Welcome to Handmade By Sarah

On this website I will be telling you all about my work and life as a freelance dancer, choreographer, dance teacher, mother and founder of Handmade By Sarah. Write ups on old and new projects, previous work and work in progress. Photos, video links and dance films, performances, companies, classes. Personal experiences making dance teaching dance and dancing myself. Life as a mummy my love for handmade knitwear and crochet and much more snuggly stuff.

Under each post you can find a like box and a comment box where you can leave a thumbs up, comments, ask questions and share your stories experiences and thoughts. You can also follow me on Twitter, @sarahlinstra. Enjoy!

-Sarah Linstra-


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So you think you can…tell me what contemporary dance is?

Who can give me the exact definition of contemporary dance? Anybody? No? Because these days the whole of the UK seems to think, ‘contemporary dance is all about telling a story’, thanks to Arlene Phillip on So You Think You Can Dance and all the other talent shows on tv. Isn’t the answer to ‘what is contemporary dance?’, ever changing, re invented and next to a general historical meaning, quite personal? A question still unanswered or still discussed by the individuals of the contemporary dance world itself, all over the globe? Back to Arlene’s weekly comment on the contemporary duets on So You Think You Can Dance. I am not saying that contemporary dance can’t tell a story, but it’s not the definition of contemporary, is it?

As a contemporary dancer, trained in Graham, Cunningham, Limon techniques I almost feel like I need to defend the authenticity of the definition of contemporary dance but to be really honest (and in the danger of contradicting myself) I am not sure why. These days the dance techniques seem to have found their way onto commercial tv programs and they seem to generalise a lot of the very intricate styles within the dance. I am very interested in the mix of popular dance styles known to the bigger public and the maybe lesser known contemporary dance. Not to say that as an old school trained contemporary dancer there isn’t still that pinch whenever people tell me they, “loved the new dance film Step Up, it must be great for your profession to get such interest in dance”…..hmmm. It’s hard to hear a comment like that when you see the dance world crumbling around you, disappearing in a fight for money. But maybe I shouldn’t be too hard on those people for whom Step Up in 3D is the definition of the evolution of dance.

Mix it up a little. It’s interesting to dance on a commercial track that normally has break dancers, hip hoppers or clubbers do their thing and do something completely different with it. I love fashion, love clothes  and a bit of GOK. Put that in the mix and the world of contemporary dance becomes much more easy for un educated dance audience to get interested. (A whole other discussion to get into….some other time). The definition of contemporary in the dictionary is ‘belonging to or occurring in the present’ or ‘following modern ideas or fashion in style or design : contemporary art’. Maybe I shouldn’t try to pin it down so much and just let contemporary be what it is…why can’t I let it go?

Contemporary is following the modern ideas in the present time. So contemporary absorbs the evolution in all dance, music and art forms and keeps evolving, right? In some cases I think the answer is yes. But with programs like So You Think You Can dance (in my opinion giving too strong a statement on what contemporary dance is or should be) people who don’t go to the theatre to see modern dance and have never heard of Merce Cunningham, Pina Bausch or Isadora Duncan (to name a few) are too easily ‘tricked’ into believing that what they show on tv is contemporary dance. Again, I am not saying it is not. But you have to remember that within this style of dance I there is a whole range of things going on that make it hard to define what it is, really. You just can’t generalise it. And it is hard to say who really holds the final answer to this one or if there even is one. I think we will never be able to put our finger on it. It is a mix of life and constantly changing, is it not? Keep an open mind.

Together with Nuno Campos (ex- rehearsal director/dancer of the Henri Oguike Dance Company) I assisted choreographer Henri Oguike making a contemporary duet for 2010 BBC’s So You Think You Can Dance competitors Mandy Montanez and Mark Calape in week3 of the program. I had never watched the program before, knew of it’s exitence, but it wasn’t my kind of tv. Though after meeting and working Mandy and Mark I quickly got hooked.

