Unboxing art, touring ideas: an interview with Greenwich Dance

Words by Katie Hagan

Dance isn’t something we’d consider to be static. Whilst movement can be punctuated by moments of pause and stasis, on the whole we see or understand dance as characterised by flow, repetition, mutation and becoming. Its forms evolve and go, only to come again in a new guise. Movement itself is kinaesthetic wildfire. 

With such focus on motion and progression, I often think it is strange that some of dance’s systems — the things that make dance ‘accessible’ on many levels — weigh dance down like a damp and heavy hessian sandbag. The current touring model is one example. Offering little long-term gain for artists and venues, it is, as with many processes, in desperate need of reform. 

However, remodelling takes time. Sometimes it is best to head to pastures new. South-east London based Greenwich Dance is doing just that, opening-up an alternative touring model called ArtsUnboxed which is designed to create fresh ways to tour dance in 2021. Six artists have been commissioned to develop new work, the blueprints of which will be popped into a virtual box alongside risk assessments, marketing assets, sample schedules, audio description and easy read transcripts, for venues and festivals across the UK to cook up a storm as they see fit. Dubbed a recipe book by CEO Melanie Precious, these virtual boxes will be sold on Greenwich Dance’s virtual shop when it launches in a few months’ time. ArtsUnboxed gives venues the ability to interpret and stage performance or participatory works in ways that align with their communities. Local talent will be harnessed, driving regional employment.

The idea was born before Covid swept in, as Melanie highlights. “ArtsUnboxed was conceived out of recognising the current touring model was not working. How we tour, the unfairness of it, the risk absorbed by the artists and venues, the carbon footprint, the tight schedules. We wanted to flip the conversation to make touring about ideas, not people.” 

At a time where many venues — both dance and non-dance specific — are fatigued and sceptical of the future, ArtsUnboxed provides possibility. “With venues slowly being able to reopen, if they haven’t had the time to commission work, they can hit the ground running with one of these boxes. It can slot into their 12-month programming very neatly.”

In many ways ArtsUnboxed is akin to planting a seed which may grow and bloom in any way its purchaser desires. “Some of the blueprints involve journeys which could take the form of a trail to welcome people back to a building. The flexible framework that each artist has created will offer limitless potential for organisations which have been hit hard.”

On that note, Melanie explains to me that when creating ArtsUnboxed, Greenwich Dance wanted to centre independent dance artists and producers. The pandemic has been really rotten for freelancers, and the government’s austerity is further pushing independent artists and producers to the margins. 

Images: Roswitha Chesher.

One of the caveats of UK dance touring is its lack of long-term gain, something which ArtsUnboxed seeks to counteract. “At the beginning of the pandemic, I’d heard musicians say they were so glad they had their PRS cheques coming in. I was dismayed at how a stable income stream such as this wasn’t present in dance. With ArtsUnboxed, the six artists and producers will be able to accumulate royalties, from the blueprints they handed over to us, every time a box is sold.”

This model — of passing blueprints on to an organisation — is new territory for dance artists, as Melanie recognises. “When each box is sold, the six artists and producers get a percentage of the work. 60% to them and then 40% to cover our marketing costs. This is an unusual method for artists as they have to walk away from their idea whilst still being joined to it in a way. We are also aware that making art may not come from a place of wanting to make money — you make what is burning inside of you — so we understood that we were asking the artists to approach the creative process from a different angle.” 

As the artists’ ideas will effectively be given to Greenwich Dance, each of the boxes had to be tailor made to the textures of the initiative. For fairness reasons, Melanie tells me the pricing of each box will be decided collaboratively.

The six ArtsUnboxed artists and producers who form the first cohort are:

Melanie explains that Greenwich Dance assembled a creative team comprising a dramaturg and access and inclusion specialist to select the first group.* “It was so tough to get it down to six artists. So hard. However, after plenty of deliberation, we arrived at our choices.” 

“Joss and Phil have created a framework of choreography that is connected to the school curriculum. Annie and Sarah have assembled a blueprint for an inclusive dance practice. John is creating an adventure that will enable people to explore the architecture of a city using QR codes. Temujin’s is related to young people working with their peers. Pervez is doing a competition that is perfect for outdoors, and Anna and Tom are creating an audio instructed dance experience for adults and children. It is quite the eclectic mix.” 

The long-term vision of the ArtsUnboxed initiative is admirable and Melanie explains it will become a focal point of Greenwich Dance’s future. It is however a new model, and it will take a second for artists, producers and venues to adjust. But with the value it is anticipated to offer — aka a stable income for independent artists that are continually chasing new work — it may be that this initiative precipitates a stream of similar ideas. Only time will tell.

Greenwich Dance’s ArtsUnboxed launches May 2021. For more information head to the website: https://greenwichdance.org.uk. *The creative team which selected the first cohort were: Rajpal Pardesi, Lucy White, Lou Cope and Alex Covell.