Thoughts on the Mary Neal Day

February 2009

The Mary Neal Project unpacks an old box to create something new: a celebratory encounter between contemporary arts and English folk practitioners to look at tradition with fresh eyes. Anna took part in the Mary Neal Day and reflects on participatory practice a hundred years on.

The Research Day revealed that the tensions that surround participatory practice are universal and in some ways timeless, whilst the contexts of course change, the ethics and tensions in power relationships behind participatory practice in Mary Neal's day are not dissimilar to those we are grappling with today. What it confirmed for me was that these tensions are implicit in any engagement with non-professionals in creative processes – they are almost a condition of the work. So for me the great value in this project is in taking a closer look at Mary Neal and her work as a lens to enable us to reflect on what we do today.

The parallels between the Sharp/Neal debate and the skills/expression debates in arts education today are also great. In schools this is all the more relevant now as educationalists acknowledge the value of artistic experiences and expression in the development of learners as people. This seems to be what Mary Neal was also doing – thus alienating the traditionalists within her art form canon – but in fact very much in tune progressive education thinkers of her time such as John Dewey. The work Mary Neal did was beyond simply creating dances and song because she understood it was about the development of people as learners and as citizens – a direct parallel with current education policy. So now to create a project today with children in schools which had as its principles artists working together with educationalists with shared objectives would perhaps be a way of redressing the history. You could do today what was not possible for Mary 90 years ago – perhaps asking the question: what might have happened to Mary's work if she HAD met and collaborated with progressive educationalists rather than being bogged down in the world of Cecil Sharp?

So for me this day is an important beginning and if it can lead to an emergence of new forms of artistic expression which can use as a stimulus one canon and from that engage with artists and young people to evolve a new set of culturally apposite forms – then that is relevant and compelling. What is rich too here is that children would have an opportunity to explore the idea of what is 'indigenous' in terms of cultural forms. This process would be educationally valuable as it would demonstrate that new art forms emerge from processes of synthesis, from cycles of borrowing, adopting, adapting, cross-referencing, re-working, re-forming and from carefully nurtured dialogue across disciplines with artists and educators.

The potential for all of this was captured on the day by a particular moment when those snaking knees were jamming to the fiddle and Laurel's dance.

I look forward to continuing the dialogue so richly begun.