Stuck in front of my tv every week to see who was going to be ‘Britain’s Best Dancer’. Not sure if I agree with that expression and luckily they have changed it and now are looking for ‘Britain’s Favourite Dancer’, which I can get on board with. The BBC now had contemporary in the mix of dance styles, inviting choreographers such as Mark Baldwin, Rafael Bonachela and Henri Oguike to choreograph duets for the show. The first thing that confused me when we started working with them in the studio was the music. Surely Henri did not pick this very cheesy track himself, or did he? No, he didn’t. He had been given a selection of (very cheesy) songs by the BBC to choose from and ‘Show me heaven’ it was. Now that is not the problem because contemporary dance can be done on any kind of music. But in the context of a program like this you have to be very aware that the choice of music is a big influence on how the tv audience will receive the dance form. This is the second thing that confused me. By using these mainstream tracks for both contemporary and lyrical dance, it was misleading and confusing for an audience that has never seen those styles before. Then occurs the question, what is the difference between contemporary and lyrical dance? You got me, from watching the program I would not be able to tell you. And I very often found myself ‘enjoying’ and connecting much stronger to the lyrical choreographies then the contemporary. It almost was as if the dancers themselves were confused. They passionately gave their all to lyrical and slightly held back in the contemporary.

Which leaves me with that everlasting question to you. What do you think contemporary dance is?

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As the rain is pelting down on the roof of the Bikram Yoga Studio I breath in and out and feel the sweat roll from my forehead into my ears. All I am doing is lying on my back. Concentrating on my thoughts…lots of them. It seems impossible to drown them out. ‘Breathing in and out, nothing to do, just breath’, the yoga teacher says. Most of the thoughts and tension is stress from work and life and in general, completely wedged in the deepest little nooks of my brain and body. To take the time and become of aware of them for a start is an amazing thing. To have the time and slowly straighten yourself out is a luxury.

As a dancer you are basically always busy with your body and mind, the psychological and physical state of it. You will be more sensitive to outside influences like temperature, sleep deprivation, lack of vitamins or simply more aware of what stress or injuries can do to your body. Not saying that dancers are more prone to feel like crap…most of the time they actually are more flexible and able, dealing with the physical side effects of these outside influences because they are more aware of them. We dancers like to think we know our bodies inside and out and for most part we do. It’s funny though how practising Bikram Yoga has taught me even more about myself and more so, how to take care of myself.

What is Bikram Yoga?

In a room heated to over 37.8°C with humidity around 50%, you stretch your body to its fullest capacity with 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises. These 26 powerful poses along with pranayama breathing, a breathing technique whereby you empty your lungs completely before breathing in again, lasts for 90 minutes.

Created by Bikram Choudhury in the 1970’s this form of Yoga is one of the most popular ones being practised all over the world. It’s said the heat accomplishes more than just make anyone who enters the room sweat. According to Choudhury, many people only use up to 50% of their lung capacity and so the lungs must be stretched in order to withstand holding more oxygen. The heat and humidity create an environment where your lungs only work at 50%, pushing your lungs and heart to work harder, strengthening your organs. By doing this, the body uses the oxygen more efficiently and allows your internal organs to breath.  It is claimed that the organs are in a way, purified.  Toxins are pushed out of your internal organs exit the body through your sweat making your body healthier.  The added sweat and heat makes your muscles more limber, allowing them to achieve deeper stretching and avoid injury.

‘Choudhury claims that blood circulation is affected immensely during Bikram Yoga because of two processes called extension and compression. These two dynamics are said to work together to deliver fresh blood to every joint, muscle, and organ within the human body. While performing a specific asana (pose), the practitioner stretches or compresses a certain part of the body, thus cutting off circulation temporarily. This restriction of circulation causes the heart to pump more blood in reaction to the shortage. The pumping of excess, fresh blood is called extension. Once the asana is complete and the individual comes out of the posture, the new oxygenated blood is able to rejuvenate the arteries that were being compressed. Because of the volume change and influx of fresh blood, it is said that infection, bacteria, and toxins can be through this process. Other styles of yoga also promote this theory (cf: B.K.S. Iyengar‘s “squeeze and soak” analogy regarding the effects of deep twists on the internal organs).’Is it really that healthy?

Bikram Yoga has been the subject of much debate as to whether or not performing strenuous exercise in a room over 37.8 °C (100 F) is safe. It is common for Bikram practitioners to experience dizziness and nausea, especially in the earlier stages of their practice. You always have to listen to your own body and when you have just started practising Bikram Yoga or are a veteran but not feeling at your best you will be advised by the teacher to sit or lay down rest and breath until you feel bored so you can join back in again. Some postures though will always give you a feeling of slight dizziness or nausea and there is nothing you can do but breath through them.

