Balbir Singh Dance Company responds to the multi-layered challenge posed by the creative case.

By incorporating different cultural traditions as diverse as cookery, BMX biking, and ice dance, the company invites new audiences and performers, and challenges artists to adapt to new ways of working in different performance spaces. BSDC has roots in classical Indian dance and a rich tradition of creating innovative, out-of-the-box partnerships: from multi-national flash mobs in former mining communities to baby-friendly workplaces for new mums, BSDC puts diversity and inclusivity centre stage.

This article documents the work of BSDC over the three-month period of July to September 2019. It highlights the creative case in action through the artistic programme, audience engagement and diversity of artists involved in the work.

In early July, we began rehearsals for The Creative Spirit of John Curry, which premiered at Billingham International Folklore Festival in August. BSDC joined forces with internationally renowned skaters Yebin Mok and Mark Hanretty to develop a piece capturing Curry’s importance as a visionary who brought the aesthetic and theatrical qualities of ballet to the technical discipline of competitive skating.

Our challenge was to create a narrative with emotional resonance for an audience who might be unfamiliar with the subject. To do this, we developed the ‘Voice of the Ice’ as a through-line, exploring John’s relationship with the ice. Voice artist Leanne Rowley played this part, as John’s muse and inspiration. Leanne needed to bring her six-month-old baby to rehearsals, and we were delighted to welcome the newborn into our creative process.

Leanne joined a cast including international skaters and dancers, devising a piece of work to be performed simultaneously on both stage and ice. Classical Indian dancers introduced skaters to new cultural ways of working, while Curry’s story and some of his best-loved works were recreated through Kathak dance, ice movement and vocal narrative.

13 July, Kala Utsav Performance. Children and young people who attend BSDC-led dance classes at Bradford Community Works Centre performed for the fourth time in the annual Kala Utsav event. Since 2017, Balbir Singh Dance Company and Kala Sangam –a multi-cultural community arts centre – have been running a dance class for children and young people at the Community Works Centre. Many of the children either have special educational needs (SEN) or are newly arrived in the UK and take part in the dancing while their parents are at ESOL classes in the same building. In a city which ranks as the 5th most income deprived district in England (Indices of Multiple Deprivation 2015), this ongoing commitment to creating opportunities for children who have little or no previous engagement with the arts is particularly important.

This project allows children and young people the opportunity to participate in high-quality dance classes, focusing on the origins of Kathak. The classes are led by BSDC’s Creative Learning Officer, Kimberley Hardy. By participating in this project the children and young people have improved their fitness levels, raised aspirations and nurtured their artistic talents. Up to 20 children attend regularly, and 9 of these have already achieved their Discover Arts Award, with a number now advancing to Explore level. Receiving an award from Trinity College London brings great pleasure to our participants and their families.

Champion of the Flatlands

3 August, Champion of the FlatlandsPerformances at Leamington Art in the Park Festival  (3 shows). With a title that explicitly references the BMX freestyle riding technique, Champion of the Flatlands is a ‘boy meets girl’ story of love and competition. The piece brings together the disparate worlds of performance art and urban culture, blended with live music in a way which is particularly engaging for younger audiences. BSDC were invited to be the main event on the opening day of Leamington Art in the Park – a weekend-long summer festival which attracted 45,000 visitors to the town. The company took this opportunity to premier a new version of Champion of the Flatlands featuring mountain biker Adam Morewood. The diverse cast also featured two Indian dancers, a contemporary dancer, guitarist and table player. The cast adapted with resilience, imagination and creativity to the challenges posed by the outdoor performance space.

Weaving the Future Bradford

4 August, Weaving the Future Bradford, Tim Smith’s Weaving the Future is an exhibition of film, photography and artefacts, exploring how Britain’s textile industry is being reinvented for the 21st century. Company artists took part in a creative day of research and filming for the exhibition. Balbir Singh summarises the concept behind this piece as “from sheep to space”. Through site visits including Wyedean in Haworth, company artists were able to gain a deeper understanding of the role played by textiles in the modern world. Textiles are now used to create knee cartilage as well as being part of the construction of the space shuttle.

Billingham International Folklore Festival

5-9 August, Billingham International Folklore Festival. BSDC was invited to be the company in residence at Billingham International Folklore Festival of World Dance. The company worked in collaboration on two new productions, incorporating dancers from China, South Korea, Colombia and Georgia, whilst also performing in galas, creating the opening and closing parade, teaching and facilitating a community flash mob. The festival brought us together with companies from Brazil, Costa Rica and Slovakia. The Billingham Festival brings together cultures and people of all ages and walks of life, in an area of significant socio-economic deprivation and industrial decline. In an area with a higher than average unemployment rate and limited access to art and culture, particularly among young people, the provision of creative festivals like this with an ethos of participation and community engagement becomes ever more important.

