the burning question…


Some of you may remember the talented Diarmaid O’Meara from the Ballet in Small Spaces performances in May and June this year; also from the BiSS Masterclass featuring him and Bethany Elliott with choreographer Susie Crow at the URC in March, where they previewed some extracts from new ballet Inside Out.  Diarmaid has since been dancing with National Ballet of Ireland in their new production of Scheherazade.  But he has also begun a new blog, Dance Dialogue, at http://dancedialogue.wordpress.com

Subtitled “Opinion, Debate, Review”, the blog has already hosted a stream of short thoughtful pieces from a dancer’s perspective on current issues in ballet – worth a read and response!

With ever decreasing space and opportunities for in-depth discussion of dance in print media, blogging and online magazines seem to offer a way forward for developing critical debate about dance.  Despite concerns about lack of traditional editorial control, and the possible disappearance of the informed dedicated critic with years of viewing experience, blogs can provide a space not only for aficionados but for artists such as Diarmaid to develop a voice and articulate a view.  What may be the effects for dance of losing the professional critic and gaining the blogger?  Check Dance Dialogue out – and please share other dance blogs you have found to be of interest…

Packed in to the New Theatre on Saturday night to see English National Ballet’s newly downsized Strictly Gershwin.  This glitzy extravaganza, originally made for in the round presentation in the Royal Albert Hall, has now entered ENB’s standard repertoire in reduced scale for proscenium arch presentation, and it will be relentlessly touring regional venues for the next few months.  And by the look of it, contributing staunchly to ENB’s coffers, badly depleted in this time of cuts.  With sell-out shows this production seems to have reversed a trend of disappointing audiences for visiting ballet companies in Oxford.

I am intrigued to know exactly what it is that brought Oxford audiences in to this show in such numbers.  This was the premiere of the reduced version, so not a production already known and loved; yet it was booked out before local word of mouth recommendation might operate to increase ticket sales.  Nor did it boast the fail-safe name of the Nutcracker or other famous and universally recognised fairytale ballets.  Nor can it be the appeal of the New Theatre as a venue, hot and cramped, worryingly congested and lacking in gangway access for a full house, and with ticket prices irritatingly inflated by additional booking charges.

Yet there were canny ingredients which may have attracted more than the ballet faithful.  The inclusion on stage of a big band and singers; that word “Strictly” in the title (although the night we were there ENB was in direct competition with its namesake on BBC1); a flyer image of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; or perhaps a higher profile for ENB and the production’s director and choreographer Derek Deane following their Agony and Ecstasy TV programmes?  At a time when dance needs to maximise its box office appeal as a buttress against funding cuts, what do you think it is that made people buy tickets for this show?  If you saw it, what do you think was particularly appealing about it?

Answers on a posting please…

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.

See also:

Today finally marks the general release of the much hyped thriller Black Swan, coming to Oxford’s very own Picture House on Walton Street:

“Inspired by Tchaikovsky’s legendary Swan Lake, the film stars Natalie Portman giving the performance of her career as Nina, a New York ballerina who is picked by company director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) to play both the White Swan and her lustful twin, the Black Swan, in a new production of the ballet.

This fateful decision sets the vulnerable dancer on a collision course with her own fragile psyche, embodied, refracted and reflected in the figure of fellow dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), whose sexual free-spiritedness sharply contrasts with Nina’s own reticent nature.  Add to that a domineering mother (Barbara Hershey) and a faded star (Winona Ryder), and the stage is set for an explosive psychological thrill ride.”

Portman has already picked up a Golden Globe for her performance.  However one wonders how convincing an actress with limited ballet preparation, however intense, can possibly be in portraying a dancer capable of one of the iconic roles of classical ballet.  Ballet shapes and informs the whole body, there is no hiding or trickery that can disguise a lack of understanding or expertise.  The Red Shoes after all starred the beautiful Moira Shearer, able to convince not only through her acting but through dancing at the highest level. Was it really not possible to find a current major ballet artist with the acting skills to undertake this role, or did the producers simply play it safe for financial reasons with a film box office name?

