Jonathan Burrows' talk for the Inventur#2–Contemporary Dance and Performance Conference at Tanzhaus NRW Düsseldorf, June 2nd 2017
This talk has also been published as part of 'A World of Muscle, Bone and Organs, Research and Scholarship in Dance', an ebook edited by Simon Ellis, Hetty Blades and Charlotte Waelde for CDaRE, Coventry University, 2018
This talk formed part of a panel on Social Practices and the Inherent Politics of Dance, chaired by Jonathan Burrows and Dan Daw, with guest speakers Bojana Kunst and Joe Moran.
Sigrid Gareis told me last year
how she felt sad that contemporary dance was not more political,
and I responded by saying I thought there was an innate politics in much of our practice.
And I've wondered since then if this can be true.
I feel unprepared to talk about politics,
but this talk is a way to think things through
at a moment when we need to think about these things.
And while I can't speak for anyone else
I use the word 'we',
to mean all the independent artists
who are alert and struggling and questioning this art form,
and the producers, curators, directors, funders and fellow artists
who travel with us.
Because although coerced togetherness is not the answer,
right now we need to sit together and think together,
which was said by Juan Dominguez.
It's difficult to unpick every aspect of the political in relation to dance
and in relation to how we produce and sustain our practices,
so I approach this with caution,
alert to the voices of others.
Some of what I want to say raises obvious problems for which I have few solutions,
while some of it is hopeful because sometimes I need to feel that way
and dance gives me reason enough at times.
I am interested in real politics
and I'm interested in the social aspects of dance,
but what interests me most is a more existential question
of how to go on believing in the ethics of dance,
and how to interrogate the commonly described feeling that to dance is in itself a political act.
Not least that sense of freedom people talk about so readily,
when they describe the experience of dancing,
where me tips into us tips into no-one.
Or reflections like these from a discussion in Coventry:
that dance troubles and in some contexts actively refuses capitalist market systems,
which was said by Hetty Blades,
or that dance matters because we believe that research into the human condition
is vital in a market-led world,
both of which are irresistible, but difficult to verify.
I keep arguing that this inherent political
sits at the heart of dance practice and goes unnoticed.
And I don't know if there's any truth in this
or if it's just wishing for something
for an art form which at times seems more pointless than useful.
Despite how I hear myself argue often enough
that pointlessness is the point,
because of the way it feels in some way deep down
as though dancing is superfluous and therefore essential.
As though the permission to be in excess is political somehow.
Or embodies a resistance
or effective opposition, maybe naivety
towards certain things thought helpful in these days
like being easy to quantify or to assess or to monetise,
which it seems from experience most art dance is not,
not least because we're perceived as hard to understand
and even harder to describe.
And this sense of resistant practice is encountered
despite the referents and power structures that permeate what we do,
which is a problem.
Meaning some performers can represent a more abstract body
and some can't do that so easily.
Or as Paul Hughes said:
'Some artists have the privilege of making work that looks apolitical;
but there are others whose work, because of their race, gender, sexuality and so forth,
will always be read as political,
because the institutions are such that their presence causes discomfort.'
Or as Jamila Johnson-Small said:
'In terms of the idea of 'hidden' politics I feel very black right now in this room,
because I'm aware that I watch performances where I see clearly a politics
that, for instance, the person next to me is not aware of.'
Performers themselves are not always aware of the politics,
because on the inside we are by choice lost in a world
of muscle and bone and organs and blood flow
and nerves and self-consciousness and shame and desire,
On the inside it's uncomfortably subjective,
and we work to balance the overview with our inner experience
and the tension is challenging but sometimes fruitful.
Our body and mind try to integrate,
moving in and out of focus while we fly on emptily,
which is what we call dancing and is not so easily accountable,
even by us,
but we own it.
We own it and call it freedom for want of a better word
and a lot of dancers describe the sensation that way,
but the image remains questionable.
The illusion of freedom makes us idealistic,
which is worrying,
but at the same time we're aware that our hopefulness offers a counterbalance
to the critical inertia that sometimes traps us.
And the freedom is strongest when we dance with other people,
which may have to do with a moment of surrendering self
into a field of human,
which is itself political.
Or as my friend Botis said, 'When I'm dancing I can't be stopped or judged'.
I can't be stopped or judged but my judgemental mind looks down
and picks fights according to criteria I can't always agree with,
which is another problem,
because dance fosters dysmorphic views of the body
and the art form remains obsessed with youth.
