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The Ageless Quality of Dance: Challenging Perceptions of What People Can Achieve in Later Life

Sadler's Wells Company of Elders. Image by Johan Persson

Sadler’s Wells’ pioneering Company of Elders – whose dancers range from 60 to 89 years old - has been pushing the boundaries of dance for over 20 years. The dancers’ powerful performances in the UK and internationally have inspired similar companies to be created around the country, offering more and more people in later life a chance to dance. We talked to Sadler’s Wells’ Director of Learning and Engagement, Joce Giles, about the ageless quality of dance, the power of performance and the importance of challenging perceptions of what people can achieve and do in later life.

When and why was the Company of Elders set up?

The Company of Elders dates back to 1989. Back then, Sadler’s Wells started an arts club for older adults, and through that programme, workshops were held with visiting companies. Out of that, some ad hoc performances were organised for anyone in that group who was interested. That just snowballed, and by 1992 the Company of Elders was formed as a proper group.

The Company of Elders actually predates the current building at Sadler’s Wells, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, and really it’s at the heart of how the organisation has grown over the last three decades.

I’ve been in my role at Sadler’s Wells for just over a year and a half, but I had been aware of Company of Elders for many years before that. I have always worked in dance, and the company really captured people’s imagination in the dance sector. When its dancers first performed they were pioneers – nothing else existed like that. Now groups inspired by the company have sprung up around the UK and internationally.

Is the Company of Elders all ex-professional dancers?

There are no professional dancers in the group. They come from a range of different backgrounds; some may have danced when they were younger, and this is a chance to reconnect with that. For others, dance is something they have taken up since retiring. The age range is people over 60 - but within that, there are dancers in their late ‘80s.

"The presence that [an older performer] can bring to the stage has a different quality – and it is something that audiences find very powerful."

As a performance group, its focus is on making new work to perform. The company meets every Friday for two hours and normally creates between two and three new works a year. It has a rehearsal director who is with the dancers for every session, and then we bring in professional choreographers to work with them too.

At Sadler’s Wells, we want to present dance in all its different styles, and for that to be reflected in the work that we do with programmes such as Company of Elders. So along with contemporary choreographers, the dancers have worked with hip-hop choreographers and people who work in South Asian dance styles, for example - they are very versatile.

This range of dance styles will be reflected in the company’s upcoming performance at Sadler’s Wells on 6 July.

Sadler’s Wells is where the company rehearses – and the dancers perform on the various stages that we have here, depending on the production. They have also been invited to perform at other festivals and venues in the UK too, and internationally as well. In 2016 they were invited to perform in Malmö, Sweden and this autumn they have been invited to perform in Japan.

Is there anything different about dance in later life?

Obviously there are some physical considerations, but actually, we ask the choreographers to come in and give a true sense of their work – and not to hold back. Company members are always clear to say if anything needs to be adapted for them - they want to be challenged, so they don’t want things to be watered down for them.

"[The dancers] are real role models for active ageing and the benefits of that. It’s also just about challenging perceptions as well of what people can achieve and do in later life."

I think one of the main considerations though is communication; speaking up if people have difficulty hearing, repeating information and maybe taking a bit more time to go through the movements.

When we are scheduling things, particularly around their performances, the days can be long, and quite slow if there are technical rehearsals in the theatre. So it’s important to make sure the day is structured and scheduled in a way where no one is going to be standing up for too long, and there can be plenty of breaks.

In dance, we are used to seeing young performers at the height of their physical capability – and that’s fantastic to witness. But I think there’s something that an older performer, non-professional or professional, brings to the stage, that only they can – and that has a different quality. The presence that they bring to the stage is something that audiences find very powerful.

How important is it to support people to dance in later life?

I think it’s important on many levels. There are obvious physical benefits to it, but one of the most powerful things is just the social interaction that comes with dancing, whether that’s in a performance group or doing social dancing.

The Company of Elders’ next performance is on Friday, July 6 in the Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadler’s Wells, and features three short pieces from choreographers including Seeta Patel and Adrienne Hart. For more details and to book tickets visit HERE.

Follow Joce Giles on Twitter HERE.

Having something like the Company of Elders, where there is a focus on performance really gives a sense of purpose to people. Speaking to members of the Company of Elders, one of the things that’s special for them is to work in a group with people who have become close friends - but also to have that aim and commitment that they are going to present something on stage.

Are they dancers first - and people in later life second?

Very much so - and that’s how they see the work that they are doing with us. At Sadler’s Wells we focus on presenting work on our stages that places equal value on work by older performers; or if we work with young people, we give that the same value as we would the international companies coming in.

I think the dancers in Company of Elders are real role models for active ageing and the benefits of that. I also think it’s just about challenging perceptions of what people can achieve and do in later life - even sometimes the relationships that company dancers might have within their own families. It’s powerful for someone’s son or daughter or grandchildren to see them performing on stage or dancing in a workshop.

For the dancers, it creates a strong sense of identity. There are people who have been with the company for over 20 years and others who have joined more recently. They have gone from retiring and maybe taking ballroom classes - to performing on the stage at Sadler’s Wells. They are overwhelmed with that kind of quick transformation! But they feel challenged, and they want that.

How is the Company of Elders evolving?

It has been quite hard over the years because we have a maximum capacity of just over 20 people in the group – and one of the signs of the successful impact that dancing can have on people is that people don’t tend to leave.

Sadler's Wells Company of Elders. Image by Johan Persson.

We want to engage more people in the work of the company, so we will look to deliver workshops in London that people can take part in next year. Following that there might be opportunities for people to be invited to take part in some of the sessions of Company of Elders - and that may lead to them being invited into the group.

Are there any plans to produce intergenerational work?

We’ve done various projects that have brought different age groups together, from community productions that have been presented on the Sadler’s Wells stage to work with older adult groups, focused around partnerships with community centres in Islington.

We’re currently working with Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures Dance Company on an intergenerational project which involves a local primary school and a group of older adults connected to the St Luke’s Community Centre in Islington.

Sadler’s Wells also runs a festival every three years called Elixir Festival, across all our spaces. The festival is a celebration of lifelong creativity, so we have a programme on our Sadler’s Wells stage, which includes world famous choreographers and dancers - and we bring together a group of retired professional dancers to perform; the Company of Elders is involved in that as well.

Elixir Festival also gives a chance for other non-professional older adult performance groups to perform in our studio theatre, and we also run a series of workshops.

Is it interesting for choreographers to have their work interpreted by dancers in later life?

I think it’s almost a badge of honour for choreographers when they get invited to work with the Company of Elders. They are always very excited to do so. It gives them the opportunity to challenge their own approach to making work. Older performers bring a quality that other, younger, dancers don’t have, and being able to see their choreographic work interpreted in a slightly different way actually brings out things that they hadn’t been able to see before.

As dance develops as an art form, I want Company of Elders to grow with new dance styles that come up. I’m keen to find ways to connect more people to the company, and opportunities to perform at Sadler’s Wells. As an organisation, we are always pushing the boundaries of what dance can be - and the Company of Elders can move with that as well.

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