Greenwich Dance in Thamesmead

Thamesmead | 28 March 2023

A year ago, almost to the day, Greenwich Dance relocated its office to Thamesmead and the team began to contemplate how the organisation’s work could help the regeneration effort taking place across the area.

When Thamesmead was first designed in the 1960s, the vision was to create a utopian new town – with ‘streets in the sky’ providing accommodation for 60,000 people – it soon became apparent that transport links and amenities were insufficient to support this ideology and this original masterplan was never fully realised. And whilst there are plenty of parks and green spaces within the area, the architecture is brutalist, typical of post-war era reconstruction projects, recognisable from the iconic Stanley Kubrick film ‘A Clockwork Orange’. An interesting article by Ariana Markowitz* charts this fascinating story and refers to it as the ‘making, unmaking, and remaking of Thamesmead’ – a story of urban design, decline, and renewal’.

But renewing it is… and with culture at the very heart.

In 2018, Peabody launched its Plan for Thamesmead, a 30-year vision and mission to improve, grow and look after Thamesmead for the long term, and crucially with culture for the community at its heart. When the Greenwich Dance team moved into the purpose-built Nest Community Building and Library back in May 2022, they were astonished to be handed a thick, hardcopy directory listing some 111 artists and creative organisations based here.

“When does that ever happen?” said Greenwich Dance’s CEO and Creative Director Melanie Precious. “We flicked through and just couldn’t believe how lucky we were to be moving into a place where so many artists are based. There is so much creativity here.”

The move has marked a significant change in aesthetics for the organisation. For the past thirty years, Greenwich Dance has been associated with heritage, listed buildings: first The Borough Hall and later Charlton House. Now their small team sit in a modern office space with access to a terrace overlooking Southmere Lake – a body of water teeming with wildlife soon to host water sports with the opening of the Boathouse later this year.

“We joke that Thamesmead has its own micro-climate,” says Melanie. “This winter, when everywhere else has seemed gloomy and grey, the sun still seems to have come out here, bouncing off of the Lakeside Centre which seems to glow out there across the water.”

The Southmere Lake microclimate in action

The Southmere Lake microclimate in action. Photo: Lucy White

Thamesmead. A rainbow has appeared over Southmere Lake

A double rainbow over Southmere Lake. Photo: Rachel Nash

Their windows also look into the centrally placed dance studio where they enjoy watching communities gather and where their Artist in Residence, Maria da Luz Ghoumrassi, does her planning quietly on a Friday morning for the sessions she runs later the next week.

“We’d love to bring more dance artists here to use this bright, airy space” said Melanie “and we have a few ideas we are currently fundraising for to help us do that.”

Greenwich Dance is peripatetic, with work happening in community centres and open spaces across Greenwich and into Bexley, and so the intention is not to relocate all of the work to this space. But their dance offer in Thamesmead is certainly growing: with Dance for Wellbeing taking place at the nearby Moorings Socialable Club and at The Nest each week alongside their Adults Performance Company, who meet weekly at The Nest.

The Dance Studio at The Nest

The dance studio at The Nest. Photo: Lucy White

This spring and summer Greenwich Dance, in partnership with local Abbey Wood-based festival producer Arts Trust Productions, will also be bringing dance and movement right outside The Nest into Cygnet Square. The square is the civic heart of Peabody’s first phase of redevelopment there and exciting new sessions will help animate the area and draw audiences and residents to it. Rollerskaters have already discovered the square to be a perfect location for their practice, and so one of the Greenwich Dance producers wandered out to say hello and find out whether there was programming they could do to support this young community to feel more welcome here.

“I wanted to tread carefully and respectfully” explained Community and Engagement producer Alison Gee. “Skaters can often be given the impression their presence is not welcome, or they are seen as anti-social. We see skill and passion and wanted to find ways to support and celebrate that. After all, skaters have already found the space and it is a form that can bring young and older people together in a positive way, sharing skills and championing one another.

Alison’s conversation inspired the programming of a Skate Jam led by globally renowned Frankie J (aka The Red Dread House Head) for two consecutive weeks within a month-long outdoor class programme commissioned by Peabody. Also programmed is South East based dance artist in residence, Holly Smith and Lewis Sharp’s Family Move and Play. It is designed for younger children and will make use of the square’s little playground. In addition, the programme will also include Tai Chi – QiGong for all ages led by Leslie and Wendy from the Thamesmead Tai Chi Group.

In the summer, three evening Summer Sessions events are also being planned for Cygnet Square, as part of Greenwich Dance and Arts Trust Production’s Summer in the Park programme.

