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Big Mission Festival


by Thea Nerissa Barnes


February 2-5, 2005 -- Birmingham, England


The Big Mission Festival held in Birmingham 2 February through 5 February 2005 was intended to “celebrate the new face of Black British Dance”. This it did, but it also hinted at a change in politics and shifts in understanding of who and what this work includes.


The Big Mission was a joint effort initiated by Deborah Baddoo of State of Emergency in association with DanceXchange. Baddoo worked with Artistic Director of DanceXcahnge, David Massingham and Project Coordinator Hannah Sharpe to plan and coordinate the activities for this important dance event. The Big Mission Festival presented work by artists, Jonzi D, Union Dance, Tavaziva Dance Company, The Dance Movement, Gelede Dance, plus works by Donald Edwards, Martin Robinson, Colin Poole, Zeze Kolstad, Irven Lewis, Shaun Cope, Kwesi Johnson, Louise Kateraga and Maria Ryan. There were also showcases for first time choreographers, classes and workshops given by David Rousseve, Jonzi D, Koffi Koko, Shaun Cope, Irven Lewis and Donald Edwards.


There were debates targeting the issues of education and training in Africanist dance practices in higher education, articulating the controversies implied in “cultural fusions”, and a forum to discuss recommended strategies for developing audiences for Black choreography. Seminars geared for the young dance artist provided one to ones and group discussions with arts management specialist June Gamble, Jackee Holder, Personal Development Trainer and Life Coach, Joanna Ridout, arts manager and Paula Moreau-Smith, research and marketing consultant.


Debate: Black Dance in Training and Education


Present for this debate was Professor Christopher Bannerman, ResCen, Middlesex University, Veronica Lewis, Director, London Contemporary Dance School, Anthony Bowne, Director, Laban, Funmi Adewole, Dance Researcher and Dance Artist, with Thea Barnes, Dance Researcher hosting. Ginnie Wollaston, Arts Council England, West Midlands, Deborah Baddoo, and David Massingham were also present.


This debate was an opportunity for those present to examine provision and strategies for including Black Dance training in the curriculum. The discussion would also touch on what that training includes and what the outcomes of this training might be. For the host the debate was an opportunity to problematise the beliefs behind having Black Dance in Training and Education. Was Black Dance a creditable course of study in a curriculum? Or was Black Dance training just a strategy to encourage students of particular ethnicity to study dance.


Currently London Contemporary Dance School (LCDS) offers Kathak taught by Gauri Tritathi. This course though is Director Veronica Lewis’ initiative to have a course of this nature in LCDS curriculum. This course was also in response to Shobana Jeyasingh, choreographer/artistic director of Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company who is finding it difficult to hire dancers living in Britain or imported from India who have accomplished skill in both Indian Classical and conventional contemporary dance techniques. Laban has African/Caribbean out reach/access classes taught by Carolyn Muraldo for adults wishing to take dance classes for enjoyment. These classes are enrolled on a term by term basis. These classes are not accredited and cannot be taken towards a degree. Laban utilises the artist-in-residence model for their degree students. Laban’s students have had Benji Reid, Jonzi D, and Robert Hylton, exponents of the use of break dancing concepts and forms within the fabric of contemporary dance making, leading workshops and repertory classes for short periods during the academic year. Citing a lack of credible rigour within the form as a major hindrance, Middlesex currently has no provision for Black Dance.


To summarise, the directors present revealed similar outcomes for courses available at their institutions: the student population be representative of the demographics of British society and the course offer opportunities to study forms that provide students with the skills they need to become accomplished dance artists. All pointed out though the demographics for dance training have changed drastically in the past twenty or so years. It is almost impossible for young men and women whether black or white to obtain financial support to train in dance that discretionary grants and the like had provided in the past. Even with current educational initiatives designed to target specific ethnicity and gender, the targeted groups do not select dance as a career. Dance just has not proven to be a financially viable career in the British context.


Thoughts on the Debate on Black Dance in Training and Education


The lack of credible rigour in African dance practices is a problem here in Britain. Black dance performance, with its root sources in Africa, Caribbean and associates in Asia is individualistic. There are general characteristics that can be examined and taught but given locations and purpose is manifested in numerous ways. These propensities may give the impression of chaos and a lack of logic, but this assumption is far from the actuality. Present practitioners would do well to develop written documentation strategies that articulate the practice of Africanist, Caribbean, and South Asian expressions. Present practitioners also need to be more rigorous in presenting methods for developing skills required for performing their particular expressions. Africanist expressions require more research to verify continuity or discontinuity with British dance practices and relation to other practices within the African Diaspora. Africanist practices need to be made more articulate here in Britain if for no other reason than to dispel the myths there is no theory to write a course of study with an effectual outcome.


It is also thought that those educational institutions that prioritize and privilege Eurocentric, Western techniques limit their students’ potential for post modern, cross cultural dance making that has been in evidence since Britain’s New Dance era. Currently the appropriation of Hip Hop culture’s breakdance, African/Caribbean forms, Classical Indian, martial arts, body therapies, jazz, urban forms, and other ethnic forms are common sources of inspiration for choreographers in Britain. Training in conventional techniques is only superficially adequate for students whose lived experiences are implicitly intertextual and cross cultural.


