Dance, Diversity and Appreciation
The previous chapters have considered the
potential significance of embodiment to the appreciation of dance.
It has been suggested that within (western) theatre dance, movement
is understood not only in relation to conventions in dance but also
in the context of immersion within everyday culture. Consideration
has been given to approaches to dance as discourse in which actions
are culturally inscribed and in particular to the intertextual analysis
of dance as proposed by
Consideration of artists’ perspectives, in
chapter four, emphasised that a focus on the interpretation of dance
as ‘read’ may limit appreciation of the performance and that other
approaches might allow for a fuller response. With reference to
However, within the ecology of western arts, in contrast to this intersubjective reciprocity, consideration of the subject:object relationship has previously often emphasised the concept of ‘aesthetic distance’. At its most extreme, this resulted in the formalist aesthetics of the second quarter of the twentieth century, modified versions of which are still drawn on in support of judgements about dance (Copeland, 1990) that prioritise formal qualities. The ability of audiences to respond from a suitable ‘aesthetic distance’ can be seen as rooted in ways of conceiving the dualist relationship between body:mind and self:other. In contrast, discussions with dance artists suggest that the phenomenological experience of the appreciation of a performance can include a sense of shared communication between performer and audience, momentarily experienced as a dissolving of the dualist experience of body:mind, self:other. Paradoxically, such an experience may be savoured in aesthetic terms. In contrast to earlier expressionist aesthetic theories which emphasised communication (or in Tolstoy’s terms the transmission of feeling), amongst the artists I talked to there is recognition that whatever is involved in this sense of ‘shared experience’, such communication is open to variations according to the audience’s own cultural and dance experiences.
Following the artists in allowing for a more
fully embodied ‘reciprocal’ approach to the aesthetic suggests changes
in the ecology of the arts. In discussion and reflection about their
and my own experience of dance in
5.1 Dance and Diversity in the Capital
As the backdrop to presenting dance in performance,
early twenty-first century
A strategy document published by the Greater London Authority claims:
The Capital’s reputation as a multicultural city has been in
the making for centuries. The vibrant mixture of diverse cultures
is a major factor in the success of
The funding for dance companies in London
reflects the aim to address inequalities in the face of a legacy of
funding patterns that historically supported national companies performing
ballet and, more recently, the ‘contemporary‘ dance forms that draw
on predominantly American traditions of modern dance. The Arts Council
of England’s London Office’s figures for 2003/6 (Arts Council of England,
July 2003) show the companies receiving the largest shares of the
public purse are still the established ballet companies, presenting
the dominant form of (western) theatre dance, albeit one that is globally
popular. If companies such as the Royal Ballet and English National
Ballet are to support many dancers and compete for audiences and accolades
in a highly competitive international milieu, they require large sums
. This is likely to impinge on what is available
out of a limited Arts Council dance budget to fund other companies.
‘Contemporary’ dance companies, with aesthetic roots in
There is a long standing debate about diversity
and dance in
In relation to regular support of the larger companies, the London Office of the Arts Council can perhaps be interpreted as working towards being representative of the nation’s cultural heritages at a level broadly in keeping with a breakdown of the population in terms of the proportion of ‘BME’ to ‘white British’. If at a larger, national level there has been a framework for relative cultural pluralism in the diversity of dance forms, from the evidence of a search of company web sites in 2005, it seems that during the funding period 2003-2006, diversity within a company was more prevalent among smaller, mainly ‘contemporary’ dance companies. Visits to the web sites of those companies supported by the London Office of the Arts Council on a regular basis for the period 2003-2006, reveal that of the twelve London based dance companies listed (including the Royal Ballet, that is funded via support to the Royal Opera House), one ‘contemporary‘ dance company with a diverse group of dancers has a stated mission to:
…explore and express an identity through dance which reflects the growing cultural fusion of contemporary society …
Another ‘contemporary’ dance company also has as mixed a make up as, say, a snapshot of the adults on an ‘inner-London’ street, while in two other contemporary dance companies there appears to be at least one dancer who would contribute to the company’s diversity. Three other ‘contemporary’ dance companies reflect other aspects of diversity: one includes a number of disabled dancers, another dancers who are ‘older’ than the twenty to thirty-somethings filling the ranks of most dance companies and the third is known to draw on the experience of gay people and has recently included a disabled performer. Two other dance companies funded through the Arts Council both focus on contemporary approaches to South Asian dance traditions.
