Bringing high quality cultural experiences to geographically inaccessible rural audiences is often seen as difficult, if not impossible. So when BSDC teamed up with arts organisation Blaize to take culturally diverse dance into countryside areas across the North of England, it offered a great opportunity for BSDC to explore new ways of reaching out. In the process they reinvented an ancient Indian tradition.

Dance Across the North was a partnership of arts organisations and rural touring schemes that together cover a huge area, from Northumberland to North Lincolnshire. The project was all about bringing a contemporary mix of culturally diverse dance, live music and workshops to Northern rural audiences. As project lead, Blaize secured Strategic Touring Funding from Arts Council England. Balbir Singh Dance Company, with its strong track record of connecting with ‘arts cold spots’, delivered the creative work.

‘We’re specifically working in areas where artistic development is hampered. Balbir Singh Dance is providing worldclass artistic experiences, which we hope will spur on young artists to enter the profession and deliver equally transformative future projects.’

Ellen Thorpe, Blaize

Photo: Nida Mozuraite

During the planning phase, Balbir Singh realised they were embarking on something that would be far more at home in a country like India where many years ago rural communities, often far removed from urban centres, would nevertheless see and hear great artists and performers, thanks to a tradition known as the Mehfil.

Mehfil derives from an Arabic word meaning ‘a festive gathering to entertain.’ Traditionally, musicians, poets and dancers would travel long distances across rural India to present Mehfils – evenings of courtly entertainment – in the homes of Indian nobility. If this could work in rural India, Balbir reasoned, why not in twenty first century rural England? Substitute the Maharaja’s palace for a country cottage, and everything else should slot into place. And so the modern Mehfil was born.

Creating a buzz

How it worked was simple. As Dance Across the North engaged with a given area a house concert, or Mehfil, was arranged to announce the arrival of the project and to garner support within local networks. Local arts champions hosted the concerts in their own homes. At the Mehfil, traditional dancers of North Indian Kathak, musicians and contemporary dance performers entertained the invited guests. The Mehfils acted as a catalyst, creating a ‘buzz’ in the area and kick-starting local publicity. Promoters could then build on this to publicise subsequent shows in other local venues.

Rural venues come in all shapes and sizes of course. That’s where BSDC’s experience of working in nontraditional spaces came in. As Balbir Singh explains: “We met with local promoters and venues to look at which pieces would best suit their space, and how we could adapt work to fit a given setting or audience.”

“We met with local promoters and venues to look at which pieces would best suit their space, and how we could adapt work to fit a given setting or audience.”

Balbir Singh

This flexibility has been learnt through long experience of performing in places that have never hosted an arts performance before, from libraries, to sports centres and even swimming pools. To ensure the work is relevant in such settings, BSDC has made work for such diverse audiences as rugby fans, artists, scientists and BMXers. Much of this work was also made available for Dance Across the North.

So with everything from classical dance to dancing bicycles and human beat boxers, from intimate evenings with Kathak dance gurus to flashmobs, the stage was set for BSDC’s very modern Mehfil to create an explosive cultural experience for audiences in rural settings right across the North.

Mehfil pick‘n’mix

At the outset of the project, one of BSDC’s innovations was to provide the rural touring partners with a ‘pick and mix’ menu of work. Facilitated by a novel set of ‘Mehfil Mix’ cards, scheme members could build up a visual picture of the kinds of work they wanted to programme.

“For many of us, this was about programming very different work – of a kind we hadn’t experienced before. The whole process helped us feel more confident and the card game made it simple – and fun!”

Ellen Thorpe, Blaize