In this class there is no space for ego tripping ‘look what I can do’ because that is not what it is about. The teacher will always ask you to find your own focus and your personal space and concentrating and there is a reason for that. Do I think the hype around Bikram is sometimes dangerous? Yes, when celebrities start a trend like fitness dancing or practising yoga and people see them look stunning because of it, the end result becomes far more important then the actual philosophy and practise itself. Which for me just completely misses the point. A healthy state of mind and a balanced life is what Bikram (at least for me) stands for and unfortunately when it becomes such a hype that does get lost on some people. Does everyone get it? No I don’t think so. I don’t even get it half the time but I do believe that as a dancer I have an understanding about the human body, especially my body, in order to practise safe Bikram Yoga and without pushing and mis using the technique resulting in injury. Take the time to understand the state of mind of Bikram slowly and take the postures and their depth step by step, honesty and trust are vital components when practising yoga. There is not much space for error in this form of yoga and I do think when done wrong it can cause issues. But of course this is the case with any kind of exercise or lifestyle.

Bikram yoga is an amazing new find for me it’s opened my eyes to new ways of staying in shape and shaping my mind and state of being. I have had my fair share of injuries in my career, lower back and knee injuries which I both have recovered from. But, they leave scars and practising Bikram Yoga I have slowly learned about those. When you get injured as a dancer the first thing you do (I did) is go in protective ‘have to take care of my body’ mode. You get a scare and loose confidence. What can, can’t, should or shouldn’t you do? This is especially hard when you come back from an injury. I was lucky to come back from both injuries and not sustain a physical limitation as a result of them. But what I didn’t realise was that I did…not a physical one but a mental one. To put it blunt and simple; before my back injury I was extremely flexible and I would bend any direction anytime and all the time. After my back injury I wanted to take care of back and didn’t do that anymore, especially avoiding deep back bending. And by doing Bikram Yoga I slowly became aware I was actually afraid of going into a back bend, scared to go too far. And so I didn’t go fully into some of the back bending postures simply because by not doing them I believed I was going to protect my back from hurting again. BUT by slowly going a little further every time I came to a realisation, I CAN still do it and it does NOT hurt, it actually made my back feel better. It took me almost a year to gain trust in my lower back again. And I am going through the same thing with my knee, slowly gaining trust in my body again. Being patient and taking things one step at a time is a frustrating but ever so rewarding thing and then when you get to do the posture you thought you would never do again it is almost, in a way, emotional.

Consciously reshaping the flow of negative thoughts and renegotiating habitual negative behaviour. Balancing out the body and mind and rejuvenating inspiration and energy for life. There are so many things you find out about yourself and about your body that you will benefit from in daily life. It has made a massive change to my life. An irregular existence as a freelance dancer is not always as glamorous as it may seem and it can sometimes challenge your positive believes. You have to have an immense resource of will power and hard work to make this profession work and even then it can really test you pushing you to places you didn’t know existed. There is a lot of giving and sometimes not that much to gain in return. I am not just talking about the financial side but obviously also about the physical and mental state some jobs can put you in as a dancer. There is nothing more rewarding though than a healthy body and a healthy brain and whenever you feel as a person you have achieved both, completely balanced out there is really nothing more you can ask for.

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We are more!

A short blog on why we should protect culture in Europe… but hold on. Wait.  Do I really have to explain why? No didn’t think so. Please read on and check out the links I left below. It’s incredibly important to get your vote on this one and get behind the We Are More campaign. As the culture (not only in Europe) is more than important!

Europe wide campaign We Are More is set up by Culture Action Europe an advocacy and lobby organisation promoting arts and culture as a building block of the European project. Their aim to influence European policies for more and better access to culture across the continent.

‘Why the name we are more? we are more is a positive message that communicates the multiple ways in which individuals, communities and arts organisations do more, and contribute more than is superficially apparent. The EU is more than coal and steel, we need more than a single market, we are more than mere consumers. We are many organisations built up by individuals who value and act for culture in Europe. We are citizens, parents, arts organisations, lovers of culture, and active participants in society.’

‘The ultimate goal of the campaign is to contribute to a strengthened recognition of the role of arts and culture in the development of our European societies.’

