CriticalDance Forum

Dance and Human Rights
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Author:  Caroline Ferreira [ Sun May 13, 2001 11:32 pm ]
Post subject:  Dance and Human Rights

Dear Stuart,

For those of us that are a bit slow, can you give us some background information on the subject of Dance and Human Rights. I read with interest your comment tagged onto the BRB Arthur saga about the dancers from Macedonia promoting the sale of arms, and find the subject a bit disturbing to say the least.

Author:  Stuart Sweeney [ Mon May 14, 2001 9:43 am ]
Post subject:  Dance and Human Rights

It's a theme close to my heart, Caroline. Here's an article I wrote for an Amnesty International UK magazine a couple of years ago:

Dance and Human Rights

Amnesty International has always made use of the Arts in putting over and embellishing its core messages. Fine art, graphics and poetry are used regularly and the indefatigable Dan Jones is always on the lookout for new opportunities. From time to time, films such as 'Dead Man Walking' and plays such as 'Death and the Maiden' have addressed human rights themes in a powerful and moving way and Amnesty has been able to make use of the productions for outreach work.

However, a case can be made that dance has been a neglected area for Amnesty. Perhaps this is not surprising, as the birth of UK contemporary dance dates from the mid-60s, so it's even younger than AI! Nevertheless, this young art form has a fine record of work that addresses social and ethical issues including human rights. For the past 18 months, Amnesty International UK has been forging links with the dance community in a symbiotic relationship to use specific dance pieces as part of our campaigning work and to publicise the performances to our members and friends. Because dance, unlike film and drama, uses movement not words to convey ideas and emotions, it gets into our consciousness in a different way and thus can be a very effective additional tool in making our case for human rights.

The first work used in this way was 'Swansong'. This powerful, theatrical 35-minute dance piece tells the story of an interrogation of a prisoner by two guards. The choreographer, Christopher Bruce, has said that he based 'Swansong' on the book 'A Man' by Oriana Fallaci, which likens interrogation and torture to a theatrical process. Bruce has said that he strongly believes that an artist has a responsibility to address social themes and that taking part in and experiencing the Arts have a civilising influence on society and 'Swansong' is a fine example of putting this theory into practise.

Certainly audiences from all over the world, including particularly relevant countries, such as Argentina and Hungary, have been moved and stimulated by the work. An excellent video of the original cast is commercially available and the outstanding Rambert Dance Company has been performing the work around this country over the past few years. There is now a well-established link between AIUK and Rambert and wherever the work is performed, the Company asks the theatre to allow the local Group to have an information table and a make a collection. The Group also publicises the performance through their contact list and sometimes takes the opportunity for a media event.

This autumn, Rambert are touring another famous work by Christopher Bruce, 'Ghost Dances', which was inspired by the murder of the musician Victor Jara in Pinochet's Chile. It is based on the suffering down the ages of South American peasants and uses Andean music and choreography inspired by Indian dances to express the joy and sorrow of their lives. Amnesty will be linking up with Rambert over these performances as we did for 'Swansong' and I'm sure audiences will be moved and delighted with this work in the same way.

Another valuable collaboration has been made with the choreographer and former dancer, Darshan Singh Bhuller whose 'Planted Seeds' is based on the theme of human rights abuses in the Bosnian conflict. This full length work is darker in mood than the two Christopher Bruce pieces and a 30 minute section, showing the anguish of women held prisoner and abused for a month in a gymnasium, is one of the most extraordinary pieces of dance drama seen on the UK stage. When it was performed in a nearly full Queen Elizabeth Hall in London last year, you could have heard a pin drop as the lights dimmed on this scene. In May and June this year, an 11 venue UK tour of 'Planted Seeds' featured a strong AIUK link, partly as a campaign vehicle and also to ensure that as many people as possible see this eloquent visual statement on human rights.

The theme of dance and human rights has also been taken into schools. For instance, Rambert have a very well received education presentation, 'Swansong in Focus', which links the work to both GCSE and A/L dance syllabuses. In addition, Fiona Smith, a Senior Lecturer in Dance at Brighton University organised last year an impressive evening of school and college pieces based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This theme provided a fruitful source of inspiration for the young dancers and choreographers involved and the performance in The Congress Theatre Eastbourne, with a strong presence from the local AI Group, was a great success both from artistic and human rights perspectives.

Thus, dance is making its presence felt in the Amnesty International movement and this strong visual art form is being used to help us publicise our messages on human rights in an innovative and forceful way. If you would like to know more or if you see the chance for new opportunities in this area, then please feel free to contact Stuart Sweeney on 01689 851501 or email,

We have discussed these sorts of issues before and here are two links where it came up:

[This message has been edited by Stuart Sweeney (edited May 14, 2001).]

<font size = -2><center>(Edited by salzberg to fix link)</center></font>

<small>[ 08-11-2002, 09:45: Message edited by: salzberg ]</small>

Author:  Stuart Sweeney [ Thu Dec 11, 2008 8:04 am ]
Post subject: 

This is an article I submitted to the Estonian newspaper, Postimees. It covers a range of events, especially Pöff, the annual Black Nights Film Festival, but does include a dance project towards the end.


