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13 March 2021
Author: The Place with Theo Clinkard and Seke Chimutengwende

2020 was not just about a virus but also about awakening

 

What does the future look like, for artists, performance makers, their audiences? How has the cultural landscape been changed by Covid? What do we miss, and what is no longer useful? While we explore on our digital stage what kind of world we will be re-emerging to post pandemic, we spoke to two dance makers, Theo Clinkard and Seke Chimutengwende, about their experience of being an artist in lockdown, and the systemic change they would like to see in the future.

 

 The Place: I would like to start the conversation with a bit of a provocation and ask, ‘why will dance survive this current situation?’ And maybe even more provocatively ‘should it survive?’

TC: It depends on what we mean by dance - the system and culture as we have known it or dancing, the action? I feel I've done more of the latter through lockdown than I have in years, so I feel more connected to the potential of movement and how it can adapt. As someone more adapted to project-based thinking, I am really interested in responding to zeitgeist and how to work within the current restrictions. I think dancing could survive pretty much anything.

It's different when we think about the structures. I think some things will have to, and should shift, maybe they no longer serve us. So yes, dance should survive, but I do think there's lots of systemic things that we can do away with.

The Place: Seke, how do you feel about dance, the structure and dance, the action?

SC: People love dancing, and they love performance so I have no doubt that dance as a physical activity will survive until there are no more humans left. But there are many structures and organisations that may not survive. But I guess that's true all the time. It’s always been a precarious and fluid scene and the pandemic just accentuates that. I worry that funding and support for dance is impacted and will continue to be impacted more and more. I worry that ‘official’ dancing will become more exclusive. Dance is a lot of people's livelihood not just an aesthetic or artistic thing, and that identity could be attached to the fact that you earn money from doing it. People need to live, so that worries me. However, another part of me feels like it’s not about money, it’s about the experience. When I am teaching at the moment, especially when I'm allowed to be in the studio, I feel like being in a room with people moving is an incredible thing to be doing, you really appreciate it again.

The Place: The people who choose to participate in dance, through classes or workshops, what do they usually look for and is there a way we can recreate that feeling of being together in our virtual world?

TC: I think participation is really hard to recreate digitally. I can think of creating online performance content like films and working with what the screen can do that live theatre can’t, such as CGI animation, but I think the participation part may be the trickiest. Over the summer I was dancing alone for hours each week in my local village’s Social Club. These last few months ‘Wainsgate Dances’ have been running their ‘Morning Practice’ over Zoom and I’ve found it a genuine lifeline. It has collected together movers of all kinds, inducing people who are located right around the globe. It’s really the closest I have come to finding that sense of community and togetherness that I had missed. Even if we mostly identify as an audience in relation to dance, often our engagement or our love for dance initially comes through participation and being in our bodies with others. It is such an important aspect.

The Place: You said you are being alone with your body a lot more. How does that change what you're working on or making as a choreographer?

 TC: Seke and I had a chat maybe 10 years ago around this term ‘Free Association’ and I realised when I begin by not thinking choreographically but just moving on my own it really is ‘free associating’. Not asking what is this idea, how do I communicate it, but instead actually being with movement and just letting whatever comes up come up and letting it all be valid and valuable. Because I don’t have to teach it I don’t have to explain what I'm doing or sell it to a group of people who are giving you their time, not wondering whether it's interesting enough to be watched or engaging or dynamic enough or musical enough - it is literally looking outward from the body rather than looking upon the body. In a way it’s the pleasure of what I used to do as a kid at home.

The Place: Seke, you worked completely virtually during your Choreodrome residency. How was that?

SC: If somebody a year ago had asked me do you want to do a whole week of rehearsals via video call, I probably would have said no thanks, but it was actually great! With a small group of people and a very specific purpose, we were able to feel connected over time, which was really interesting. That project wasn't conceived for Zoom or an online space, so ultimately by the end of the week I felt like now we need to continue in the studio. If it was a different research question it could maybe be carried out entirely remotely. I could imagine that working depending on the project.

The Place: What kind of skills do you think artists will need for the future?

 SC: I feel a bit wary of the idea of upskilling. I’ve definitely been asked to do things where I felt that's a bit much, that's a bit outside of what you would normally ask someone. There’s a pandemic going on but rather than cutting everyone some slack, expectations went up.

TC: I think a skill that will be needed is expansive thinking. Some people have that aptitude already to think outside of the box, but if you're very much a black box performance maker led by your own body and material you are teaching to people, you're increasingly going to struggle. I'm thinking about other ways of being with people. I don't subscribe to the idea that it’s just another six months and then we will be back in a black box theatre working the way we used to - I think we need to start preparing to live with this in an ongoing sense because this virus might quieten down but there will be another one, or other things that we need to work around and adapt to. For me, expansive thinking entails figuring out how else we can work, and for me those kinds of parameters are actually so creative! The traditional ways of working we settled into maybe needed looking at. 

SC: I agree with that and I see both the expansive thinking that you talked about and a literal versatility of skills with the people I teach. The students I teach can all make films, record music, they are very good at ballet, but they can also do popping and locking and contact improvisation. It’s very different to when I was training.

TC: When you add up the necessary skills of being a freelance self-producing artist, the administrative stuff, the conversations with multiple venues and organisations there’s so much that the artist’s skill base already needs to incorporate.

