The Ludus Dance Story (AmbITion case study 2009)

Avatar of AmbITion By AmbITion
13 May 2009

A story of natural talent – art and technology come together

Jamie from Ludus Dance is a natural at merging art with technology within his own character and the work that he does. More importantly, his enthusiasm has helped inspire an entire organisation to be leaders in their field, not just in what they do as their core art form, but in technology as well. And the best part is that all of his colleagues – as well as the audience – seem to be much happier and more productive for having done it.

Ludus Dance, based in its renovated Georgian studio and offices in Lancaster, was formed 34 years ago and today consists of a touring company – touring a dance theatre show suitable for first time dance audiences across the UK for 18 months at a time – and a Dance Development unit, working across Lancashire to provide dance services for youth clubs, groups and schools. Ludus bill themselves as the leader in dance education in the UK.

Jamie Wooldridge with marketing colleague Sandra Wood in Ludus Lancaster studio

Jamie Wooldridge with marketing colleague Sandra Wood in Ludus Lancaster studio

Ludus’s head of marketing and ICT Jamie Wooldridge is proud and enthusiastic about what he sees as Ludus’s role in the world: “For me the organisation does a great service for young people growing up in society today across the UK, whether that’s people trying out dance because they love dance and they’ve got an interest in dance because they’ve seen it on the tele, or people who might not have tried dance before and they suddenly realise the skills it might give them or that it might bring them out of their shell and develop them as a person.”

Jamie has always been somebody comfortable with technology, but despite his colleagues being somewhat less enthusiastic the process he has managed has brought Ludus to a leading position in the dance world, not just in education but in the use of technology. And by all accounts he has managed to transform his staff’s attitudes to technology with remarkably few growing pains.

Ludus’s recent developments with technology have covered several areas: buying video equipment and training staff to use it, setting-up an online dance class booking system, installing a new Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system, and online artistic projects that use technology. They also now use videos and blogs on their website www.ludusdance.org.uk to showcase their work, and make wide use of social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

 

As Jamie says: “Technology showcases the breadth of work the company does: rather than have some dull words printed on a page, a video or an audio podcast can sometimes put across the amount of fun and excitement in the work that we do. It’s about products too, and we’ve started producing DVDs for dance teachers, for example. The internet can get our name out there a lot more”. Video has also helped make the organisation more transparent, especially by showing people behind-the-scenes footage: “We’ve been using technology to really unlock a lot of the devising process within the touring company to give people a real insight into how we create dance and those dance theatre shows. We’ve done that through video blogs, interviews with the choreographer, director, backstage people, costumers, set builders… to really show show how dance is created and how decisions are made”.

Ludus’s innovations in technology are not just limited to marketing. One of Ludus’s earliest artistic uses of technology was as part of folly’s f.city festival in 2006, using video podcasts to teach people dance steps and mobile phones to direct them which part of a city to meet and dance in. Ludus also already has a tradition of using technology in their shows, using film projection and slides in order to make pieces of dance theatre more visual and colourful.

Ludus’s education programme has also directly benefited from the use of video technology. It’s even unexpectedly helped them solve an age-old and potentially impossible problem: boys. As Jamie says “We now have new laptops which add a new way to get involved, and without wishing to stereotype about the sort of people who are reluctant to start doing any dancing, boys can start off doing some filming or editing… And then you never know from doing that they might be more willing to get up in front of the camera and do a bit of dancing because all of a sudden it’s not so intimidating for them, they’ve seen what other people have been doing. So that can be a really good hook to get people involved in the work that we do, so we do now give that as an option when people book us”.

In more formal workshop settings Ludus have recruited young people who have storyboarded, filmed, used a camera and then edited their own dance film piece of about two to three minutes long: “They were involved in every aspect and did all of the work themselves” says Jamie. “We’ve got the facilities now to offer that more and more to people with the laptops we’ve got, and it gives another way for people to get involved with a whole dance production or a workshop”.

Online technology projects

Ludus is being especially ambitious with two of its artistic project: an interactive Family Tree of the organisation’s past, and an online choreography tool. The family tree will be the relatively simpler of the two, showing all the people who have come through or encountered Ludus over the years, and the staff hope the interative tree will impress people to the extent that Ludus has a pervasive influence on the British dance scene.

The choreography tool however is genuinely pushing the envelope. As Jamie says “we’ve got a company that is helping us develop a choreography tool that will be for roundabout 7 to 14 year olds, and we’re wanting to film some of our dancers against a Green Screen that will then be embedded into a web application that children or teenagers can use to build their own dance sequence. They’ll be able to select from a number of pre-filmed moves and produce their own bit of choreography. Then can save that and they can then of course practice the moves with their own body later in a class or with their dance teacher. That will be a challenging project, but we’ve got all our fingers and toes crossed!”

