To celebrate 50 years at the forefront of contemporary dance, The Place is this season exploring the question what it means to be contemporary – in dance, in the arts and in society. After hearing from veterans of contemporary dance, Richard Alston and Siobhan Davies, and cultural leaders Bonnie Greer and Eddie Nixon, we were curious to find out what a new generation of artists at the start of their careers think about contemporaneousness and what, in their eyes, defines the here and now.
Anders Duckworth is a British Swedish non-binary artist who researched and devised their latest work at The Place this year during Choreodrome, our artist development residency programme. Bakani is a Zimbabwean born UK Artist showing work at this year’s Resolution Festival. What feels contemporary to these young makers, and what do they think defines the ‘now’?
Bakani: I am actually quite interested in the past. A lot of contemporary dance, Merce Cunningham for example, feels like something that’s timeless, where you can’t really identify at what point it was created and at what point it became a classic. It’s old in terms of the time it represents, but it still feels current. Contemporary always feels to me like something that is everlasting.
Anders: I’m not sure. There are aspects of Cunningham’s work that still feel contemporary, but then again, we are very familiar with this work, it’s part of the establishment now. Which maybe makes me not really see it as contemporary. I think a contemporary artist should be challenging the establishment. It’s not necessarily the sole reason of what makes work contemporary, but it’s one useful way of sensing if something engages with its time.
The piece I was working on during my Choreodrome residency is about me and my friend’s gender and cultural identities. Everyone is questioning gender at the moment and it feels like a very present discussion. There is an audience that is interested in exploring it with us.
Bakani: A lot of my work centres around the now, not looking back to the past and not looking towards the future but trying to find that space where we present ourselves as we are. In that sense, I suppose it is contemporary. I like to think about this ambiguous space between death and afterlife, that gap where we are forming our own rules, or own structures or ways of composition.
A lot of my frustration is that even the most basic ways of making work - the structure of beginning – climax – end – is so formulaic and based in the past. I am trying to find contemporary ways of making, that are new and interesting from a compositional point. But I’m struggling a lot with being trained in contemporary and ballet movement vocabulary, trying to unlearn all these habits that have been put upon us and be more representative of the now. How can we undo that and start again?
Anders: I’d like to think that things are changing in the way we make work. It’s very common now to talk about your dancers as collaborators, acknowledging that other people give a lot to the process. Do you notice that too?
Bakani: I've heard many horror stories about the way people's bodies get pushed beyond limits and how that's normalised in training. Because back in the old days it had to hurt. I also see the effect language has on people. When they say ‘my dancers’ that sets up power structures which lead to this treatment of people and bodies, because ‘mine’ is a possessive word. I feel uneasy about it. I know I am the choreographer, but I know I'm not the one making the movement. I think there's a lot of ridding of ego that is necessary. I don’t say ‘my company’, I say ‘the company’, because I have a fear of the mindset of possession that language can put you in.
Anders: I was just thinking of other art forms, visual arts for example, where people own an object. Dance is much more intangible.
Bakani: I think it's very important to check yourself. I guess some people believe that a mean, hard-head kind of person gets the best out of people, but I think it’s also, in the nicest way possible, incompetent. That may be an extreme thing to say but it is something that really bothers me.
Anders: What you say about language is really important, that’s another thing people in society are more aware of now. The words we say are really loaded and we should educate ourselves, so we understand the weight they carry.
Bakani, what do you find inspiring and contemporary today?
Bakani: For me, music is normally where my brain gets triggered. I think a lot through music, just hearing the synths and the bass in the background will often trigger images in my mind. Music tends to have a clearer, more apparent sense of contemporary, so I use that to pinpoint where we’re at right now. A lot of music is abstract at the moment and it doesn't always make sense. Mumble rap for example, reminds me in its structure of John Cage, the distinguishing of sounds and music, but bringing it into the now. The beats are great, but the vocals are inaudible. I guess that’s just where we are in terms of our perception of the world.
Anders: It’s interesting to hear how sound is important to you. For me, visual work is a massive resource of inspiration. I do lots of ceramics which I’m hoping will enter into my dance practise, and clothes are very much tied to my investigation of gender and this binary system that we have inherited. You said something about the in-between space that you like to work in, and I really like that idea of somewhere in between as a place to make work. That feels very contemporary to me, trying to fall off the edge of being one thing or the other and understanding that the pool is much more three-dimensional.
Bakani: In the company, we talk a lot about this binary system that we find ourselves being given. Is it really necessary? I try to create a space where none of that matters. Just be who you are, be that body. We have to, again, find this really strange space where we are not concerned by what has been before or what will be in the future, but just what it is in the moment.
Anders: Making work about gender as a non-binary artist, whether it talks to people about gender or not, it is always part of it. But it’s not the only thing. I feel like you often have to almost throw these things out of the studio to make the work.
Bakani: It makes me think of that question, what makes queer art queer? Is it when the maker of the art is queer? Or is there a specific thing that has to happen, or a structure to it that makes it queer? Sometimes you make work without any of these concerns and when you take it out there, all this context is then forced upon it. People seem to think “Anders is non-binary, therefore this is a non-binary work”. No. It’s a work about people.
Anders: There is a question in there about the death of the author. How much is the author important to the work? Sometimes it is really important but sometimes it's not. There isn't a binary yes or no answer to that.
Bakani: I think we are in a very transitional stage, politically, socially and artistically. I hope in 5 years' time I am not still making work that is frustrated with the world. I think there are a lot of artists really questioning the old systems and changing everything, for example the intersectional work of Woman Srsly or Alethia Antonia who works on decolonising the body. Here at The Place, there are various new techniques now brought in as a way of reflecting the outside world. Hopefully one day we just get rid of ballet altogether! My biggest hope for the future is that all these small fires become big fires and they spread through the institutions, through the art ecology and I hope that now is a time for change.