Dutch players dance to a different tune

17th September 2004 at 01:00
It was breath-taking, fantastic, amazing," Fiona Miller says. "You could be just sitting there in the coffee-break and some guy would start spinning on his head, bouncing from shoulder to shoulder without using his arms."

Ms Miller had been in Amsterdam, leading the East Glasgow Youth Theatre in their first collaboration with ISH, a Dutch youth theatre that specialises in working on the streets with young people, many of them refugees or from minority ethnic communities.

The visit stemmed from the Scottish Executive's idea for "Scotland in the Netherlands", a cultural and commercial contact to link with the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the country from Nazi occupation. Its request for arts groups to accompany the visit got a ready response from Angela Hogg, the Scottish Arts Council drama officer with a special responsibility for young people.

At a "Breaking Walls" seminar in Amsterdam last year, she realised that the Netherlands and Scotland had dovetailing strengths and needs: the Dutch were strong in dance in the 18-25 age range, the Scots strong in inclusive theatre for the 12-18s.

She also knew that the ideal company to take to the Netherlands was East Glasgow Youth Theatre, or "the Eejits" as Wendy Niblock likes to call the group she has made a pace-setter among youth theatres for its track record in inclusion and multimedia arts work.

Not only does the company demonstrate the potential that young people with special needs have in the arts, they also have a history of working with dance.

As soon as Ms Niblock had recruited freelance artist Donna Rutherford to make a video record of the visit, and Ms Miller to manage the drama work, they and five members of the EGYT made the crossing to Amsterdam, with the support of the Executive.

Ms Miller needed all of her 20 years' experience in youth theatre work to cope with the challenge of the culture clash. The root of the problem was that the Dutch group call their work "theatre", though to her it was an exciting form of street dance.

Dedicated and professional, the young people in ISH spend hours every day practising their skills as beat boxers, Egyptian dancers, martial arts experts and acrobats. The thrilling performances they give twice a day on their schools tours involve dancing to music provided by a pair of DJs, each with two turntables, under theatrical lighting.

Their work has no drama component and the narrative is minimal: it merely separates the dances. The result is visual, immediate and individual and a world away from the dramatic theatre of the EGYT.

Perhaps this was why the Dutch hosts misunderstood the need for the kind of group development that drama needs because, frustratingly for Ms Miller, it was not always the same 20 people who turned up on successive days to work with the Glaswegians.

Nevertheless, there was a useful exchange of experience. The street people realised that their dance could express more than the joy of movement. One told Ms Hogg that he thought theatre came from the imagination and dance from the emotions and that there was "food for thought" in the way they could be linked.

For their part, the Scots were inspired by the energy and stamina of the dancers, and impressed by their professionalism.

Even if, as a sharing exercise, the visit was no more than a toe in the water, the arts council and Ms Miller agree that there is much to be learned from the experiment and both are keen to maintain the collaboration, probably starting with a return visit from ISH.

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