A paradigm-shift in staff using technology

Ludus’s transition to making use of video has not been however been quite as easy as it sounds: Ludus is a small if hardworking organisation, and one of the greatest innovations has been not technical, but organisational, operational and personal. Ludus has performed, in fact, a remarkable and paradigm-shifting transition: all Ludus’s dancers are also videographers and editors. This is a fairly big extra dimension for a dancer to take on, and not all staff were initially sold on the prospect. Now though however the dancers themselves are waxing lyrical about the use of video technology in their everyday work: dancer Anna Daly says about the work that Ludus is doing in schools: “If you are good at facilitating people’s learning and creativity the camera is an added possibility to that”. Artistically the use of video is very exciting. Editing a video is similar to choreography, it is “about capturing a moment, or a phrase, or a dialogue in shape, space, time, form – it’s very similar to the elements within the language of music and the language of dance”.

The current workflow is that dancers will take a video camera along to an everyday education event or dance class and use it, then take it home and capture the footage to a company MacBook laptop, doing a bit of a “rough cut” to show what they want to express. The marketing team then take over and make a final cut (using Apple’s Final Cut software indeed) and then upload the finished video to the internet and promote it, or just keep it for future use if appropriate.

Jamie at Ludus media store cupboard

Jamie at Ludus media store cupboard

The relative ease of this transition has been helped by Ludus’s internal culture, as Jamie is quick to point out: “Ludus Dancers have never been just dancers; within this organisation everybody brings a lot of skills to their post and the company tries to maximise that, and in recent years we’ve just maximised on the technological aspects rather than just traditional areas. Everybody’s always had lots of different aspects to their role”. Even so, for Jamie as much as anyone it’s always rewarding when a plan comes together: “Some of the most rewarding times have been when you’ve got people who were reluctant to begin with and needed their hand holding but are actually now enjoying using, say, a video camera and are able to enjoy manipulating what they’ve done”.

Ludus’s internal culture (they are in fact a co-operative where the staff are also the board members) arguably helped from the outset, Jamie feels: “I’ve been lucky in the way Ludus is organised that my voice has been listened to and I’ve been able to present really good cases to my colleagues for getting £500 there, £200 there to invest in equipment for example. Without myself and (education head) Hannah having a pre-existing interest in technology, I don’t think we would have necessarily have come as far as we have, but we’ve got our colleagues to be grateful to for listening to our instincts”.

A culture of stakeholdership

For his part, Jamie seems to have been a model of stakeholdership and keeping everybody feeling as if they have ownership of these changes: “To start with it was the people who really wanted to get stuck into technology, who wanted to take a laptop home in the evening because they already had an interest in it. But then we realised how valuable it was and how we wanted everybody to be able to do that. To help with that for the people who were a bit intimidated with the equipment we ran an away day where the whole company was together.. we filmed something in the morning and then edited something in the afternoon… it was all in house, it was all with people they knew, and they were learning things as well and I think that was a vital starting point for those other people who weren’t so comfortable initially.. and then we later built on what they’d learnt with a specialist provider. Even the people who weren’t confident at all can now do some filming, import the footage and do some basic editing. So there’s been a slow integration and that integration has been supported for those people… And editing helps them learn how to film better and so improve for the next time”.

Another technological development project has bee the new database or Customer Relationship Management system. Jamie has pursused this in a similar way to introducting video: “I’ve tried to keep the key people involved at all the planning stages, so the heads of department and the key people that are going to be using the database for example, have been involved in every step of the process. My greatest fear has always been that we spend all this money and it sits on the shelf, nobody knows how to use it, and it’s not used effeciently. So my tactic if you like, or my methodology, has been to involve everyone in the process so it doesn’t look too scary for them and they feel comfortable in entering the information. Rather than present something to people at the end and then give them a few days training on it I’ve tried to involve them at the very start so they’ve been instrumental in making it happen. And with the database for example I really hope that when we get it it is going to work for them, it’s going to streamline the basic admin and basic data collection and data reporting, so we can get on with what we’re good at which is being creative, working with people, and getting dance out there, and not being too tied down with having to report data”.

Jamie does admit it’s not been all complete smooth running: “I think we’re at a really interesting stage now; people have got onboard, there’s been a broad passion across the company for doing that. Now, were in a situation of how do we embed the practices, the skills we’ve learned into our everyday workload; how do we fit in the time for them filming an interview or a dance piece that fits into their working day, without overloading them, without killing them… how do we integrate that into the products we offer as well as the staff’s working life without suffering a loss elswhere. We’re getting to a point where it’s working in some areas, but we still need to sit down and work out how we’re going to proceed…”

There tend to be issues with “digital development” that staff fear a loss of face-to-face contact. At least person in Ludus has expressed worry about this going hand in hand with moving away from a person-centred approach to being more like “a very target driven company”.