In terms of the range of dancers there is
a marked contrast between these companies and Adzido, a company that primarily drew on traditional African dance forms
that appeared to comprise only black dancers. In relation to ballet
the picture was more complex. The photographs of the larger ballet
companies revealed they drew on a mix of dancers perhaps representative
of interest in ballet on a global stage: the large
With what has been slow progress towards the inclusion of black dancers in ballet, (and judging from Dowler’s comment above, a lack of sensitivity in the wider dance community about some of the surrounding issues), it is not surprising that dance companies have been established, drawing on African dance traditions and in which white dancers are similarly rare. In this context, the Arts Council’s financial support of Adzido to a level beyond that given to any ‘contemporary’ dance company helped to promote equality at a macro level while at the same time perhaps establishing the norm that many large scale national touring dance companies would have a repertory and cohort of performers that fulfil the demands of a specific, culturally delineated dance tradition. However, during the period of this research Adzido lost it’s funding, their last performances being in 2005. The reasons for this seem to have been complex but in part were due to the company not meeting targets set by the Arts Council of England. The company's failure to live up to expectations seems to have been generally agreed (Ismene Brown, 2005), although in the same year an Arts Council of England report revealed people’s concerns regarding the ‘predominance of Eurocentric definitions of quality at curatorial, programming and management (i.e. decision-making) levels within the arts infrastructure’ (Arts Council England, 2005, 9).
Given the wide debate about ‘multiculturalism’
in the media after the
Perspectives on Diversity in
Perceptions of ‘difference’ in relation to
dancers (rather than dance forms) in British dance companies can be
thought of as being founded in circumstances particular to British
experiences. For example the sociologist Christian Jopke has analysed
some of the complexities of ‘race relations’ in
Tragically, in the British constellation of a ‘coloured’ colonial periphery and a ‘white’ core nation it was impossible to accomplish without, in effect [dividing] the ‘ins’ and ‘out’ along racial lines.
Jokpe in Giddens 1997, 224
This then may be one factor behind research that demonstrates how many people of Caribbean parentage born in Britain, although having full British Citizenship, do not feel British:
Despite a strong sense of social and cultural commonality with the white British, most Caribbeans found it difficult to lay claim to [being] British. The difficulty was almost entirely based on the knowledge that the majority of British people did not acknowledge the commonality... The Caribbeans felt that they were constantly reminded that they were not accepted in a variety of ways including discrimination in employment, harassment, invisibility and stereotyping in the media and glorification of an Imperial past in which they were oppressed. This racism rather than any sense of distinctive ethnic heritage was seen as an obstacle to feelings of unity with the white British majority.
Modood, Beishan and Vindee, 1994, 216-217
For Thomas F. De Frantz (2004) writing about
African American dancers, a common experience of white oppression
provides a sense of commonality amongst the diaspora that is part
of black people’s pan African identity. While there are undoubted
differences in the social development of
For other artists, their experiences in relation to their perceived ethnicity can be of central importance to their work. Lack of employment opportunities and a sense of frustration are features of Artist B’s early dance experiences in clubs that informed his later work:
We would get our frustration out on the dance floor and that is where the energy comes from. So I take that same energy from when I was young and put it in the studio.
‘Cos you didn’t have a job or couldn’t get work -You go to a club and you see another person dancing and you sort of compete and because you didn’t have a job or anything much, the dance was more serious than anything else.
Artist B, 2003
A comparative lack of success in gaining employment
and the social deprivation linked to this has undoubtedly been a feature
of life for ethnic minorities in
The dance critic Alastair Macaulay, in an exploration of the ‘English‘ style of ballet recognises how this sense of style has long been associated with the Royal Ballet, in particular with the choreographic style of Sir Frederick Ashton, whose work along with the Petipa/Ivanov ‘classics’ dominated the repertory of the mid twentieth century Royal Ballet. For Macaulay, the constraints of English society are products of the class system and have a significant influence on dance in this country:
The English class system - surely more complex and subtle than
that of any Western country - is the main reason why English society
is so hidebound. Naturally in English dance much of this snobbery
Macaulay 1996, 24
Macaulay’s discussion suggests the extent to which much British ballet of the mid twentieth century reflected the social milieu of a specific part of society. In particular he quotes from the novelist, Jane Austen, to reveal the physical and social environment of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that shaped the experience of those growing up as white, English and of ‘good family’ well into the twentieth century. For Macaulay, Austen’s novel Emma, along with other novels of the period, describe:
the rural milieu in which, a hundred years later or more, many of us grew up. They catch the English class system, the village mentality, the highly circumscribed social circle we still know in so much English life.
Macaulay, 1996, 23
Aware that this world would not be so familiar to all those born English in the twentieth century, Macaulay is able to illustrate how some of Ashton’s ballets, notably Symphonic Variations (1946) and La Fille Mal Gardée, (1960) are rooted in the same locale, one in which lyricism is placed in an almost serene counterpoint with constraint. My own experience corresponds to his analysis; Ashton’s dance style with its rich use of épaulement in controlled swirls of precisely stepped movement appear to me as a familiar structuring of space, reminiscent of the Kent country lanes of my youth; these wound their way between fields enclosed by hedgerows and led to villages in which might be found cottages and at least one large old residence for the ‘gentry’.