Not that anyone wants to stop anyone from dancing
but it takes a certain confidence to get up and dance in front of everyone,
and some people feel more confident for obvious reasons
and then everyone says they're good at performing
and so on...
This image of the fit angelic otherness of the dancer's body
is endemic within society,
and it's incumbent upon us to take it gracefully down,
and to remind each other that the courage we have in our bodies
is not shared by most people,
not even most of us.
But we try to stay balanced and our body feels free,
and we're working on cutting down the usual aesthetic judgements,
and we're hanging on to the outside critique,
and we're being as authentic as we can be though rationally we're having none of it,
and we catch ourselves doing our daily dancing in the privacy of our own living room
and something happens,
or as Deborah Hay says 'It's not why I dance it's that I dance and that is political'.
And never more than in the privacy of our own living room
in our own authentically deviant way,
and it feels good but we don't always know what to do with it.
We're getting our freak on and we want to help everyone
but we wonder exactly how.
We know New Age feelings won't do it
so we hang on in there for a context that will make us fierce.
We hang on in there for a context that will make us bite
which is what we call the performative,
and the trouble we discover is that any old person doing any old dance
is weird enough to disturb the comfortable.
Which means either we've got a head start on the other arts
or else we're getting nowhere,
not least while celebrity dance shows get confused with what we do.
Or while the visual arts play a fast game of corporate complicity
with a mantra of compulsory political rhetoric
whether the politics is visible or not,
and as Joe Moran says they also want what we've got.
They also want what we've got and there's a clue there somewhere,
but we'd have to disentangle
all the shifting meanings and uses of the concepts of material and immaterial
before we could even get close to figuring out why they want us,
and what relation it might have to the political or not.
Not that anybody doubts why politics might matter,
with the rise of the right and rising inequality,
and the erosion of social care,
and mass migration of refugees,
and the refusal to tackle carbon emissions,
and ideological war,
and renewed nuclear threat,
and the post-truth performance of the president of the United States.
Which makes us value the truth we question in our bodies.
But we know artists are part of the problem,
with our celebration of self and our obsession with the new,
and the way our rhetoric of creativity and collaboration sounds like a management course,
or as Jan Ritsema says,
we've done pretty well as the vanguard of ununionised labour
and our help to gentrify cities will surely not be forgotten.
And our confrontations are quickly appropriated by capitalism.
Or as Ramsay Burt asked:
'Is avoiding capture itself political?'
But we want change and we continue to sound it out,
we're aware how the ways we work together are different and potential,
and although we avoid the overused exhaustion of the word collective
we're doing it anyway.
Because the thing we have hasn't much value which makes us generous,
so we give it away freely which is foolish and useful.
And we help the others and we leave no trace
and the doer decides,
which feels like a more helpful model than worn out consensus politics.
And we're learning to take the temperature of the room,
which is a Quaker principle meaning making the time
to arrive at a decision that leaves no one behind and we're good at time.
Or each one teach one which is the philosophy of hip hop.
And we resist the word craft but we share a craft,
and as Charlie Ashwell says,
'Craft not only thrives in community,
it requires it for its dissemination of knowledge...
having the potential to articulate a resistance
to capitalism's acceleration towards individualism,
speed, profit, growth and spectacle'.
Because if there was ever an art form that advances collectively
it's one that starts from the body.
So we start from the body and we must take our time
to resist the cult of the new,
and the product oriented overload,
and the throw away society,
and the speed,
and endless self-performance on social media,
and the fake notion of success for everyone,
and the hero worship of a few big players,
and hot young bodies
and patriarchal behaviours.
And we have no gallerist so we take the platform together.
Or as Emma Meehan said:
'You understand boundaries better when you know how a cell works',
which is an image of the somatic as coactive and ecological.
Which is an image of the somatic as political.
There are more ways to measure success than a dance student might think,
but we need to start celebrating those ways
away from the TV notion of who is the best.
Or as Juan Dominguez said, 'We have to sit together and think together,
and I don't think we have to identify with each other because this is going to be impossible,
but in certain moments I think we could be more supportive and go for things'.
And the notion of practice which is overused and hard to grasp
just means a way to find a sustainable ecology of daily doing,
and to make sense of the ethical tenor of whatever we do
in relation to whatever else we do and whoever is around
and how we might do it.
Which for many of us means what we thought we did for money
turned out to be the thing itself,
and did reach out but also fed us and was political,
but not in ways you'd need to shout about.
Meaning it turned out the hyper-technical body was less interesting
than whoever from wherever with whatever so-called disadvantage
of gender or age or race or class or sexuality or so-called disability.