Human Rights in Fact and Fiction

The past two weeks 21 November - 6th December, 2008, saw a flurry of activity in Tallinn around the theme of human rights: the “Human for Real” strand in the Black Nights Film Festival, two seminars, and on the related topic of integration, Zuga dance company's “EAST VIRUMAA REPORT”. There is a strong tradition of artists, such as Goya, Picasso, novelists and even choreographers addressing human rights issues, alongside the witness of journalists and activists. Indeed, acclaimed American writer, David Simon, believes that while fiction and documentary both have their place in depicting reality, sometimes the former can best describe social truths.

Pöff celebrated the 60th Anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights with ten films in a special programme, but given the times we live in, similar themes also came up in the rest of the Festival schedule. “Letter to Anna” is a melancholy documentary devoted to the famous Russian investigative journalist, Anna Politkovskaja. The director, Eric Bergkraut, made a series of interviews with Politkovskaja shortly before her politically motivated murder, and he uses this footage as the core for the celebration of a vibrant, courageous personality, concerned for those suffering abuse. The Editor of Novaya Gazeta recalled the contrast between her volcanic outbursts in staff meetings and her gentleness with victims of oppression.

Another documentary, “Operation Homecoming”, by Richard Robbins, provides a platform for US serviceman in Iraq to describe the reality of fighting on the front line: the dull routine of service, punctuated by high drama, the accidental killing of a civilian, or the escort of a dead soldier's body to his home town. In the main Festival programme, “Hurt Locker” covers similar ground in an exciting, well-crafted fictional film by Kathryn Bigelow, concerning a bomb disposal team in Baghdad. However, by focusing only on the US soldiers, both these films lack the resonance of Nick Broomfield's docudrama, “Battle for Haditha”, which I saw earlier this year, and provides equal time to the opposing combatants and, crucially, the civilians caught in the middle.

“The Shadow of the Holy Book” tackles the extraordinary story of the “Ruhnama”, a book about life, the universe and everything, by Turkmenistan's megalomaniac leader, Saparmurart Niyazov. Given equal status to the Koran in its home country, we hear that maths lessons in the schools have now been replaced by the rote learning of its mish-mash of musings. Director, Arto Halonen, also strips the veil from the Western companies who have cynically paid for translations of the “Ruhnama” into Turkish, French, Czech and many other languages in order to win multi-million dollar contracts. Halonen and his colleague, Kevin Frazier, tour the world desperately trying, and usually failing, to secure interviews with executives about their complicity with a vicious dictator who squandered the wealth of his rich country on self-aggrandisement, while his people suffer hardships. Niyazov died two years ago, but his successor retains the “Ruhnama” as a valuable control mechanism. While addressing a serious topic, the film's humour accords with the craziness of the story.

The many and varied abuses taking place in the central asian republics also provided the main theme of the human rights seminar linked to the Pöff programme. Perhaps saddest to hear was that even a country with a better record than many, Kazakhstan, is currently moving further away from democratic norms. Activists, Adil Jalilov and Sardar Bagishbigov, braved the wrath of their governments to address the meeting. In the second half of the seminar there was a wide ranging discussion on human rights, including the situation in Estonia. While I acknowledge successes, such as Estonia's high rating in international indices for press freedom, I was disappointed that both Marina Kaljurand, Estonian ambassador to Kazakhstan, and Prof. Evhan Tsybulenko of the Tallinn Technical University Human Rights Centre, dismissed criticism of discrimination in Estonia from organisations such as the UN, the Council of Europe and Amnesty International.

An unrelated seminar two weeks earlier, organised by the Legal Information Centre for Human Rights and supported by the EU Commission and the European Network Against Racism, focused on discrimination against minorities in the Russian Federation, Hungary and elsewhere, and presented sociological research and specific examples supporting the argument that Estonia still has some way to go to meet the highest international standards of anti-discrimination policy.

Also away from Pöff, united dancers of ZUGA presented their “EAST VIRUMAA REPORT in the form of a concert”. After the Bronze soldier disturbances, the company had won a grant to “foster integration of youth in East Estonia into the Estonian society” and chose the demanding option of visiting five centres and spending three days in each place making performances with young people, reflecting the participants' wishes and concerns, using an expressive dance process rarely seen in North-East Estonia. The performance in the Kanuti Gildi Saal gave some excerpts performed by the members of Zuga, which ranged from jolly tricks to a slow meditation with unison movement, all ably accompanied by Kalle Tikas. In a frank discussion afterwards, they described the problems they had faced, such as not enough time to win the confidence of the performers, and well-intentioned but unhelpful interventions from some local organisers; overall the assignment was so tough that they are not likely to repeat it. But there were successes: a performance with mixed Russian and Estonian community participants, when they had been told that it would be impossible for the two groups to work together, and the great satisfaction of those who took part.

The concept of human rights has become a cornerstone of democracy in the 60 years since the signing of the landmark UN Declaration. It was gratifying to see this anniversary celebrated in Tallinn, where much has been already been achieved, but where there is still more to be done in the view of several well-informed, international human rights organisations.

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