Living in a political world?
A symposium hosted by Dance UK in collaboration with Dance Umbrella
October 2003 -- South Bank Centre, London
Image - Jonzi D
Sue Hoyle opened the symposium by introducing the speakers. These were Paul Davies, Artistic Director, Volcano Theatre, Deborah Barnard, Company Director, Ludus, Jonzi D, Artistic Director, Still Brock Productions, and Frank Doran, MP, Aberdeen Central.
Deborah Barnard began with a personal position statement in response to the questions posed for the symposium:
1. Can dance comment on political issues or influence world events? Yes
2. Is there an opposition in dance between aesthetic concerns and social and political debate? No
3. Do artists have a responsibility to engage with political and social issues, making works of contemporary political resonance and relevance? No
4. By not engaging with real issues of real concern to real people is dance failing to connect with audiences and missing the opportunity to change how people think? No/Yes
Deborah then set about explaining each of her answers working backwards through the questions.
4. My answer is not ambivalent as it is hard to see the polarity in terms of there being a conflict. I believe it is down to the individual. To be concerned for one is to also strive for the other. I think sometimes we concern ourselves with what makes good art when in actual fact there is no set formula. Art can be made and viewed in so many different ways and the thinking should be as supple as the art form itself.
3. This question assumes that dance fails to connect if it is just aesthetically pleasing. This is also political and can be food for thought.
2. A number of my colleagues were surprised that I answered no to this question but it makes me feel anxious and puts me in a dilemma. At Ludus we want more artists to engage with political and social issues but it is not a prescribed responsibility. On the other hand if artists do not have a desire to engage with the viewer then we could question why they are making work for the public.
1. Commenting on political issues is a trade-mark of the work of Ludos. We work with strong messages and a strong purpose and strive to achieve a political dance aesthetic. Finally, we are also clear about the audience and how and why they wish to engage.
Jonzi D began by discussing his background and how politics has impacted on his dancing. He came into dance as a hip-hop artist in the late 1980’s because he loved the culture as it reacted to a social and economic structure. He struggled with establishing who he was because of racism and alienation until groups such as Public Enemy gave him a sense of hope. When Jonzi decided to dance he was influenced by break dancing because of the dynamics involved and the sense of urgency coming from the environment in which it is made. Often frustrations could be released through fight situations but through a more healthy means.
At college Jonzi came to terms with the fact that dance is about aesthetics. It was in the evenings that he would feel most motivated to make art because he would be talking with friends about political situations and issues. So for example, he created a piece about being ‘safe’. He demonstrated how he developed this piece through one simple action of intense energy through the body, the head, foot and hand and then bringing that back in to being neutral. He then considered how he could do this with sound and continued his demonstration by talking calmly and then losing control vocally when discussing racial inequalities, before bringing his voice back to being neutral again. The piece therefore became political which was not planned. It was a case of being honest, not because he believes he can change the world but because he would like to change someone’s world. Jonzi doesn’t believe that artists have a responsibility to be political as long as we aren’t scared of the work they are creating. He thinks that we are all political anyway.
Jonzi believes that politics and dance go hand in hand and that isn’t necessarily based on theory, it is just because it is today and now and this is how he is feeling.
Paul Davies focused on his view of politics and how he believes politics might relate to the arts.
Paul believes that theatre and dance practitioners need to familiarise themselves with the languages of political and social theory or develop their own rigorous conceptual vocabulary, where possible. This may enable them to analyse their own work rather than having themselves analysed and described.
In Paul’s view two kinds of politics stand out. Firstly there is what he would call a ‘rights-based’ political discourse where we see political initiatives or political practice as the most expedient way of redressing injustices, correcting wrongs and insuring minimal standards of equality. The second way of thinking about politics in Paul’s opinion, is all about leaping too high. It is also more conceptual and perhaps more unfashionable. We might say that the starting point is the counterfactual question ‘how shall we live?’ (not, how do we live?). The difference here is the utopian urge to judge the everyday – let’s say the c word – capitalism – by the not-yet standards of what may be possible, by an expressivist view of human potential.(1) Paul referred to Herbert Marcus to demonstrate this, and his argument that life under capitalism has become so one-dimensional that only from within the sphere of the Beautiful is it possible to rescue a memory and a sense of what happiness could be. Paul then considered three points surrounding Marcuse’s idea of the Beautiful.