Ashton was able, in dance terms, to reveal the subtle ways in which his characters (even in ‘pure dance’ roles) pushed at their ever so English constraints whilst hardly upsetting the gentle rhythm of the world around them. As Macaulay points out, Ashton saw himself as always ‘fighting against that English primness in dancers’ (Macaulay, 1996 cites Ashton in Vaughan, 1996 ), a theme that will be further explored in relation to sexuality in chapter six. Yet the work Ashton created happily fitted into Royal occasions at the Opera House and some of Ashton’s works may run the risk of being interpreted as an ‘imagined idyll’, ‘an adorable Tory fantasy, coloured by a nostalgia for a rural existence sweeter and neater than ever existed’ (Macaulay, 1996, 23). For a new generation of black British people growing up in an urban environment, such an idyll might seem as far removed from their experience as the drawing room of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park to those labouring on the West Indies’ plantation owned by the true life equivalent of her characters.
A full study of differences
in the dance British people enjoy related to their class would be
at least as lengthy and complex as Bourdieu’s (1979) analysis of French
attitudes to visual art and music. In general terms
However rather than provide evidence of a simple divide between elite and mass culture that equates with divisions on the basis of class, recent discussions of cultural consumption point less to an equation between class divisions and the high:low culture divide and more to a distinction between ‘omnivorous’ and ‘univorous’ tendencies and a complex relationship between cultural consumption and social stratification (Chin and Goldthorpe 2006). While income, status and education are differently related to participation in the arts, in general terms lower income, status and education are related to univorous consumption that focuses on film and popular music rather than combining these with enjoyment of live theatre, dance and classical music.
Generalisations regarding ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture may mask many anomalies, not least the popularity of full length Tchaikowsky ballets starring ‘Barbie’ distributed on video (revealing the popularity of children’s ballet classes amongst girls). ‘Authentic’ dance forms from ‘non western’ cultures are increasingly popular amongst well educated professionals, whilst commercialised versions of ‘non western’ dance (for example Bollywood dance) attract significant audience numbers. Yet perhaps that the ‘high:low’ distinction remains pertinent to the omnivorous:univorous divide is revealed by the Arts Council’s (adult) attendance figures not featuring hip hop/street dance and ballroom as categories for dance performance even though they are the dance forms most visible on television. Moreover, significantly more people had attended dance performances ‘other’ than African, ballet, ‘contemporary’, jazz or South Asian than any one of these suggested categories. The figures for participation revealed a similar picture in that that 23% of (adult) respondents had been ‘clubbing’ as opposed to 4% taking part in ‘contemporary’ dance activities and less that 0.5% in ballet classes.
If we accept Macaulay’s view that British ballet, in the form of the Royal Ballet as it developed in the mid twentieth century, at that time reflected the attitudes and way of life of a specific group of British people it raises questions about dance in British theatres today. What changes would a national ballet company need to make in order to become more rooted in the lives of a broader section of society? That in terms of ethnicity those identifying themselves as being of Indian, black African and white ethnicities are most likely to attend South Asian dance, African dance and ballet respectively (Bridgewod, Fenn, Dust, Hutton, Skelton and Skinner, 2003, 38) [iii] suggests there is some progress to be made before companies presenting traditional dance forms engage fully with a wider public.
In addition to companies
that present these forms developed by drawing on ‘contemporary’ dance
practices and/or contemporary life experiences, there are organisations
working to educate a wider range of people in the traditions of ballet,
African and South Asian dance. Both approaches would seem to be in
keeping with a pluralistic society which values different cultural
traditions while appreciating their development in a postmodern
The diversity of reasons why people participate in dance some of which are about sustaining traditional cultures based on national, racial and other identities; while others are about making new cultures and creating new identities.
However, there can seem to be rivalry between these two approaches that occasionally can spill out into quite acrimonious debates [iv] . To understand this it may be helpful to further contemplate current perceptions of ‘difference’.
5.3 Perceptions of ‘Difference’
The question of how ‘difference’ is perceived is no less complex in dance than it is in other parts of public life. For instance, are representations of ‘difference’ understood as a celebration of diversity or as reinforcing stereotypes by presenting the ‘other’ in contrast to the norm? It is of interest here to reflect on Dorothea Fischer-Hornung’s discussion of a mid twentieth century film of Katherine Dunham teaching a white dancer. Dunham, an African American dancer who was very well educated in anthropology was able to articulate the difficulties in gaining respect as a black performer.
[T]he Negro believes in a certain fallacy the white person has bequeathed him namely that the Negro is a natural born performer and needs no training...
