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About the Mary Neal Project

The Mary Neal Project brings to light the story of social reformer, suffragette and radical arts practitioner Mary Neal CBE, for the first time. A great spirit behind the folk revival of the early 20th century, her pioneering work with young dancers and children at The Espérance Club in Somerstown, cut across a remarkable spectrum of British political and cultural life, and offers an inspiring model of some of the earliest known participatory arts practice.

The serendipitous discovery of Mary’s personal papers provides an historic opportunity to bring together English folk practitioners, contemporary artists, researchers, children, historians and archivists, within an intra-cultural frame, to explore indigenous English song and dance traditions. What are these traditions and where are they now to be found?

Led by her great-great niece, Lucy Neal, founder of the London International Festival of Theatre, The Mary Neal Project uses the occasion of ‘handing over’ the archive to a national library as a catalyst for a celebratory programme of projects and events. In addition, a learning programme in 2 primary schools and the creation of form a living archive to connect the history of the Mary Neal story to a continuum of participatory arts practice today.

Here you can read about Lucy’s quest to learn about her great great aunt and find a place for her papers. In this article; this lecture; this broadcast (BBC Radio Programme Great Aunt Mary’s Tune broadcast on Nov 3rd 2007).

Here you can read about other attempts to tell Mary’s story and where this one fits in.

The Project’s celebratory and inclusive values are inspired by the spirit and legacy of Mary’s Neal’s own. 

The Mary Neal Project has three main areas of activity:

  • archive
  • archive + learning
  • archive + learning + artists and projects.

In combination, they create an iterative process that allow Mary Neal’s story to stand in history whilst also creating a contemporary celebration with performers, musicians, artists, children and dancers today

The archive comprises the unpublished manuscript of Mary’s autobiography As A Tale That is Told - extracts of which can be seen here for the first time. In addition, letters, photographs, texts can be found that have come to light over the course of the Mary Neal Project. Handing the papers from personal possession into the public realm becomes a catalyst for renewing and refreshing this period of English cultural history.

"There should be nothing in this revival which cannot be done by the average boy or girl"

"...the aim is to have no spectators, but to have everybody present joining in the dancing." (Mary Neal, The Espérance Morris Book, 1910)

A learning programme picks up on Mary Neal’s own observations about the innate creativity of children: their curiosity and enthusiasm to embrace learning and their abilities to be self-organised. Mary believed it was better to nurture the dreams and creativity of young people than to hand out charity to meet their needs. In this way, she recognized the power of dance and song to transform the lives of the young and dispossessed. The Project hopes to provide further opportunites to engage arts educators with debate around issues of excellence and participation.

The Mary Neal Learning Programme has engaged 2 primary schools to play a part in bringing Mary Neal and the stories of The Espérance girls to light, and to explore, within an intracultural frame, the inheritance of English song and dance today.

In this way, the Mary Neal archive will continue to be built on with documentation of new learning and participation, renewing and re-inventing English cultural traditions.

Artists and Projects:
The Project acts as a catalyst to inspire contemporary arts and folk practitioners to explore the questions:

  • How are English indigenous song and dance traditions inherited, and to whom do they now belong?
  • How do these traditions connect to a continuum of participatory arts practice today?

In this way spheres of discourse a century apart are connected.

Many of the questions posed by the revival around authenticity, participation, excellent and access remain as resonant today. 

<p>Lucy Neal, 2008</p>