And we're getting better at resisting the gateways that patronise our impulses,
taking the things we're doing anyway and giving them back as a series of rules
or a way to build a career or give to society or justify arts budgets.
We understand that theatres and festivals and producers
must make a hard case in an increasingly arts-averse economy,
but there's value in what we've got that can't be measured or corporatised.
And it's not going to get easier to challenge the imbalance
between the paid staff of arts institutions and the precarity of the unsalaried artist,
but redressing the imbalance starts with how artists support each other,
how we speak to producers,
how we don't speak to producers,
how we ignore institutions,
and how we redefine success for ourselves and for the people around us,
and for the public.
And redefining success requires that we stop believing in art,
which means the exact opposite of a refusal to make art.
We indulge the fantasy that the dance market is one big family,
but we need to start recognising that the conditions of work change radically
according to which country or city an artist works in,
and how the policies and institutions and infrastructure of that country work,
which means some people have space and some don't,
or some have support and some don't,
or some can subsidise their touring but most of us can't.
Because when we perpetuate the myth that we're all in the same situation,
we get ourselves exploited pretty fast.
And the salaried people in arts offices
need to have at the forefront of their minds,
the awareness that most artists are living without regular income.
Meaning they have to stop weighing our lack of money
against how lucky they perceive us to be,
because of the old cliche that we're following our dreams.
So even though the money's not going to increase,
they should at least pay us on time,
and stop justifying non-payment
on the grounds that they're giving us good publicity
by inviting our work for free.
And the best curator should start from our instability
because the wobbling we do
and the fact you can't easily tell someone what the performance was like
is part of our resistance to becoming a product,
and you don't have to be a Marxist to understand the worth in that.
Which makes us hard to turn into a creative industry.
And the ways in which we resist corporatisation are born out of a recognition,
that the gatekeepers who would monetise and classify us
risk eroding exactly that fluidity and generosity of practice and identity
which makes what we do vital.
Which makes what we do useful.
Being what Chrysa Parkinson calls 'The Dancer As Agent' or 'The Swerve',
that connects to a recent and radical shift in the ecology of dance,
beyond the challenging of dancer choreographer relations
or the hierarchical duality of the argument for more women choreographers
and into a place which reverences the dancer herself.
Or as Chrysa said:
'I feel a druidic wisdom emerging from this group
that inspires me to keep searching them out.
When a vibrant indeterminate space emerges between what’s organic and cultural,
when a glimpse of a world lies next to a word, I know there’s room for a swerve.'
And the swerving artist avoids capture.
Or as Katye Coe said:
'the dancer (particularly on mass)
might be historically and currently feared as a danger to the system...
potentially she who, given a voice might be able
to see/sense through and around the back of old structures,
not a futile resister of that patriarchy but an undoer or healer of it.'
Or as Charlie Ashwell said:
'...the activity of the dance artist, or the 'witch',
literally as a kind of dance amongst and with these many centres;
whether those centres are theatres, institutions, festivals;
or concepts, actions, thoughts.'
Or as Bojana Kunst puts it,
we have to work less and create more,
outside the old structures of cultural value
that have been eaten alive by capitalism.
Which requires that we help keep each other visible,
despite the way global culture disappears us
in a waterfall of Facebook feeds.
Which requires that the universities who've given us sanctuary in austerity times,
fight for ways to redefine our role
away from assessment procedures based on business practice,
which have no language to describe the worth of what we do.
And I don't know how we negotiate the similarity
between the precarity of the swerving artist
and the precarity of the modern worker,
but it seems to me in positive moments
that at the heart of the swerve is a wresting back of agency
suggesting new models of self-organisation and survival.
And dance won't solve what's going on,
but the ethics of our activities and self-organisation
are part of the micro-culture needed to create change.
And the swerving artist must by necessity do rather than declare,
so that the dancer and choreographer Erdem Gündüz,
who was Istanbul's Standing Man,
was quoted after his protest as saying:
'I'm not the type to talk about politics, I'm an artist, I prefer to talk about dance',
by which he meant exactly the opposite of a refusal to engage.
Jonathan Burrows, edited and with contributions by Katye Coe
With thanks for conversations, advice and shared writings to Charlie Ashwell, Hetty Blades, Ramsay Burt, Katye Coe, Simon Ellis, Susanne Foellmer, Paul Hughes, Jamila Johnson-Small, Joe Moran, Chrysa Parkinson, Jan Ritsema, Mil Vukovic Smart and Ivey Wawn.