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Artists Open Doors: Japan/UK    
4. Contemporary Practice Panel:

Naomi Inata
Un Yamada
Shobana Jeyasingh
Graeme Miller

Shobana Jeyasingh is a ResCen Research Associate Artist. She has directed the Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company since 1988. She has choreographed numerous award winning works and was awarded an MBE in January 1995. She holds an honorary MA from Surrey University and an honorary doctorate from De Montfort University, Leicester.

• Is there an example of an artist whose work you feel demonstrates their values in an explicit and consistent manner?

Two of the questions given to the panel to consider today were: 'How would you describe the values that you see being promoted in contemporary dance today?'; and, 'Are they the values of individual artists, funders or audiences, or are values changed through art works and/or artistic practices?'

On a very elementary level the artist has no choice but to reflect his or her values. It is a given, like the colour of their skin or the height of their body. If these values are, in the main, in tune with the mainstream of the society that they operate in, then it may look as if the values inherent in the art work are 'neutral' or 'absent'. If the art work does not challenge the orthodoxy of the centre ground, or the networks within which they are nurtured or consumed, then 'communication' becomes an almost invisible act, unremarked on and giving rise to no comment. The space between the artist and the audience is 'warm' with affirmation and shared sentiments. The artwork seems to nourish and succour the audience and they recognise something of themselves and their desires in the narrative that is offered.

Contemporary dance in the West had its roots in a challenge to the centre ground values of the classical dance. The learnt and rule bound technique seemed too elitist, and constricted the body from telling the stories of the twentieth century. Its courtly manners and stage etiquette, the gender roles that it offered seemed to the contemporary dance pioneers to belong to an irrelevant past that needed breaking away from. The values of ballet seemed to them cosmetic, artificial and false, and because of the way classical dance was organised it appeared corporate rather than personal.

The roots of Western contemporary dance therefore lie in the quest for a more natural, organic, 'truth telling' way of moving (whether this was achieved is, of course, up for debate). A questioning attitude towards the past, towards inherited techniques in particular has remained one of its features. A dance work that too closely reflects learnt technique or is not sufficiently distanced from academic codes of movement is generally not lauded. The creative input of the dancer in the making process, working with tasks where there is optimum chance for collaboration especially in the area of movement generation is a favoured model. This of course throws up interesting questions about the changing role of the choreographer in the studio and their area of responsibility in the making process. It has interesting repercussions on the definition of choreography itself.

There is a plethora of creators each with their own very individual choice of what is relevant and aesthetically pleasing. They each have their distinctive way of making dance. The strictly personal is a very fundamental value that one sees in contemporary dance.

This in turn makes it difficult to talk about values in general because of the range of creative decisions that one sees. (I am confining myself to contemporary dance in Britain or strictly speaking, in London, since this is where nearly all of my dance spectating happens). In the work of one choreographer one might see a non impactful use of the body where the ideal relationship between body and space could be that of a wave or a growing plant. There is a seamless quality that connects the tissue of the body to what is around. The logic that releases the body into action is an internal one. The image of the community that is built up on stage in the composition of the dancers is harmonious, coherent, romantic even, in the sense that there is co-operation within the units of movement and the creation of a whole with compliant parts.

On the other end of the spectrum of the contemporary is dance where the body is almost pulled out of its comfort zone. Limbs strain to mutate from their everyday functional shapes. The integrity of the body is imagined anew. The traditional dancing body in service to concepts like grace, flow, musical coordination and symmetry is erased to serve other personal or political ends. The tension that this type of movement creates in the onlooker is almost palpable. The body seems to be challenging and fighting the space around it to frame it and relate to it in ways that are confrontational or argumentative. The logic that propels the body in such dance work is external, often coming from the choreographer’s ideal to create a 'futuristic' almost post human or post colonial being. The authenticity of the body is expressed not through conventional, 'organic' ways but through extreme stylisation and artifice. Here the contemporary choreographer may well borrow elements from the artifice of the classical taking care first to divest it of its historic or narrative overtones. The society created through on-stage relationships carries on the values created on the individual dancer. Duets may turn into duels and the motivations for ensemble work and the resulting relationships may not evoke much recognition and reassurance for the audience.

These two examples are from abstract or pure dance practice where the body is the sole carrier of the message. However contemporary dance also includes a tradition where spoken language augments pure movement. Is this a lack of confidence in the ability of the non verbal body to communicate clearly? Or is it because of a long and honourable tradition of the performed word in Britain which alienates the 'silent' body from its audience and relegates it to the margins?

I have talked briefly about the types of values that choreographic interests alone bring to contemporary dance. However this is a very small part of the communicated and therefore viable values of the current dance scene.

Even though contemporary dance had the personal as a starting point in its pioneering days, as it became more organised, and necessarily more codified for teaching purposes, the personal was bound to become eroded. Now in Britain, the vocational colleges from which dance makers come, leave a broad signature on the creativity and dance practice of their alumni. Some schools offer the seeming neutrality of excellent technique, others the development of creativity or promise to equip the student for the vagaries of the market place. In addition, contemporary dance at this non pioneering stage of its life has its own history and heritage. Its own classics demand reverence in the way that ballet probably did in the last century. Its various orthodoxies of the authentic body can sometimes brook no argument from dissenting voices.

Where the main funder of dance is the state, the state is bound to have a huge influence on what is created. Art making becomes implicated in social and political agendas. Access, innovation, racial equality, social justice, accountability and recently and most important of all, the ability to survive in the free market – these have all at some point or other shaped the dance policy of the state and have had a huge impact on what is made. I think this is especially so in contemporary dance which relies more on state subsidy (directly or indirectly) than most and which needs the co-operation of people and resources (like studios) in order to come into being.

The direct buyer of the dance work obviously has the greatest impact on the communicated values of dance. The programmers of venues and festivals and their attitude to the market are the final arbiter in many ways. Their personal likes and dislikes, their attitude to risk taking, their judgement on what the audience can and can't take, have a very profound influence on emerging dance practice.

In general, the market has a much bigger influence on dance and dance makers than ever before. Choreographers, dance companies and venues are identified by their brand (which is primarily a tool for selling) more and more rather than by their choice of artistic values. Or, to put it another way, the artistic values are communicated as brand values and this in turn is the way the audience 'buys into' the experience. The currently much prized business model often chooses which artistic values it favours most and may even generate them in co-productions and commercial collaborations. As this act of selling gets increasingly more powerful I wonder for how long the value giving role is going to be in the control of the creator.

 
 
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