We harbour an appreciation of this rhythm over and above melody.....But this appreciation is not based on any physical difference, nor is it psychological; we are socially conditioned by our constant contact with it...In the West Indies, women dance to the drums almost until the hour the child is born and they nurse it, still dancing. But that does not mean there is no technique. There is. And it is every bit as essential that we train as rigorously as any other group...
Dunham, 1938 in Fischer-Hornung (2001), 92
However while Dunham is likely to have wanted to show that traditional African dance forms were no more ’natural’ than western dance traditions, requiring similar degrees of training, the contrast between the white and black dancers in the film unfortunately may, as Fischer-Hornung suggests, be seen demonstrating to many people that ‘white girls can’t dance’. This would undermine Dunham’s project to liberate the black dancing body from ‘racialized’ “primitivism” and the white body from equally ‘racialized’ “culturalism” (Fischer-Hornung, 2001, 110) by reinforcing the sense that ethnic differences are ‘natural’.
Fischer-Hornung discusses a dance film made
This perhaps is one of the clearest examples of how perceptions of different ethnicities affect not only how work is understood (in this case that a sense of anger, fear and alienation is specifically related to a black British experience) but how it is created. This artist has a very clear approach towards issues of ethnicity and culture, which is clearly signalled to the audience. The audience are likely to be in no doubt as to the significance of the performers’ ethnicity to the work.
In other instances the performer’s ethnicity may be less relevant. It may well be that the performance is presented ‘or framed’ in such a manner as to direct the audience to consider the formal or expressive aspects of the dance and to leave aside considerations of the performers’ actual ethnicities with other factors external to the dance. For example, recently in the Royal Ballet School’s end of year performance (2005) two black British young men danced in Ashton’s La Valse with the combination of lyricism, clarity of épaulement, and classical elegance that is a feature of this school perfectly matching the dance qualities of their white peers whom they danced alongside. Their ethnicity thus might be set aside as irrelevant to audience’s appreciation. Yet since black British dancers are rather a rarity in the parent company, their presence is likely to have been a noticeable feature of this performance for some spectators. An increasing diversity of perceived ethnicity amongst the dancers making up the ‘corps’ may have been received positively as suggesting a growing acceptance of different ethnicities within the body of British society. Whether this contributed to the appreciation of the performance as art returns us to the questions of aesthetics raised in chapter two.
With regard to the circumstances described above, it would certainly be possible to argue that the dancers’ presence contributed to an aesthetic idea of harmony embodied in the dance. From another point of view, by fitting in so well to a style that can be thought of as defining a particular part of ‘English’ society, their dancing could be interpreted as their assimilation into that society and as such be viewed positively or negatively. For instance the hip hop artist Jonzi D responded to learning ballet at the London School of Contemporary Dance with a sense of having been ‘colonized’ (2001, 4).
Assimilation into the ‘host community’ was initially the favoured response to the influx of immigrants from the Commonwealth. However, ‘cultural pluralism’ has become the official British Establishment approach to the question of different ethnicities, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, on behalf of the British Council, suggesting to fellow European dignitaries:
We must celebrate our differences and revel in the ways that they bring us together.
Such ideals, as Kennedy understands, can leave challenges as to how differences can be celebrated in a manner that brings communities together rather than further marking out distinctions that become the focus of conflict. As has been argued by James Donald and Ali Rattansi (1992), a celebration of diversity at a superficial level can mask the fact that there are dominant cultures that have greater power and legitimacy.
The complexities of attitudes to the relationships
between different groups are most easily revealed when something goes
wrong. The Cantle report (2001) into clashes between Asian youths
and the police saw the segregation of specific ethnic groups in terms
of their studying, working, socializing and worshipping as being an
underlying factor in the polarization between different communities
and the ensuing clashes. Here, and in the aftermath of the July 2005
Unlike those arts that have fixed objects to refer back to, dance by its ephemeral nature is dependent on traditions being handed down. A look at an early photograph featuring the dancers who performed in Petipa and Ivanov’s The Nutcracker at the Maryinsky in 1892 (Roslavleva, 1966, facing 128), demonstrates how much changed in ballet between the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Those rounded ladies encumbered in their ballet dresses and headdresses do not look capable of the speed and flexibility demanded of today’s svelte, athletic ballerinas. In terms of what dance suggests about society, both what changes and what people feel cannot be changed about their dance can be very interesting. Today’s members of a corps de ballet would look very different to their late nineteenth century counterparts but very likely they would look equally similar to one another. In terms of how society shapes perceptions of dance, it may be interesting to reflect on how the perception of differences and similarities affects expectations and appreciation. For instance, the corps de ballet in a traditional work might be expected to all have the same hair style but not necessarily the same colour hair. The dancers would usually be grouped in ways that minimise the visual difference between body sizes and it would be noticed if the smallest and tallest dancers were placed next to each other. In the age of liberal western democracies this uniformity may be a matter for reflection. Is it appreciated in relation to a historical context? Are current audiences happier to view a greater range of physicalities dancing together as one, seeing dancers who vary visually but dance in the same style with spatial and rhythmic accuracy as a unified entity? How would a corps de ballet be viewed that, in addition to incorporating dancers who are visually different, permitted a range of dynamic phrasing thus allowing dancers to bring more of their own (cultural) identities to the dance? Those companies that have large ensembles who approach the same steps slightly differently tend to be seen as ‘contemporary‘ dance companies even if they draw on ballet vocabulary. At present, Mark Morris, or perhaps William Forsythe present new ensemble works in this way, but many would find it hard to view traditional ballets performed in this manner, perhaps due to a sense of their historic identity.
