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Friday, December 5, 2014

Who Gets to Perform? The Ethics and Aesthetics of Social Practice

On October 25, Dance Umbrella and Dance UK hosted a discussion at King's College London called The Politics of Participation, part of Dance Umbrella's Body Politic series. A panel of guests in London and Brooklyn from across artistic disciplines discussed the use of non-professional performers in the arts. The event was livestreamed and can still be viewed here. Simon Dove, co-curator of Crossing the Line, and Julie Anne Stanzak of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch participated from BAM. Below, Dove elaborates further on some of the important topics that arose in the conversation.

Pina Bausch's Kontakthof (1978) has been staged with "non-professional" casts comprised of both senior citizens and high-school students (pictured above).
by Simon Dove

After decades of “community arts” experiences, and years of what the visual arts world terms “social practice,” many artists are now working together with the public as collaborators and participants—all kinds of people, in all kinds of ways. I reject the binary distinction between “professional” and “non-professional” as a false premise. The notion of “professional” is not about whether artists earn a living wage from their work (in the US, this is very rare). It is actually based on a very narrow notion of what “performance skills” are, and the specific training or education that produces them rather than the actual people who use these “skills.”

In dance and performance, this idea of “skills” has historically been a huge controlling force to promote and legitimize a certain way of moving (with many teachers’ and institutions’ income dependent upon it), or narrowly defining only a certain body type that can execute these skills “properly.” This exclusivity works against the reality of human diversity. Some commentators talk about this kind of engagement with “non-professionals” as a “de-skilling” of performers, but I see it more as a politicization of practice: a move to work with the rich history and vivid imagination that make a performer unique rather than the specific and narrow skill set that the performer may possess. William Forsythe, the innovative classical dance maker, once famously pulled out of a Royal Ballet commission in London, as he was faced with dancers he felt had nothing to contribute to the creative process.

“Skills” that have been developed and honed over many years also provoke a tendency to want to be displayed. This can certainly create a momentary “wow factor” for an audience due to the difficulty of the action, rather than what it might say or communicate in the context of the piece. So a work that is primarily an exercise in skill display keeps the audience at a distance from the performers, never letting us engage with the person behind the form. It can also enable mediocrity to thrive, as makers can endlessly assemble sequences that merely deploy skills (and believe me they do!) without any concern for content, perspective, or purpose.

Rosemary Lee's Square Dances (2011). Photo: Hugo Glendinning

The “social practice” approach—working with the whole person through a process, often for a long period of time—shifts the notion of the artist from a producer of things or events that can be consumed, to a facilitator of experiences, relationships, and ongoing processes. There is an implicit critique of art as just a consumable commodity, and this approach, instead, positions it as experiential—an ongoing process, even a life long practice.

People can buy into this process-based work either as a participant or as a viewer, spending time or money, but for the participant, the potential impact on their worldview is immense. Rosemary Lee's Square Dances (2011), a celebration of the communities that live in residential London squares, was ultimately a “performance” to see, but for all those who participated or experienced it, the potency of the work came from the process of building community and celebrating who the participants are and what they value.

This social practice is thus not a distracting “show” of skills, but rather a deeply engaging celebration of what it is to be human. The future of performance lies not in the “stars,” showing us their impressive skill sets, but rather in ordinary people beautifully sharing their lives. This challenges many of our extant notions of who the artist is, who the audience is, and who the producer is—as well as where art is made, where art is presented, what we mean by art, and ultimately, what art can mean to us all.

Simon Dove is an independent curator and educator, currently co-curator of Crossing the Line, the annual trans-disciplinary festival in New York City. He was Director of the School of Dance at Arizona State University from 2007 to 2012, and Curator and Artistic Director of Springdance, the international festival of new developments in dance and performance in the Netherlands from 2000 to 2007. Prior to that he ran one of the first National Dance Agencies in the U.K, the Yorkshire Dance Centre in Leeds, was the founder and Artistic Director of Vivarta – the first contemporary South Asian performance festival in the U.K., and contributed to national dance policy development at the Arts Council of Great Britain.

1 comment:

  1. I was surprised and delighted to read this blog post. I am not a professional dancer, but in 2012 I got up the courage to audition for Montreal choreographer Sylvain Émard's large work for both trained and untrained dancers, called Le Grand Continental. This half-hour long dance was performed at Pier 16 at the Seaport as part of the River to River Festival. We rehearsed 2-3 evenings per week for many months. It was challenging and rewarding. The experience was one of the highlights of my life. We were nearly 150 people of all ages, experiences, backgrounds and ethnicities. Community was built, friendships were made — and yes, bodies were toned! But that is not the end of the story. Nearly a year later, many of us came together to create the Shakedown Dance Collective, under the choreographic guidance of Jamie Benson and Deborah Lohse, both of whom were teaching assistants — as well as performers — for Sylvain during Le Grand Continental. I was part of this new dance collective until schedule conflicts forced me to leave. But the group is thriving and is open to all (so don't hesitate to find them on Facebook and go dance with them!) It gives me immense pleasure to know that this experiment in "community arts" or "social practice" has gone on to change even more lives than just our original group of dancers in 2012. That, in my opinion, is absolutely world-changing — and it is why social practice is so valuable in the arts.