In February 2018, NEW Dance began the first of our partnership projects with HMP Berwyn, a men’s prison in Wrexham. The projects were set up to give the residents the opportunity to engage with dance sessions and perform a piece created by the participating group to their peers and staff at the prison. The purpose of the projects is to promote physical and mental well-being amongst the residents, for them to increase skills such as commitment, confidence, teamwork and resilience, and to provide a new experience for many of them, who may not have danced before.
Feedback given on the completed projects shows that these goals are achieved for many of the participants – we have received comments such as “…it really brought us all together”, “I felt a bit out of my comfort [zone] but soon got into it”, and “makes me smile”. Uptake on the current project (which has unfortunately had to be suspended due to the coronavirus) has been very high, due to the great example set by the previous cohort.
The prison environment is, by its very nature, a unique set of circumstances in which to work, but the dance practitioners have relished the opportunity, with one of them describing it as a highlight of her career to date. The main difficulties associated with the project are the necessarily restrictive rules around bringing equipment into the prison, and the transient nature of the resident population.
Each project and session has to be carefully planned in advance, to ensure that the equipment required to play the music needed for the session will be available, as the practitioners cannot bring their own due to the prison’s security procedures. The prison’s population is constantly changing, due to current residents moving to other prisons or being released, and new men arriving. This is reflected in the attendances at the dance sessions; however, the practitioners have a motto: “Always forwards, never backwards.” No matter which participants are present at each workshop, they keep the sessions progressing so that the whole group is always working towards the end goal of a finished dance piece of which the participants can be proud. One of the practitioners has noted: “…new participants are often thrown in at the deep end but do adapt and keep up!”
The initial partnership began with two NEW Dance practitioners running the pilot scheme in the prison, the success of which led to more funding being secured to continue the work. At this point, NEW Dance Artistic Director Angela Fessi was keen to add an additional element to the project, in the form of a transitional pathway from prison to the community, which would ensure that those men who wished to continue with dance upon their release would have the opportunity to do so.
She approached Fallen Angels Dance Theatre, a dance company which supports those in recovery from addiction, about working collaboratively. Happily, they were delighted by this prospect, and NEW Dance practitioner Rachel attended training with FADT, which included attending dance workshops for people recovering from addiction, and gaining a greater understanding of the challenges they face. Once she felt comfortable with the experience she gained there, she and Paul Bayes-Kitcher, Artistic Director of FADT, ran the next sessions at the prison.
Following successful workshops and rehearsals, and an extremely well-received performance to other residents and prison staff, NEW Dance and HMP Berwyn began the third instalment of sessions in January 2020, before they were unfortunately put on hold due to the coronavirus outbreak. In early January, NEW Dance Practitioner & Project Co-ordinator Claire underwent similar training with FADT to that which Rachel attended, and then she and Rachel began this series of sessions in the prison.
During the current (although suspended) run of sessions, the practitioners and participants initially worked together for three weekly sessions, along with the Artistic Director of FADT and members of the FADT dance group Risen. During these sessions, the groups agreed a stimulus for the final dance piece, and got to know each other by sharing personal journeys through dance. There was then a break from the sessions and unfortunately, the pandemic began and session were therefore unable to be resumed. At the end of the project, the groups will work intensively together for three days to finalise their piece in order to share it with their peers and staff at HMP Berwyn.
The current project is not cancelled, merely suspended, and hopes remain high that the remainder of the sessions and a performance of the created piece can take place at a later time, when public health conditions allow. The valuable established partnership with FADT will also keep the transitional element in place for recently released men, once the FADT workshops begin again. The NEW Dance Artistic Director is keeping in touch with FADT and HMP Berwyn staff, and they are monitoring the situation. When it is possible for the residents to meet again, there will inevitably be a different group of participants which will present a challenge, but we’re sure that both participants (existing and new) and practitioners will embrace the situation and produce a dance piece which is just as impressive and thought-provoking as the last one.