Emily Coats tells the story of a recent daring public protest using classical ballet to make an ecological point…

Why use dance as a form of political protest?

BP White Swan: How the idea developed

Dance has been used as a medium for telling stories for centuries – be it love stories or tragedies – or for calling topical issues into question. But I was interested in using dance to push boundaries even further: to literally get in the way of something and create positive change.

A variety of ‘creative’ protests have taken place over the last couple of years, such as the rewrite of Lady Gaga’s Poker Face and a series of powerful performances from artist group Liberate Tate. As a dancer I had been toying with the idea of using a dying swan to illustrate the destruction caused by the oil industry, and suddenly it fell into place. The Swan Lake, Act IV finale seemed analogous to the destruction involved in the Canadian tar sands – enormous reserves of extra-heavy oil that, if fully exploited, would tip us over the edge to runaway climate change. The tar sands are threatening wildlife, increasing cancers in local communities, causing massive deforestation, and seriously threatening water and natural gas supplies. The connection to Swan Lake was also striking as the tar sands recently caused the death of 1,600 ducks. Swan Lake often has a tragic ending but in the Mariinsky version I was watching at the time, Odette is saved by Siegfried, who kills Rothbart. We hope the tar sands will be stopped, so I liked the happy version.

When I suggested the idea of creating an ‘activist ballet’ to a few people I still wasn’t sure if I was joking. I had never taken responsibility for organising either a dance performance or a climate action. But with enthusiasm from Charlie (Sigfried) and Will (BP/Rothbart), we sat down and figured out what we might hope to achieve by telling this story. We decided BP would be a strategic target. One of the last oil companies to enter the tar sands, it only committed the money late last year and is not due to start extracting – or profiting – until 2014. If BP could be convinced to withdraw at this point, it would send shockwaves through the oil industry. Building on the creative activism that had already taken place, we realised a key area to hone in on was BP’s sponsorship of the arts.

BP sponsor the Royal Opera House’s ‘Summer Screens’ – broadcasts of live performances from the Royal Opera House – as well as the Tate Britain, Tate Modern, British Museum and many other of London’s finest cultural institutions. BP is also sponsoring the Cultural Olympiad, and has just agreed to support three years of Mariinsky Ballet and Opera UK Tours. Oil companies do not throw huge sums of money to the arts because they really, really like the arts. The oil industry depends on a resource that is diminishing not only in physical reserves, but also in popularity. It is much cheaper to invest in a positive image than in renewables. Corporations will pay a reasonable amount in marketing to make us think that they are ‘good companies’ and avoid close scrutiny.

Given recent cuts across government sectors, it seems we should be grateful that someone is still offering arts funding. But let’s not forget that by letting BP carry out these activities we may get a free opera now, but we will be paying for a future climate crisis. There are plenty of less damaging companies that would equally enjoy the privilege; events once sponsored by the tobacco industry still exist without those companies. See more on sponsorship.

How we did it

We decided to initially target the BP-sponsored summer screens at Trafalgar Square, although we hope to do repeat performances elsewhere. We applied for funding with Artists Project Earth, who were thrilled to give us money – in fact almost twice as much as we applied for! With this boost of confidence, we were compelled to work as hard as possible on creating our vision. It was a fun piece to rehearse, and with extensive guidance from Yuka on ballet technique, we were able to create a much more polished piece than we could have done on our own.

When the day finally arrived I was quite terrified to see the huge audience gathering to watch the live screening of Cinderella. As they passed security checks they were handed excruciatingly BP-branded plastic jugs, ponchos and baseball caps. Large green BP banners were on display and the programs were so covered in green that I almost felt ashamed that environmentalists associate with the colour.

Half an hour before it started – for we were keen not to interrupt the performance itself – 20 people in the centre-front of the square packed up their picnic rugs and very quickly shuffled sideways, leaving a lone swan in the middle. Meanwhile, I had been putting feathers in my hair, doing up my pointe shoes ribbons, and taking off my outer clothing. I pulled on the half tutu, got into position, and began. It felt surreal. I actually feel like I wasn’t there, and it makes it hard to reflect on how it actually went as a performance!

The messaging did not come entirely through the dance. We were appealing to the mainstream media, and though the audience in the square were watching an opera, they were not necessarily dance experts, and potentially did not have a clear view of the performance. So we complemented the iconic ballet with props: flyers to hand out, banners in the background, the use of a black cloth and the oil-like substance of molasses – although a keen-eyed security guard stole the majority of the molasses before we could use it! And as none of us claim to be brilliant at ballet, especially Will who only just began learning for this project, telling the story entirely through dance seemed undesirable.

Dance as a tool of political activism

Dancing in Trafalgar Square was fun, but to be worthwhile it also needed to be strategic. Our aim was two-fold: to get the issues out to a new audience, both of BP’s involvement in tar sands, and its attempt to use the arts as a cover-up; also to continue to place pressure on BP, distorting its PR campaign and ensuring it doesn’t get off ‘scot-free’. We definitely did well with the first goal, receiving a variety of positive press coverage. And we certainly embarrassed BP, but until we get it out of the tar sands, or out of the arts, the battle will continue.

Someone commented on my Guardian piece “I can’t help but think there might be other methods of protesting that will bring more attention to the issue.” Well, obviously, but why not use ballet as well? It’s something I know how to do, and I genuinely believe that we all may as well contribute what we can do best. Creating social change away from the centrally-controlled fossil fuel industry really will involve all kinds of skills. We need people who can analyse and strategise, people who can make websites and films, we need writers and designers, and we need people who can insulate houses, fix bicycles, and grow vegetables. We need to be able to communicate the problems and solutions in as many different ways as possible, as the message so often gets lost by people’s preconceived ideas about ‘lefties’ just trying to cause a fuss. As long as ballet continues to speak to people, there is no reason why we can’ t use it as a tool for change.

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