For his part, despite being the organisation’s digital advocate, Jamie seems to have a remarkably healthy attitude to technology: “The face-to-face social interraction in the office and with our audiences is ironically something that I’m keen not to change too much. I think all these things are just tools, and you use what you think is the most effecient tool in your toolbox, and in a small organisation with between 15 and 20 members of staff I feel face to face is really important to keep hold of. I’ve been known to say we’re sending too many emails to eachother. People have been gobsmacked that I as the organisation’s digital advocate and head of IT and marketing have said that – but in my eyes you use whatever tool is best at the right time… and that maintains a healthy mix. It might not be technology you need, it might be good old talking to one another face to face”.

In fact, Jamie feels that this approach to technology has exploded some of the myths, fears and stereotypes some of his staff have had about technology: “Within the organisation people are a lot more comfortable with technology and what I find fascinating in my time at Ludus is how we’re all a lot more dependent on technology, so within about 2 minutes of the internet not working someone’s complaining. Now that’s not necessarily a weakness of the organisation, it just shows how important it is to have those things, and you just have to have back-up plans.

“When I came into the organisation there were about 3 computers, and now we have over 15 computers in this building, all over them networked up, all of them connected to the internet. So long as people can see the benefits they’re willing to go on a journey, they’re willing to be part of it all, so it doesn’t all of a sudden become too scary, and what I try to do in the organisation is just play to people’s strengths, so if somebody has got an interest in film, then let’s use that, if somebody’s got an interest in video or image editing or Flash programming, let’s use that; they get a kick out of their skills being used, and learning something, and the company has then got some great assets they can use in different ways.”

 

Booking dance classes in your underwear

There has been one key area where Jamie has intentionally cut-down on face-to-face contact, but the result he argues is much better effeciency for the organisation and potentially greater connection between audience members and Ludus: “Previously, for the centre classes people would pay on the door on a pay-as-you-go basis, and only 20% would pay for the term. But when we brought in e-commerce we only allowed them to buy the whole term, but with a discount for early-birds… so everybody overwent a gradual change over the year from pay-as-you-go to paying online and paying per term, and for us as an organisation that means we’re not getting the phones going every two minutes, we’re not being disturbed by having to answer the front door. It also creates demand.. so it’s reduced our pressure of not being able to get on with our other work, especially since we never even used to have a receptionist, and from our customer’s point of view they’ve gone on a journey to understand what the booking procedure here at Ludus is, and they understand now there’s benefits for them in the sense that they get a bigger discount. For us it’s a huge improvement in admin terms, so we can get on with our other jobs instead of answering phones and so on”.

When pressed about the slight loss of personal contact that change entailed, Jamie is very articulate about the way he believes people work psychologically when considering first making contact with Ludus’s dance programme: “I think about what I do at home and my online shopping behaviour. I find I’m surfing the internet and I hear a track a like and I get enthusiastic about it, and at that moment in time I’m willing to pay £12 for that CD. People have those moments of “I really want to get fit” or “I really want to try something different” and there and then at 8 o’clock at night they can see our Ludus Dance class, they can see what the class is, book it, and come along the next week. Not when they’ve forgetten in the morning and they’re busy taking the kids to school, and day to day life will have taken over from it all.

“It’s about getting them in that moment where they’re enthusiastic about your product, not expecting them to book or be interested on the organisation’s terms. The internet is just another method of them being able to engage with us and just understand what we’re about”. Jamie is also quick to point out that for people who are genuinely not likely to connect with them online, person to person contact is readily available: “If people were to ring in then we can help them in person, and we answer emails from members of the public really promptly. Because there’s that face to face interraction because of what we do in the dance classes it’s not that you never see anybody. Here at the dance centre they’re naturally going to meet people in the class, so yes they’ve lost face-to-face contact at the booking stage, but they still get the benefit of face-to-face and being social and interracting with people when they come to do their dance class”.

Ludus’s effeciency seems to almost beg the question of how they managed in the dark ages, BC: before computers. “I think the market place has shifted” Jamie says. “Now we have to really prove the work that we do. 10 years ago we didn’t have so many competitors. We had lots of repeat bookers. so there wasn’t even a great deal of marketing activity happening 10 years ago. More and more dance companies are now required to offer education – which is what we do and have always done – so with these new competitors we’re having to market ourselves a lot more… So we find we’re turning to tools such as technnology to give people an idea of what they’re getting from Ludus and how Ludus is different. In my eyes yes, and for me, dance is such a visual form, it was almost like a lightbulb moment or a “doh” moment.. dance is visual… video is obviously visual…. ideal… you get a better sense of the energy, passion…. youre going to get a lot better idea of the work that we do through a video than through some words on a bit of paper”. And of course the internet is then the medium to show that video to the world.

