BALLET IN A BARN
It started with a dance school in a grain barn for local and regional students. Now Shawbrook is also a hideaway and retreat centre for dancers from around the world.
By Laura Peters
European DANCE news.com September 2004
Among the green fields, woods and old farms in rural southern central ireland lies in a hidden haven for dancers. Once a family-run dairy farm, Shawbrook is now a succesful dance institute where amateurs and professionals from around the world train, perform and experiment.
Dance educator Anica Louw founded Shawbrook with her husband, Philip Dawwson, in response to what she felt was a great need for serious dance training in Ireland. From its humble beginings in 1979, when the Shawbrook Ballet School operated along side the dairy farm, the institute has grown to include a summer school, retreat centre, weekend intensives, choreoghraphed-composer workshops and international dance exchange programmes that afford students the opportunity to study across Europe. ‘My first and foremost goal is supporting Ireland’s dancing - to help the programmes, to give them space to grow,’ says Louw. She achieves this, in part, by cultivating her extensive contacts in the European dance community. ‘It’s very important to know people. Especially for us, coming from Ireland where there is a lot to be done for the dancing. It’s all word of mouth; we don’t have a website, and it’s working very well so far.’’
Louw met Dawson in 1976 in her native South Africa. She had been teaching dance in a small town near Sutherland, South Africa, and when Dawson inherited his father’s 30-hectare mixed-livestock farm, the couple moved to ireland. While Dawson worked the 300-year-old farm, Louw began offering ballet lessons in the local primary school.
As enrolment grew, the need for some more suitable dance space also increased. Since the couple felt the farm buildings weren’t being used to their full potential, they decided to start a ballet school there.
They began by converting the limestone barn into a dance studio-theatre. Dawson installed sprung-maple floor, barre, mirrors and fifty-seat structure that, at the touch of a button, could be hoisted to the ceiling when not in use. In 1979, the Shawbrook School of Dance opened and began building a strong reputation for innovation, creativity and high standards in dance education. Locally and regionally, more students flocked to the sc hool.
After a cuple of years, Dawson started converting the other farm buildings. One stable loft became a flat for visitors, teachers and artists, other a dormitory with bedding for twnty students. The cow pen became the student shower area, the calving house a costume storage area and sewing room. Dawson also built a catering and dining annex using salvaged materials, including the remnants of an old suburban train, a demolished churchand a shop in a local town. In 1984, after completing the renovation, Louw and Dawson launched the Shawbrook summer school. Today, this school is recognised as the foremost summer school in Ireland for pre-professional danced students. Each year, several hundred dance students come from across Ireland - as well as from the United States, Swedon, Switzerland, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Briton and Japan - to study with internationally renowned teachers and artists. Faculty members have included Sonya Rafferty of the Laban Centre in London, Stuart Beckett of the Royal Ballet and Berlin Ballet soloist (and former Shawbrook student) Marguerite Donlon.
In addition to the Summer School, Shawbrook offers weekend intensives and workshops during midterm breaks. These are geared primarily towards Irish students, whom Louw feels need special help breaking into the professional dance world.
‘Dance is not integrated in everyday life ór the Irish school system. There isn’t even a third-grade dance education,’ she says. ‘It’s a big step for students to travel. I want to support them in choosing a school and help them get in touch with teachers of the school. I regularily visit schools throughout Europe to see what they’re like. It’s important to find out where Irish students can go. We can’t just let them go to an audition blind.’
In 1997, Louw formed the LD Dance Trust, which receives funding from the Irish National Arts Council, and two years later, after almost 20 years of farming, Louw and Dawson shut down the farm and began operating Shawbrook solely as a dance institute. The cows were sold and the grounds where they grazed were turned into a forest of beech and oak trees.
Among Louw’s many dance programmes is the Irish National Youth Dance Company, a modern dance troupe that consists of two groups – the senior group (18-19 years old) and the junior associates (13-14 years old). The company , which perform at the Backstage Theatre in County Longford a couple of times a year, provides an opportunity for Irish students to gain performing and creative experience. Funding from the Irish National Arts Council allows the company to employ professional guest choreographers.
Although Low seems to be unstoppable, there was a time when frustrations slowed her down. ‘A couple of years ago I didn’t get excited about dance anymore,’ she says. ‘I felt I was constricted in my own little dance world in Ireland, and I didn’t like anything anymore. That was until I received invitations to come see some of my Shawbrook students who were now dancing with professional companies and doing great things. That’s whehn I got my enthusiasm back and knew that my contribution to dance (in Ireland) is important.’ This newfound enthusiasm also inspired the idea to start a retreat centre at Shawbrook. ‘Choreographers sometime run dry, thy need space, sometimes (they need to) get away from the city,’ she says. ‘In our retreat centre they can rest, get in touch with nature and relax. They don’t have to come up with anything. They can just dance and train at their own pace.’ The centre is open to both established companies and young choreographers, and in some case, the Irish National Arts Council provides funding. One of the companies that recently resided there is Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, which won the Dublin Theatre Festival’s Special Judges Award and performed in Connecticut, US at the international Festival of Arts and Ideas at Yale University.
New initiatives are on their way. This year LD Dance organised the first Longford Dance Festival, where Ireland’s first dance awards were given. Dance companies from across the country performed at the event, which Louw plans to professionalise. She hopes it will help generate a dance audience in her adopted country. ‘There’s no good audience here in Ireland. People don’t grow up with dance. I try to motivate my students to go to as many performances as possible, because they’re the audience of the future.
For more information about Shawbrook Ballet School, Shawbrook Residential Summer School, weekend intensives, choreographic-composer workshops, international dance exchange programmes, retreat centres, etc, email: Anica Louw or Philip Dawson at firstname.lastname@example.org