An example of how a large- scale community dance project achieved transformational social and cultural outcomes and won national awards for its contribution to community cohesion.
Background and history
Middlesbrough Town Hall underwent the biggest refurbishment in its 129-year history to create a town hall for the 21st century, restoring rarely seen elements of the Grade II-listed building and giving the spaces new energy.
Middlesbrough Council, supported by Arts Council England, put out an open tender for a cultural project to celebrate its reopening in May 2018. The council and the National Lottery Heritage Fund had invested in the major refurbishment of the town hall and wanted a launch event to capture the spirit of Middlesbrough and celebrate its culture. The council hoped that the project would bring together the diverse communities in the area, showcasing the new Town Hall as a space for everyone.
Southpaw Dance Company specialise in large-scale participatory dance performances, and were excited by this open tender as an opportunity to engage with the people of Middlesbrough and create a memorable cultural event. Their pitch was to devise an immersive theatrical production which would show off as many features as possible within the Town Hall complex.
Delivery of activities
The council agreed a timetable with the team from Southpaw and helped to connect Southpaw to community groups. Southpaw also reached out to people in Middlesbrough through Facebook and Twitter ads.
The sign-up process was designed to be as simple as possible, and Southpaw welcomed everyone who wanted to be involved and who could commit to the rehearsal process – no experience required.
A large and diverse community cast of more than 100 members was recruited, working hard over eight weeks to rehearse and bring the show to life. To begin with there were a lot of conversations to understand what was important to people and the community.
The team chose to call the event Erimus, meaning ‘we shall be’, which is the town’s motto and reflects the exciting future of the Town Hall. The show was designed to explore what it means to be from Middlesbrough, celebrate Middlesbrough’s rich cultural identity, and to showcase the Town Hall as a beacon within that cultural landscape.
The narrative was developed with community groups through an open process – meaning that the show was changing right up until the dress rehearsal. Southpaw Dance Company took a firmly egalitarian approach, treating professional dancers and community cast as equals. Through previous projects, Southpaw has found it is really important to foster this spirit of mutual respect to collectively create and work towards one vision.
Over 1500 people from Middlesbrough attended the live performances. Audience members found the performance created a real sense of pride, with some in tears at the retelling of the history of Middlesbrough. Many audience members talked afterwards about feeling a lot of hope and optimism for the future of Middlesbrough – one said it “reminded me why I’m proud to be a smoggy”, and another described it as “outstanding, powerful and emotional”.
Charlotte Nicol, Head of Culture at Middlesbrough Council, described the project as “transformational”, achieving “key social and cultural outcomes for the town”. The project has won awards from Arts Council England and the National Campaign for the Arts in recognition of its contribution to community cohesion.
The project has created enduring relationships among the community cast, with many saying it feels like a family. There are regular reunions and the Facebook group is still used for conversation. For the asylum seekers who participated, the project helped them to get to know their new community and boosted their sense of wellbeing.
One participant described taking part in Erimus as “the best experience of my life. I have met some wonderful people, I've never felt so welcome as I did being a part of Southpaw”. Another community cast member said “still can't believe how much Erimus has inspired me. I am now waiting on my college interview and have booked my first driving lesson. Mid-life crisis or the start of a new adventure? What dreams may come”.
The role of the council is crucial to the success of projects like Erimus and Southpaw’s work elsewhere – the commitment and support required from the council should not be underestimated. It is vital that there is an internal champion for the project, and Southpaw relied on the council’s strong connections into community groups.
It is also important to be clear during the recruitment process about the commitment involved, as this reducing the number of drop-outs later on. But Southpaw have always found high levels of enthusiasm to get involved in their projects.
Going forward, Southpaw Dance Company are looking to digital to see how they can expand the reach of their live shows.