Firstly, in his view the popularisation of the idea of beauty could lead to a diminution of the emancipatory nature of the idea itself. Secondly, Marcuse was very much aware that the idea of the Beautiful could be encoded in something like a neutral form – a form that could conceal and repress its true origins. Finally, he thinks the third danger is that beautiful art creates and speaks a language that only it understands. Communication, which some might say is at the centre of all artistic endeavours, may become invisible both within the rehearsal process and on presentation of the finished piece.
Paul points out that the politics of pragmatism and the utopian politics of the Beautiful are just two ways of orientating ones self to the culture but gut feelings are also good. Paul personally likes Orwell’s preference of swimming against the tide rather than with it.(2) Of course this is often only possible if the funders will travel with you but he believes that culture and equality are enriched not diminished by difference, even conflict.
Thus, it is conflict that Paul sees as the common thread throughout this, which was also on Volcano Theatre Company’s mind when they collaborated with Nigel Charnock to produce Macbeth based on Fred and Rose West. It was also a neat way of drawing attention to the most obvious, political character of performance – namely the fact that dance and theatre inhabit the public sphere and have the potential to invigorate and bring life to the public realm. There is always a danger that without the potential riches of dance and theatre the public sphere will collapse under the weight of desires and expectations that capitalism so successfully sells. At its most noble politics has always sought to oppose these developments. We may now, however, be in a situation whereby the resources to oppose the economics of international capitalism and strengthen the public sphere are better drawn from the autonomous activities of artists (and others) rather than from the aspirations and actions articulated by conventional political parties.
Paul concluded: “As a consequence of these developments, I think now is as urgent a time as ever for theatre makers and dancers to bring politics into their work. To help inspire us to see the good life or at least a more just life, than the one that is currently on offer for much of the world’s population. How artists are to do this is another matter.”
1. For the category of the Not-Yet, see Not Yet: Reconsidering Ernst Bloch (eds) J Owen Daniel and T Moylan (1997). For a view of human potential see The Socialist Idea (eds) L Kolakowski and S Hampshire (1977)
2. See “ Inside the Whale” in G. Orwell, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell Volume I An Age Like This (1968) pp. 493-527
Frank Doran opened by stating that, ‘politics is my art’. He continued by commenting on the fact that arts and culture currently have such a high profile, but that ‘dance’ hasn’t engaged with him at all. In doing some research before the symposium, Frank also found one folder on ‘dance’ and only 10 questions in the Houses of Commons since October 2000, with the majority of those promoting English Folk Dancing. He then suggested that perhaps this was because the feeling is that politics doesn’t relate to dance, or that there is a lack of understanding about how to go about it, or maybe everything is just perfect.
Frank therefore offered some ideas for raising the profile of dance, such as making sure you have a clear objective when lobbying. He also talked of the danger of just lobbying ministers as this will not maximise the impact. It is crucial that relationships are built with local MPs and the general public and not just with government. Allies can also be sought from departments such as the Department for Education and Skills who will strengthen your case. For example, even if you manage to persuade the Cultural Minister, she then has to convince the Treasury and there is a huge amount of competition and unfortunately, dance is already way behind. If dance companies and organisations can lobby local constituencies and build a relationship with them, then they will be a stronger force to lobby government with on a National issue. It is also important to lobby local constituencies when there is not an issue, so that you have a constant relationship, which will give you more of a chance when there is a problem.
The fact that dance has such a low profile is a huge problem. There is a lot of public funding going into dance and a lot of good will but this could be cut. Not necessarily because of your efforts but because of other things. This raises the question, ‘who will fight your corner?’
So why is dance not engaging? I have done things in the past which I thought were about raising the profile of dance but they obviously haven’t worked. What you have just said is very helpful, because it is not that we don’t want to engage but we are obviously not clued up enough. So if we were thinking of a campaign, what would be the platform?
Firstly, it is crucial to have a strategy. I would definitely recommend that you work from the bottom up and develop your own resources by getting as many people involved as possible as it is everyone’s responsibility. It would also be a good idea to look up people who are interested in dance. For example, the Houses of Commons have a tap dancing club!
Do you think that part of the reason dance is not seen as political is because it does not involve words?
Yes, maybe it is more about changing the way dance is perceived.
To a certain extent maybe, but I think it’s not seen as political because you don’t make enough contact with politics. You need a strategic way of solving this problem to encourage dance to be seen as a necessity rather than a luxury. Politics is where the leaders are so if you want to make progress you’ve got to get close to those leaders.