5.4 Dance and ‘New Ethnicities’
If ’difference’ is beginning to be a feature of larger companies, artists who have developed skills in dance traditions not usually associated with their cultural and ethnic background seem to be a visible feature of the ‘non aligned’ sector: Artist B, who identifies himself as black British, creates dance by fusing traditional and modern black dance forms with European dance traditions to make dances often concerned with a current black British experience. He aims for black and white audience members to enjoy his work, but there is an awareness that audiences will respond to his work differently and value it (or not) for reasons that in part are linked to their different cultural backgrounds. For instance he has experience of some black audiences reacting negatively to any dance movement that involves extended lines as ‘balletic’ and of white audiences failing to see anything but the obvious ‘tricks ‘ involved in street or jazz dance. In contrast, the dancer of ‘Hispanic’ ethnicity, brought up in the Bronx, draws on neither ‘Latin’ dance nor hip hop, but on ‘pure movement’ traditions most often associated with middle class, educated white Americans and Europeans. However, he has an awareness of how his cultural background and sense of ethnicity informed his early dance experiences:
We were sent to ballet classes and I just enjoyed it ... But I remember when I watched ballet on television as a child it was just too foreign to me. It was a very white culture - It’s beautiful and I just could never relate to it. For me, I’m always drawn to things that are really ground related. So that could have something to do with maybe the background of being part of you know this Indian…
I was really into going disco dancing ‘cause I grew up in the Bronx ....then coming into dance (training) Graham was the first thing I did and it wasn’t because I had a choice really it was just I had looked it up in the telephone book and it was the only name I had heard of so that’s where I ended up. It was very white, very rich. It was just really a whole different thing. But once I got into the studio the floor works were so grounding, very beautiful, very inspiring...
Artist D, 2003
The South Londoner of African Caribbean ethnicity performs Egyptian dance because it is a dance form that attracted her. However she recognises that this may be partially linked to her cultural background:
I just liked the music. There was something
I was immediately drawn to. Talking to other people - like a friend
of mine who is an older
Artists like these seem to view the traditions they draw on in creating dance as a matter of individual preference rather than conforming to preconceived ideas about what dance form someone from their cultural background should dance. However there is also an awareness of how their cultural background shapes those choices. Perhaps all three artists have a sense of creating their dance identity that is linked to their sense of self as an individual. If dance is thought of as embodying ways of being, have they actively chosen ways of dancing and being that suit them? Although one of them admits to having wanted to explore something different to what was familiar, all three were concerned with what suited their body and their way of moving. Their dancing of their own choreography might thus be seen as embodying their sense of self and agency understood not in terms of a contrast to a seemingly homogenous cultural group (as may be the case with their counterparts in well established companies) but in the context of the cultural diversity that is found in contemporary urban cities.
This approach might be viewed as compatible
with Stuart Hall’s concept of ‘new ethnicities’ (Hall 1996 )
which emphasises the differences contained within ethnic groups and
allows for elements of cultural ‘hybridization’. It is a concept which
looks forward to an eventual weakening of boundaries between ethnic
groups as multiple differences in relation to culture, class, gender
and sexuality bring about a whole range of potential self-definitions.
Such a viewpoint is closely related to issues of culture and ethnicity
in postmodern, postcolonial theory. However in these approaches there
may be more emphasis on active resistance to racism and a proactive
attitude to creating opportunities for the voices of minorities to
be heard. Watching the work of Artist B, the most radical amongst
the artists I talked to in terms of voicing concerns relating to his
experience of ethnicity, brought home the relevance of some of the
concerns of post colonial theory. For instance
‘Contemporary’ dance companies, due to their
tradition of innovation, are the most likely to be influenced by newer
ideas. In a survey of their web sites in 2005, it was interesting
to see the number of dancers who in their appearance seemed to reflect
the idea of ‘new ethnicities’: the number of dancers taking on aspects
of ‘other’ identities was evident
alongside a number of dancers who, within the context
of current sensitivities, would be considered as being of ‘mixed ethnicity’
. In terms of audiences, an Arts Council survey
revealed that over a third of dance ‘attenders’ defining themselves
as being of ‘mixed ethnicity’ attend ‘contemporary’ dance in contrast
to a quarter of the white and 14% of Asian audiences for dance (Arts
Council of England, 2003). The Arts Council suggest that the comparative
youth of the ‘mixed ethnicity’ group may account for some but not
all differences in patterns of participation. Age has been shown to
be a factor in attitudes to ethnicity amongst ethnic minority groups.