An unfortunate absence at the Education Debate was anyone who could speak regarding the course offered at Surrey University. Following Judith Palmer, Irie! Dance Theatre Administration Manager and acknowledged African Caribbean dance exponent, Carolyn Muraldo has in the past six years developed her own course of African and Caribbean dance. Muraldo’s course runs parallel with ballet, contemporary and Kathak providing Surrey University dance students with four techniques in their BA Honours course. Students take all four techniques in their first year and then can specialize or continue to take all four in the next two years to completion. Noni Jenkyn-Jones led the Kathak course which will be taken over this year by her guru and known pioneer of the form here in Britain, Alpana Sengupta. This oversight at this debate makes it imperative that a mapping be done to ascertain what practices, African, Asian, or Oriental, are being offered in the British educational system.


Developing Audiences for Black Choreographic Work


This debate discussed many of the issues encountered by marketing personnel in theatres and dance companies in efforts to develop audiences for Black choreographic work. This discussion was chaired by Wanjiku Nyachae with Antia Dinham of Audiences Central, Natasha Graham of PUSH, Paula Moreau-Smith an Independent Consultant, and Marie McCluskey of Swindon Dance with other participants present providing their perspectives on this topic. Summarizing, the discussion advised the following: no two audiences are the same, how important it is to know the audience being attracted by doing research before devising marketing strategies, and most importantly to know the work being presented. From this discussion long term approaches for developing audiences for Black choreographic work suggests strategies for audience development that are more inclusive of the demographics within the British population. Also noted was that the notion of inclusion should aim for the widest idea of ethnicity, disability and age obtainable. All present were given the following words to consider: the more narrow the demographics the more meaningless the experience.


It would seem the responsibility of promoters and producers is to make changes in language and approach that will encourage a diversity of audiences to engage Black choreographic work. Innovative strategies need to be developed that clarify what work is being presented and how to sell it without ghettoizing it. There are also added responsibilities for nurturing young emerging choreographers whether black or white. Emerging work often varies and varies between being relevant to audience members to extremely inaccessible; inspirational to the artist but not interesting to venue or audience. Also the promoter more inclined to support work that is perceived as successful may participate in the exclusion of emerging work that has yet to build an audience.


Marie McCluskey noted the label “Black dance” is an uncomfortable term. Some venue managers and prompters consider this work unprofessional, undeveloped, and geared only for black audiences. This label also lacks clarity, and its insoluble political baggage imposes expectations that disadvantage the artist’s ability to be creative. McCluskey suggests the creation of a context for the artist’s creativity and investment pass the initial stipend to assist growth. What is needed are more strategies that devise alternative means for communicating to audiences the quality of the choreographic work being presented. It was also recommended the needs of the artist be considered when devising marketing strategies. Educating audiences through lecture demonstrations, workshops and classes are necessary but not at the expense of the performer. Anita Dinham also suggested looking at the artist as a whole person and how marketing developed from research done at the site of performance can develop alternative strategies for building audiences and facilitating growth of the practice.


Debate: Cultural Fusions


This debate was chaired by Wanjiku Nyachae with Jonzi D, British Hip Hop culture activist, rapper, performer and choreographer, Kwesi Johnson, performer and choreographer, Thea Barnes, Resident Dance Supervisor of The Lion King and independent dance researcher and Bush Hartshorn, Director of Yorkshire Dance. Each panel member was giving ten minutes in which to articulate their stance on cultural fusions. Each rendered insightful expressions.


Hartshorn stated that his interest has been in the integrity of the artists he supports and that support has been in providing what is required to get the work seen and recognised. Johnson has an abhorrence for labels that seek to define an organic, process oriented craft. The political baggage of this label is no different from that attached to the label Black dance or African Peoples’ Dance. It all seems a way to segregate and ascertain a degree of Blackness to establish value. Johnson suggested that the label cultural fusions is to ask trivial questions like how much plié is required to be jazz, if there is an arabesque is it ballet.

The term doesn’t allow creative use of expressions available to any dance maker or engagement without preconceived notions of what a form is supposed to be. Jonzi D also suggested the term has its limitations when the form itself has enormous possibilities for bringing people together and acknowledging their individual creativity without abandoning who they are. Thea Barnes spoke of her embodied experience of cultural fusion offering an autobiographical telling of her experience as an African American dancer, teacher, and choreographer on both sides of the Atlantic. By recalling the past and observing the present Barnes has concluded the label cultural fusions is yet another strategy to enforce white and black mythologies regarding dance that uses Africanist expressions.

Cultural fusion, cultural diversity, Black Dance and African Peoples’ Dance are labels that constrict, aiming to articulate a product when the practice for each person is a journey with its own choices, encounters, disruptions, and changes. There is still the need to raise the profile of these dance makers and this is where the labels gurney advocates and monetary support to get the work produced and seen. The labels, though, oblige the practitioner to stay the same when in actuality he or she will change and has changed given what was seen at the Big Mission Dance Festival performances. Stake holders and alliances willing to relinquish previously held beliefs heard the challenges to these labels in the discourse of the dance makers present. What was heard was evidence of these labels confusing effect.

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Edited by Staff.


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