Vicky Wilson (35) was the first person to join me at Comrie Workspace as a regular user with a dedicated desk – the first of a growing and fascinatingly diverse group of people. Let me tell you a bit about Vicky.
Originally from Jedburgh in The Borders, Vicky is a freelance arts producer. She’s been freelance for six years and worked from her home in Dundee before moving to Comrie three years ago.
Currently working mainly with Scottish Dance Theatre (SDT) based at Dundee Rep, Vicky is also passionate about dance theatre created and performed by disabled artists. She was first introduced to disabled dance by Caroline Bowditch, who was Dance Agent for Change at SDT from 2008 to 2012.
“Disabled dance has become something of a niche for me. I think it’s important to have those bodies in dance because their physicality is so completely different,” says Vicky, adding: “Ballet dancers, for instance are perfect and their technique is incredible, but I don’t find it as engaging to watch because they all look the same and they all do things in exactly the same way. I find people with different bodies far more interesting. They bring different qualities.”
Since going freelance, Vicky has worked extensively in disabled dance, with one of her most prominent clients being the UK’s leading disabled dancer, Glasgow-based Claire Cunningham, who is currently touring with her latest production Thank You Very Much.
In her role as a freelance producer for SDT, Vicky works closely with the company’s Artistic Director Joan Clevillé, a renowned Catalan choreographer from Barcelona (and a man, by the way, in case the name throws you). A new work by Clevillé for SDT and produced by Vicky is a modern take on Greek tragedy Antigone that will be touring the countryside as part of the Rural Touring Dance Initiative, which brings top-class dance to village halls and tiny venues across the country.
Is Comrie’s White Church Community Centre on that list? Not yet, it would seem. But given the popularity of music and theatre at the Comrie venue, particularly in recent years, it would be a natural progression for the village to play host to professional dance theatre.
Due to premiere at Perth Theatre on Valentine’s Day next year, Antigone, Interrupted is performed in the round by one single artist, French dancer Solène Weinachter. “She tells the story through movement and through voice and sound,” explains Vicky. “Just made up of the sound she can make with her voice and her body. She’s just the most incredible performer.”
Another piece currently on tour is called Looping, which involves everyone – dancers and audience – on the stage. “It’s part ceilidh, part Brazilian street party,” explains Vicky. “It’s completely different, a mix of performance and partying with a political edge. It lends itself well to rural venues, but we’re also hoping to take it to a hug international dance festival in the middle east next year.”
International touring is an important part of promoting Scottish Dance Theatre to audiences around the world and brings an added dimension to Vicky’s work. “My first job when I came back to SDT [as a freelancer] was a one-month tour of South America,” she says. “That threw me in at the deep end. It involved a lot of red tape and visa work. And because we have dancers from all over the world, it was quite difficult to piece together. I spent hours on Google Translate!” One of the works on that tour was TuTuMucky by Botis Seva.
So, what does the job of producing a piece of dance theatre actually involve? “Mostly sitting in front of a computer,” laughs Vicky. She goes on to explain the cycle of looking for touring venues and supporting the promotional and educational work that goes on while on tour. Her job is largely one of planning, organisation, coordination and promotion – all the practical aspects of bringing a show to the public not associated with the creative process of the show itself.
Vicky feels Scottish Dance Theatre is extremely fortunate to have such high-calibre dancers and choreographers coming to Dundee, especially because the Tay’s easternmost city is not exactly what she would call “the most showbiz city for professional dancers”. That good fortune is the result of a reputation built up over the company’s 35-year history and a substantial improvement in its profile within Europe in particular over recent years.
Nevertheless, despite the popularity of dance formats such as “Strictly” and dance talent show “So you think you can dance”, Vicky feels there is still a long way to go to develop dance audiences in Scotland and the UK in general. Dance theatre and particularly the term “contemporary dance” can be off-putting for mainstream audiences. “But what I love about Joan’s attitude is that in some way or other it’s all storytelling,” says Vicky. “Even in the most conceptual pieces, the choreographer is still trying to tell some sort of story. One of the barriers is that people think they won’t understand it, but actually, like most art, it’s subjective, and can mean different things to different people.”
Arts production is the kind of work that involves keeping many plates spinning and keeping multiple groups happy, which can make the job stressful at times. “If I was ‘having a moment’ when I was working in the office full-time, I could go up to the studio and watch the dancers. It refocuses you and reminds you: ‘this is why I do it’, which is not easy for me to do now.”
Thankfully, for those ‘moments’ Comrie Workspace offers the services of resident destress dog, Henry. Although his dancing skills are minimal, a few minutes spent petting him and looking into his adoring spaniel eyes are guaranteed to help reboot the system when you’re having ‘one of those days’.
So, how does someone become a producer of dance theatre? They study the dramatic arts and have always been interested in theatre production – maybe. They have childhood dreams of being a professional dancer until a tragic injury scuppers their perfect jeté, so they turn to production instead – it happens.
But no, Vicky’s path to dance theatre production began with a degree in Forensic Psychobiology at Dundee University. Yes, you read that correctly (and I even spelt it correctly) – Forensic Psychobiology.
“I would have enjoyed the criminal investigation side of it, the forensic analysis and so on, but there were a limited number of jobs available in the field,” she explains. “I fell into working in theatre because I wasn’t going to go down that path until I had done some travelling.”
So, Vicky took a job in the box office at Dundee Rep in order to finance a trip to Nepal to go trekking in the Himalayas, followed by spells in Sri Lanka and Thailand. On her return, it was a no-brainer to go back to Dundee Rep to replenish her bank account while considering her options.
“The marketing department was looking for help. It began with a few hours a week, and built up gradually. I became a part-time marketing assistant with Scottish Dance Theatre, which is based at Dundee Rep, and that ultimately led to a fulltime position as Marketing Manager.”
Although she began her freelance work on the marketing side of dance theatre with a producer who had left SDT around the same time, she soon found herself assisting in production and gradually built up her skills on the job. Joan Clevillé became another of her freelance clients, so when he was appointed Artistic Director at SDT a year ago, she found herself back at SDT – albeit this time as a freelance producer.
The policy of using freelancers is one that suits Vicky well and is not unusual across many sectors. For the client, it reduces office overheads and fixed staffing costs, and provides greater flexibility; while for the individual, it loosens the restrictions of being tied to one organisation and offers a greater level of responsiveness and self-determination in their professional life.
Many still see freelancing as somehow less preferred relative to the option of permanent employment, and as a way for employers to “cop out” of workforce commitments. However, if asked, most freelancers would beg to differ. By embracing the freelance business model as a long-term career-development choice, many individuals flourish in the freedom of being their own boss.
Coworking facilities like Comrie Workspace exist to support that business model by addressing one of the oft-cited downsides of freelancing from home – isolation.
Vicky again: “I don’t think I realised how isolating [freelancing] was until I started going back to do one day a week in Dundee. I noticed how much more I enjoyed being back in the office with people. So, I had been thinking about coworking, then you opened this place – so it was perfect.”
We agree wholeheartedly – welcome to Comrie Workspace, Vicky!