d taken in or outside of training; people who I’d worked with or whose work I’d only recently seen. I suddenly had a huge sense of the passing of time; of people’s journeys and long term development; different phases of their careers; of their long-standing validity as a practicing artist.

Day to day, there were various introductions to the plethora of current active artists at Chisenhale; some making work for The Dance and the Homemade commissions, some with support and/or funding from other organisations, some simply getting in the studio and investigating ideas, passing the front desk or popping into the office for a chat or meeting…

At Chis, I felt immersed in people who were taking action to create their own work, and to embark on a journey to develop and define their artistic identity. They didn’t seem scared. And they didn’t seem overwhelmed. They seemed to have the guts and motivation. They seemed to have the support they needed… I saw a mutual respect for different artists and the range of work they all produced; there was helpful critique – but not judgement; and there was encouragement and excitement about the prospect of new work! – A community of support, respect and incitement. – Somewhere to safely try things; even to fail.

Feeling like this was the first big shift for me. Re-acquainting with the sense of community and opportunity to grow that I’d missed since moving from Liverpool raised a lot of questions for me about how useful my current artistic activity was for getting me where I actually want to be…

As I considered my artistic activity since moving to London, I felt really saddened that my endeavor to “make it work” in London had left me feeling so disconnected from my artistic identity and very lonely in a vast dance scene of individuals fighting for themselves. I had worked hard to gain performance work, and had succeeded – but as I hit a harder phase of fewer auditions, and having lost some of the teaching work I’d acquired because a contract took me out of London for a month, I was painfully aware that I no longer had myself – my own work and practice – to fall back on. I’d lost sight of it; lost sense of it; and certainly lost confidence with it. I was aware of feeling trapped in seeking validity as an artist only through working for others, and had forgotten consideration for the importance of my own sense of validity – this acknowledgment of dependency made me anxious and feel a need to take back control. The most influential dance artists and educators to me were always those who nurtured, valued and endorsed the concept and practice of The Independent Dancer – that was what I strived for; but it seemed I had lost my way somewhere in the midst of trying to survive.

At Chis, I witnessed people investigating, developing and expressing their artistic identity; saw and heard them go through processes and negotiate the artistic and logistical problems of creating work. I saw through their activity, a structure to the seemingly overwhelming task of reconnecting with my own artistry.

I felt amongst something. There was support, advice, ideas exchange, critique, discussion, debate – casual; in passing in the office and foyer, and structured; as part of events or meetings. – There was a genuine desire and assertion to nurture artists and new work; to create and maintain an environment where artists feel enabled to go about their practice.

As I came to understand the structures of Chisenhale and met the members and staff who put its ethos into action, my anxieties and excuses for not facing the task of reconnecting with my artistic identity and practice seemed to dissipate, and become irrational. With all Chis offered and enabled for it’s community members, what was I waiting for? What was I really scared about? Was it really okay not to do something that felt so important to me just because of fear? – When I had such prospects of the support I needed to alleviate that fear? Of course, the answer was No.

What started out as casual, tentative conversations gradually became meaningful “Whoop-Ass Meetings” (I actually called them that…) where Chis, and namely Laura Sweeney, offered support and advice in a process of rediscovery and learning. As the name suggests; this was about a kick up the ass – the “GO GO GO!” – the shove I needed to reinvest in myself and get on with what had seemed so paralysingly daunting before I became part of the Chisenhale community.

As I look back on my time here at Chis I think of the skills and knowledge I’ve gained; but over that, it strikes me that Chis has incited me to reconnect with what I want from my career – what I want from myself as an artist – and to build the mentality and confidence I need to pursue it in constructive and self-validating ways; to move away from a dependency on others that crept up on me while I wasn’t watching, and to reassess what I invest my time and energy in so that I can continue to grow and evolve as an artist with substance and self-assurance. I was lost, and I’m finding my way at Chis…