Critics from other disciplines have been warm in admiration; it would be good to hear the verdict of those with some knowledge of dance.  Apart from scepticism as to the cast’s ability to embody dancers, from reading the blurb I steel myself to face a barage of hysteria about the world of ballet and behaviour of those within it.  I hope that these preconceptions are confounded when I come to see the film.  Looking forward to hearing what others in the dance world make of it, please post your impressions in response to this…

The recent news about the rise in tuition fees at university has sparked huge resentment and anger, not only among students and future students but also among their families.  But outrage at the prospect of a disproportionate rise in fees has perhaps deflected attention from the shocking 80% cut in the teaching grant to universities; and the privileging of the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) over the humanities, social sciences and arts.  The possible far reaching consequences of these radical steps seem to get little intelligent discussion in media fixated on the immediacy of student protest.

At a time when vocational dance courses have been under pressure to come under the umbrella of higher education funding, and furnish young people with recognised university level qualifications, it now seems a case of “out of the frying pan into the fire”.  Performing arts courses with their studio requirements and high proportion of teaching contact time to independent study, are expensive to run – if unsubsidised by government who will be able to afford them?

How can opportunities for studying the arts be defended and protected in such a hostile climate?  What do the arts bring to universities?  At a time of such financial stringency how would you justify government support for performing arts students?

At a recent day of events on Performances and Texts at Robinson College Cambridge as part of the Cambridge Festival of Ideas, Professor Robin Kirkpatrick gave the following lecture on the importance of performance in an academic context – food for thought…

http://timescape.mml.cam.ac.uk/pcea/documents/performance.html

Following the recent Burton Taylor Scratch Night and Cafe Reason’s latest Diamond Nights evening, Ana Barbour reflects on her experiences both giving and facilitating audience feedback to the artists, and raises some pertinent questions about how to do this effectively…

On Monday 20th September I went to The Burton Taylor Scratch night.  There, feedback had been encouraged from the outset –stipulated both in the artists’ application process and in the publicity to potential audience members.  The session was well organised and involved direct face to face communication between performers and audience members in small groups.  The performers were able to direct the focus of their feedback by asking for thoughts/comments on particular aspects they wanted addressing – these were written on the programme notes.    Organising a platform event in the same week I was curious to see if I could find a way to generate feedback from an audience that had not been expressly asked to do so.  I was also interested to see how to gather ‘evidence’  – a process now being required of artists more and more in order to support eg funding and job applications.

So, in the Diamond Nights evening on 25th September we handed out cards and pen to each person and asked if they could jot any thoughts, images or comments (even if just one word) that came up while watching each of the performances (which I numbered for ease of reference).

Advantages and disadvantages of two different approaches:

The advantages of this written feedback is that people can make their comments privately (anonymously) and without the stress of exposing their thoughts /impressions to everyone else.  It also leaves a written record, ‘evidence’, that a work has been seen by an audience.

Disadvantages are that comments are one way and leave no opportunity for the performer to engage or ask for clarification or for the person giving feedback to give any explanation for their comments.  There are also the practical issues of writing in the dark, time between acts to write, legibility, and then as I am discovering, how to process and pass on these to the different performers.

In the B.T. feedback session the performers and audience had the advantage of directly speaking to each other, asking questions, following up thoughts and bouncing ideas off other commentators.  The structure of the session which ensured that you spoke to the presenters of each of the different acts meant exposure to a variety of audience opinion.

Some disadvantages were that it was a quite daunting task for an audience member to have the spotlight turned on them (or so it felt) to express an opinion face to face.  This would probably be inhibiting for anyone who was not already a committed artist or promoter themselves.  Additionally the range of different mediums (theatre, music , dance, poetry) was a possible further challenge for the person giving feedback.

