News & Blogs

9 March 2021
Author: Dr Lise Uytterhoeven & Sir Robert Cohan

What if we could make people talk about dance?


In autumn last year, as the world was held in various stages of lockdown, we brought together Dr Lise Uytterhoeven, Director of Dance Studies at London Contemporary Dance School, who took up the role only at the beginning of the year, and the late Sir Robert Cohan, visionary choreographer and founding father of The Place, to speak about the future of dance. In the grips of a global pandemic which, with unprecedented disruption to life as we knew it, brought society, the economy and of course the arts to its knees, we asked  “Will dance survive?” and perhaps more provocatively, “Should dance survive?” 


Sir Robert Cohan: The pandemic is very important to us right now, on a daily basis, but in the long run it won’t be that important. Imagine in 1918 with the Spanish flu everybody thought the world would come to an end. Then we got a vaccine, and we don’t pay any attention to it anymore. I think the same thing is going to happen, this problem we have right now will be solved. But the world will be different, that’s for sure.  

There are unfortunate consequences that we have to deal with. A generation of dancers who have not seen dance, at least for one year or two, who in their most important years between say 16 and 20, have not had that connection to the arts. After all, you become an artist because you see art. Art breeds itself, always. All of us go back to a moment where we knew we were going to be an artist – and for a lot of young people that’s not going to happen.  

Dr Lise Uytterhoeven: I am really struck by what you are saying about younger generations not having the same access to art as we had in the past. That’s a really crucial thing for the future.  

To return to the question of “Why will dance survive this situation?” I always think of what the late Sir Ken Robinson said in his TED talk: We all have bodies, don’t we? So for me, because we all have a body, dance can be relevant for everybody. At the same time we are still battling thousands of years of cultural and religious attitudes that made the body a difficult thing to deal with. The joy and pleasure that can be derived from dancing or experiencing dance is uncomfortable for many people, they have a hard time allowing themselves to experience that. Nevertheless the urge to dance is very strong within people, so despite all the cultural tensions it seems we as humans can’t help ourselves but to dance. Even in a lockdown.  

"It seems we as humans can’t help ourselves but to dance. Even in a lockdown."

In the early stages of the lockdown, the only nice thing people were allowed to do was exercising outdoors. I, like many other people, started going on daily walks and developed a daily physical practice for myself that helped to keep me healthy and sane. I think for so many of my generation, the lockdown in this pandemic was the very first time that I had my civil liberties curtailed so significantly. Something that would normally only happen in a wartime situation. We couldn’t do all the things we would normally do, and especially the consumerist things that we have become so accustomed to were taken away and the alternative was a very simple focus on the body and the here and now. Exercising, listening to music were the only nice things that were left, and they all align so well with dance and the values that dance puts forward. It felt like there was an opportunity in that.  

Of course, the pandemic isn’t the only thing happening right now, the world seems to be burning in multiple places, we have politics, society, BLM, climate change… how can dance help us understand the world we live in? 

Sir Bob: Dance can cut right to the heart without words. It creates a concept or an idea or a sensation, a quality, a meaning of some sort which actually makes your body react physically. You get chills, you get hurt, your insides will react. Dance can speak in a way that very few other of the art forms can, in a very quick way, instantaneously, in 4 or 5 minutes. That’s how dance works, it speaks directly to your nervous system, directly to your brain. 

Lise: What you just mentioned about dance cutting straight to the heart and eliciting these physical responses and sensations, for me that builds on this return to a very simple reality of connecting with your body in the here and now.  

I remember an interview with Akram Khan in which he was asked “when do you feel closest to nature” and he said, “when I’m dancing”. There’s a lot of people who feel that in dance there is an alternative to the pressures and the violence of the modern world.  

Now that we have temporarily lost our stages, where can we find the stages of the future, how will presenting dance change? 

"If we perform through television or film, we can have an audience in the hundred thousands. I think it’s the future."

Sir Bob: In the beginning with London Contemporary Dance Theatre, we toured all over this country for 5 or 6 years and we built an audience. We went to every art centre, dance school, wherever we could fit ourselves in, we went there, we taught classes in local grammar schools, in universities, we did afternoon shows and lectures about dance choreography, everything we could to educate an audience. Now I think we have to do the same thing, and we have the great advantage of doing it on our computers.  

With the current systems in place, you can charge for seats, but our audience at The Place is limited to those few people who don’t have to commute back to the suburbs to their families to have dinner. Even though it’s in the middle of London, globally that’s a very small catchment area, and a relatively small audience. If we perform through television or film, we can have an audience in the hundred thousands. I think it’s the future. Actually, that’s the wrong way to think of it: It’s something essential that we should have done a long time ago and that will last us into the future.  

Lise: Do you believe there is still value in experiencing something live at the same time as a community?  

Sir Bob: Of course, a small group of people watching something together can chat to each other at the time, and it becomes more alive, more tactile and tangible. So, what are the possibilities of having a connective live experience even through a virtual format? How can we recreate that live performance? In a weird way television has done that with soaps or series, it’s got everybody talking about it and that’s important. What do people talk about the next day after Strictly? They talk about Strictly! Or East Enders or Netflix. That is the general conversation: “what did you watch on television?” That’s how you analyse, and you find out what you feel, you find out what everybody else feels, and you see how you fit into society. What if we could make people talk about dance?  

Lise: There is so much division in the world at the moment, and it seem only to get bigger and bigger: one side against the other, Brexiteers and Remainers, Democrats and Republicans, climate change deniers and Extinction Rebellion - and they cannot seem to find any common ground. Dance is a small community, very often we perform for people who think very much like us and believe the same things we do. How can we somehow cross that divide? Is dance a good medium to start talking to each other? 

"The more people are educated the more capacity and mental agility they have to question their ideas and beliefs. Hence why I devoted my life to education"

Sir Bob: Can you convince a Trump supporter to vote for a Democrat? It’s an interesting place to go. I read somewhere about a year ago that empathy is created in a very specific part of the brain, the frontal lobe. Not everybody has it. That’s interesting. If somebody doesn’t have that part of the brain that allows them to have empathy, how are you going to convince them that it exists? You can't. You simply can't. Democracy is an idea. It doesn’t work if you don’t believe in the idea.  

Lise: Once people get entrenched in what they think is right, entrenched in their beliefs, it’s very hard to change that. You have to have an attitude where you are constantly interrogating the world around you and how you fit into it, and not everyone is able to do that. I think it is related to education, the more people are educated the more capacity and mental agility they have to question their ideas and beliefs. Hence why I devoted my life to education, I think it’s so important.  

Sir Bob: You’re absolutely right. We can’t assume that people have what you called the mental agility to be able to deal with everything. A lot of people cannot. We assume because we all look sort of similar that we are all the same, but we are not.  

Lise: But if dance is going to have a fighting chance of healing the divides between people it’s got to be through stories, and what you mentioned, this capacity for empathy. I think dance has to be able to touch people’s emotional life through storytelling that makes people recognise something that is relevant to them or somebody they might know or not know, but are able to care about. 




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