Q&A with Zoie Golding: On the return of Critical Mass Dance Collective

On 30th July 2023, Critical Mass Dance Collective will perform their most ambitious show to date at Birmingham Festival 23. Our own Zoie Golding MBE has been invited back to direct the group of 100 dancers of different ages and abilities in their new show, following their ground-breaking collaboration as part of the Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony in 2022.

Here, we chat with Zoie about the challenges of directing inclusive, co-created dance at scale; the joys of working with Critical Mass Dance Collective (CMDC) for a second time; and why mass co-creation is a uniquely rewarding experience for all involved…

Tell us about the show – what’s it about?

The show is called Solara; Solara is no ordinary star.

She not only brings life, strength and protection to the communities who look up to her, but also provides energy for them to harness. Day after day, Solara arrives and the work begins. It has been like this for as long as anyone can remember, with Solara and the communities she powers relying on each other all living in harmony; all dancing to the same tune. When one day an unusual event occurs, it disrupts the universe they all know.

This is a story about interdependence and remembering that we are all connected and when change needs to happen coming together gives us the most power. 

What do you aim to achieve by creating a show like this, on this scale?

We are striving to evolve what co-creation en masse can unlock for the individual. There’s an amazing group of people involved as participants and industry professionals working on the project and every contribution counts. The importance of being part of something, with a sense of ownership (the essence of the co-creation methodology) can be hugely powerful and enriching for the individual and the whole team.

Being part of something bigger, on this scale, can be daunting; but when you establish a sense that we are all in it together, people feel less alone – they’re braver to try new things and explore the unknown, making the creative process very playful. 

The dancers’ desires are to feel proud of what they have achieved, show people the positive effects dance can have on our lives and share this with others. The remarkable achievements of Critical Mass 22 last year lay the foundation for an even more extraordinary journey this year.

We know the value, in principle, of engaging as an individual in the context of a team – feeling part of something. How do you make it happen in practice? 

I’m holding myself accountable as the show unfolds – every idea and decision tracks back to a participant contributed. We came up with commitments to do with how we work together as a group. In some ways it’s a mass onboarding exercise! It comes down to working really hard on people’s understanding of what they’re doing as well as why they’re doing it. It’s about listening, responding and taking people on a journey so they see and value their place in the performance.

Why use dance as a way of creating those experiences?

Dance has a particular type of magic attached to it; it’s such an active thing, in which the body, mind and emotions are experienced all at once. When you are in the performance moment or moving with others you are fully present, not just within the individual, but collectively. The experience could not be more embodied, in that sense. Dance can be intangible unless you see it or do it.

What’s your favourite part of the co-creation process?

Feeding each other is how we do our best work. I love asking people what they want, hearing what they want to say and what’s important to them, and then navigating the collective through a creative process that results in high quality work from and for everyone. I love it because it means asking people to go further than they think they can, and holding that space for them to go beyond perceived limits. It’s about involvement and choice all the way through to inform what’s happening; the responsibility of decision making lies with me as a leader, but I don’t make all the decisions – I respond to the mass consensus and delegate, too!

What are the challenges of co-creation at this scale?

We’re constantly dealing with unknowns and curve balls – it’s not locked and loaded before everyone is in the room.  My challenge is to distil down all the ambitions, responses and many ideas, without disempowering anyone, so that we end with a true representation of what everyone’s desires. The instantaneous nature of co-creation can be incredibly intense; you have to have a clear grasp on the direction you are going, but leave room for change. Cultivating an empowered team of people delivering the project is a must. 

Your journey with Critical Mass Dance Collective is going full circle – you were involved in last year’s event as part of Birmingham 2022 Festival and Commonwealth Games. What’s it like this time round creating another show with the Critical Mass Dance Collective?

As an artist you have to stay incredibly open; I learned so much from last year and we all want to ensure this is not lost. My way of working has developed so much, with inclusive practice truly informing not just what I make, but how I make it. You have to get comfortable with having no idea how it’s going to play out and trust the process. I thrive in the risk element of creating with people in this way. 

The opportunity to do this again is a gift and absolute honour. A year working together is a long time and I cannot wait to see all the participants again and hear what they have been up to. Funders and FABRIC have been amazing and it has been so great to bring the ZoieLogic team along for the ride this time too. There is so much trust and support and will to ensure we do our best: bringing big groups of people together with complex and varied needs, supporting them to truly shine, and collectively leading the way in mass co-created inclusive work. 

The festival came about as part of the Commonwealth Games in part as a result of the Olympics Legacy – the spirit of 2012. How are you honouring that over a decade later?

A year on Critical Mass Dance Collective is a festival headliner in its own right, giving the performers a prime slot, outside of an opening or closing ceremony. Since the opening ceremony, some groups have kept going and young people have continued to dance and new people have been inspired and recruited. Critical Mass Dance Collective means many things to people and as we reunite we want to remember and celebrate and grow the Critical Mass Dance Collective family even bigger, that’s our legacy. 

What have you learned in this second year of doing Critical Mass?

We have the lived experience of knowing what’s needed – OPUS, FABRIC and ZoieLogic Dance Theatre have a shared language now, a foundation of the relationships from last year, that are enabling us to embed the learning quicker, with great results. Investing in your team and what is needed for them to do their best creates a strong sense of togetherness and allows us to think ambitiously. Leading with art is the way to effect change. 

What’s the impact on the individual?

You’d have to ask them! But what I see is people believing in themselves more. They go from ‘I can’t’ to ‘I can’. They face their fears repeatedly throughout the process and come out the other side showing more confidence because they’ve overcome individual challenges. And they’re bonded, because they’ve done it as part of a team, tackled it together. It’s also a public gift – that’s the beauty of performance, there’s no hiding so it creates the conditions for them to get that sense of achievement and enjoy the shared euphoria of that collective experience.

What sort of future do you see for co-created mass participatory projects?

My drive has always been to challenge perceptions of dance, but I think when we challenge perceptions we achieve beyond what we think is possible, and that’s important for individuals and for the society we live in. I think co-creation en masse is challenging and uniquely wonderful. As such, it’s a hugely valuable human experience, not just for the people involved, but for the people who watch the show, and anyone connected with the process in some way. At ZoieLogic Dance Theatre we’re committed to continuing our journey in mass co-created, inclusive shows and are laying the foundations for an ambitious mass participation work with 800 men in Southampton. Why? Because lives are enriched and changed for the better because of it and well… we like making the unimaginable possible!

Find out more about Birmingham Festival 23 at birminghamfestival23.co.uk

Solara by ZoieLogic Dance Theatre is co-created with Critical Mass Dance Collective, presented as part of Birmingham Festival 23. Commissioned by FABRIC, supported by Dance Leaders Group, and funded by United by 22.

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