You can find more information on the We Are More campaign website or the Facebook page. And to sign the We Are More Manifesto click here.

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The Place special offer; Just a FIVER for a dance class!

As you may have read on the blog, apart from being a freelance dancer and choreographer I teach. Mostly contemporary dance and creative workshops at several UK schools. One of them the Adult Evening Classes at The Place.

It is a great place to stay in shape for professionals and fanatic dance lovers. Improve your technique or learn a new one. A great place to meet people sharing the same interest or maybe to network professionally. A great place to get your creative juices going. And an amazing opportunity to get to work with some amazing teachers and musicians.

The Place adult evening classes now have an amazing offer for the evening classes so you can come and have a taste for just a FIVER!! You find out more about this amazing offer here.

All that is left for me to say is; grab your dance gear and come check it out! See you (maybe in one of my contemporary classes) soon! You can find the weekly schedule here.

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Interactive projection video mapping what now?

A recent performance of Beyonce at the Billboard Awards 2011 got me to look a little into the trend of projection mapping. Before I move on just have a look yourself.

This fine example of interactive show stopping craziness designed by Kenzo Digital really proves Beyonce’s not only an amazing singer and performer but (as if we didn’t know this yet) a very talented dancer. Because you have to be so very very precise and accurate to hit every single cue in a show like this. Apparently Beyoncé did the entire performance without the help of a reference screen, like the ones a weatherman uses to pinpoint where it’s raining. What I admire is that it is very much her style of dancing that we all know and she’s not influenced or compromised by the projection. Instead she challenges her moves but, she’s not the first one to do this. There are some elements even that are not original to her at all. Before I move on (again) just have a look yourself.

In 2010 Italian dancer, singer, television host and actress Lorella Cuccarini did a show at the Festival De Sanremo which showed very similar projections to the one Beyonce did last week. There have been many write ups about the cheating and stealing and copying and inspiration of these two and this is not what I am going to do.

I just used them to show two very different performers using the same technology. Not a new technology. It’s a technique in video art since the ’80s in terms of frontal projection and interactive things. That’s really nothing new. A white screen with frontal projections and a shit hot, very tight choreography that makes it put together an incredibly engaging thing to look at.

This technology has obviously not only been popular in the showbizz world. It has also been discovered by contemporary dance choreographers and theatre makers. For example this interactive dance and media performance conceived and directed by Klaus Obermaier, in collaboration with the Ars Electronica Futurelab, featuring Desirée Kongerød and Rob Tannion is one of many.

‘Video Projection Mapping is a projection technique that can turn almost any surface into a dynamic video display. Specialized software is used to warp and mask the projected image to make it fit perfectly on irregularly shaped screens. When done right, the end result is a dynamic projection installation that transcends ordinary video projection. The goal of this site is to compile examples of impressive uses of video mapping techniques.’ (source; Video Mapping Projection)

A few years back I went to see the 10th anniversary performance of the Jasmin Vardimon Company. I was utterly blown away by Yesterday. Not only a fierce piece of choreography and drama but a very interesting use of cameras and clever and detailed video projection. Projected not only on white screen but on her dancers as well.

Making it look like the dancers controlled the projection instead of the projection just being an image stuck on them. It was moving with them on them and away and towards them. It was really stunning. The choreography between the technology and the choreography of the live artists is a really challenging task. But the results can be so incredibly beautiful when executed well. The timing and precise spacing has to be unbelievably accurate or the whole thing can just fall apart. Almost like a magic trick, deceiving the eye using a fairly simple technique to create a performance that makes the impossible look possible. The hard part is to get the choreography right and make it work with the movement of the projections. Long and patience testing rehearsals.

There are already so many things the dance world has been incredibly inventive with. Light plans and light equipment has evolved to the next generation of high tech. Making it possible for choreographers to trick the audience making things appear impossible. It’s because a stage performance is live and in real time that this technological magic is so incredibly powerful, anything can go wrong and the magic will be given away. Now camera, projection in combination with those light plans makes the theatre productions these day even more big and spectacular. The only issue is (always) money and resources. But eh the creative world wouldn’t be creative if we couldn’t find a way around that problem (as it is and will always be the problem, money). Many more challenges for this reasonable straight forward technique but how can the dance world in these times push it even further? There are so many possibilities and different techniques to be explored it’s mind blowing to think what is technologically possible these days.