Thinking generationally, it's very natural for many younger artists to incorporate other ways of working, including employing the tools required for working online or creating digital content. Existing established choreographers who have patterned into a certain way of working which needs stable conditions are almost the least equipped. That’s why I’m excited for younger artists! When I think about working in more egalitarian platforms such as the internet allows for, there is a levelling which is potentially really brilliant.

The Place: Dancers are not key workers but maybe dance can be key to our collective healing? Is dance a good artform to reflect and understand what’s happening to us.

SC: I think dance, especially contemporary dance is good at navigating the unknown, the non-verbal, treading new ground and unpacking and re-wiring things. What’s great about dance is that we don’t really understand why we do it and why we like it and committing to something that is outside of the known feels really useful for a time where a lot of the things we took for granted don’t work anymore.

TC: Dance can help you escape, or dance can help you zoom in somehow. Dance can tune our attention to enhance our active noticing. It can be a way to come together for reflection. I more and more think about how it can be a container for thinking through the body, with the body, with other people, collectively. Being with their body, with their memory of the last year, may be how people want to spend their time, especially after what happened.

When I think of 2020, I don’t just think of the virus but also this awakening. Rather than going back to where we were before and carrying on as normal, the pandemic opened up this massive gap which invited many people  to think much more politically than they had done before. What voices are not at the table, where are the absences, how do we respond to that, what were the politics of what we did before and why were they problematic?

SC: Something I noticed in lockdown was I had this sense that the work that I do and the broad field that I’m in is really important, but me as in Seke, the teacher or choreographer, is not that important. I feel like we need to move away from this cult of individual artists or companies. With nurses you don’t demand one particular nurse. You just want somebody to help you, someone who's good at their job. The glamourisation of individual artists, I hope that disappears soon.

TC: I totally agree. I consider myself more and more as a host for other dancers and a host for audiences. It’s a different positioning of the self in the making and presenting of work. How do I contribute to something we are all holding, what can I bring to that, how can I support dance as an entity outside and beyond and around all of us but not being pushed forward by a few big names. I am getting more and more uncomfortable with having my name alone on things when so many people have contributed to it. What Seke just said helps me understand the bigger picture.

The Place: Before the lockdown the big question was always where is dance going to find new audiences? Now we have the extra challenge of not even being able to rely on our established audiences. Where will we find people in the future, where will they be, behind screens or outdoors? Are they a dance audience, or maybe people who haven’t engaged with dance before?

SC: Something that’s interesting around digital performance and outdoor performance and newer forms of presenting is that it shifts the framing of things and who the audience could be. It breaks boundaries. The new can be alienating but ultimately, it’s a great way of throwing open who is invited by the proposal of what something is. There’s also a question of what are the appetites of audiences, what do people want at this time?

TC: I don’t mourn much of how we used to operate as companies, artists, organisations and venues - such as the ways in which we built our audiences, generated buzz and calculated value to an extent; the lack of sustainable thinking, the inaccessibility of one-night-only big city gigs or the impact of International touring on our climate.

For me it’s finding a thrill around working in and around the rubble of how we used to, which dance can adapt to well. I like the live/online hybrid festivals as we are seeing emerge this year and the touring of concepts that are activated and presented locally, rather than the companies travelling themselves. This new thinking expands access to dance for those people who otherwise couldn’t have engaged, as well as those that didn’t think to sign up to a theatre mailing list.

Looking ahead, I think we should really anticipate peoples thirst for getting into spaces and dancing together, an urge for the taking part rather than being seated and observing ‘the professionals’ on stage.

The Place: What kind of society do we wish for for the future, what kind of dance do we wish for?

 TC: I think decentralising the white cis heteronormative non-disabled neuro-typical male artist is key. And I represent all of those things bar one! I’m trying to work out how to be part of the dance ecology whilst also making space. I don’t think I need to dissolve myself but I'm looking to work in new ways, to support, be of service, foreground other people’s perspectives, create platforms even within the dance works I make. Again, it is this ‘artist as host’ idea.

Another thought I have is about where we put value aesthetically. What kind of bodies, who is visible, who is absent? What kind of media platforms have historically giving big stages more value, with the ballet taking up a lot of attention pie and the scraps going to somewhere like The Yard which is actually producing much more relevant critically engaged political contemporary work. Now things are happening more online, they all have a more similar amount of space. What needs to change so that we might learn from that? What is foregrounded in the real world, who is doing it, when does it take place, how long it takes place for, where is it, where in the UK, why London? There are so many things that need to be throw up in the air and let them settle in a different pattern which decentralises what has been for too long a kind of norm.

The Place: Seke, if we throw up all the pieces how would you like them to land?

 SC: What I want to do away with is the exclusivity of things. Only a few people can get into this school or these tickets cost £150 or this application takes several weeks to write. That immediately eliminates most people from engaging and I think anybody who wants to take part in dance, study dance, make a piece, go and see a show, everybody should be able to do that whenever they want to, and there shouldn't be systems in place that are excluding most people from doing any one of those things. Historically and culturally, we place value on things that are exclusive. Most people aren’t able to do this thing therefore it's good.

It's not only down to institutions or individual people changing, it’s about a much broader societal change.

 

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