Euston’s world-famous centre of contemporary dance, The Place, was planning on celebrating its 50th anniversary throughout 2020, but the novel coronavirus had a different plan. We spoke to Artistic Director Eddie Nixon and Creative Learning Producer Maria Ryan about their necessarily swift adaption to the new circumstances, and how it has proved inspirational, if challenging.
How has COVID affected your organisation?
Eddie: “Closing our building in March meant cancelling all the planned on-site activity, but we had obligations that we absolutely had to carry on doing – somehow. We run an undergraduate and postgraduate program, and some of the students were about to enter the final term of their degree, so there was a huge impetus to make sure they could carry on their studies. Alongside that, we had to think about getting some of the other programs up and running online, and protecting around 200 casual employees and freelancers, who were really vulnerable because they fell between the gaps of the government support schemes.”
Maria: “We were also midway through a program where 22 of those freelance artists go into local schools to work with the children. It was important to be able to continue to provide work for them despite lockdown, so we asked them to begin videoing creative sessions at home, and ended up with 50 short films made in just a few weeks. These went out to our 14 partner schools in Camden over this summer term, and the kids were really very grateful for having something to do that wasn’t English or maths, where they could actually be physical.”
What’s your current offering?
Eddie: “One of the things to come out of all this has been that we’ve been provoked to innovate online, having always talked about it, and we’ve found it to be rich in terms of access and inclusivity. Of course it’s great having everyone in the same room, but we’ve had 3000 attendances to our online programmes, with people from all over the country suddenly able to engage with us. When face-to-face classes do restart, we’re planning a mini festival events blending socially distance performances, online discussions and streaming some events. The creative possibilities for joining in from your living room give people new choices. Meanwhile we’ve got an online summer programme starting soon that young people can enroll on (see below), which we’re doing in partnership with dance organisations from across the UK, so some exciting new collaborations have started over this time too.”
Maria: “This period really highlighted the issue of digital poverty, because as much as going online does bring our work to more people, there’s still a lot of disparity in terms of those who don’t have digital access. Some of our Camden school families have struggled with this, so we’re looking to run community projects with local groups including New Horizon youth centre, offering socially distanced work with their vulnerable young people.”
What have been your greatest concerns?
Eddie: “Obviously there’s a huge concern around financial survival, because we don’t have massive reserves to soak up a crisis like this. It’s not the kind of business modelling you can prepare for, and there really was no time to react. We’ve also been concerned about isolation or vulnerability of the many people we work with. The nature of a city is that although we might be a cultural hub in the middle of Camden, most of the workforce is dotted all around London and beyond, so we’ve had to work out how we can take care of each other when we’ve been so physically disconnected.”
Maria: “We’ve certainly lost that physical connection. Our building is really special when it’s buzzing, when it’s got loads of children in on Saturday or students and artists rehearsing – that’s what’s great about it and it’s just not happening at the moment. My concern has been about how and when people will come together again, and how they might respond differently. It feels very clinical at the moment, all about measurements and distanced spaces apart. We trained as dancers and that’s what this whole thing is ultimately about, coming together to dance with other people.”
What’s made you feel optimistic?
Eddie: “I think we’ve taken for granted the human connections that are involved in performing arts, and that collective realization, the feeling of mourning across a really broad range of creative industries, has given us an immediate sense of needing to work hard together to find our way back. I think projects that put us at the heart of things locally will become really important in the next few years, too. I’m sure that’s true for lots of the cultural organisations in Camden and across the Knowledge Quarter, there’s a shift in the sense of what it means to be an international organisation at a time when we really value relationships with people close at hand.”
Who would you like to collaborate with?
Maria: “We’re starting to have more involved conversations with Camden Council, particularly around community wellbeing, mental health, improved fitness and their other big social priorities. Dance and creative arts can really help with these things, so we’re bringing our networks with other cultural organisations together too, to be more connected and work more effectively. Our remote learning summer schools are a major new collaboration too.”
The COVID-19 health crisis has burned our economic and cultural landscape much like a forest fire. But across a charred, razed environment, strong green shoots inevitably emerge.
CAMDENIST is a new collaborative local media platform, currently in beta mode and launching soon. Born from the smoldering ashes of this unprecedented era, it will provide fertile support for the regeneration of our communities, businesses and cultural spaces in the times ahead.
Worth following, too.