I have been performing and creating for over 15 years working as a dancer, actor, choreographer and director. I have worked with several reputable national and international companies and artists and most of the work I have undertaken has been aimed at adult audiences. So why have I decided to perform in a work for early years children?
Well, of course there is the obvious reason of earning an income as a performer and identifying work that will pay, but given my age and experience I tend not to work on projects that do not interest me. So what was it?
Liz Clark and Oksana Tyminska (Turned On It's Head) had been working and devising for the early years work ‘Sponge’ with young children for a while before I entered the process of creating. Liz mentioned to Louise, a fellow performer and I before the process of creating began, that there was a backstory to the work. The work was about attachment and neuroscience research looking at how improvisation can develop neurological pathways in young children and how this kind of work advances their development and aids in developing their brain in relation to self-esteem and well-being. I was curious and this was enough for me to get involved.
Having now performed ‘Sponge’ across the country from theatre spaces to community libraries and having ended with a Christmas run at the Barbican I am able to explore the importance and value of this work to the arts sector and to me as an artist.
As an artist from a South-Indian background born in Britain I have recently found myself returning to my base form of the Indian Performing Art of bharatanatyam after having worked across a myriad of different art forms and practices. My return is to try and understand how and what it means to be an Indian dancer in Britain. The works I create tends to shift notions and perceptions around race, language and identity and in most cases the works directly interact with the audience.
Direct audience interaction relies heavily on improvisation and my audience improvisational skills lie mainly within my acting experiences for adult audiences. But adult audiences are in some manner quite predictable. Majority of adults don’t like to be embarrassed, have the prior knowledge that it is a stage setting and therefore remain seated and definitely will not wander onto the stage during a performance. But when playing with young children NONE of this is true! It is completely different! The whole event is unpredictable! We do not know how a child is going to respond, what they are going to do, where they are going to go and what they are going to grab. I recall in one performance a group of boisterous children who like to be really physical came together and cheered "Let’s get him!!’ in their playful manner. I managed to think on the spot and play with them in a circular motion making my rather unexpected early exit! This level of play and unpredictability for a performer is when I feel our creativity is functioning at its peak. We are living in the moment and having to think, create and respond in that instant, directly reacting to a child or childrens’ unspoken request. Although the work is carefully structured there is an incredible freedom to allow a child to be who they want to be and for us as improvisers and performers to allow that freedom for them by directly engaging with them to create instantaneous moments of performance for all audiences. It is at this point as performers we are alive. This difference in audience interaction was more reliant on my dance training. Through the understanding of my own body and how to read a child’s body I was able to match their energy and will to create a shared moment. But as these interactions continued throughout the tour I couldn’t help but question during those shared moments with the children, do young children see me differently? Or do they feel scared, curious or indifferent by this difference?
Many of the venues we toured were in rural areas and I had a little hunch that some of these children might never have seen a ‘brown’ man before. It was simultaneously shocking and a privilege to think that I might be these young childrens’ (and in some cases, adults’) first encounter with an Asian male. I was in a position to shift and alter their expectations and preconceived ideas of what being Asian meant directly in line with my artistic practice. By presenting a work to young children that showed an Asian male being a father to a seemingly white-caucasian girl immediately broke any fixed ideas of racial identity. For me, planting these seeds of cross-cultural relations at this stage of a child’s development and for the adults is incredibly important and vital to developing an understanding and recognizing a more diverse society. In addition, the joy of working on something where my cultural heritage played no factor in the ideas of the work were in some way refreshing. In ‘Sponge’ I was just being a father to a child, free from any association to my race, cultural heritage and language. Seeing an Asian male performing a young children’s work also took many adults by surprise, not because of my race but because of my gender.
This leads me to question why there is a lack of male performers in early years work. It is clearly a predominantly female-led sector, but this of course is expected as caring for a young child is often perceived as the mother’s role. But why? Perhaps this may change in the near future if more male performers began working with young children.
At venues and amongst certain circles in the arts and with artists I feel there is still a slight stigma attached to early years’ work, that it’s not professional or that it’s not ‘serious’ work. I can say from first hand-experience it is professional, there’s a lot of work involved and it is incredibly serious. We are dealing with very tiny people that are incredibly precious to their parents and as performers it is our responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of the child and not just to entertain but provide an experience for both child and parents that will linger in their minds for a long time and help stimulate their relationships, provide genuine playtime between parent and child and develop both creative and sensory growth.
It is crucial that more early years and young children’s work, with a diverse cast and using various artistic mediums is presented at theatres. Through presenting this kind of work for these young audiences we are nurturing a new generation who will begin to think difference differently: beyond national identity, racial categorization and gender stereotypes. I look forward to the next leg of this tour and to see what else unearths itself as part of what I consider a playful observation of child-parent-performer interactions.