More precisely, there are different attitudes to their ethnicity amongst
those who originally came as immigrants to
With its emphasis on individual expression and the creation of new works by young choreographers, it may be that ‘contemporary’ dance offers the potential to articulate ways of being in keeping with the concept of ‘new ethnicities’ in contrast to dance forms with older traditions. Moreover fusions of forms, particularly of less established traditions with ‘contemporary’ dance, seem popular. For instance a number of companies identify themselves as contemporary Asian or contemporary African. While, at Morley College where I worked until September 2005 in South London, offering pre vocational or leisure courses, amongst the students new to dance were a small but identifiable group of more experienced, usually white, ‘contemporary’ dancers exploring kathak, Egyptian or African-Caribbean dance and street dancers, often black, turning up in ballet classes. While dance may not always serve intercultural dialogue, an interest in breaking down the boundaries between cultural forms exists beyond the demands of the Arts Council.
5.5 Diversity and Questions of Value
The interest in exploring a range of dance is sometimes linked to a challenge to the perceived status quo in terms of what forms are valued more highly: discussions with street dance students (Morley College, 2004) revealed a concern to develop ways of dancing that value the traditions of a whole range of dance practices. Amongst this group there was a distrust of a hierarchy of values that would place breakin’ below ballet or ‘contemporary’ and an openness to dancers drawing on different dance traditions to create a style that works for them. For example, since part of the street dance tradition has become the incorporation of movements from other contexts to develop your own individual style, street dancers seem particularly open to borrowing movements from other genres as long as they can incorporate them on their terms. These dance values seem to parallel a broader concern for equality. This is not to say however that ‘anything goes’. With a tradition of street dance battles and competitions, judgments are certainly made that decide one dance/dancer is better than another. These judgements are as hotly debated as any other qualitative assessments in western dance and seem to reflect the same concerns with issues of value as found in other dance forms. In a project to work with a street dance teacher (Bunbury, 2006) to identify clear outcomes for assessing achievement in street dance, it became apparent that the same approach to quantifying standards could be applied to this dance form as are used for other western dance forms in spite of its sometimes seeming to be positioned in opposition to more mainstream, western dance genres. The need for bodily control and coordination, skills in virtuosic movements, precision in space and time (particularly in unison sequences) were all similar to other dance techniques. Moreover, the need for dancers to be able to make creative choices and ’freestyle’ led to similar outcomes to those used to assess improvisation in ‘contemporary’ dance.
As with much dance
Street dancers may
challenge traditional dance hierarchies, but the same cultural pressures
can be seen affecting street dance as affect other dance forms. Amongst
the practitioners in
A factor that may still militate against dance forms with roots in ‘non western’ cultures being valued as art is the historic perception of culture. In particular, in relation to dance, primitivist assumptions have led to the ‘other’ being seen as a source of unbridled sexuality. For example, in Edward Said’s ground breaking work of the 1970’s, Orientalism, in which he investigated the West’s view of the Orient, he recognised:
The Orient seems still to suggest not only fecundity but sexual promise (and threat), untiring sensuality, unlimited desire, deep generative energies…
While Said was careful to put an explanation of this sexual fascination beyond the reach of his study, he suggested that to the Romantics the Orient was a place for the exploration of a kind of sexual experience different to that available in a Europe where sex had become embroiled in a ‘web of legal, moral, even political and economic obligations’ (Said, 1995 , 190). However, Said claims this sexual exploration became, in time, a standard commodity and while he relates this to popular literature it surely also relates to the popularity of Oriental themes in nineteenth and twentieth century dance on which much of the success of both the Diaghilev Ballet and Denishawn was based. The issues this raises for dance is illustrated by Said’s hardly mentioning dance save to describe, almost in passing, the profession of the prostitute Flaubert took up with on his travels in Egypt.
If for the European
Romantics the Orient, and particularly
Huggins  in Perron, 2001, 24
The issue of sexuality within dance will be explored in more depth in the next chapter. In terms of how dance is valued, if in the past the dances of ‘others’ were interpreted by white audiences as reflective of an uninhibited sexuality, however positively this might have been viewed, it leaves a heritage of perception that may make it more difficult for some western audiences to view ‘non western’ dance as the product of structured, learned, movement forms and thus respect them as art.
