Contemporary dance is a political project
Text delivered at Khan Studio, Sadler’s Wells, 11 May 2016.
The start of this project chronologically and conceptually was Impulstanz dance festival in July and August 2015 in Vienna .
For the three of us, two thirds of the cash of the Rebel Man Standard project - maybe around £18,000 - was spent on us going there to participate in workshops and watch performances.
About half of this coming from a European project called Life Long Burning in the form of danceweb scholarships and the other half coming from the Arts Council England who also paid fees for some of the subsequent activity in the UK.
Life Long Burning is a project for the sustainable support of the European contemporary dance and performance scene supported by the Culture Programme of the European Union.
In other words this is very much part of the European project of creating a closer european union with shared culture and free movement of people and ideas.
The festival is also aligned with specific interests of Vienna which is the most prosperous city in the world.
London is 4th. After New York and Toronto.
Having such a dynamic youthful festival is part of establishing the city as a vibrant place to do business in. This was totally explicit in the special edition of an Austrian business magazine called CASHFLOW that was being given out in theatre foyers at the festival. Effectively a brochure for investors in Vienna, between articles on start-ups, iconic architecture and European connectivity there is a page about Impulstanz where founder and artistic director Ismael Ivo is quoted as saying that “today Vienna is the leading city world-wide regarding contemporary dance,” he says. ”And to a maximum degree this is owed to impulstanz.”
I guess my point is that Impulstanz exists not only for dance makers but for city planners and nation builders.
Perhaps more obviously and closer to home new and planned buildings for Rambert and Wayne McGregor and Sadlers Wells serve economic growth as much as they serve Britain’s dance.
This is not news though.
Impulstanz opens with a performance by Austrian choreographer Doris Uhlich - she DJs from her laptop on the steps of the Museum of International Contemporary Art overseeing a specially made stage in the Museum Quarter.
20 dancers dance with an energetic nonchalance. leaping, falling, lifting, shaking, pulsing, naked. All white people except for one black guy, all young and fit. Of course.
I find myself comparing myself to these representatives of contemporary culture these slightly imperfect immortals, displaying not quite the precision of ballet still a facility and strength. Able bodies. It all seems so bourgeois - although perhaps that’s an outdated term - here in this 32 year old festival in what feels to me like the oldest of old Europe; city of music and psychoanalysis and the last stand against the Ottoman Empire.
Bourgeoise Viennese of all ages excited by the naked dancers, in the museum square. And the performers spray champagne and thinking of a clever thought to have up my sleeve I think that’s EU money being thrown away that Greece is going to have to pay back.
Because this is happening during the Grexit. I think the world was still waiting for Greece to make a decision on the EU’s bailout proposal and it seemed so very possible that the Euro and possibly event the EU would collapse.
This was also a year after the Islamic State - as we were calling it then - was declared and the time that the refugee crisis was escalating with asylum applications were still rising, yet to reach their peak in October last year.
So I’m standing there thinking about the champagne but it’s a stupid connection - art *can* be wasteful for fucks sake and Impulstanz had lost funding so it wasn’t so simple but I do imagine the contrast and connection between where I am and what I was reading about Greece and the Euro like trying to hold on to this ideal of Europe. But it’s cracking up. Are we fiddling while Rome burns. Is this a defiance to ISIS, a commitment to the European cause?
I wonder what other capacities can dance express. What different bodies? Weakness, support, decay, tiredness, frailty. But maybe these emotions are at odds with dance, maybe dancing is defined by its vitality.
Choreographer Elizabeth Strebb wrote in How to Become an Extreme Action Hero (2010):
“A goal of presenting your acquired physical skill [on stage] is a thinly veiled exposition of privilege. It would signify that you had the opportunity to train as a dancer for say, twenty years. Someone paid for it, took you to and from those classes all those years, believed in you and participated in this social construct. I think that in a subconscious level this is what gets noticed on stage by certain audience members, and it surreptitiously celebrates a class divide. It is partly responsible for the elite demographic that attends dance concerts, separate from how uninvited the general public feels vis-a-vis the act of entering the theater.”
Ali Baybutt is one of the artists that answers questions as part of series of interviews that run through The Rebel Man Standard. She writes of her work that
“In a general sense of space, the works are political in that they are one of many examples of people doing stuff in the relatively safe context of a Europe that permits such free expression and the space to be absolutely useless and self-interested. (…) In many ways it is a space of total useless brilliant leisure, rigorous play. It’s work, of sorts, but it’s also intense triumph in commandeering a space for temporary togetherness, a temporary rupture in some expectations of a space, a reworking of and for the spaces of the body. This is not making politics either, though I suppose it is political.”
In March I am in Stoke-on-Trent a small city between Birmingham and Manchester.
It’s not officially part of The Rebel Man Standard in terms of being funded by it but I have ended up trying to see the project as a kind of spine that has informed and supported and connected lots of not most of the things I have been doing in the last nine months.
So in Stoke the dance scene there is one contemporary community dance company and a plethora of stage schools. There is no feeder stream of dance graduates no abundance of knowing audiences. And yet the work of this contemporary dance company is doing something. Maybe simple but it is shifting the reality of the participants and the city in some way.
And I realise the great privilege or luxury or something that there is in London or that there is in Vienna of social, cultural, political economic resources that allow for what I might easily think of as deeper more sophisticated or esoteric or rarified explorations of dance.
I think the mistake it’s easy to make, for me to make at least is to think that the depth - for want of a better word - of this kind of dance making is something absolute or responds to a universal value when really it is just going deeper into its own values and economies that it is part of and reproducing. Values like freedom, democracy, sexism, white supremacy, capitalism, economic inequality.
Maybe I am just arguing for a relativism when it comes to thinking about dance.
Can dance spaces - whether they are institutions, workshops or performances or festivals - that exist in such contexts be insulated against them? Can they resist them?
Austria’s chancellor resigned on Monday because after Impulstanz, after initially welcoming refugees he caved in to a popular shift to the right and started build fences on the country’s borders.
And now the far right Freedom Party have gained the biggest share of votes in the first round of the presidential elections. This is the Freedom Party I met as part of an Impulstanz research project about choreography and politics in 2013
“At some point early on in the Rebel Man Standard I think Zinzi asks for the project to refer to dance and not contemporary dance which looking back was a key moment for me opening up the idea in my head of an exit from contemporary dance.
An idea that the claims made in Europe for contemporary dance are equally or actually claims for certain political and economic structures.
If we take Ismael Ivo seriously that “today Vienna is the leading city world-wide regarding contemporary dance,” then to be at the forefront of contemporary dance is contingent on particular economic and political circumstances and means reproducing those economic and political circumstances and if we want to be in different circumstances does it mean we are either doing inferior contemporary dance. Or do we decide that we are just doing dance, the right dance for our circumstances because people happily danced before and after and outside of the things that might be thought of as contemporary dance.”
I’m getting a bit lost now.
How a relevant but perhaps mundane but still important question from Finnish choreographer Pia Lindy’s question in the interviews
“How do you operate (work) as an artist in contexts or environments where there are no structures nor demand for art or the artist to create work in?”
“How would you or would you justify or entitle your artistic working and participation in that context/ environment?”