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Thriving Rather Than Surviving

My relationship with the Old Fire Station is quite complex. I walk through the door, and I think, which part of the relationship are we working on today?  


It began as me applying for a call out for Offbeat Festival, an annual festival for new performance in Oxford, in 2018. I brought one of my choreographic works here and performed it for one day as part of the festival. I had a wonderful time, so the following year I applied again. And this time I was part of the supported artists’ programme, which meant I got technical, marketing, and directing support from OFS. I graduated in 2018, so I actually came as a student, but I started presenting professional work. And from that, conversations started to take place and my relationship with OFS began to develop.  


I went from this visiting artist to actually starting to embed my practice and my company a bit more within the Old Fire Station. When I first started having conversations and applying for work, I had this sense of, I'm an artist at a lower ranking, this is an arts organisation at a higher ranking. And therefore the relationship is me asking for support from them. Sometimes when you're approaching a new venue or a new space, you feel like you are going in and grafting from the ground up, like, ‘I'm an artist, please support me.’ And quite quickly, that started to become less of a thing.   


I started teaching an open level release class (a contemporary dance style) on a Friday. And we got this regular following of people that were coming and saying that, after being in the office, this was the thing they needed – they needed to move, they needed to not be sat typing. We got some people who contacted us saying, ‘I have never danced in my entire life. But I want to give it a go.’ We also had professional dancers that were currently on a break from touring. In a dance class, everyone's had some form of like boogying around, grooving. Open is just open, for everyone.   


From that Friday class, a slot on Mondays became available. So I asked if I could hire the space on a Monday as well to teach a modern contemporary technique called Cunningham. Being able to be in a space where, every Friday I come back and there's my dance community, every Monday I come back that's my dance community, really set up that, that foundation.  


The conversations I was having with the Old Fire Station and the team here really enabled me to notice that we both need each other, we both need to work together. OFS has many resources established, but there is still something I can contribute. As an artist, it gave me that confidence and that validation. It quietens the imposter syndrome voice and allows me to go into new spaces knowing that actually, I can create a mutually beneficial relationship.   


I think there has always been, at least from my perspective, from my first conversation with Jeremy, there’s been a love of dance in the Old Fire Station. There’s not a single dance building in Oxford, so it's sometimes hard to find that regularity, that sense of a place to come back to. If you ask any theatre in Oxfordshire, dance is a difficult one to sell, to house, to finance, to space. But at OFS there was a willingness and openness to at least have the conversation about it. And there was that faith in me to go from having zero or one student a week, to now where we frequently sell out classes.   


The Old Fire Station gave me the time to develop my voice and develop my practice – I didn’t have to arrive as a polished product. And I think my voice as an independent artist has developed a lot through conversations with OFS.  


The people here, I think, is the crucial part that draws you back. You come into a professional setting, but it's not a cold and rigid setting. You tell these people here if you're having a bad day, you tell these people if you're having a good day. Like, when I came in today, I was talking to the team at reception about my niece being born. It's interpersonal and connected, beyond just you being an artist in the building, working. It still has that frame of an institution and an arts organisation, but it’s a community. We’re now starting to see a lot more crossovers between the people that come to the dance classes then coming to a show, and then the people coming to a show seeing that there are dance classes in the building and coming to those, too.  


The Old Fire Station is a friend. And one that I could introduce to other friends at a party and not have to worry about them embarrassing me!  


And I think there is a community of dance artists engaging with the Old Fire Station, because they are so willing to open their doors to dance. Money, in an arts centre, and as an artist, is always going to be a challenging and complex thing. But I think if you've got the time and the space and the people, that becomes a problem that you can tackle together. It might sound silly, but actually, the studio you're in really does impact the teaching that you're able to deliver. At the Old Fire Station, I don't have to worry about anything other than coming in and focusing on the teaching, I know that the changing rooms will be clean, I know that the sound system is there. I don't have to lug a big speaker with me. Coming in to teach, I know that I just need to come with my class. Being able to have that stability, have that regularity, to then just focus on the teaching, practice, and the students in the space at the time.   


I think that takes the pressure off of holding everything else in balance, and without sounding too cliché, you're then able to focus on it thriving, rather than just surviving.  


There have been moments on one side of the line where I've been an audience member coming to a dance show here, seeing thirteen people in the audience knowing that I and four or five staff members make up some of that. But now I'm sitting here post pandemic, having been part of two sold out dance shows.   


Recently, I was coordinating the Rambert School platform here, and it’s something that if you’d have asked me in 2018, at the start of my relationship with OFS, that I would be bringing an internationally renowned dance school into my local home theatre… I wouldn't have thought of that! But what we were able to achieve was, in my opinion, a fantastic night of forty-three young dancers about to embark on their professional journeys in the same way that I had. That initial spark of my relationship with the Old Fire Station has developed to the point where it is now – working in collaboration to spark those new relationships for future generations. 


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