It is interesting to note that the popularity
of what are perceived as predominantly black or Oriental dance forms
(such as street and Egyptian dance) may be associated with the breakdown in the boundaries between high
and low culture. While theatres such as Sadler’s Wells move to include
street dance, is there a sense that it is perceived by some as placed
within a hierarchy that would still view greater artistic value in
more traditional western dance forms? If the view of art that persists
within cities such as
5.6 Global Perspectives
One factor that may perhaps be influencing a shift in artistic values is the global perspective that seemed to influence the majority of the artists I talked to. Although it was not an issue I had initially thought to raise through questions, in discussing their work four out of six dancers in the first interviews specifically alluded to differences and similarities between trends in their dance field here and in other countries. This seemed especially marked amongst the two drawing on ‘non western’ dance traditions.
For Sushma Mehta, visits to
The street dancers
I talked to seemed to view their dance as linked to an urban youth
culture that, while part of a global phenomenon, also draws on culture
and dance traditions specific to a locality.
Perhaps in contrast to the British adaptation of jazz into
a dance syllabus suited to local dancing schools, street dance, developing
in the context of postmodernity, is promoted through a near global network that has access to the internet to view
the latest ‘moves’. When questioned about the potential for cultural
The effect of globalisation on British identities has been documented by the sociologist Andrew Pilkington. He finds that some British people have felt their national identity to be threatened by both the growing power of the European Union and the strengthening of the identities of ethnic minorities. Pilkington (2002) argues that the British identity is a social construct which did not exist before the Act of Union (1707) and was largely dependent on defining itself in contrast to others, most notably Catholics and the French. He argues that it is possible for British identity to change to meet the challenge of globalization by embracing multiple identities.
For those artists
who define themselves as black British there is a sense in which their
dance can refer to a pan African experience as well as to a contemporary
British one. Thomas F. DeFrantz, drawing on the works of
But what of our concert dancer, already removed from the realm of the social by virtue of her interest in focused aesthetic principles adopted from Western ideas? I offer she might, by necessity, align herself with the African diaspora. Here, she will take comfort in the multitudes similarly disenfranchised and deposited in the New and Old Worlds without recourse to a ‘real’ homeland. The African diaspora is a utopia... It is a tool for survival. The diaspora closes the circle for the dance across time and space. Through it, we black dancers allow ourselves to collaborate whether we understand each other or not
De Frantz, 2000, 13-14
In dance terms the
instances of seeming resentment between those maintaining distinct
dance traditions and those developing fusions of dance forms may well
reflect these broader cultural concerns. An important factor here
may be the result of perceived funding preferences for one or other
approach. One aspect to such tensions is related to questions of aesthetics.
In discussions with Anderson and Mehta (the latter prior to starting
the research), the problem of presenting ‘non western’ dance in western
theatres revealed the differences in aesthetic viewpoints. To be accepted
as art within western aesthetics places expectations that may fit
oddly with some aspects of dance traditions originating in
5.7 Diversity, Individualism and Agency
Whether working in ‘contemporary’, jazz, ballet, Egyptian dance, hip hop or fusions of any of these, what marks out the artists contributing to this research is the element of individuality in approach to dance, informed by knowledge of existing traditions and common practices. This individualism is an important element of contemporary western culture and thus of (western) theatre dance heritage. While undeniably reflecting a ‘great men’ (and women) approach to dance history, the fascination with dance artists as individuals also reflects the communicative potential of dance within western culture. The examples of artists who are developing individual choreographic styles by choosing to draw on dance traditions associated with a culture different to their background appear to me as some kind of resistance to pressures to fit into the expectations of others that dates back to Romanticism. However, the question of what is a matter of individual choice is complex.
Choice can be something of an illusion and in relation to cultural diversity can seem rather superficial. In dance terms choice might be equivalent to the nineteenth century practice of changing the design on the bodice of the tutu to indicate a different ‘exotic’ location for a ballet. However, for a dancer to learn the basic stance and style of a different movement tradition takes hours. To become anything like proficient in it takes a number of years. So for those who become skilled in more than one culture’s dance tradition, or who decide to learn to dance in a form not most easily available to them, the level of personal investment is far more than having a new hair style or buying a cook book. To move in ways different to those instilled by previous immersion in movement training is difficult as the body may literally have grown into a desired shape. For instance in ballet the body is ‘re-educated’ (Lawson 1975) from a young age, and from my own experience of ballet training my ‘lengthened’ straighter spine has yet to regain its more natural curves in spite of my attempts to re-programme my muscular habits first in Graham-based and later in releasing technique classes. This makes it difficult to achieve the articulation of the spine demanded in much AfricanCaribbean dance.