 

Buying broadcast capability

Ludus has spent thousands of pounds investing in its own equipment. Is it clear this has been a worthwhile investment, or should they just be sticking with outside providers?

“Maybe” says Jamie, “but it would be a lot of money. Now we have the best of both worlds. All of our practioners being trained up to be able to use a camera and film and document work, plus we know outside people we can bring in for really professional stuff. The tools out there now are so much cheaper that it makes sense to train your artists up to do that. By having our own artists able to use those film techniques we can collate so much more information, that we can give to the funders and others to show the amount of work that we’ve done. If we had to bring somebody in all the time to do that you’d be looking at thousands of thousands of pounds. The tools out there now with equipment and software are getting so cheap that it just makes sense to buy it yourself and train your own staff or yourself up to do that”.

Many organisations are phased by the culture of technology ever-changing. Many people never get into the game because they fear not being able to keep up. Jamie feels however that the fact that a new model of any given technological tools comes out so often is an opportunity, not a barrier: “I think it’s an entry point: it’s an opportunity to pick up lots of well-looked-after second-hand equipment at a fraction of the price that it would have cost you in the past. You just need to go on the Apple store to see you can go and get very powerful editing software for £140, a MacBook for £750, and that’s brand new; then there’s always refurbs and so on. You can dip your toe and make it look really professional without spending a lot of money, as long as you’re not worried about using the absolute tip-top latest technology”.

Jamie edits some video footage at his desk in Apple's Final Cut software

Jamie edits some video footage at his desk in Apple's Final Cut software

He admits that technology does date, but feels the benefits far outweigh the costs: “Some of the video, blogs and so on are a bit rough and ready when you look at even 6 or 8 months ago, but that just shows how we’ve progressed and that’s something to be pleased about. There is a problem with technology and digital development that things are changing so fast and the technology is developing and changing fast, for example the latest cameras now can record onto digital cards, which is not something we have because we bought our kit a while ago. But I don’t think having the latest thing is the be-all and end-all. What I’d say to anybody thinking about investing in technology is it’s how that company or organisation uses that technology and how they benefit and are productive: just have a plan about what you want to do.. are you an art gallery and you want to record exhibitions coming in, or do you want to have interviews with a composer or artists.. and that’s the most important thing and that plan can exist on a side of A4. having the latest and greatest tools is not the be all and end all, I don’t think arts organisations especially need to be worried about that. Yes, the top equipment can save you some time, for example, but unless you’re doing high-end things alot of the time, in some ways arts organisations would be wasting their money.

All in all, an awareness and a judicious use of technology has not only added to Ludus’s creative impact, streamlined Ludus’s operations, improved the visibility of its activity, helped with its marketing and given new opportunities to new sections of the audience, it has changed the organisation, perhaps permanently. The modern lowered cost of broadcast technology has allowed a new distribution of digital skills which would have been undreamt of 15 years ago. So has the ethos of Ludus been changed?

“One of the core values of Ludus, which we’re passioante about, is accessibility, whether that’s be able to take part in a dance activity, or in understanding dance performances: if you’ve never seen dance before you’ll understand what’s going on in the show, you won’t be lost in the first 5 minutes. And that approach goes for everything that we do. So online we want people to engage in our online projects in a really accessible way, so we’re trying to put stuff up online in really accessibly and different ways, using social networking for example, in a light-hearted way to people; we don’t want to flood Myspace with corporate videos that people don’t emphathise with. We want to put out content that’s relevent to people and that people want to engage in.

“I’ve learned a lot, we’ve lot a lot, it’s a journey that we’ve been on together, and at a pace the everybody can understand and it comfortable with but if everybody doesn’t really get it you have to take a few steps back and then move forward again; you have to take people with you”.

The future

“The next step is how do we embed all the skills, the training, everything we’ve learned into everybody’s roles and how do we take that forward, and also what new exciting opportunities lay out there with products that we can do now with skills that we’ve got in house. So to me it’s an exciting time now, in looking at how we can utilise all the skills that we’ve got within the organisation, how can we best reflect that to the public, to our customers, and to our audiences, and what new products might we make as well along the way. And for me technology is not a tool that staff “HAVE” to use… if someone’s uncomfortable about one aspect of technology they might take a laptop away and just write something which we will then put on a blog. Technology to people who aren’t so enthusiastic about it might be a very scary word, and there are lots of different ways that you can get people involved in technology in a very sort of simplistic and easy to use way that they might be a lot more comfortable about but which might give you the same outcome in the end”