Ballymena Modern Dance Festival
Five days of performance, participation and learning at Creativity Month 2014
The arts have been getting a tough time of it recently – it seems as though the concept of art for art's sake has fallen deeply out of favour.
Statements drifting out from political circles suggest that no longer is it acceptable for the arts merely to provide an open-ended raft of memorable experiences through high quality music, dance, theatre, the visual arts and literature. They are now expected to have a function and a purpose far beyond their traditional roles of entertaining, informing and opening hearts and minds.
The arts community itself is already way ahead of that game. For many years, almost all Northern Ireland's leading cultural organisations have been involved in organising wide-ranging education and outreach programmes, linked to their core pursuits of creative excellence.
The need to attract and nurture new audiences is a mounting economic imperative and, arguably more than ever before, the arts sector is building bridges, bringing together the creative industries with public bodies, community and voluntary groups and private enterprise. What's more, such initiatives have evolved organically and without making major artistic compromises.
For the past three years, Creativity Month has provided a nationwide platform for creative and innovative approaches to tackling social and economic challenges. A Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure initiative, in partnership with Culture Northern Ireland and the Nerve Centre, it is promoted online via the Creativity NI website.
For the fourth year in succession, the month of March will see a vast programme of events celebrating creativity and the important part played by the creative industries in the everyday life of Northern Ireland society. This year's festival themes have been identified as 'equality, poverty and social exclusion'.
Participation is growing year on year. One interesting newcomer is a ground-breaking new festival to be staged over five days during the Ballymena Festival of Music, Speech and Dance. It is a shining example of the way in which people power can play its role in promoting and nurturing the arts at grass-roots level.
Ballymena Modern Dance Festival will run from March 10 – 15 under the umbrella of the borough's Creative Citizens Programme, a six-month pilot project formed in partnership with Voluntary Arts Ireland and involving all manner of professional, amateur, voluntary and community arts organisations.
The creative citizen concept is the basis for the development of a new UK and Ireland strategy for voluntary arts. Ballymena Borough Council has been invited to be the first local authority in Northern Ireland to host an all-encompassing programme of arts and culture-related events of this kind.
Thanks to the dedication and hard work of a group of enthusiastic parents, a packed programme has been put in place, culminating in the first Northern Ireland Dance Festival Championships, which will be fought out on the final day of the festival.
This all-encompassing event has grown out of modern dance classes organised for the past 20 years by teacher Kara McCartney at her Ballymena Dance Academy. Individuals and groups from the academy take formal exams and successfully compete in festivals across Ireland.
Several young dancers made it through to the London auditions of Sky One's Got to Dance series and last year appeared on RTE's Pump up My Dance. They regularly come away from the Northern Ireland Creative Movement and Aerobics Championships and the Ulster Championships laden with medals.
'There are many festivals during the year and most of them include modern dance alongside more traditional disciplines,' explains Angela Morrow, the festival's modern dance secretary, speaking from the rehearsal room at the Dance Academy, where her own 11 year-old daughter is a pupil.
'Up until now, the dance section at the Ballymena Festival has consisted solely of Irish dancing, which is very popular and a delight to watch. But for many years some of us have been talking about how fantastic it would be to have a festival on our own doorstep, with no travelling.
'So a group of die-hard mothers took the bull by the horns and made a formal approach about the possibility of having modern dance included. A number of nerve-wracking meetings later and we were in...'
But if this energetic group of volunteers thought that cutting back on travel would make for an easier life, they were much mistaken. They first came together in April 2013 without a definite date in mind. Morrow says they have been surprised at how well it has all come together.
'There are around ten or 12 of us in the group and everyone plays their part. But we completely underestimated just how much work would be involved in organising and running a brand new section of a festival. To be honest, there are times when we say we'd just settle for travelling, but then we see just how far we have come in having this dream come true.
'It has been a steep learning curve. Nobody should imagine that putting together an event like this is just a case of hiring a hall, getting people to enter and writing out names on a piece of paper. There are all kinds of safeguarding measures involved – particularly where young people are concerned – plus the whole protocol of setting up a committee and putting correct financial procedures in place.'
Ballet, tap, modern, lyrical, jazz, hip hop and street dance are just some of the genres that will bring five days of music, colour and keen competition to the town's Braid Arts Centre.
Sadly, there appears to be a significant lack of male input into the whole affair, though Morrow jokes that when it comes to heavy lifting and practical help, there are plenty of dads who will, no doubt, appear out of the woodwork. Just don't ask their advice on make-up or hairstyles or costumes. But what about the competitors?
'The classes are mainly attended by girls, but we do see more and more boys getting involved in hip hop classes and competitions, which is great. They bring a whole new element and energy to the competitions. When young lads step up onto the stage to do hip hop or street dance, the audiences go crazy. They really love them. It's still hard to persuade boys to take part in ballet, but dance is opening up all the time and offering more and more opportunities.'
Morrow is in the final stages of preparation for this year's festival, and hopes that the Creativity Month and Ballymena Arts Festival banners will help attract audiences to festival events come March 10. 'I suppose only time will tell if it will be successful but if our programme of events is anything to go by we'll hit the ground running.
'We very much hope that the Ballymena Modern Dance Festival will run for many years to come and are so thankful for the financial backing we've received. The faith that has been placed in us has been humbling. All that's left now is for us try our utmost to ensure an energetic and entertaining week, designed to blow Ballymena’s socks off.'
Creativity Month runs throughout March 2014. Visit the Creativity NI website for more information, and the Braid Arts Centre website for information on the Ballymena Arts Festival and Ballymena Modern Dance Festival.