“We have been funded by the The National Lottery Community Fund as well as Peabody to create an exciting programme of entertainment in Cygnet Square, designed to bring new audiences to it as well as to provide residents living here with somewhere fantastic to come and hang out on a Friday evening after school or work” explained Festival and Events producer Daniel Heley. “Urban arts will feature: hip hop dance, parkour, circus, graffiti and, of course, more skating. We also hope to showcase local organisations and charities that Thamesmead residents can access, showing just how much the area has to offer.”

The events build on the Summer in the Park programme Greenwich Dance and Arts Trust Productions ran in 2022 which included a picnic in Gallions Park in West Thamesmead that they will repeat and develop this year, again alongside any residents who would like to be involved.

Gallions Park Picnic. It's sunny in Gallions Park and people are sitting around on picnic blankets. The goal posts have been decorated with bunting and children are learning dance moves on a judo mat.

Gallions Park Picnic 2022. Photo: Lucy White

“This year we have a longer lead-in time and more funds to be able to reach out to local residents and find out what they want to see and do,” said Daniel.

As part of the programming approach, call outs have been circulated widely for professional companies, community groups and youth groups to apply to be part of the line-up. “We have had a fantastic response,” said Daniel “but thinking through what will work as part of a picnic in a park and what will work in Cygnet Square will be our challenge. Thankfully we have our Young Creators Group to help us figure this out.

“We know we have our work cut out,” said Melanie. “This area is newly built and people are still just finding out about it. Cygnet Square has so much potential for the community, with a new art gallery that’s just opened and the library set to open next month. Helping to fully realise its potential and bring people into the space is one of our main focuses this year.”

Festival Producer Martin Collins of Arts Trust Productions is tasked with the job of bringing it all together logistically and as a local resident himself he feels equally as passionate about the project.

“With all newly created spaces such as Cygnet Square, placemaking is hugely important and cultural engagement is the key to this. It’s exciting to know Peabody understands that art brings people together. They have developed a space for the local community, our role now is to help them animate it and make it relevant. Thankfully Peabody have done so much of the work already, celebrating the diversity of communities, bringing them together via the cultural forum, culture guide and directory, and hosting different events across the town. I’m really looking forward to animating this space with local businesses, communities and artists.”

“And we also hope that this summer will be an opportunity for us to come out of our office and meet people – introduce ourselves to local residents – and find out what else they’d like to see from us.” adds Daniel.

It will also be interesting to see how Greenwich Dance interacts with the organisations already here in the area. They are the new kids on this block, but others have been here for a while now and working deeply with communities in the area to create a cultural offer. There’s TACO! who have just opened a coffee shop, radio station and gallery space on Cygnet Square. Bow Arts who run The Lakeside Centre where several local artists have their studios and London Performing Arts College, tucked away under the flyover, running BTEC courses for young people. Peabody supports this infrastructure through its cultural strategy team, who have been putting culture at the heart of the town’s growth and regeneration for years. Working closely with partners, like us, they have so far devised and delivered a diverse and long-term cultural programme all year round, including the much-loved Thamesmead Festival, the spectacular Light The Way event, and last summer’s giant hot air balloon full or art work.

“For Thamesmead’s culture to thrive we need to act as part of an ecosystem,” said Melanie “and so we are trying to dovetail our work into that of others as much as we can. TACO!’s cafe being open is so exciting for us. More people will come to our classes at The Nest if they know that afterwards they can go and have a coffee and a look around their exhibitions. And by bringing more people to classes at The Nest we hope also to bring more customers to TACO! Finding ways to work together is key for all of us as we work to serve the communities we are all here to support. This is such an enriching community to be part of and already we have felt welcomed by all the organisations already here. We are part of what is becoming known as the South Thamesmead Cultural Quarter and it’s a group of kind, creative people who have the needs of local residents firmly in sight. So, whilst we have moved around a bit over the last five years, it feels good to be putting down roots within a place which feels so creative. And we feel honoured and very excited to play a small part in Thamesmead’s ‘renewal’.”

Coming up in Cygnet Square

Tai Chi – QiGong
Saturdays from 25 March – 15 April, 13:30

Family Move & Play
Saturdays from 25 March – 15 April, 14:30

Skate Jam with Frankie J
Saturday 25 & Saturday 1 April, 16:00

Summer Session One
Friday 23 June, 16:00 – 19:00

Summer Session Two
Friday 7 July, 16:00 – 19:00

Gallions Park Picnic
Saturday 8 July, 13:00 – 17:00

Summer Session Three
Friday 21 July, 16:00 – 19:00

Dance for Wellbeing (new term coming soon)
Tuesdays at The Nest, 16:00 – 17:00
Wednesdays and Moorings Socialble Club, 13:15 – 14:15

* DPU WORKING PAPER NO. 193 The making, unmaking, and remaking of Thamesmead. A story of urban design, decline, and renewal in postwar London