Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Shawbrook in the news and some words on a choreographic mentor

When I was nine years old, I first attended Anica Louw's summer dance course at Shawbrook Ballet School in Co. Longford, Ireland. It was a trial by fire. We engaged in up to ten hours of movement a day, in what I quickly came to realize was a sort of 'boot camp' for dancers. I loved it. We participated in two classes a day (in modern and ballet technique), two rehearsals (one by each teacher creating a new piece in a week) sessions in theatre etiquette, and our own rehearsals, where students were given the opportunity to choreograph a piece of their own. 

Yes, choreograph.

This is where I first learned about choreography. That it was a Thing that Existed. 

In 2003, in an address to the Backstage Theatre audience assembled for the National Dance Awards, Anica told the story of when I had come home after that first week at summer camp, aged nine, and announced to my mother in the kitchen "I want to be a choreographer."(The National Youth Dance Company - now Shawbrook Youth Dance - had just won the group award with my choreography). "And look at you now" she proclaimed, looking directly at me. 

Shawbrook summer schools were to become a fixture of my adolescent summers, something I looked forward to all the school year, and I've missed those dedicated periods of creativity, camaraderie, fresh air, externally-imposed structure for creativity and support as an adult. (Not to mention the fresh air and locally-sourced, healthily-prepared food simply presented in front of you three times a day!) Adolescence is a tough time for anyone, with a hormonally-imbalanced system often creating depression and anxiety, and if you happen to be a dancer or athlete on a career path from the age of 12 (or younger), with limited time for socialising or relaxation outside of school work and training, it can be especially challenging. Anica and her husband Philip created a working structure in the summer courses where students were treated like adults, which quite often required us to stretch ourselves in ways that had yet to be asked of us. And yes, we complained of sore muscles, of curfews and shower time limits - teenagers will complain about anything - but the structure and intensity of these summer courses gave me a foundation that has never gone away. Whenever I am faced with a 15 hour day, (or months of them in a row), or a seemingly impossible task in life or work - and there have been many over the years - a voice in my head reminds me "Think of it like it's Shawbrook. You can do this!" And you know what? I have. I can. I even seek out boot camp classes at the gym now because they remind me of that intensity. 

Anica is a powerful force of a woman, and in many ways has had to be to manifest an internationally recognised school, theatre and residency space for professional dance artists in the wilds of a traditionally agri-centric county. Through a young girl's eyes, she can be formidable - something else which never leaves the cellular memory! - even now, in my 30s, my legs will start shaking at the barre if she happens to walk in to have a look at ballet class. But she is also a woman of great heart and boundless love, as thousands of students and alumni will attest. She was my first mentor as a choreographer, the person that had faith in me when I doubted myself after funding or audition rejections, and over two decades later, I still call on her in my head when I'm worried or stuck in the creative process. 

This week, Shawbrook was profiled on RTE's Nationwide programme. I hope you enjoy it, and I hope you consider sending your child to Shawbrook some day. A warning though - upon returning home, your child may have changed to an almost unrecogniable degree: capable of doing their own hair in a bun, organising their own dance clothes and costumes, making their own bed without being asked, and quite possibly clutching a newly-acquired, steadfast desire be a choreographer. 

- Rachel

P.S. expandance had the distinct honour of being the first company to perform on Shawbrook's outdoor stage, with 'Sephiroth' / The Forest Piece. Newly built by Kristo Dawson and open to the elements, we prayed for weeks that it wouldn't rain during the performance (it didn't) and every day for a week before the show I weeded out the nettles so that when the dancers rolled off the stage half way through the piece they wound't get stung. Peter Jordan and his crew rigged lights in the limbs of the old Spanish chestnut trees either side of the stage, and members of Shawbrook Youth Dance hid in the newly planted saplings of Shawbrook forest with lanterns as part of the piece. (That's them in our banner picture.) In the Nationwide piece you will see the outdoor stage as it looks six years later - now with a roof! And leafy, big trees all around - compare to the saplings in the pictures here. 

Laurie Schneider and Jody O'Neill during rehearsals on a sunny day at Shawbrook

Production manager Peter Jordan creates a lighting rig in a tree
A dress rehearsal on the outdoor stage - see those wee saplings!

The newly planted forest behind the girls. 

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