Magpie Dance showcase

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Alexandrina Hemsley introduces a showcase of work by Magpie Dance – a leading UK dance charity for people with learning disabilities – as part of her guest editorship.

Group of dancers in brightly coloured costumes

Magpie Youth Dancers performing an extract from Edward Scissorhands at ‘The Big Dance’ – photo by Phil Polglaze

Fresh out of dance conservatoire training, I was looking for a way to gain experience in settings that hadn’t been as visible within my education. Undertaking the then-new Magpie Professional Development program in 2010, I learnt the company’s methodology and met many of the participants I still teach at Magpie today. Being in such passionate spaces – built on a real rigour of pioneering inclusive dance practices – was an important grounding in modes of working that were non-elitist. The other parts of my career were at that time working in high-end performance spaces and conceptual dance work.

photo of dancers on stage

Magpie Adult Highfliers Dancers performing David Willdridge’s ‘The story so far’ – photo by Pari Naderi

Contemporary dance still has a way to go for platforming the work, voices and talent of young people and adults with learning disabilities. There are only a handful of companies making professional work for disabled dancers and within that, dancers with learning disabilities are underrepresented. It is our responsibility to keep asking how these forms reach beyond ‘community dance sector’.

It feels important not to assimilate practices into a value system that still promotes hierarchies and narrow aesthetics of virtuosity (i.e another traditional repertoire company). Instead, how can we bring a wealth of knowledge from inclusive dance forms and pedagogy for and with people who have learning disabilities into the mainstream able-bodied sector?

Dancer doing handstand

Magpie Youth Technique Dancer performing at ‘The Big Dance’ – photo by Phil Polglaze

Magpie Dance, along with other initiatives such as Involuntary Movement is a part of that ecology. Their advocacy starts with the participant experience all the way up to fundraising and governance.

Magpie provides workshops and dance classes for ages 8 upwards with no upper limit. Based in Bromley, Magpie Dance was founded in 1985 with the intention of encouraging participants to take a full and integrated part in the artistic life of the community, exploring movement concepts and encouraging people to express themselves creatively.

Male and female dancers

Magpie Adult Highfliers Dancers performing Ben Duke’s ‘There were definitely swans’ – photo by Tim Smith

Performances are an integral part of Magpie Dance’s programme and participants are given opportunities to perform in prestigious dance venues such as Sadler’ Wells, Trinity Laban and The Royal Opera House.

Artistic Director Alison Ferrao’s vision to link artistic themes with global events started with the creation of two new dance films by the Adult, Youth and Junior groups. Marking the First World War armistice centenary their stunning live flagship performance ‘Hidden Impact’ in collaboration with Dr Lee Humber (Ruskin College, Oxford) and My Life, My Choice (self-advocacy group) interpreted the stories of people with learning disabilities, their journeys and contributions to the First World War.

This year youth dancers from Magpie Dance and Candoco Dance Company have collaborated on the creation of a headline piece for Trinity Laban’s Co-Motion, an inclusive youth dance platform. With a score commissioned from composer Nicholas Hewlett, choreographer, Luke Brown said “I haven’t been in a process before that has been so unique, honest and raw”.

2020 marks Magpie Dance’s 35th Anniversary coinciding with their next artistic theme ‘eMotion – when dance and technology collide’ considering the use of technology in dance and the physical and psychological impact on performers and audiences. Innovative participatory dance experiences are being created in collaboration with Apple along with notable new partners including Royal Opera House, Sadler’s Wells and XbyX (Experts by Experience).

Continuing to look forward to performance opportunities, catch Magpie Dance at “A Bit Of A Do” inclusive dance festival on 7th July. Followed by Magpie’s youth technique dancers performing new pieces at Celebrate! the Churchill Theatre’s Summer Showcase and Playwright Festival on 11th July.

There’s still a chance to see poignant extracts from Hidden Impact as Magpie Dance perform Live at Lunch at the Royal Opera House on 8 November 2019 as part of their partnership and at Harrow Arts Centre’s disability festival.