For me it has opened up lots of questions about how to ask for feedback, and when it is appropriate or desirable to have feedback.  How constructive can general feedback be?  For what purpose is the feedback intended?  Do we even really want it?   I’m looking forward to exploring and learning more.

You can read Ana’s accounts of Scratch Night and Diamond Nights here:

https://oxforddancewriters.wordpress.com/2010/09/20/untried-untested-tonight/#comments

https://oxforddancewriters.wordpress.com/2010/09/17/diamond-nights-2/#comments

I just read a small article about a study undertaken by Nick Neave of Northumbria University (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-11223473), in which men (not professional dancers) were filmed dancing to a simple beat. The footage was converted into a computer-generated avatar, and women were asked to assess whether they thought it was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ dancing. The hypothesis of the study is that “movements associated with good dancing may be indicative of good health and reproductive potential” and the study seems to support this. I’m intrigued by the implications this might have for an audience’s appreciation of more ‘formal’ dancing on stage – how much is our enjoyment of dance dictated by a somehow inherent judgement of the dancer’s good health and suitability for mating?

A bright and blustery afternoon here, it seems that summer is gradually passing, the autumn term looms and it is time to pick up where we left off…

But although dance activity may have been dormant in Oxford over August, Oxford dancers have been continuing their involvement with dance in other places far and wide.  So we invite dance travellers to share their summer dance impressions – of seeing, doing, performing and making; of reconnecting with roots and old friends, or being stimulated by exposure to the new and different; a taster for us all to savour, and fresh experiences to enrich the coming year.  Looking forward to reading your contributions…

Dana Mills writes:

“Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token to save it from that ruin, which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and the young, would be inevitable”.

Hannah Arendt, Teaching as Leading

Teaching is one of the hardest, and most underestimated, jobs in the world. It involves an ever present conflict, apparent in this quote from Arendt, between the new and different, the original, and the world as we know it as teachers.  It always varies from the need to conserve a tradition and leaving some space for innovation.

Dance teaching, similar to any other form of teaching, draws on this conflict, and many others…It would be interesting to read: who were the dance teachers who inspired you? How did you feel that experience impacted you as a dancer and as a person? Let’s share our experiences!

My most memorable dance teacher had the ability to enable us as students to enjoy the process, rehearsals, trials and tribulations; she was completely honest and open about her questions regarding the way dance should be approached, and helped us get involved in this learning process in the most profound way. She had a great respect for tradition, and at the same time, left space for each student’s personality, strengths and individual features; and helped us as ballet students appreciate and love the tradition but at the same time try to find ourselves in it.  She empowered me as a person and as a dancer. For me, she is, and always will be, a teacher par excellence, and moreover- a mentor.

A rounded education and experience of dance involves not only doing, performing and making, but also looking, evaluating and appreciating.  The opportunity to see highly trained and gifted professionals dancing can not only be a huge pleasure for dance learners but can also unlock understanding and improvement in their dance skills to enable leaps in their progress.  The literally hundreds of dance classes provided every week in Oxford and the surrounding area suggest that there is a huge potential audience for dance, waiting to be inspired, to say nothing of those who don’t dance themselves but are moved and entertained as dance spectators.

However, despite the variety of activities programmed during the eight weeks of this year’s Dancin’ Oxford Festival between February 16th and 12th April, those wishing to see professional dance companies in a theatre setting have had only three nights to choose from; Cuban salsa at the New Theatre on 19th February, Tavaziva Dance Company at Headington Theatre on 20th February, and Tangomotion at the Playhouse on 12th April.  Local dance professionals can only be seen in site specific work; Arch at Worcester College on 20th and 21st March will bring together local dancers and musicians in an atmospheric experience of place conjured up by collaborators Fiona Millward (choreographer) Jo Fairfax (public artist) and Katja Lehmann (filmmaker).

Let’s consider what else venues and programmers might programme for this underestimated audience.  What dancers and companies would you like to see performing in Oxford?  What types of dance and what choreographers’ work would you be interested in having the opportunity to get to know?  In which venues in Oxford would you like to see dance?

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