11 August, Scenes of Childhood. Synthonia Hall Billingham. The Billingham International Folklore Festival’s theme for 2019 was ‘Follow your dreams – the legend of John Curry’. This was the first in a series of stage- and ice-based pieces created for the festival inspired by the legacy of the British Olympic and World Champion figure skater. Described as “Nureyev on ice”, the 1976 Olympic champion is recognised not only for his balletic expressiveness and athletic skill, but also for his role as an inspiration to a generation of LGBTQ sports performers and the wider community, as a gay sports star in the media spotlight.

Drawing upon Curry’s piece of the same name, we created a production inspired by skaters on Christmas postcards. The vision was a frozen lake scene, encapsulating happiness, nostalgia and harmony. Other themes from John Curry’s work were incorporated and performed by a diverse multicultural cast, including our own company members and dancers from China and Colombia. International dancers worked in collaboration with BSDC artists to adapt repertoire and create new work influenced by the techniques of their own traditional movement style. Music and costume were combined, and Indian vocalisation was performed by Colombian dancers. Young dancers from China were taught original repertoire by BSDC dancers and performed alongside each other, accompanied by their traditional erhu musician.

Love and Spice creative case in action
Love and Spice Illustration: David Andrassy

12 August, Love and Spice.Billingham Seven Bingo. Love and Spice is a perennial company favourite which is shared with, rather than merely performed to, its audience. This performance in a bingo hall was enjoyed by many bingo enthusiasts. The piece includes a chef cooking live on stage, delighting the senses with the aroma of spices and the sound of sizzling pans, and culminates with cast and audience mingling over the freshly cooked food, simply a delight. 

13 August, 1001 Dreams. Town Hall Crypt Middlesborough. The next piece in a series of works celebrating the life and work of John Curry. 1001 Arabian Dreams brought together Balbir Singh Dance Company with visiting dance companies from China, Colombia, Georgia and South Korea. Based on the 1001 Arabian Nights, the piece draws together the stories which featured in some iconic Curry works originally created on ice; including Don Quixote and Scheherazade, the secret Firebird work that never managed to fly, and the hustle and bustle of New York, New York. Middlesbrough is the 6th most deprived local authority area in England (Indices of Multiple Deprivation 2015) and the need to increase access to the arts in this area has been highlighted by recent investment in the Borderlands creative growth programme.

14 August, Irish Indian Dreams. Town Hall Crypt Middlesborough. Fresh from performing at the Royal Heritage Days Festival in Sha ah, United Arab Emirates and appearing on Al Jazeerah Television, Irish and Indian Dreams was performed at Middlesbrough Crypt in August by BSDC along with Absolutely Legless Irish Dance group.  On the same day we presented Flash Mob at Billingham Town Centre. Drawing upon John Curry’s work Don Quixote, we created a flashmob accompanied by the original commentary and music of his Olympic gold medal-winning routine. The choreography became an online resource for the general public to learn to dance. Local communities and all participating countries attending the festival also had a chance to learn the dance material, which was presented as a mass participatory evening that brought together cultures and people of all ages and walks of life.

16 August, The Creative Spirit of John Curry at Billingham Forum Ice Arena. This inspiring family show draws upon the man, the work, and the process behind what went into making John Curry such an iconic figure. Headed by Mark Hanretty (ITV’s Dancing on Ice) and Yebin Mok, with Eliot Smith Dance, Tango Dancers Jenny & Ricardo Oria, and Balbir Singh Dance Company. A special show to celebrate the life and legacy of John Curry in what would have been his 70th year of life. A life full of struggle, genius, and creativity. His profound impact on the sport has made a considerable impression on countless skaters throughout the world.

18 August, The Boy with the Rollerblades at Billingham Festival Open Arena. Featuring 58-year-old skating champion Gary Beacom in the third outing for this children’s piece made earlier in the year. Covering the theme of climate change, Gary is no longer able to skate as all the ice in the world has melted. Can he find a way to pursue his artistic calling on rollerblades, and can social change affect climate development and bring the ice back?

The Creative Case
I am not an Indian dancer?

In September, Balbir went into working on a new solo piece with Dancer in Residence Sooraj Subramaniam in the first phase of research and development for Reflections of an Indian Dancer. Bisakha Sarhar brought her experience and worldly wisdom into the studio during the process.

Can a contemporary dancer go deeper into his own identity, body and art form through experiencing how an Indian dancer makes sense of his dance? Is it possible for contemporary dance to be understood, interpreted and translated through Indian dance? The results of this enquiry feature in a brand new duet with Eliot Smith and Sooraj Subramaniam, I am not an Indian Dancer?

The Creative Case operates as an invaluable mechanism for BSDC to find new ways of understanding, trying out, sharing, and celebrating the vibrancy of the arts in this country. The incredible range of people Balbir brings together and the trust they place in him are fundamental to the company’s development and growth.

The Creative Case full report can be found here, and The Creative Case for Diversity here.