|1. Dance for All? Panel:
Ken Bartlett is Creative Director of the Foundation for Community Dance. He is an advocate for access to, participation in and progression through dance. A regular contributor to conferences and publications, Ken also commissions the Foundation for Community Dance’s journal, Animated. He is a former Teacher and School Inspector for the arts and was Head of Arts and Cultural Services for Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council. He is a Board member of Protein Dance, and has previously taught and lectured in the USA, Australia, Latin America and Europe.
For today’s panel on community arts practice, I will attempt an overview of work in the UK. In order to understand why community dance in the UK is where it is today, it is useful to recall the origins of the community arts movement in the UK, and the point at which community arts and community dance began to diverge, becoming distinct from one another.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, state funding of the arts was at a lower level than at present and was predominantly distributed to mainstream arts establishments. The politics of that time included the impact of the civil rights movement, of the feminist and gay rights movements, and of disability politics. That situation led certain artists to recognise the need for two key changes: firstly, a wider distribution of state funds to increase people's access to the arts; and, secondly, a recognition that, in our growing and developing society, there were new and different voices whose cultures and cultural products deserved greater recognition, funding and support. In a sense, then, the project of community arts was a political one, with the arts attached.
I was a great supporter of community arts at that time in the face of inappropriate balancing of cultural funding and the animation I saw in the eyes, bodies, minds and communities of the people participating in arts. I supported the political ambition of community arts. Some thirty years on, I have become less interested in the work of the broader community arts movement, than I am in community dance. It has seemed to me that community arts have developed a theoretical frame concerned more with politics and people, than it is with people and art. The funding and programming of the work has been mainly project based. Consequently, the projects tend to provide a 'hit and run' experience for participants, in place of offering a sustained engagement and opportunity for progression and development.
The relationship of community arts with mainstream arts providers remained similarly undeveloped with few partnerships that could maximise impact and audience development. Organisations were set up for delivering community arts but most chose not to build relationships with the local infrastructure of schools and amateur or voluntary arts. The point I am making is contentious, but given this situation, it was impossible for community arts to make a longer-term impact, supported by existing community groups and activity.
In due course, some mainstream artists attacked the quality of community artworks as 'rubbish', 'poor art'. Included in the condemnation were, I suspect, some of the work produced by disabled artists, women artists and gay artists. And – this is really hard for me - instead of responding to people in mainstream arts with 'actually we’re challenging your aesthetic', community artists stopped asking the community to make art any more and decided to do it themselves. Communities, instead of becoming themselves creators and artists, were made into curators and editors. Communities functioned as the story that arts works were made on; they were not enabled to make that work, or to struggle with the art form itself.
To my mind, community dance has taken a different trajectory and produced something rather more miraculous and substantial than has much community arts. There were dance artists who shared the politics of the community arts movement. However, as Rosemary Lee has today described, they were generous, humble, honest, open, aware, listening artists who recognised that there had to be new ways of making dance and reaching out to engage more people in dance.
These dance artists recognised that most of the population was being excluded, for economic, social, cultural and educational reasons, from access to the approved canon of state-supported arts activity. As artists, they had a politics and identified with the civil rights movements of black people, women, gay people and disabled people, and, as Rosemary Lee described, they wanted to work in small ways towards a different world. The world they imagined was one in which there was increased respect for individuals, minority groups and cultural differences, whether based on class, gender, race, sexuality, age, disability or economic status. Vitally, they wanted to demystify the art of dance. If I can paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, they wanted to make the extraordinary accessible and provide opportunities for ordinary people to achieve extraordinary things.
These community dance artists, therefore, were still committed and wedded to dance as an artform, to its history, present and future. Influenced by US artists working out of Judson Church in New York, like Steve Paxton and Trisha Brown, they were impressed and excited by what they saw when ordinary people with untrained bodies submitted to the forms of dance and struggled to make meaning through it as a medium. They were the artists who were prepared to ask, 'I wonder what would happen if...' and 'I wonder what dance could be made if I put these people together, with untrained bodies or differently trained bodies...' Wherever they have worked, the journey of artists like Liz Lerman in the US and Lee in the UK, has been to place the art, the art making and the people dancing, whosoever that may be, at the centre of their work. They operate as artists, not as teachers, therapists, social workers or politicians, although they may posses some of the skills of these professions.
Community dance practitioners have long argued that there are significant instrumental and social benefits to participating in community dance. These include: improved academic and physical achievement; emotional, physical and social wellbeing for individuals and their communities; and, improvements in general for specific health conditions such as obesity and cardiovascular performance. When I speak to politicians for the Foundation for Community Dance, I frequently argue that these benefits are of importance to dance practitioners in their work.
And yet these benefits always seem strongest when the quality of the arts experience in dance is at the heart. I see that quality of experience when we are striving for excellence in a process - doing the best we can, as I saw some of you doing this morning in Lee’s workshop. At these times, we are attentive to the quality of our movement and are celebrating what we can do rather than pointing up what we cannot. For example, in Lee's workshop this morning, I sensed the different quality of movement in the room when your changed from moving in relation to a near partner in the space, to a far partner. A high quality experience of dance is associated too with the participants having a say in what the dance is about and how it is made; having a voice as to who the audience will be and the context in which it is seen and experienced. It is associated too with those artists who reflect seriously and critically on whether the dance has achieved its vision and aims, not basking in the afterglow of warm wishes by relatives and friends.
At its best, I believe that community dance does these things. It has successfully developed into part of the infrastructure of the UK dance ecology so that community dance artists are no longer working in isolation. Our national ballet companies, for example, frequently partner up with community dance expertise - and to remarkable public success. I was amazed, last month, in a meeting with one of the directors of the internationally known Rambert Dance Company to hear of the range of people that the company works with when it travels around the UK. Mainstream dance has embraced community dance, which has not been the case for community arts. Most middle scale and smaller scale dance companies diversify their audiences by running workshops and residences, thereby connecting with the community dance infrastructure which would not be visible in mainstream theatre, music and drama.
As another example, the Siobhan Davies Dance Company, one of our leading contemporary companies, recently moved into a marvellous new building in South London and is, over time , developing deep relationships with the community in their immediate vicinity. Unlike some other artforms, the UK now has a national network of dance organisations at regional and sub-regional levels that are committed to widening access and increasing participation in the arts of dance across all sections of the community. It is true that they are not all equally successful, a fact that we should recognise honestly. However, there exists outstanding, stunning, brilliant work that can be life changing, not only for the individuals taking part but also for the communities they come from. The youth dance movement is strengthening and growing which we hope will give young artists a lifelong relationship with dance. I do not think it an exaggeration to say that the UK is a world leader in community dance. To finish, my vision is for community dance to continue extending, so that the importance of dance is fully acknowledged in the UK; a vision of our country as truly a dancing nation, and one in which men of my generation no longer say 'I am not a dancer'.