Far from convention, nestled away at the edge of the Somerset/Devon border, I find this small Academy of passionate and creative individuals. I am greeted and welcomed and acceptance, it appears, is the order of the day. Children range from 6 to 18 and have journeyed from as far away as France to be here this week and are introduced to one another in an address as “the future of making!”. The emphasis is on respecting one another for their ideas and looking at tasks by asking “how can I do this?”. All in all, there are 12 adults supporting on groups and sessions over the coming days using their skills across all the workshops, and even those who have been a part of the Stacked Wonky family for a while now were there to support as liaison for the children. It is an incredibly welcoming, calm atmosphere and most reassuring to any parent parting with their child.
Each day begins with a refreshing getting-to-know-me task; one day it is two snakes of people rampaging and exploring the site getting twisted and tangled with each other, another it is following a stationary rope and interacting with the people on the other side of it, changing sides and just following impulses. And on the last day, we take a moment to reflect quietly and write a secret and anonymous thank you to someone, or something, and it is given to no one; but no less said or thought or heard. On the first day, we all wrote a wish for the week onto a piece of paper – these were turned into paper aeroplanes and sent across the room to be found and read. A few were read aloud:
“I wish to create a beast monster with Ruth!” said one, “I wish everybody has the best time” said another, “I wish everyone a new everyone” puzzled this one, “I wish the NYDC makes lots of new friends – our extended family!” and “I wish to be more confident” whispered one more. I hope that these wishes were all fulfilled? There was certainly the evidence to suggest that they were just by watching the developments and relationships across the week bloom. I would even dare to imagine those less confident were seen to have a little wiggle when the one-minute disco made its last daily appearance.
The afternoon of the third day saw the children being given free rein to chose how to spend their time and their newly acquired inspiration and skills, to put what they have learned into practice. Groups were assembled of those wanting to choreograph, film, photograph, direct, dance, and make sound, some were split, and others moulded onto others. Those interested in film and sound drifted across the groups to offer insight and support and each group successfully and with enthusiasm and confidence constructed short performances for roaming audiences late into the afternoon. With not just the day being a success but the three days as a whole, there were a lot of happy, tired faces having spent some time around people they felt utterly at home with.
National Youth Dance Company (NYDC)
During my time with at the Academy, I stole a few moments with Hannah Kirkpatrick (General Manager) and Elaine Foley (Project Manager) from the NYDC. In an extraordinary but casual interview I was surprised to discover that the National Youth Dance Company is often preconceived to be a dance company for the elite and highly trained when in fact, put simply by Hannah, “the possibilities are endless if you just have the passion”. With 82% of their dancers going onto formal dance instruction or conservatoire dance schooling the future looks promising for these young dancers. What was even more encouraging was seeing some of these dancers, who travelled to Somerset especially for the Academy, received their A-Level results during their stay, despite their intensive rehearsals these young dancers had still come through their exams with A’s and A*’s – a feat impressive all by itself without adding the commitment and personal sacrifice taking part in the NYDC throughout the year has demanded.
The NYDC have never performed in the way that Stacked Wonky Academy has worked, and likewise, the majority of the children here in West Somerset haven’t had the opportunity to see such a diverse array of dance talent. Bridging the gap between here and London gives our children an open-ended opportunity to be inspired and made aware of how they can further their passion for contemporary dance. Having been privileged to be part of the group that trekked to London to experience the NYDC first hand, I can remember seeing a snippet of their rehearsal for the performance Used to be blond choreographed by guest choreographer Sharon Eyal, witnessing their hard work and drive on one side of the performance we were then given a peep into the other side of the curtain just after their performance ended when seeing an inspiring promotional film at the Academy BBQ midweek. The celebration, joy and relief encompassed by the intimacy of these dancers really showed us how they are more a family than the perceived impression as merely only colleagues.
The NYDC celebrate all levels of ability, experience and styles, it is this breadth of diversity that makes up the Company and this is the focus of their application process – it is your potential that is attractive not how well you can technically dance. Elaine and Hannah have enjoyed seeing not only their dancers at the Academy this week but that of West Somerset, though too young to apply just now; our dancers are reminding us all how childlike exploration through play and dance opens our minds and fills us with inspiration, we are reminded that there was a time when we were un-self-conscious and sure of who we were, some of us lose this as we grow but it is evident that here at the Stacked Wonky Academy that there is an emphasis on celebrating and accepting ourselves just as we are. Getting into the NYDC isn’t what you would think either, throwing convention aside, the NYDC hold experience days around the country and hope to attract young people at all levels of creative dance, from those who have held formal training to those who just like to move. These experience days allows the Company to snap up young dancers who show potential and who make the Company feel inspired by their passion for movement. Once applicants are whittled down, a more formal audition takes place, this is the first time the guest Choreographer meets the dancers and selects those who show potential in their vision for that years’ performance. Note that technical ability is a bonus to these auditions, however it isn’t a prerequisite. Only 30 dancers are selected each year, and 10 or so are invited back from the previous year to take part making the numbers up to 40.
The recent introduction of Alumni sees ex-students return to offer support in more ways than just through dance, James (aged just 22) had returned with the dancers this year and, fortunately for us, attended the Academy to film and photograph the experience. There is a hope that as the project progresses the NYDC will see a return of their own dancers through the Alumni to the Company in the form of Directors, and even maybe one day guest Choreographers; offering a full circle approach to their opportunities with the Company. Dancers who are accepted into the Company gain the full membership into the NYDC family, a term that can be easily applied but hard to prove. Even though my experience with the Company is limited, I’ve not had to look too hard to see how much like a family it really is. From our first visit in London seeing the 40 dancers altogether; sharing their experience of the time they have spent on residential; rehearsing and performing; watching them as people from all walks of life chatter, laugh, support and socialise; along side the pastoral support they receive from the Company organisers in the form of Elaine and Hannah (and many more staff besides). Each dancer has access to a Personal Tutor and they receive guidance on plans for the future and regular check ins on their personal, professional and academic progress with the Company. This family overlaps with dancers from the previous year or the successional years, throw in the Alumni and you have a network of young professionals all in touch with something unique in the dance world. Opportunities are shared, and their future prospects are broadened through association alone.
Over the next few years there is a focus on engagement with harder to reach communities, such as West Somerset, where they have not yet attracted applicants. Moving performances out of London and into these areas are among the things that will be happening from this year and we look forward to perhaps seeing auditions and experience days being closer to home to enable more to apply.
Advice for those who have a few years before they can apply: be open-minded, keep your passion and momentum going, explore, play, and hold onto your sense of self. The NYDC door is open, are you ready to step in?
IMAGES: ROD HIGGINSON