MDI Merseyside Dance Initiative
Inspiring people through dance

“What do you think of MDI?” Wendy Houstoun responds

MDI spent the last two years working with Dance 4, East London Dance and Dance Manchester on a Catalyst-funded project to diversify income in dance. Over this time we took a long hard look at the many ways our organisation could make itself more resourceful and resilient. We felt that MDI was not being seen clearly for what it is and that by failing to find clarity we were experiencing many misconceptions and misunderstandings of who we were and how we achieve our goals? So we put our neck on the line and asked an artist what she thought of us – we were not expecting this……

I am writing this an Independent artist who has been working for 36 years. Of those 36 years there have only been around five or six of those years which have either had a contract for the full year (Ludus Dance Company – 1980-82) or funding which might cover the entire year (2013-2015) with a two year respite provided by an Arts Council Fellowship somewhere in the middle. The remaining time has been spent on short contracts with intermittent funding and usually only able to see about six months ahead max.
There has been a bit of a heated response around the use of the word ‘Independent ‘so, just to be clear, I am using the word to mean an artist who does not receive regular or three year funding and who often works on many projects at any given time.
I am saying all this not to garner any sympathy, but to try and describe the precarious position I and many, many others are in.
One of the main side effects of this situation is that the artist is not independent at all but actually completely dependent. This dependence expresses itself directly in relationships with people who are in a position to provide opportunities: promoters, producers, funders, venue directors and more increasingly with directors of National Dance Agencies.
It is my own observation that the National Dance Agencies have become more powerful in the last 10 years often acting as conduits for venues and resources previously spread around a wider number of people. So it is easy to see how an artists’ relationship with any given Dance Agency has become more central to their capacity to develop and perform their work with any given region.

This is all a bit of background talk to illuminate the way artists tend to  loiter around these hubs of possibility in an uneasy fashion,  trying to give off the air of an autonomous , independent being while simultaneously trying to court favour and  attract interest in the development of their work in a way that will disguise the whiff of need. Over time this relationship can begin to demonstrate a continuity and loyalty on both sides which is the only thing that begins to balance out this power relationship.

Continuity and honesty are perhaps the two most vital things to freelance artists if they are ever going to find momentum in their work. Without momentum work never really gets going and the entire activity can be likened to pissing in the wind and morale gets broken.

Over the years the quality of honesty is the one I have found the most sustaining whether or not it comes with financial support. The quality of talking to a human being who is steadfast in their own beliefs and speaks of them openly without recourse to arts speak jargon seems to be able to touch the  calm, mature parts of a  relationship other more  nurturing and enabling voices find harder to reach.

This direct communication is something I have found at MDI and Karen Gallagher and more recently Rachel Rogers. It’s hard to put my finger on what it is but it’s something to do with talking to the total person rather than the professional role. Something to do with communicating with a set of beliefs rather than a set of this years values.

I have often been reminded by a variety of managers and producers that I am just One Of Many. I am reminded of this – as if it was something I was not aware of. Of course I (and all the artists I know) know we are one of many but it’s hard to know what to do with that information. Should I go for a One of Many breakfast, and then take a One of Many walk and I am pretty sure no-one would thank me for making a One of Many theatre piece ( or should I say delivering? ).

The feeling I have from Karen and Rachel and MDI is the direct opposite. Each and every person, thing, time, event is important. And even more pertinent – I don’t ever sense a pecking order of how people should be talked with and to which happens a lot. (i.e. Successful People = Long Conversation, Laughing at their jokes and taking them for a great dinner. Less Successful People = quick chat while looking at phone and point them towards some crap bar.)

This never happens. I don’t get this ( as Jonathan Burrows calls it ) slightly soiled feeling that comes from the ambivalence that can occur straight after a performance – the temporary tease of having been welcomed ( sometimes )  and forgotten in the space of a couple of hours. I don’t get the art snobbery that has often made me want to get out of this whole racket completely.

And I want to make this really clear. The support and kind of communication I find from all at MDI is not contingent on receiving money . It comes more from intermittent cheer- leading just when I am flagging and also seems to display some reciprocal ability to receive the same from me . It is charged with belief in an emotional openness that – with the way money looks these days- might be our best way forward with each other.

So- From where I am standing –

MDI is a bit of a rebel - on the edge – and still dancing.
It defines and dictates its own rules.
Refuses to speak jargon.
Puts people before purchasing power.
Places human connection alongside abstraction.
It’s a northern power house on the wrong side of the tracks.
A supporter of truth.
A believer in dance.
A fighter for art.
A thorn in the side of pretension.
A pin in the bubble of delusion.
A space for collisions.
A place for taking time.
A place for taking the time- to care.
Unfashionably loyal.
And strangely persistent in its pursuit of the personal – alongside the professional.
All qualities that it seems we are beginning to remember again after a long time
In the verb free desert of silly politics.
MDI has managed to steer clear of vague art speak and vacuous policy talk by knowing the truth when it sees it and encouraging it to flourish in its multitude of forms.
Merseyside is not going away.
Dance is not going away.
And it is  still taking the initiative.

Wendy Houstoun
2015