Yesterday is coming back to London in June! At Sadler’s Wells Jasmin Vardimon Company will perform this amazing work once more on the 9th and 10th of June. Book tickets here.

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Another selection of dance-music-videos

Another selection of delightful bundles of creativeness. Music videos using dance they never get boring. This one below in particularly is a really beautiful example of using an edit to co- create a choreography on screen.

The famous Robbie Williams and his take on Alice in Wonderland. (Have you seen the Tim Burton film? If not YOU MISSED OUT! It is a fantastic trip back to childhood or a crazy ride for adults loving a bit of fantasy.) In this music video it’s not contemporary dance but beautifully executed ballet. The slightly less well hidden body double work in this fun little (big budget) video, a la Black Swan, makes it very entertaining.

One of my most favourite songs and videos is this one, Elephant Gun from Beirut. It’s choreography is so well planned out in the space and in play with the camera. It is as wholesome as a dance film could  be. It’s really fun to see how different choreographers take on the job to direct a camera and to make the choreography have that extra special thing by not just using the dance steps but using the choreography for the camera man to enhance whatever atmosphere they want to create for the video. I think this is one of my most favourite because it just seems to have done all of the above so cleverly.

There is nothing this woman can not do, it seems. And the hard work and determination show in her videos time and time again. Renewing herself and exploring new dance styles. Call it hip hop call it poppin’ and lockin’ call it whatever you want. In my opinion there is a certain amount of contemporary dance in this as much as it is mainstream pop. She surprises everytime and although I didn’t like the song this music video in combination with the song makes the whole thing (once again) into a cracking hit for Beyonce. YEAH WOMEN RULE!

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Radio silence, over…

It has been a while since my last post and please accept my apologies for the radio silence but…it has been a very silent few weeks. The dance world was thrown upside down since the ACE cuts announcement and everybody has been taking the last few weeks to figure out what it means to them. I have spoken to dance companies, dance schools, teachers and freelance dancers and it seems like everyone is holding on to whatever they can to survive, fight and recover.

As a freelance dancer, choreographer and dance teacher these are pretty hard times. And although the auditions are coming and going again since last month it seems like the whole world is a freelance dancer when you see the numbers of dancers looking for a job. Of course it has always been a ‘struggle’ or to put it less dramatic, irregular job existence for freelance dancers but lately it seems to have escalated into an endless search to find nothing on the other end.

Times like this challenge the creative minds of the dance world to dive in a little deeper (even deeper) in finding ways to survive. Or new ways to start off a new era. Trying to keep our heads above water and staying positive about an uncertain future.

New posts coming soon! Hopefully injecting a little bit of inspiration to those in need.

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The Place Performance Project

In 2009 I was asked to come and teach the adult evening classes at The Place.  Together with my dance colleague Nuno Campos (then rehearsal director for the Henri Oguike DC) I had taught a summer intensive workshop in 2008 based on one of the pieces from the company (Green in Blue) exploring creative tasks and improvisation. We had a blast and so I didn’t have to think twice and came back to teach. Last autumn, when I was asked to create a piece for the Performance Project (apart from checking my freelance schedule) I knew I couldn’t miss the opportunity to create something new.

This evening course at The Place is an extensive one and requires the participants to commit to two evening rehearsals a week from 20.00 till 22.00. That is a massive challenge for the people that work during the day or have a full time job that demands all their attention.  And it takes a lot of passion to then come and dance for two hours in the evening. It is unavoidable people start missing after the first 4 weeks and you know they’ll have decided it’s not for them or it’s too much.

As a full time dance artist there are many things that you have to keep in mind with a project like this. First it’s the commitment that some may struggle with, dance may be the commitment of my life, for others it’s a hobby. Then of course there is the difference in experience. Some participants are dance trained some way or other. Others have no experience except for the recreational dance. Community dance is for many reasons a massive challenge for a choreographer. Getting to form a real tight group of people that can not only dance or move in a group but also to get them to connect as performers. For some that have never been on stage before (as a dancer) the whole experience can be frightening and so you have to make absolutely sure you create a layer of basic trust with those in need so they don’t feel absolutely thrown in the deep. They will already feel exposed by joining the project.