In late capitalist society, in which the marketability of the body-as-project is well documented (and will be explored in chapter seven), the motivation to learn a different dance form can be commercially driven. However, to engage fully with different ways of being through dance may be viewed as a resistance to those who would insist on the death of the individual in late capitalist society as much as to those who would uphold traditional boundaries between different communities of people. Dancers who cross cultural boundaries can be seen as revealing the potentiality of humans both to embody different ways of being and perhaps to assert an element of individual agency.
While artists may attempt to embody a sense of agency and individual identity not bound by cultural conventions, audiences may receive their work in ways that can limit this sense of agency. Observing the progression of the development of Artist B, I have been struck by how often a ‘fun’ jazz orientated dance work was selected by theatre programmers who seemed wary of his more serious work exploring aspects of black British experience. This may have been because the former was a well polished piece or simply because programmers find fun pieces easier to sell than serious ones. (Ironically the fun work can lead to his being taken less seriously by those writing on black dance.) However it did strike me that perhaps programmers felt some audiences would feel more comfortable with an image of young black people showing off their physical prowess in a light hearted way than their confronting serious issues. The artist himself is adamant that ‘the only pigeon-hole is if I pigeon-hole myself’ (Artist B, 2006). His recent serious work is now gaining performance opportunities although, in addition to his determination, this may in part reflect a shift in attitudes since violence amongst young people has become the focus of concern in the media.
From the audience’s perspective, unless a strict formalist aesthetic is adhered to, there has always been a question as to how to view the significance of the choices choreographers and directors make in terms of the dancers they cast in (western) theatre dance performances. Audiences may decide to ‘read’ this aspect of a dance performance in relation to how the performance is presented or ‘framed’: in a piece of dance theatre the ethnicity of the performers may be an integral feature of what is being presented; in a ballet in which members of the corps de ballet are all dressed and move the same, or in a contemporary dance work where the focus is on the movement’s spatial and dynamic forms, what may be prioritised are the ‘formal ‘ qualities of the work. Returning to Copeland’s updated formalism it may be that the concept of aesthetic distance can be useful:
The post structuralists no doubt would tell us that all we ever see is what we have been conditioned to see, what the language we speak and the culture we inhabit will permit us to see. But the function (or one possible function) of formalism is to draw us out of ourselves, to encourage us to transcend responses that are habitual or merely conditioned.
Copeland, 1990, 8
Distancing aesthetic appreciation from more
day to day concerns with matters of ethnicity may allow audiences
to set aside preconceptions or even prejudices that inhibit their
ability to appreciate the qualities of a dance performance. However,
as in the example of the
Within the context of semiotic approaches to dance as ‘read’, it may be helpful to re-consider the concept of ‘framing’ in relationship to the power dynamic at play between producers, artists and audiences. In terms of appreciation it is important to reflect on how the phenomenological experience of the dance is affected by an embodied position within culture as lived. Audiences may recognise that dancers such as Artist B are able to draw on more than one way of being, if as audience members they are willing to engage fully with his dancing. To return to the question of how ‘difference’ is perceived in dance, how it is answered may depend on the extent to which artists and their audiences are able to exercise personal agency in their approach to cultural norms.
Notes to Chapter Five
[i] From their viewpoint they are competing internationally against companies some of which fare much better in terms of state subsidy.
The figures analysed are for 2005/6. For instance how
much of the Royal Opera House’s global figure of over 24 million
supports ballet rather than opera affects the statistics, as does
the inclusion of umbrella organisations as some tend to promote
a particular form (e.g Dance Umbrella,
[iii] Discussion of these findings in relation to audiences for Shobana Jeyasingh revealed further complexities as her audience is largely white, but it is unclear whether those responding to the questionnaire would have identified her work as South Asian dance or ‘contemporary’.
In a discussion of works in progress at
[v] In 2007 the look that emphasised cultural fusion in the hair fashions for corn rows for white dancers and bleached hair on Black dancers seems to have given way to more subtle manifestations of individual approaches to the cross cultural in fashion.
[vi] What tends to be recognised by this term are combinations of white European and African/African Caribbean or white European and Asian although the actual permutations are endless and, working in South London, I have found the term is increasingly a source of annoyance to the young adults it is supposed to describe.
[vii] That the former relates to a predominantly black urban culture and the latter to a predominantly white, liberal educated one makes for some complex interactions.
[viii] Something of the complexities of Egyptians’ own attitudes to sexuality in dance is suggested by Judith Lynne Hannah (1988, 63) who states the two piece was banned by Nasser in1963 along with movements carrying sexual implications but that these strictures were then relaxed in 1966.
[ix] Given the popularity of ‘Orientalism‘ in early twentieth century western theatre dance and the current ethnicity of our major ballet companies there does seem to be a sense in which dance forms and dancers perceived as ‘Eastern’ have been more readily assimilated into western theatre dance than those perceived as black.