Why host an event which presents dance work focusing on various human rights issues in 2020?  This is a volatile time for many of us in the world, although the concept and ethos of human rights enables us to reflect upon the fact that at any given time human beings are fleeing persecution and seeking to affirm their human rights.  And so, in our turbulent times it is urgent to ask—what is our commitment as artists and human beings to the idea and practice of human rights?

My own introduction to human rights came a long time before I knew what that concept entails.  My political education was on the pro-Palestinian Israeli left, and so I’ve come to learn of human rights from the wrong side of history.  Even when my every day was shielded by walls and checkpoints from events of huge historical consequence occurring sometimes less than a few miles away, I knew well these events are part of my own life. And I realized early on that no one is free until everyone is free, and our human fate is entangled in others and so we have responsibilities towards them.

I also knew from an early age that art is entangled in politics whether it chooses to engage it or not; when audiences can escape crises of their times that is a political choice, too.  And so as an activist, a curator, a writer and a dancer I felt responsibility to place centre stage artists who are not shying away from challenges of our times.  To quote from the great African American writer and activist James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

I am very proud, as part of Oxford Brookes Think Human Festival, to present three cutting edge, thought provoking and exceptional pieces as part of our Dancing Human Rights Festival at the Old Fire Station. First, we will welcome Eliot Smith from Newcastle Upon Tyne. Award winning and internationally renowned artist whose company Eliot Smith Dance has performed in a range of national and international collaborations, Eliot Smith will be performing his 2016 work PITMAN. PITMAN tells the simple but inspiring real life story of a group of miners who with no formal art training, depicted their daily lives in a series of paintings which have become celebrated and revered in the art world, as well as providing an important visual commentary for social historians. Urgent more than ever, this unique piece struck a deep cord with me and so I am very proud that it will open our evening.

We will then host local talent from Body Politic.  Founded in 2012 by Artistic Director, Emma-Jane Greig, Body Politic is a professional touring Hip Hop Theatre Company whose work addresses a range of socio-political issues. Father Figurine is Body Politic’s first full-length piece, first performed as part of Resolution! at The Place in January 2018 and more recently toured to 10 venues in 2019.  With the current climate of mental health discussion, Father Figurine talks about the fragilities and vulnerabilities in men and young boys. Figures show young people are affected disproportionately with over half of mental health problems, starting by the age of 14 and 75% by 18. This piece combines poignant spoken word poetry with hip hop dance, to explore the fractured relationship between a father and his son and their inability to healthily deal with a traumatic event. I had seen this work performed at The Place and was deeply impressed by it. I am thrilled to collaborate with Body Politic whose work has transformed the dance scene in Oxford and beyond.

Last, I am exceptionally proud to present a world- premiere of New York based world dance artist Blakeley White-McGuire. Critically acclaimed as a Principal dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company (2002 – 2016, 2017) she has embodied the most iconic roles of 20th-century Modern dance to international critical acclaim. “A dancer of “powerful technique, dramatic instinct and an appealing modern spunk ”, (The New York Times) Blakeley White- McGuire has received the prestigious “Premio Positano Leonide Massine” Prize for Contemporary Dance Performance, the “Italian Career Achievement Award”, and for three consecutive years was listed among Dance Magazine‘s “Best Performances”.

White-McGuire will be performing a piece she is creating especially for the evening inspired by the work of Wendell Berry; thus attendees will have a very special treat in store to end our evening.  For me it is very special to be able to host Blakeley at Oxford; when I was working on my DPhil I saw her perform as a Principal Dancer of the Graham company, and since then have seen her perform her own work at various venues.  Her work has transformed the way I understand dance and inspires my thinking greatly and so it is wonderful indeed to be able to share her exceptional work with our audiences.

The evening will conclude with a panel discussion of activists and the artists who will reflect on the work shared and our responsibilities as artists in our times.

A commitment to human rights means affirming everything that we share as human beings: joy and pain, love and passion, compassion and grief. As I reflect on the process of curation I return to this statement that has been central to my thinking, by Nelson Mandela, who once named a ‘terrorist’ is now hero of human rights – his sculpture graces our Parliament Square here in London:

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

I hope you can join us to counter the sources of hate and think about how we can turn them globally into love, through the powerful language of dance.

Dr. Dana Mills

Curator, Dancing Human Rights, Old Fire Station 1 February 2020

You can find further performance details here.  The event is sold out but if you would like to attend, or for more details, please contact Dana on d.mills@brookes.ac.uk