After teaching Danse Macabre adult course at Trinity Laban last year. This project was slightly different. I could pick my own music, theme, had 4 hours a week to rehearse and no idea how many people I would have at the end of the term. Trying to find the thin line between creating a choreography and directing people what to do exactly. And letting them have control over the choreography as well. And so we started off this journey with exploring improvisation and creative tasks.

The creation of this piece was a collaboration between the dancers and choreographer. Through improvisation tasks the dancers got to know each other and explore each others movement style. Following one another in group improvisation and learning eachothers set dance material. Slowly growing closer as a group able to move as one body. We started generating a lot of movement material by manipulating taught dance phrases changing directions and altering dynamics with a lullaby song. We also used gestures of a conversation and daily movement, like brushing teeth or hanging up the laundry, and through tasks turned those into an abstract dance of daily motion. Making daily movements unrecognisable and change normal gestures into extreme. Then the structure and music came in later. I had left that till the very last moment so we had loads of time to explore, renew and alter the material we had worked with for a while. Really knowing what we were doing and where, we only set two weeks before the performance. I had picked a set of songs that I used to slowly puzzle the material together into one piece, at home. A slow and organisational process that I wanted to be as clear as possible before I got into the studio just to avoid stress and major confusion. Again thinking about what I said earlier, some of the participants have no dance experience next to the occasional or the recreational and so they have a lot on their mind when it comes to the performance.

Then the friday arrived and we had about an hour to rehearse the last few things, space the choreography in the studio performance space and get a sense of how we felt about performing in front of a real audience. Some excited, some nervous, some terrified and some high on adrenaline we got to the moment so fast it felt like a blink and then it was over. Here one of the many recordings of the performance project 2011; Lullaby Gestures

Lullaby Gestures from Monica Sellers on Vimeo.

In the end it was an absolute fantastic experience and the most rewarding moment for me was to see my ladies perform and really connect and enjoy themselves. After all this is why they joined the course. The experience of a creative process, performing and most of all enjoy themselves!

I still teach, tuesday evening level3 Contemporary and friday level2 Contemporary. Summer term starts 30th of April to enrol for classes check out The Place website now.

Thank you to all the lovely performers of Lullaby Gestures.

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Money money money….not so funny

And there they were; the long awaited for CUTS. As some may say; ‘The cuts are just not cutting it”. Many discussions and articles about how this came about. The ones that are being let ‘free’ into the world of struggling for survival (who soon may see that there is nothing much to struggle with). The ones that are being held in suspension with cuts in their budgets so big that even after keeping some budget the results of the cuts are detrimental anyway. And the ones that are celebrating. Recognition for hard work, a start of a long long journey of fighting to keep hold of what they just got. Right now a victory but time will tell….time doesn’t mean anything in this system. Ruthless cuts have been made also to those who have been around for a long time. Fighting for their place in this world and yet not recognised and slaughtered in the big pot of soup or whatever government makes of art because let’s be honest do they really know what they are actually talking about? Watch this video of Channel4 news and hold your breath (like I did) when Dr Steve Davies opens his mouth…

Luckily you can tell what side of the fence Jon Snow is on…It’s sad to think someone like Dr. Davies, who clearly doesn’t have any sense of art or creativity probably doesn’t even know what music is, has so much input in a discussion like this. To declare that people that don’t care for the arts should not be paying tax money to support the arts is just simply ridiculous. Ill informed and absolutely clueless when he says he feels the arts shouldn’t be supported by the government at all. Only by fundraising money from the people who want to support art, like we don’t do that already on top of the Art Council budgets just to be able to survive! Can you imagine what this world would look like if we would only support the things we’d want to support? It leaves me with just one question for Dr Davies; What about the millions being paid every month in council tax????? Think about that you T***

Want to tell Dr Davies how you feel? Join the facebook group Artists Against Dr Davies and write him and email with your thoughts.

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Our new 60 second Dance Films online now

Finally here! The 60 second version of our new dance film. Enrolled and ready to be judged by the critical eye of the Danish Dansens Dage 60 second dance film competition judges. NQANQA (not quite awake not quite asleep) is a trailer (or excerpt) from our longer dance film Mondays which will be coming out later this spring.

Also enrolled; a new fresh cut from our previous winning One Minute Dance Film competitor I’m Out. New music new grade new 60 second version (shows how much an edit can do for you even after two years and three different versions).

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